Thanks to: http://www.historyhouse.com/in_history/medusa/
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
See how Napoleon's defeat allowed one of the dumbest yet haughtiest
ship captains ever known to pilot a vessel straight into a sandbar,
with navigation provided not by his crew but instead a lowly passenger.
Predictably, the rich folks get off scot free. But if you were
on the crew, you got a little patch of sinking raft to call your
own. More likely than not, you died in a day or two. And now it's
a famous painting of the sort you get your picture taken next to.
In 1819, when French painter Theodore Géricault 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 héd 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. 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.
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-Désiré 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
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.  "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
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
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
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.
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.
Géricault 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 herés 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 -- shés still
stuck on the Arguin bank, and isn't going anywhere.