The Titanic: A South Slavic History

On Wine, Immigrants, and Life Insurance

While Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet played fictional characters, RMS Titanic was a real ship. Most of those who died aboard this really existing ship did not make it into the movie; we know very little about most of them. It is a rather usual occurrence that we know little about ordinary people. One thing we do know about the RMS Titanic’s third-class passengers, though, is that many were immigrants trying to make it across the ocean.

RMS Titanic was a real ship. A very famous one. An entire Wikipedia entry is dedicated to its passengers, whose demographic range included a multi-children family like that of John and Annie Sage, who hailed from England and sought new opportunities in Florida with their nine children, as well as single people, like the young Khalil Saad who, at the age of 25, left a small Syrian village whose inhabitants mostly immigrated to Ottowa, Canada.

708 passengers are listed under the third class on Wikipedia. 25 was their average age. About 20% came from England and more than 10% from the Ottoman Empire. About 5% more from the Kingdom of Hungary and 5% from Bulgaria; Finland was the home country of 8%. Even China had 1.1% of the passengers. Beyond the global symbol it has become, the RMS Titanic held a special place in the imagination of migrating communities. Many Slovenes, for example, have been telling ever since about a family member who had planned to board the Titanic but eventually didn’t.

How do you get aboard the Titanic? An agency can help. Earlier this month, as I was walking from my hotel towards the National Library of Serbia, I saw a sign advertising Poslovi u Americi [‘Jobs in America’] not so far, aptly enough, from a McDonald’s. This agency has a website. Employers have a website. The consulate has a website, as does each government agency involved in allowing foreigners to immigrate, temporarily and permanently, to distant countries. I remember reading their instructions, FAQ sections, and forms before my own visa interview a couple of years ago. I even rented an apartment from afar.

Before abundant information was available from every village, agents were an essential channel for acquiring this information and joining existing networks that connected, say, Ljubljana in modern-day Slovenia (then Laibach in Imperial Austria) Pueblo, Colorado. The risks involved in trusting an agent led to governmental regulation of the agencies. In 1854, for example, the Canton of Schwyz began its regulating processes, claiming that such a move was “the duty of humanity.”1 The dense network of traffickers, swindlers, and liars who swarmed through the continent seems to justify undertaking this noble duty.2

Switzerland is not only a good example for the country’s regulation of agents working in its territory. It was from Swiss agents that the Titanic’s passengers from modern-day Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia purchased their tickets. Shortly after the tragedy, the Federal Office for Emigration assembled a report for the use of the Political Department — somewhat akin to a Federal Foreign Ministry — on the “measures taken to protect the interests of the people transported by Swiss agencies and their surviving dependents, as well as the relatives of the ship's employees of Swiss nationality.”3

17 Swiss passengers were on board, of which 11 survived. All six dead passengers stayed in the third class, while only three of the 11 survivors belonged to that class: Anton Kink, a shop assistant from Zurich, his wife Louise, and their unnamed child. 8 employees on board were Swiss, all died. 39 passengers were immigrants who used Swiss agents, 5 survived. Most came from Croatia, then in the Kingdom of Hungary. Some came from Carniola, then in Austria but today in Slovenia. One came from Bosnia and one more, not a South Slav, from Germany.

The Swiss government used its federal power for the benefit of the deceased’s families. The task force requested proofs of payment to the surviving relatives, which included 500 Swiss francs paid as mandatory life insurance under the Swiss emigration law, taxes paid in advance, and the cost of the domestic tickets within the United States. Unsurprisingly, “White Star Line” was less forthcoming. As its headquarters informed the Swiss Embassy in London, a "force majeure" allowed them to “accept no responsibility for lost personal items of the rescued travelers” as well as “reject all claims for compensation” by those left in bereavement or injury. Only Swiss employees would gain some legally mandated compensation.4

The correspondence kept at the Swiss Federal Archive reveals the sheer complexity of this operation. Families left in Croatia employed a network of bureaucrats to file their claims for compensation from companies based in the Alps that transported people from the Adriatic through the Atlantic to the New World. Consuls, municipal officers, and lawyers had to find lawful inheritors, verify eligibility requirements, crosscheck contracts and policies, translate documents, and convert currencies to fulfill their tasks. The effort was visible: A rather typical document was a Croatian notarized statement with handwritten diacritics and German terms all around it.5

While the paper trail is fairly bureaucratic, the assistance afforded to the bereaved family by the Swiss government was surely financially significant. In 1913, 1.5 Austro-Hungarian Krone could buy you a kilogram of sugar in Austria. When the family of Janko Vovk of Carniola, who bought his ticket from Viktor Klaus’ agency in Basel, received a refund of 29.44 USD for an “American tax” and a train ticket, that meant 98 kilograms of sugar (or a little short of 774 tram tickets in Vienna).6 Even before taking into account the insurance money, 174 Kronen was almost double the amount estimated needed for living in the big city for a month (90 Kronen) and about 70% of the monthly salary of a low-ranking bureaucrat.7

The 38 South Slavs sent by Swiss agents to the United States were joining many more: The U.S. Census of 1920 enumerated 73,506 people born in “Croatia-Slavonia”, with hundreds of thousands more listed under other place names. For many of these immigrants, money was the impetus for leaving their native lands. Various land-related misfortunes could befall the rural family, and industrialization was not yet able to support mass urbanization.

Finding work in the United States was not always easy, and the jobs found were often far from desirable, but sending money home became entirely possible. In 1903, for example, approximately 10 million USD were received by banks in Croatia-Slavonia from the United States. This was but a small share of the 239,367,047 USD sent from the United States (through the New York City post office) to Europe between 1900 and 1906.8

Going abroad, thus, necessitated an initial sum of money that the migrant expected to repay his community. By enacting emigration laws and enforcing them, the Swiss government was able to save 38 families, extended families, and villages from what could have likely ended in financial ruin.

For those enjoying the better classes of the Titanic, another type of South Slavic component marked their travel. From the vineyards of Vojvodina, today in Serbia and then in the Kingdom of Hungary, winemakers produce a local digestif based on a secret recipe. I can only tell you that a certain root is added for some moderate bitterness, one flower gives it its unique aroma, and some fruit endows it with a sweet taste. Aromatic herbs such as hellebore, mustard, cinnamon, orange peels, or cherry leaves are added to a barrel with grapes, which is then closed for three months.

Bermet is a wine of many legends. Empress Maria Theresa allegedly sent it to the Royal Court in London, or, perhaps, liked it so much that she relieved the inhabitant of the town of Srmeski Karlovci from military service so they can focus on making Bermet. It was found in Vienna, St. Petersburg, London, and, some say, the Titanic. Today, of course, many a winery in Novi Sad and its environs would be happy to give you a small sample (beware: 16 to 18% alcohol!) while telling you stories of Viennese courtiers procuring insane amounts, Russian tsars with a predilection for Serbian wine, or passengers of the Titanic who witnessed tragedy with a glass of digestif from the Balkans.

If you enjoy the junction of financial ruin, alcohol, and the Balkans as world history, you might find many other interesting stories waiting to be told. One of them, which appears in Cevdet Pasha's memories, tells of his trip to Bosnia in 1863 in an attempt to study the local economy as an imperial advisor. Bosnia's export of dried plum was a major business, but one that mysteriously declined around the time of his visit. The secret was global: From Bosnia, the plums were sold to Trieste and there, by sea, to the United States. Civil War is not a good time for buying plums, but the “poor Bosnians thought no one liked their plums anymore, but they didn't know the real reason why”.9


Federal legislation followed in the late 1880s. See Brigitte Studer’s introduction to the special issue, “Die Schweiz anderswo. Auslandschweizerlnnen-SchweizerInnen im Ausland”, of the Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte 29 (2015), 7-15.


One particularly good book is Martin Pollack’s Kaiser Von Amerika: Die Große Flucht Aus Galizien (Wien: Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 2010).


“Bericht des eidgenössischen Auswanderungsamtes an das schweizerische Politische Departement über den Untergang des Dampfers „Titanic“ und die Massnahmen zur Wahrung der Interessen der von schweizerischen Agenturen beförderten Personen und ihrer Hinterbliebenen, sowie der Angehörigen der Schiffsangestellten schweizerischer Nationalität.” Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv. E7175B#1977/58#381*.


Ibid., 8-9.


Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv. E2175#1000/132#145*, Document 189, p. 17.


Ibid., p. 5. For the conversion rate, see here.


Waltraud Heindl, Josephinische Mandarine: Bürokratie und Beamte in Österreich 1848-1914, vol. 2 (Vienna: Böhlau, 2013), 144, 150.


Figures from Annemarie Steidl, On Many Routes: Internal, European, and Transatlantic Migration in the Late Habsburg Empire (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020), 145-146.


I heard about this from this Twitter thread by Edin Hajdarpašić.