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….

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