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

by Tom Koch

Tom Koch must be a busy man. He’s a professor of both geography and gerontology, a bioethics consultant for the Hospital for Sick Children, a journalist and media critic, a martial arts expert, and a certified bicycling instructor. He’s also a prolific author who’s published books on all of the above subjects. Now he’s added historian to the list with this gripping tale of a 19th-century shipwreck that should have been, but wasn’t, a catalyst for major shipping reform.

In the spring of 1841, the William Brown, a boat packed with immigrants bound for the New World, sped into the freezing North Atlantic with maximum speed and minimum precaution. It struck an iceberg, kept going, struck a second berg, and sank. Naturally, the ship’s two lifeboats didn’t hold everybody, and only the crew and a few passengers escaped. It only got worse: sailors in one of the boats, afraid of overloading, forced some 17 passengers to walk the plank. When the boat was rescued shortly afterwards, there was an immediate controversy. Had the sailors committed murder or acted reasonably in a desperate situation?

Koch writes an engaging version of the sinking while giving us a sense of the awful conditions on board the “floating coffins” of the day. He’s even better when he dons his media critic hat to tackle the newspaper-fuelled controversy over the William Brown, skillfully revealing 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. Consequently, the shipwreck was cleverly spun as an isolated fluke, rather than a result of routine recklessness.

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. And if you think that’s untrue today, try taking a rush-hour drive on Highway 401 near Toronto some time.