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The Raft of the Medusa

The Medusa, an ill-piloted ship in the nineteenth century, runs aground and sets sailors adrift in a rickety raft. They resort to cannibalism.

In 1819, when French painter Theodore Ge'ricault first exhibited his dramatic masterpiece, "Scene of Shipwreck" to Paris society, he could little imagine the reaction the painting would receive. Onlookers were fascinated and horrified, rather the way they'd react if they saw a particularly large and hairy spider. The painting is enormous. Sixteen feet high, twenty three feet, six inches wide (about 5x7 m), it depicts a group of desperate men floating on a few planks of wood, trying to get the attention of a tiny little ship on the horizon by waving their shirts around. There was a sordid, true tale behind this raft, and everyone knew what it was. It had taken place three years prior. It involved desperate men, howling stupidity, and cannibalism. And, with the painting looming over them, everyone was talking about it.

Kissing Some Royal Ass

Our story begins in Paris in the year 1816. The French monarchy had been restored to the throne by the English who had, a year earlier, famously kicked Napoleon's skinny white ass at Waterloo. In a show of support for the newly reinstated king, the Brits offered the French the port of St. Louis, in Senegal on the African west coast. St. Louis was a vital trading base, and a fine place to stop if you happened to be on your way around the Cape of Good Hope. To take possession of the port, the new government prepared a fleet of ships to transport the French Governor and his soldiers, and a few other gentry to the seaside village. They also appointed Frigate-Captain Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys to lead the little armada to its destination. In spite of his impressive name, de Chaumereys was an inappropriate, that is to say, dismal choice for the job. He was fifty-three, a prissy dandy, and hadn't been to sea for twenty-five years. Even then, he'd never commanded a ship, let alone a fleet.

Instead, all those years ago, he'd worked as a customs officer.

The Wrong Guy At The Right Time

In 1795, de Chaumereys joined the English in the war against French revolutionaries, which got him swiftly exiled. However, when Louis XVIII reclaimed the throne in 1814, de Chaumereys was in a fine position to cash in. With the vanity of the French and an alarmingly deficient understanding of his own skills, de Chaumereys requested a naval post from the King's brother. Because he'd gotten kicked out of France on the King's behalf a few years prior, his loyalty to the monarchy was without question. Despite his inability to command a maritime vessel, he was duly appointed, and, as one might well imagine, this appointment caused problems.[1] Most of the crew, including the first officer, had fought with Napoleon against the Brits, and weren't thrilled when a blustering royalist brownnoser was appointed commander over them. Tensions were high. As Lieutenant des Touches of the Loire commented:

[De Chaumereys] was a courteous gentleman, but not very serious-minded and he seemed to find it natural that I would be his obedient servant. First I made him understand... that I did not think that I had done wrong in serving my country during the time he had chosen to go into exile. Then, he changed his attitude towards me. This was quite characteristic of him. De Chaumereys was easily manipulated, like all cocksure fellows.[2]

I'm Sailing Away... Set A Course For The Virgin Sea

De Chaumereys' little squadron set off on 17 June 1816. It comprised four ships: the Loire, the Argus, the Echo and the Medusa. It was this last that carried the good captain and his passengers.

Let us examine the illustrious passenger list: the Medusa was carrying some 400 men, women, and children. Amongst them were 160 crew, and one Colonel Julien-De'sire' Schmaltz, Commander in Chief and new Governor of Senegal. Schmaltz was an overbearing and self-important man. He quickly impressed his own agenda upon de Chaumereys, who was easily swayed by a more forceful personality.

Schmaltz wanted to reach St. Louis as fast as possible, by the most direct route. Unfortunately, this would take the fleet dangerously close to the shoreline. There were sandbars, reefs and a whole gamut of tricky navigational problems the entire length of the African coast including the notorious Arguin bank, which would make even an experienced French navigator turn to monogamy. The usual practice was to swing out wide into the Atlantic and let the prevailing winds blow the ship back to shore. The ignorant, browbeating Schmaltz would have none of that meandering business. The crew were appalled. First they had to swallow their pride and deal with this dreadful right-wing know-nothing monarchist braggart, and now they were being forced to take a course they knew to be foolhardy in the extreme.

The Medusa, being the fastest of the convoy, quickly lost the Loire and the Argus. The Echo kept pace for some miles, before waiting until nightfall to hightail it out to sea, presumably to avoid death. The Medusa was on her own. By June 28th, de Chaumereys had made a new friend, one M. Richefort. The good monsieur presented himself as quite the African explorer. He was destined to be the harbor master of the newly retrieved port and had even less naval experience than de Chaumereys. He had, as fate would have it, just emerged from an English prison, where he had languished for the past ten years. He was member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, an international organization of the overzealous and self-important dedicated to exploring the African interior. It was for this reason the de Chaumereys turned to this ignorant ex-con for his "local knowledge". He had slightly less than none. Appropriately, the captain appointed Richefort official navigator of the journey. The fact that he was just a passenger did not seem to figure into the equation. The crew were seriously mortified. This really was too much. Even the female passengers were commenting.

Beaching, Then Wailing

So as the crew shook their heads, the natty Captain and his friend smugly navigated a course to disaster. By July 2, their fate was sealed. The water swirling around the bow of the ship was muddy, and the passengers were starting to get edgy as the sea was obviously getting shallower. Confronted by a worried passenger, Richefort smiled serenely, and smarmily answered, "My dear sir, we know our business. Attend to yours and be quiet. I have already twice passed the Arguin Bank, I have sailed upon the Red Sea, and you see I am not drowned."

By now, Schmaltz, who knew nothing, was dictating the course and bossing everyone around. With the idiotic Richefort installed as navigator, de Chaumereys ran around annoying people and giving the crew orders against their better judgment. This was not what you'd call a winning team. July 2 saw the end of the Medusa's voyage. At 11:30 am, soundings revealed that the ship was sailing in water of 80 fathoms.[3] "No cause for alarm", cried de Chaumereys to the crew. Then he said it again, a bit louder this time, to make sure all the passengers heard as well. By 3:10 pm the ship was traveling in just 6 fathoms of water and it was getting shallower all the time. The crew had all but given up -- but captain and navigator remained chipper. Five minutes later, the ship gave a great heaving shudder, a large bump, and came to a listing halt on the Arguin bank. According to witnesses, a strange transformation came over the faces of de Chaumereys and Richefort, "a silent fever...a great anxiety." They were screwed.

Seconds later, Richefort was subject to a volley of abuse, and very nearly assaulted. The captain was speechless. Governor Schmaltz and his family gazed on unconcerned, assuming, as rich folk often do, that someone would take care of them.

The Daft Raft

So as the situation stood, the ship wasn't damaged, just stuck. In an effort to raise her from her sandy foundation, the crew started hurling things overboard. They had a small window of time to get the ship off the sandbar: it was high spring tide, and each high tide was going to be lower than the last. But de Chaumereys put a stop to the jettison for fear that folks at home would be pretty annoyed to find their cannons had been chucked overboard. The boat sank deeper into the impossible muck. After pacing about in a jittery fashion and scratching himself, de Chaumereys decided to abandon ship. He called together some of his more trusted advisors (not the crew, of course), and had a bit of a powwow to see what could be done about a serious deficiency in lifeboats.

Schmaltz had the idea of building a raft to carry the soldiers and crew to shore. The more "important" of the passengers would be comfortably stowed in lifeboats strung together, and these would tow the raft to safety. The raft was made of the masts and cross-beams of the boat. It was crudely constructed, roughly 65 feet by 23 feet (or 20m x 7m). It had no means of navigation and no oars. When the men were loaded onto it, some 150 of them, they sank down in the sea to their waists. It was hopelessly overcrowded; each man only had a square three feet (1 m) on a side to stand in. Without even enough room to lie down in, they stood in the water, and their legs shriveled up like prunes.

Five of the six lifeboats, on the other hand, were ridiculously undermanned. Fewer men on the lifeboats meant more rations per person, which is what the rich folk expected. De Chaumereys (who was one of the first off the ship), Schmaltz, Schmaltz's family and the other notable passengers had a far better chance of survival than the poor slobs on the raft, who were soaked, starving, cramped, and all but doomed. The lifeboats loaded first and launched. Seventeen men, rather than risk the raft, decided to stay on the Medusa and take their chances. De Chaumereys told the men on the raft that he had "provided [them] with everything [they] need." Everything, that is, except a compass, enough food and water to accommodate so many men, a dry place to sleep, blankets or space to lie down. While details of their actual supplies are sketchy, we know they had little more than a few barrels of wine and fresh water, and some flour. They had no ability to build a fire of any kind for cooking or warmth.

Cutting The Chaff To Save The Wheat... Or Was It The Other Way Round?

It soon became apparent that the plan was a foolish one, not least because there was an overfilled raft full of resentful sailors wanting to boot the teeth clean out of the wealthy's mouths. The occupants of the raft, desperate to save themselves, would soon have overwhelmed a lifeboat had it got anywhere near them. So whenever the raft drifted too near, the smaller vessels would hightail it away. De Chaumereys, afraid and desperate, finally gave the order to untie the raft and leave its occupants to the mercy of the seas. We can only speculate at the state of mind of these men left behind, as they watched the lifeboats disappear over the horizon, leaving the raft stranded, at sea some four miles from the shore. They'd be back, right? Wrong.

A Skinnier Box

Many of the barrels of provisions were soon knocked overboard by men crowding for space to sit, or waterlogged by seawater. But the real danger wasn't starvation; the pressing threat came from the men themselves. As night fell, they began to realize how bad things really were. Unfortunately, as the parties responsible for their plight weren't around (read: de Chaumereys and co.), the men starting fighting with each other. They stupidly threw barrels of wine and flour overboard. They hacked at each other with machetes; they tried to unlash the raft. By dawn on the first morning, the raft was lighter by more than 20 men, all lost through suicide or murder.

Hungry, sleep deprived, and without hope, the sailors only got nastier with each passing day. Slaughter was common, especially after dark, and rations were becoming increasingly scarce. It became a war between soldiers and officers. Factions appeared, the Africans against the Europeans, the workers against the officers. Every night the madness would grip them all and they'd fight it out till dawn, then recount their numbers, distribute rations and prepare themselves for death. Although numbers decreased rapidly, rations decreased more so. Finally, with unbearable thirst and hunger overcoming them, some of the men started tearing flesh from the corpses littering the raft. Many resisted this outrage, but it soon became apparent that those who had eaten were feeling stronger for it, and one by one, soldiers and officers alike, consumed the dead.

The Leftovers

There were fifteen left on the raft when the Argus finally came to the rescue, thirteen days after they had first been set adrift a mere four miles from shore. Of course, the Argus wasn't actually looking for the castaways. Finding them was a fortuitous accident. Their orders were to look for survivors from the lifeboats who may have been put ashore. They had another task too: they were supposed to retrieve a store of gold left behind in the hull of the Medusa. What the crew of the Argus saw when they finally pulled up next to the raft must have been rather a shock. Fifteen men, many close to death, the skin of their legs and feet awash with open sores, their faces emaciated and blistered by the sun. Just ten per cent of the original number were left. Corpses littered the raft, some nastily decomposed, bearing signs of having been tampered with by more than sea birds.

Five of the rescued men died within the next few weeks, others were hospitalized for months. De Chaumereys was court-martialed, but, incredibly, was found not guilty of desertion -- despite damning evidence to the contrary. In truth, those wily French were afraid the British would ridicule them for their foolishness. And no doubt they were right. But what of the painting? It in itself was a survivor. Ge'ricault died two years after its completion, having never recovered from the monumental effort it took to complete the work. The painting then became a kind of traveling show, horrifying the curious all over Europe. Eventually, it was offered for sale. There were two very interested parties. One was a wealthy English chap, the other a consortium of French nobility, who planned to chop the canvas into smaller, more easily sold pieces to auction one by one. The painting was seen as an anti-monarchist work, depicting so vividly the handiwork of one of his minions. However, ironically, it was Louis XVIII who stepped in and rescued the work from being shipped overseas or hacked to pieces. He donated the painting to the Louvre, in Paris, where it remains.

But here's the bit we like the most: the Medusa is still out there. De Chaumereys thought that there was still gold in her hull, and sent out a rescue party to get it. After three journeys, they found her. They searched the sinking frigate high and low, to no avail. What they did find however, were the emaciated bodies of three survivors. Barely alive, they'd lasted 54 days. Of course, they were all completely mad. Starvation and isolation will do that. But they recovered. The Medusa didn't -- she's still stuck on the Arguin bank, and isn't going anywhere.

Footnotes

  1. Such incidents may remove all question as to why the common Frenchman hated his local wine-swilling garden-trimming nepotist.
  2. McKee, p.8
  3. A fathom is 6 feet (1.83 m). Comes from Germanic fathmaz, meaning "two arms stretched out".

Bibliography

  1. Julian Barnes. History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Vintage, 1990.
  2. Alexander McKee. Wreck of the Medusa, The Tragic Story of the Death Raft. Penguin Putnam, 1975.
  3. K. Gregor. The'odore Ge'ricault. (referenced online at http://www.hearts-ease.org/gallery/19th-c/ex-rationalism/gericault/) Hearts-Ease, 2001.

 
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