The Raft of the Medusa

A black stain on the otherwise spotless history of French courage

Last night I learned about what might well be the most amazing historical story I’ve ever heard.  I’ve been reading Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces which, among other things, has been teaching me a lot about the great stories of history that inspired many artists (such as the fascinating story of Judith and Holofernes, which I’d also never heard before, but which was the basis for several of the paintings I’ve seen so far). 

By far the best story I’ve come across in this book is the one behind Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (pictured at left).  After seeing this brilliant but disturbing work and reading Sister Wendy’s background text, I looked up some more of the facts behind it.  It’s…shocking.  Breathtaking.  Scary.  Unbelievable.  Straight from the pages of history, it’s a better story than Titanic and Apollo 13 combined.  It reminds me a little of the tragedy of the Russian submarine Kursk, but this one is far worse. 

I’ve blogged before about my favorite historical stories (here and here); ladies and gentlmen, we have a new champion. 

Here’s the basic story, cut down from Wikipedia.  Wow.  Just…wow. 

On 17 June 1816, a convoy under the command of De Chaumareys on Méduse departed Rochefort…. The Méduse, armed en flûte, carried passengers, including the appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, and his wife Reine Schmaltz. The Méduse’s complement totaled 400, including 160 crew. She reached Madeira on 27 June.

….

Chaumareys had decided to involve one of the passengers, Richefort, in the navigation of the frigate. Richefort was a philosopher and a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, but had no qualification to guide ships….

On 2 July 1816 Méduse ran into increasingly shallow water, both Chaumareys and Richefort ignoring signs such as white breakers and mud in the water…and Méduse ran aground 50 kilometres off the coast….The Captain refused to jettison the 14 three-tonne cannons and so the ship settled into the bank.

….A raft was soon built; it was 20 metres in length and 7 metres in width, and was nicknamed “la Machine” by the crew…. Passengers and crew panicked and so the captain decided to immediately evacuate the frigate, with 146 men and one woman boarding the woefully unstable raft, towed by the boats of Méduse. The raft had few supplies and no method of steering or navigation. Much of its deck was under water. Seventeen men decided to stay on the Méduse, and the rest boarded the ship’s longboats.

The crew of the boats soon realised that towing the raft was impractical. They began to fear being overwhelmed by the desperate survivors on the raft. It was decided to cut the ropes, leaving the raft and its occupants to their fate. The lifeboats, including the captain and Governor Schmaltz aboard, then sailed away to safety. Some landed immediately on the coast of Africa, most of the survivors making their way overland to Senegal though some died on the way.

On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Among the provisions were casks of wine instead of water. Fights broke out between the officers and passengers on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers on the other. On the first night adrift, 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Stormy weather threatened, and only the centre of the raft was secure. Dozens died either in fighting to get to the centre, or because they were washed overboard by the waves. Rations dwindled rapidly; by the fourth day there were only 67 left alive on the raft, and some resorted to cannibalism. On the eighth day, the fittest began throwing the weak and wounded overboard until only fifteen men remained, all of whom survived until their rescue on 17 July by Argus, which had accidentally encountered them.

Argus took the survivors of the raft to Saint-Louis to recover. Five of them, including Jean Charles, the last African crew member, died within days…. Three of the seventeen men who had decided to stay on the Méduse were still alive 54 days later….

The matter became a scandal in French politics and officials tried to cover it up. At his court martial at Port de Rochefort in 1817 De Chaumareys was tried on five counts but acquitted of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft. However he was found guilty of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off. Even though this verdict implied the death penalty, De Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail.

 

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