This article tells the story of Joseph Laroche’s death on the Titanic and the survival of his wife and children. It explores the significance of Laroche being the only black man to die in the oceanic disaster, as well as the fact that he was travelling with his Caucasian wife at a time when interracial marriages were not widely accepted.
It’s early in the second decade of the 20th century, and Haitian-born engineer Joseph Laroche, a 26-year-old resident of Paris, France, decides to embark on a voyage back to his native land. Travelling with his Caucasian wife, Juliette, and two young daughters, Simonne, age 3, and Louise, age 1, Laroche envisions a bright future ahead – a future that will bring greater employment opportunities to a professional black Creole man currently experiencing racially motivated employment discrimination in France. Unable to find engineering work that pays a black man well enough to adequately support his young family and provide sufficient resources to cover his daughter Louise’s medical bills (in the face of her premature birth and its lingering medical challenges), Laroche decides to move his young family to Haiti, where he expects to find better opportunities.
In a tragically ironic twist of fate, the family’s trip-originally planned for 1913 – is expedited when Juliette discovers, in March of 1912, that she is pregnant with the couple’s third child. In an effort to avoid travelling once the pregnancy becomes too far advanced, the couple decides to leave for Haiti sooner than planned.
Yet, that isn’t the only fateful decision that plays a role in this tragic tale. The Laroche family’s ticket, purchased by Laroche’s mother to help her son and his family in their move to Haiti, is originally issued for a voyage on the La France. However, on discovering, shortly before departure, that the La France’s rigid policy on travelling with children will not allow the youngsters to dine with their parents in the ship’s dining room, Laroche trades in his first-class La France ticket for second-class passage aboard the Titanic. The couple’s concern for their younger daughter’s medical condition likely convinces them that forgoing a few amenities for their daughter’s sake will be well worth it. Of course, they have no way of knowing just how much they are giving up by trading in that ticket.
After travelling by train from Paris to Cherbourg, the Titanic’s first port of call, the young Laroche family presents ticket number 2123 and embark on the second leg of the ill-fated ocean liner’s maiden voyage, which had originally left Southampton, England, a mere six hours earlier, at 12:00 noon on 10 April 1912. Arriving in Cherbourg at shortly after 6:00 pm, the ship disembarks and boards passengers and gets underway again roughly two hours later, heading for Ireland. No doubt the couple expect a pleasant voyage – and in fact the first few days out to sea are indeed pleasant ones. The young couple, like all the other passengers aboard the Titanic, the largest passenger ship in the world, are completely confident that the ocean liner’s innovative design makes it “unsinkable”. They never entertain the slightest notion of the fate that will soon befall the vessel and its unsuspecting passengers and crew.
A Brief History
Born Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche on 26th May 1886 in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, and having grown up in a privileged environment with well-to-do parents, the young Haitian had always been accustomed to the best. Educated by private tutors and sent by his parents to study engineering in France at age 14, the young professional, who has held an engineering certificate since 1907, is well-prepared for his chosen career.
Racism on the Titanic
The only known Titanic passenger to be of African descent, Laroche, along with his daughters who are also darker-skinned, are subjected to disparaging innuendo. He and his wife Juliette and their girls become the objects of unkind stares intended to demonstrate the passengers’ displeasure over interracial marriage.
The racism onboard the ocean liner is, of course, not limited solely to black-skinned individuals but is freely extended to Italians and Japanese as well. And some of the innuendo to which Laroche and his daughters are subjected centres on the belief of some passengers and crewmen that they are in fact Italian or Japanese.
At 11:38 pm on 14th April 1912, the ship’s lookout spots an iceberg dead ahead, sounds the warning bell three times and telephones the bridge with the urgent message, but it’s too late to avoid hitting the iceberg that will soon bring about Titanic’s demise. The ship’s captain is able to activate the watertight doors below decks before the 11:40 pm impact, which likely buys the disabled vessel a little more time.
After examining the damage down below, the captain orders the lowering of the lifeboats, no doubt agonising over the devastating reality that there are not enough boats to accommodate everyone onboard. At 12:25 am on 15th April, he gives the order to begin loading women and children into the lifeboats.
During the next hour and a half, crewmembers desperately scramble to save as many passengers as they can. The first lifeboat is launched at 12:45 am. As Laroche says goodbye to his wife and daughters, he places a coat, the pockets of which he has filled with money and other valuables, around Juliette’s shoulders, telling her, “Here, take this.You’re going to need it”. (Unfortunately, the coat is later stolen.) Laroche then declares, as his family is lowered into the lifeboat, “I’ll get another boat”. Does he truly believe this, or is he simply being strong for his family? We may never know, though for this dedicated husband and father, the latter interpretation would seem likely. He bids his wife farewell, saying, “God be with you. I’ll see you in New York” – a promise he will tragically be unable to keep. The last lifeboat departs at 2:05 am, as Titanic’s predicament grows more grave.
Lost in the Deep
At approximately 2:20 am – two hours and forty minutes after the initial collision – the ship shudders, then breaks in two and slowly sinks into the ocean’s depths. More than two-thirds of its 2,227 passengers, Joseph Laroche among them, are still onboard.
In the fateful early-morning hours of 15th April 1912, Joseph Laroche is one of 1,500 passengers aboard the “unsinkable” Titanic, and goes down with the ship, the luxury ocean liner that, tragically, due to overconfidence in man’s ability to build the perfect ship, is equipped with only enough lifeboats for less than one-third of its passengers. The 26-year-old black Haitian husband, father, engineer and more individuals become a casualty of the fateful collision between man’s arrogance and Nature’s fury.
When the first ships arrive to come to the vessel’s aid, their crews are shocked to see that the once stately cruise ship has vanished beneath the waves. Of the 2,227 passengers onboard the ship, rescuers are able to save 705. Joseph Laroche’s body, along with many others, is never recovered.
Rather than going on to Haiti as she’d planned to do with her husband, Juliette Laroche returns to Paris with her daughters, where she gives birth to a son in December of 1912, naming him Joseph Lemercier Laroche, after her late husband. A few years later, Mrs Laroche collects a settlement as a result of the Titanic disaster, which lifts her and her children out of poverty, giving them a somewhat better life. Juliette Laroche never remarries.
Shortly after the disaster, the White Star Line, the cruise ship company that owns the Titanic, issues a public apology for the racism demonstrated by its crewmembers. Inquiries into the disaster reveal the many tragic details of the events that led to the untimely deaths of Joseph Laroche and so many others.
One unfortunate finding is that the Titanic is said to have covered over 835 km (519 mi) between 12th and 13th April, a segment of the voyage during which the crew received multiple warnings of ice and icebergs from other ships in the area. Would the story have ended differently had the captain taken these warnings more seriously? We’ll never know. Yet, we hope for the sake of Joseph Laroche and the other passengers who were lost on that fateful day that mankind has learned a few lessons since then.