The Wreck of the William Brown : A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea

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9780071434683: The Wreck of the William Brown : A True Tale of Overcrowded Lifeboats and Murder at Sea

"More than a horrifying tale... also a penetrating examination of causes."

-Denis Wood, author,The Power of Maps

Seventy-one years before the Titanic, a ship loaded with Irish immigrants struck an iceberg and plunged to the ocean floor. The ship's crew stepped into two lifeboats, leaving more than half the passengers behind. Fearing for their lives, one overburdened boat's crew threw 14 men and women overboard. And the story of The Wreck of the William Brown had only begun.

This chronicle of one of the 19th century's most infamous sea disasters and the uproar that followed presents a portrait of a forgotten time, re-creates a defining maritime trial, and tells of back room legal shenanigans. Newspaper readership was exploding in the 1840s, and journalists jumped on this sensational story. The resulting investigations and trial gave us the concept of "lifeboat ethics."

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From the Back Cover:

In 1841--seventy-one years before the luxury liner Titanic collided with an iceberg in the same waters off Newfoundland--the William Brown was carrying emigrants from Britain to America when the ship struck an iceberg and sank. Both ships were traveling at maximum speed in waters known to be filled with icebergs. In both cases, half the passengers drowned because the ship owners had not provided sufficient lifeboats for all. But the survivors of the William Brown faced further horrors when the mate on the overcrowded lifeboat announced, "We cannot all live--some of us must die, the boat is so leaky." Fourteen passengers were thrown overboard by sailors.

What begins as a simple story of hard choices in the wake of a maritime disaster soon becomes a gripping narrative of politics and greed. During most of the nineteenth century, the passenger trade in the millions of emigrants leaving Britain and Europe for a new life in North America was immensely profitable. When the tragedy of the William Brown threatened to expose the dangers that emigrants faced on these "coffin ships," a motley collection of politicians, lawyers, jurists, and reporters on both sides of the Atlantic conspired to indict a simple seaman who was in truth the only true hero of the disaster. The trial gave rise to the concept of "lifeboat ethics": how to decide who gets saved when resources are limited and scarcity requires a choice.

This riveting narrative of a disaster at sea is a compelling portrait of a forgotten history and a re-creation of one of the century's defining maritime trials.

A Disaster At Sea And Its Sensational Aftermath

Seventy-one years before the loss of the Titanic, another ship sank in almost the same spot after striking an iceberg at maximum speed. Three-quarters of the passengers--poor, mostly Irish emigrants--were lost, including at least fourteen who were thrown from a lifeboat to lighten it. Not a single sailor died.

"Tom Koch's gripping re-creation of a notorious nineteenth-century case of shipwreck and murder on the high seas makes absorbing reading. His fascinating exploration of the political motives which led to the trial of the one man who performed a heroic act shows that the same considerations are often affecting ethical decisions made today in unrelated fields."--Michael Phillips, maritime historian, Plymouth (England) Naval Base Museum

"This gripping tale of a 19th-century shipwreck that should have been, but wasn't, a catalyst for major reform . . . skillfully reveal[s] the political story behind the story. Shipping Europe's poor and unwanted to the New World was big business at the time, and nobody in power wanted costly regulations to eat into the profits. The Wreck of the William Brown is ultimately a smart parable about the myths of capitalism: we claim that life is sacred, but more often we put profit first."--Quill & Quire (Toronto, Canada)

"A penetrating examination of causes. After reading it, you'll never again hear someone say, 'There's not enough room,' without asking, 'Why the hell not?' "--Denis Wood, author, The Power of Maps

About the Author:

Tom Koch is a widely published writer and the author of eleven books. A lifelong sailor, he skippers a 35-foot Beneteau sloop, the James Boswell, throughout the Pacific Northwest. A longtime journalist, Tom Koch has worked or written for a range of newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, United Press International, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. His current appointments include positions at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he is also associated with the David Lam Centre for International Communications. He divides his time between popular writing, academic writing on medical ethics and bioethics, and client care.

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Koch, Tom
Published by International Marine/Ragged Mo (2004)
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