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Titanic’s Black Passenger: Creating Historical Fiction From Historical Fact

In 2009 W. Mae Kent, published Titanic: The Untold Story, the first historical fiction novel on the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic which makes it’s central character, Nathan Badeau Legarde, a black man.  The inspiration for her story came from Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, an Afro-French citizen who died along with 1,516 other passengers when the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912.  In this article Kent for the first time writes why she chose to write the novel and the parallels between Laroche and the fictional Legarde.

The real life story of Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, the only black passenger on the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic is fascinating. So much so that it served as the catalyst for my story, the first and only historical fiction novel set on the ship to feature a black hero.  In Titanic: The Untold Story, my protagonist, Nathan Badeau Legarde is loosely based on Joseph Laroche.  However, the word loosely is operative here because while there are strong similarities between the man who was actually on the Titanic and his fictional counterpart, I have also inserted some strong differences.  

First, let’s look at some basic facts about Laroche.  He was born in Cap Haitian, Haiti, into the country’s royal family.  The son of a white, French army officer and a native Haitian girl, he grew up as a privileged child in the midst of wealth.  At the age of 15, he followed the custom of the Haitian ruling class and went to France to further his education. Shortly after receiving an engineering degree, Laroche married a white, French woman and they quickly had two daughters.  An intensely proud man he was  accustomed to living well. He and his wife were expecting a third child and he was struggling with an intolerable situation. He was employed at the Paris metro and was being paid less than his fellow employees.  He was repeatedly told that his lower wages were because of inexperience, however, he learned that newly hired workers with less experience than he had were being paid more.