As The Medusa sailed from Rochefort in 1816, many aboard saw bright futures ahead for themselves. They were escaping a country torn asunder, harshly divided by war, revolution and eventual restoration. With the French Empire floundering and a band of Hard-Right ultra-royalists creating laws in France, the promise of a new start in a fresh land was enticing for many. Little did they expect to meet such a high degree of incompetency on their voyage, had they foreseen even a fraction of the horrors that lay ahead for them, many might have chosen to stay in France no matter the situation.
Miles, J. (2007). The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY.
Savigny, J. B. Henry, and Alexandre Corréard. (1818). Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816. London: Henry Colburn
McKee, A. (1975). Wreck of the Medusa: The Tragic Story of the Death Raft. Penguin Books, Auckland, New Zealand.
Newworldencyclopedia.org. (2019). Banc d’Arguin National Park – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Banc_d%27Arguin_National_Park [Accessed 28 Aug. 2019].
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Death Raft: The Wreck of the Medusa
As The Medusa sailed from Rochefort in 1816, many aboard saw bright futures ahead for themselves. They were escaping a country torn asunder, harshly divided by war, revolution and eventual restoration. With the French Empire floundering and a band of Hard-Right ultra-royalists creating laws in France, the promise of a new start in a fresh land was enticing for many. Little did they expect to meet such a high degree of incompetency on their voyage, had they foreseen even a fraction of the horrors that lay ahead for them, many might have chosen to stay in France no matter the situation. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
France in 1816 was a volatile place to be. The population was severely divided following the recent restoration of Versailles and the re-instatement of the French Monarchy, Republicans were in a state of collective loss after Napoleons defeat and exile and the country as a whole drew into a recovery period from the long running battles which had devastated the country in the years prior.
Just two years earlier, after war weariness and fatigue weighed heavily on a country that had been fighting around the globe for over twenty five years, war veterans had returned to Paris en masse, leading to packed hospitals, extremely high levels of unemployment and homelessness as bodies piled up, lining the Seine. In order to relieve the situation, asylums were emptied of their patients to create more bed space for the returning soldiers and mass graves were dug for those less fortunate. Famine threatened the city, pillaging ran wild as a sense of complete societal breakdown teetered on the edge of becoming reality. There was change sweeping through France, however, after the failed attempt to invade Russia in 1812 had lead to a backlash and series of costly campaigns that had seen France herself invaded, culminating in the surrender and occupation of Paris by the Prussian and allied forces.
Following the French surrender in March of 1814, conditions in Paris slowly began to improve, but France was a population deeply divided between the Royalists, those loyal to the reinstated monarchy and King Louis XVIII, and the Republicans, those who had chosen to fight alongside Napoleon against both the allied forces and many of their own countrymen. Napoleon was stripped of his powers as leader fo the French Empire and sent in to exile, and the King, in a weary attempt to unify the nation, spoke of healing and of a “fusion between two peoples”. This was shown to be truly wishful thinking in a stark way, when Napoleon headed an attack force that marched through France towards Paris, with an army that consisted mainly of officers who had been sent to stop him. Napoleons final defeat came at Waterloo. The Monarchy along with a fragile sense of stability resumed once again, but the atmosphere had turned sour with the attempted invasion by Napoleon and now, ultra-royalists used the situation to instate a tough new regime upon the country. Hard right laws were passed, oppression was the rule of the day and Napoleonic sympathisers were turfed from official positions, assassinated or slaughtered, replaced by men who had remained loyal to the king during the times of revolution, choosing to flee and fight alongside the allied forces against their own countrymen.
It was in this deeply torn atmosphere that the French Minister of the Navy planned for the completion of the British hand-over of a colonial outpost in Senegal. Originally a French colony, the British had taken control of the land during the seven year war, in a plan to strangle international trade and weaken the French economy, however, following the American Revolutionary War, the treaty of Paris saw it handed back to French occupation. In order for the hand-over to transition smoothly, France were sending a convoy of four ships to Senegal that would include The French Governor of Senegal, his administrators and other governing officers, two full companies of the African battalion and a whole host of colonialists who had been offered land for helping to rebuild the colony, ranging from explorers and geographical engineers to tradesman, shopkeepers and clerks. In total, the four ships were to carry over 400 people to the colony. It was for many, perhaps, the promise of a fresh start in a land distant from the troubled atmosphere of the French mainland.
The four ships of the convoy that were set to sail from Rochefort to Senegal In June of 1816 were a corvette, named The Echo, a transport named the Loire, a brig named the Argus and a frigate named The Medusa. The men chosen to captain and lead the ships were a reflection of the French situation, during the culling of revolutionary sympathisers from military positions, many had been replaced by Royalists who were seen by some to have not entirely earned their position. Gicquel Des Touches, the captain of the transport ship Loire had served with the French Navy since he was 10 years old. A fierce Republican, he had been imprisoned by the English for six years and fought at Trafalgar. At only 33 years old, he was already a weathered hand and found the situation most distasteful,
“Veterans of great wars are vegetating on half-pay in ports, while brilliant commissions are given to those whose only merit has been to remain faithful to the Bourbons.”
His outspoken feelings echoed throughout the convoys leadership, where revolutionaries and royalists, men who had perviously fought one another in battle, were now rolled together, sent to sea and expected to get along. One man who embodied the target of Des Touches attacks was Frigate Captain Hugues Duroy De Chaumareys. During the revolution, he had fought as a lieutenant and eventually exiled from France, where he fought with he English against the French revolutionaries. He took part in several campaigns, one of which ended in a massacre for the English and its allies, but Chaumareys had managed to slip away back to England to fight another day. Now he found his loyalty rewarded as he was named captain of The Medusa and in control of the entire convoy. The problem with this decision for everyone else, was the small fact that he not set foot aboard a ship in over twenty five years and had never once commanded a single ship in his life. Naturally, he was seen by everyone below him as a vastly incompetent captain with not nearly enough experience for the expedition. Moreover, a seething bitterness bubbled under the surface. For many, he was not only incompetent but also at political ends with their own views.
“He 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 was myself as true a gentleman as he was, and 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. Was it just a gentlemanly reflex or did it show a basic lack of character? The latter, I think, for it seems that in spite of his ‘show off’ manner, De Chaumareys was easily manipulated, like all cocksure fellows.”
This clash of ideology was not only displayed between Des Touches and De Chaumareys, the second in command of the Medusa, Joseph Reynaud was another republican, whilst the Captain of the Argus, a Royalist. Amongst the soldiers on board, of which numbered 160, the divides continued. The ships were a microcosm of French society and the tensions and divides that were as bitter as they were deep came as part and parcel of the deal.
The Medusa itself was a large Frigate which had previously been deployed as a warship during the Napoleonic Wars with room on deck for 44, 18lbs canons. Reasonably fast in the water, her main duties had centralised around scouting, latter carrying and patrols. Now however, she had been recommissioned following a refit as a transport ship and had had 30 of the original guns removed to make space for passengers. Also aboard the Medusa, were five smaller vessels for landing, the captains barge, the Senegal boat, a longboat, the pinnace, a small landing vessel and the governors barge. As a warship, The Medusa was relatively spacious, but as a passenger ship, the limitations in space were quickly apparent and as people filed aboard in preparation to sail to Senegal, the deck quickly filled to capacity as people erected temporary cabins and pitched their beds on the hard wooden floor, next to their luggage. It was not a great start for the convoy and chimed in to a feeling of lack of preparation that was growing around the boats and of which extended further than just the living quarters of the passengers. Those in command noted in journals of how late in the year it was that they were setting sail and of how the charts given to them for navigation were wholly outdated and next to useless for charting a safe passage along the West African coast. The Captain of the Corvette, The Echo, Francois Marie Cornette De Vénancourt wrote in his own journal as the expedition prepared to sail,
“For the record, we have already wasted too much time… We shall arrive in a season very much advanced. I shall be able to serve on that coast for only a short while. This will be inefficient, especially in view of the unique nautical description with which I have been supplied by the Minister of Marine! As for the charts enclosed with the hydrographic Français, they are so imperfect that it is hardly possible to use them. Further, the chronometer No.131, issued to me at Rochefort, is decidedly erratic. However, with such poor means and in such an unsuitable season, I shall do my best.”
The charts they were given by the Ministry were originally published in the 1750’s and were by the time of sailing, thought to be based heavily on hearsay and almost entirely wrong. De Chaumareys was not the only man in power who had been out of the game for a quarter of a century, the head of the French Naval Ministry himself had also been retired for 25 years before taking the position. When the sea charts were handed over to the captains, they were invited by the ministry to “navigate with caution.”
Despite these difficult conditions, the convoy of four ships sailed from Rochefort on 17th June, 1816, bound for West Africa and the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. The ships were ordered to stay in tight convoy and to sail South along the coast of West Africa, a dangerous, but more expedient journey than the safer route, which would see the ships first sailing out to deep sea and then turning South once they could be sure they would be clear of any sand banks or reefs. Their late departure saw the threat of the storm season creep over the horizon, and so, this direct route was finalised. For now the storms were a world away and the concern with the weather was instead the tropical heat that shone down onto the ships from a midsummer sun. As the four boats left French waters, they headed South towards the smouldering heat of the equator.
Aboard The Medusa was Colonel Julien Schmaltz, his wife and daughter. Upon the hand over of Senegal, Schmaltz was to become the French Governor. He was not keen on the proposed idea by some of the captains to prolong their journey by heading out to deeper waters before turning South, and privately, he pushed De Chaumareys to stick to the coast as planned and to sail ahead as quick as they could. De Chaumareys, much inexperienced as he was, privately agreed. For him, the route along the coast came with a secondary benefit, that it was almost impossible for him to get lost and his navigation would, for the most part, remain on auto pilot as the ship followed down the coastlines. Quickly the convoy began to separate. The Medusa was a relatively fast ship and it pulled away ahead of the Loire almost immediately. As the ships stretched further and further apart, The Loire and The Argus both took it upon themselves to alter their course out to sea. If they were to be left behind by the convoy, then they at least would chose their own route, and so they turned out into the safety of the deeper waters. The Echo kept up with The Medusa at first, but as the ships pulled into sight of the African coast, it slipped out to sea under the cover of darkness, choosing also to take the less direct, but infinitely safer route. The convoy was now entirely defunct and the four ships were sailing completely independently of one another.
The convoy breaking up was not a particularly large matter between the men aboard The Medusa. Things had been relatively plain sailing for the most part, there had been a man overboard incident which saw a teenage boy drowned, but otherwise, things were largely okay. Causing far greater concern amongst the officers, were whispers that the boat was slowly drifting drastically off course. The broken instruments and sketchy charts that were so heavily relied upon in Des Chaumareys inexperience had sent them over six nautical miles of course already. As the boat sailed on, quiet rumblings began to slowly erupt around the officers, filtering down to the sailors. Daily, Des Chaumareys found himself being more and more isolated as huddles of men turned silent upon his approach. On one 26th, he told the crew that he estimated they would sight Madeira that morning, however, it wasn’t spotted until sunset that evening. By now they were as much as sixty miles off course and it had become obvious to all who minded that their Captain was as useful as the charts he was following. Des Chaumareys was further undermined by his own inexperience when, as they passed Ponta Do Sol, the Medusa was nearly beached as it was suddenly swept towards the land and it wan’t until the lieutenants insisted they should take the ship further out to sea that their course was altered. As it turned out, Des Chaumareys had more or less handed over full control of Captaincy to a man named Richefort and was, by this point, only captain by name. As rumour spread of their new, covert leadership, the unrest only intensified as Richefort was considered by most of the sailors to be another inexperienced blowhard. Rather than quell their concerns, they found they weer only doubled, as they now saw two useless Captains in charge of their fate.
On the evening of June 28th, they sailed into view of Tenerife and took the opportunity to dock in Santa Cruz to restock their provisions. They sailed into the bay under a dense sea mist, though without wanting to waste any time, they set back out to sea the same afternoon. As The Medusa sailed out of the Santa Cruz bay, the summer sun beat down, baking the deck in the tropical heat. As the temperature on board rose, so to did the atmosphere become more tense. The sailors were now openly accusing Captain Des Chaumareys of “shameful” behaviour, as he handed over more and more control to Richefort, a move which was roundly denounced, stating that they “would not obey a man who didn’t have the temperament to command.” The Medusa teetered on the edge of mutiny and Des Chaumareys only effort to handle the situation was to double down, ordering his subordinates to obey Richeforts commands. The air of mutiny hung heavy over the ship as the intensely hot wind blew out across the ocean from the nearby Sahara.
Rather than chosing to hold an outright mutiny, the ships crew instead decided to handle it in a move which would best suit themselves. Recognising the incompetence of both Des Chaumareys and Richeforts, they instead just made decisions alone, without consulting the Captain and his appointed surrogate. More than once the overnight watch found the ship sailing dangerously close to reefs and ordered the ship to change course, all the while, telling nothing of the maneuveurs to Des Chaumareys. At least this way they could look out for themselves and the clueless Captain would not have to know any different.
As The Medusa continued South along the African coast, the dangers of the Arguin bank came in to play. A huge, 12000 square kilometre sand bank stretching out into the sea from the West African coast like a large shelf, the Arguin bank reaches out to sea below the water, causing violent surf and shifting sands. Depths could rapidly decrease as sand banks rose to the surface of the water and beaching was a very real threat that would effect any ships that dared sail directly over it. In the early 1800s, navigating the bank was no small feat and was best thought to just give it a wide berth by sailing sixty miles out to sea to ensure sailing past it would not cause any danger. Soundings were regularly taken by lead and line, a heavy lead weight, tied to a rope marked at intervals for a certain number of fathoms. The lead was tossed out to sea allowing the depth to quickly be read simply by eyeing the mark that lay above the surface. Simply by employing these two primitive measures, one could safely pass by the Arguin bank with little problem. Des Chaumareys, however, chose to not do either. In an effort to dupe the captain, the night watch woke Des Chaumareys at 5am on July 2nd to tell him they had reached the point they needed to steer out to sea long before Des Chaumareys had decided to turn the ship under Richeforts advise. Successful in their deception, Des Chaumareys ordered the ship to sail out, however Richefort over-rode the order, telling the men they need only to turn out to sea by thirty miles, rather than sixty. A dreaded realisation fell over the men that the captaincy was now no longer attached to Des Chaumareys at all. The officers challenged Richeforts order, but after Des Chaumareys had them quickly arrested, the rest kept quiet, after being told by their puppet captain “we know our jobs, now get on with yours and rest calm.”
It was with a certain amount of resignation then, that the crew steered thirty miles out to sea, half of the recommended distance to ensure safe passage of the Arguin Bank. That morning, as the crew caught fish in clear, shallow waters, they tried to put the fears of the sand bank out of mind, despite the evidence to the contrary that by now completely surrounded them. By lunchtime the sounding returned a depth of only 10 fathoms and as Des Chaumareys finally ordered the ship to change course, a strong wind blew across the deck, shifting the boat and grounding it out on a large sand bank. The vessel creaked in the wind and the wood strained on the bank, it’s full weight resting upon the hull, as the shallow water lapped tamely against the side of the boat.
The Wreck and the Raft
Firmly grounded, The Medusa pitched to one side on the sand bank of the Arguin. At first, the officers attempted to lose weight from the ship and wait out the low tide, in the hopes that by jettisoning as much weight as possible, the high tide might be just enough to shift the boat back into the water. They shifted the canons to counter balance the tilt and tossed all the ships powder overboard. As the tide rose the next morning, the ship shifted marginally in the shallow water, but it was not enough to push it afloat. Next they attempted to use a Kedge anchor, a secondary, smaller anchor from the ships main anchor, by carrying it out to sea aboard the Longboat, dropping it at a distance from the boat that kept the rope taught and attempted to pivot the boat round. The result however, ended in the snapping of the rope and the loss of the anchor. The Medusa was, by now, in a sorry state as it creaked and groaned in the wind. Water began leaking in though the damaged hull, which the engineers attempted to patch in anticipation of refloating the ship. A panic set in among the population of the ship, Colonel Schmaltz, who had already recognised the lack of respect towards Des Chaumareys, decided it was time to take control. He called for a council to be held where options could be discussed on where they should go next. The first option discussed was an evacuation to the nearby shore aboard the smaller boats. They could ferry all the passengers to the shore in a series of trips, ensuring that the people on the shore were guarded from wild animals and the indigenous Moors, a European umbrella term for both the West African Arabic population and the indigenous Black African tribes. As always with colonial expeditions, there was a suspicion and fear of the indigenous peoples that stemmed from superstition and sensationalist reports of previous expeditions. Stories of barbarism, piracy and cannibalism rung heavy in the minds of the shipwrecked passengers.
The second suggestion put forward at the council was to build a large raft from the wood of the Medusa that could hold everyone. The raft would be towed to land by the fie smaller boats, allowing everyone arrive at one time, ensuring their safety from whatever might await them on the foreign shores. The two plans were put to a vote, with the raft winning out. Design and construction of the raft began immediately and the precarious vessel was quickly completed. The completed raft was 65 feet long and 22 feet wide and sat precariously below the waterline. A 15” high railing was constructed around the edge, insufficient to achieve much of anything at all. The night of the 3rd June was a rowdy one, as the ships sailors decided that it was high time to drink the ships wine stores, rather than leave them behind. Anarchy broke out aboard the ship as drunk staggered around, looting everything they could get their hands on. Men with clothes pulled from the passengers luggage laughed, sang and brawled on deck of the Medusa, there voices rising out over the sand banks. By 3am on the same night, it was decided by the ships engineers that water flooding in from the damaged hull was now enough to be a considerable danger for the ship, threatening to break it up under its own weight as it perched on the sand. The evacuation was ordered with haste and though a list had already been written up which delegated people to each ship and the raft, it was quickly discarded as every man took it to save themselves, a blazing cacophony of drunken soldiers, sailors and officers piled onto the raft, which instantly began to sink. In order to remain buoyant, the rafts provisions were cast overboard as still more passengers piled on to the precarious platform. Naturally, the officers in charge took it upon themselves to secure their own boats. Des Chaumareys boarded the well stocked Captains barge, whilst Schmaltz got aboard the Governors barge. Overstocked and undermanned, the five boas began towing the raft away from the sand bank before the evacuation had even completed, leaving 17 men behind, stranded on the deck of the Medusa calling out to the passengers of the raft, who stood waist deep in sea water on the partially sunken structure. As the five boats pulled taught on the ropes attached to the raft, they begun to swing around, pitch and wane wildly, dangerously out of control. It soon became apparent that the plan had dangerously underestimated the weight of the raft, and so, one by one, the ropes attaching the ships to the rafts were cut as each ships commander acted to save themselves. Within an hour of the evacuation, the raft bobbed dangerously alone in the ocean. There were 147 passengers aboard, with no oars, no sails, no sea charts or compass and worse, the only rations that had survived the chaotic evacuation was a 25lbs sack of water soaked soggy biscuits, 6 tubs of wine and 2 of water. The drunk sailors stared silently out to sea, sobered by the realisation that they were alone in the ocean, far from the shore and with no means to get any closer.
The five smaller vessels, the Longboat, the Captains barge, the Senegal barge, the Pinnace and the Governors barge sailed off, each carving their own path through the sea, South towards Senegal and the port of Saint-Louis. The Longboat was the first to find trouble, as it was son discovered that it was in poor state of repair and was slowly sinking. Sailing close to the shore, 57 of the passengers decided to take their chances on dry land. They disembarked clumsily, washing up on the beach at 9pm. 200 miles North of Senegal, not everyone on the ship fancied the trek and so pushed back out to sea, feeling more confident of the vessel, with its load now significantly lightened. As the castaways gathered themselves on the shore, one of them wrote in his diary,
“All is well, the weather is good and there is hope of saving our lives.”
The motley crew gathered tightly together and began their march across the desert, with faint memories of man-eating tribes and fearsome wild beasts dancing through their minds.
Back on the longboat, the crew soon sighted the other smaller craft from The Medusa, pulling up alongside them, they offered to take the excess passengers in trade for some water, explaining that they had disembarked 57 on the shore and so had plenty of room if anyone wanted to board. In a stunning example of both the epic trek that now lay ahead of the passengers that had gone ashore and the level of distrust that now hung across the expedition, none chose to take them up on the offer, assuming instead that they were simply scheming in order to steal rations. The boars instead sailed on as rations grew tighter. On the morning of the 8th, both the Senegal boat and the longboat wound up beached on the shore and so they too begun the trek, not anywhere near as far ahead as the first shore party as they would have liked. They now faced a vicious trek across the desert with no provisions, exhausted, starving and sucking on lead balls to keep their saliva moving, the group shuffled forwards, South towards Senegal. At first, the group survived by digging small wells in the ground and drinking putrid water, or ate random vegetation, some of which caused sickness. At night, they slept huddled in a group, with guards appointed to stand and keep watch for animals or Moors. They woke early, before sunrise and walked for days. Stragglers who fell behind were left as the members of the trek walked forwards like zombies, whilst others wandered off into the desert in a state of delirium. On the 10th, they came across a group of Moors riding camels and were able to trade anything they had on their persons for goats milk. The Moors listened to their story and offered to guide them to Saint-Louis. With renewed vigour, and now with guides who were familiar with the environment, the men pressed forwards and the next day, they spied the Argus, a ship from the original convoy out at sea. Signalling the boat and sending out their Moor guide to meet the landing boat, they traded information, telling the boat of their shipwrecking. The Argus had reached Senegal several days prior and was now out searching for the rest of the convoy after it missed its expected arrival date. They sent ashore cheese, wine, brandy and biscuits for the castaways who gorged themselves on the familiar fare. With new energy, they continued the trek, reaching Saint-Louis two days later, at 4pm on July 4th. Asking around, they found that they were the first arrivals from The Medusa, the original 57 put ashore had still not reached the outpost, nor had any members of the raft.
The 57 members of the initial shore party were in a something of a pickle, as it turned out. Starving, dehydrated and battling a diarrhoea and sickness issue that had come about after they had drunk water from a rotten pool of standing water. On the verge of death, the group had been captured by a gang of Moors, who they eventually negotiated with, offering them payment upon arrival in Saint-Louis if they would guide them South. The Moors agreed and the group were making some headway, when a second group of Moors showed up, telling the survivors that they had no problem with them and to remain calm, they slaughtered their guides before taking the confused party to their camp nearby. On the 4th day as half prisoners, half guests in the Moor camp, they spied the Argus out at sea, but were unable to make any form of signal, leaving them with a profound feeling of despair as sickness drained them of any possible hope they may have had left. 5 days later, with almost no hope left, a man arrived at the camp calling himself Kearney. He was dressed in arabic attire and riding a camel, but spoke with a thick Irish accent. He handed over a letter to the party, which they read as relief flooded over them,
“My dear Anglas, the person who brings you this letter is an English officer whose large and generous soul exposes him to all the dangers and onconveniences of a trip towards the place where you disembarked. He knows the country, the language and customs perfectly. Follow his advice carefully. The rest of us aboard the longboat and those from the other boats arrived here yesterday; we found a most generous welcome. Our ills are already eased, and we wait for the complete happiness that our reunion with you and those with you will bring. Your friend, Espiaux.”
The group were met with a guide and further, he had bought with him provisions. They ate rice and regained a certain degree of strength before leaving the moor camp next day, walking delirious through the burning heat until on 7pm, July 22nd, 16 days after they were put ashore they arrived in Saint-Louis, a rag tag band of castaways, clothes crusted with salt from the sea air and faces burned by the whipping sand in the winds. As they collapsed into the safety of the colony, they swapped tales with the other survivors, eventually asking if anyone from the raft had yet arrived. The raft which the men of the boats had so ruthlessly cast aside and so quickly forgotten.
The Death Raft
As the five boats pulled away from the raft and crossed the horizon, silence slowly began to fall over the raft, as one by one, each member realised just how dire their situation now was.
“After the disappearance of the boats, the consternation was extreme: all the terrors of thirst and famine arose before our imaginations, and we had besides to contend with a perfidious element, which already covered the half of our bodies: when recovered from their stupefaction, the sailors and soldiers gave themselves up to despair; all saw inevitable destruction before them, and gave vent in lamentations to the gloomy thoughts which agitated them.”
The officers and senior members of the expedition on board included the surgeon Henri Savigny, Geographical Engineer Alexandre Corréard, secretary to Schmaltz, Griffon de Bellay, and midshipman Coudien, who was by far the most experienced sailor, though he had been badly wounded in the leg during the anarchy of the evacuation. Deciding that leadership needed to be grasped and utilised if any chance of survival was to be had, surgeon Henri Savigny took control of the raft and ordered a small mast and sail to be constructed. Drastically undersized and with no means to actually steer the barely floating platform, the small sail would at least allow them to move, even if it would be at the whim of the winds that whipped across the sand banks. He then distributed the soggy biscuits , soaked in wine to disguise the taste fo the sea water. The 25lbs sack split among 147 passengers made for a barely worthwhile ration and once it was gone, the food aboard the raft was entirely depleted. As the men sat, turning over the mulched biscuit in their mouths, their minds wandered to fantasies of rage and revenge upon those that had cast them aside to save themselves. This burning hatred, fuelled an initial, buoyant survival spirit amongst the raft dwellers, though perhaps, crushed on board a sinking, makeshift raft, this was not the best set of emotions to dwell upon. The first night passed peacefully as the structure creaked and blew in the wind. By morning as the sun rose, 12 of their number had perished from their injuries sustained during the evacuation, some passing out from pain and slipping from the raft, lost in the sea. The second day passed without major incident, though three members committed suicide in despair, tossing themselves into the sea. Members who still held onto their faculties watched on with indifference as space slowly opened up and was at once swallowed by those around it. That night, strong winds blew and a storm hit the raft, blowing it to and fro, pitching and tilting the raft which was dangerously close to capsizing. In the crush of bodies that struggled to stumble from one side to the next in order to counter balance the tilt, those underfoot were trampled indiscriminately. With the rising levels of despair and anger on board, a group of sailors decided to take it upon themselves to steal the remaining wine and get drunk. This quickly lead to violence breaking out all across the raft, as they began to tear at the structure, intending to smash it up and dash them all to sea. Those that attempted to stop them were drawn into the brawl and before long, a full scale riot had broken out. Swords and bayonets flashed beneath the night sky as waves slapped up, washing across the precarious platform and all around, bodies fell as blood seeped off the platform, dissipating into the surrounding ocean. People who had no weapons chose to bite their foes, desperate to defend themselves. By morning, any survivors had eventually punched themselves out and as exhaustion fell across the group, silence sprang up in place of the screams and moaning of the injured. Bodies laid piled up on the raft, body parts floated and bobbed across the deck. The riot had brought about the death of a further 60 men, 45 of them brutal ymurdered whilst another 15 were thought to have “drowned in despair.” Of the original 147, passengers, half had already perished just 3 days from the evacuation. Those that were left alive were surrounded by a grim scene of absolute carnage, as the intoxicating effects of the wine, the sunstroke, the starvation and the fevers from infection lead to hallucinations and delirium.
“Mr. Corréard fancied he was travelling through the fine plains of Italy; one of the officers said to him, gravely, “I remember that we have been deserted by the boats; but fear nothing; I have just written to the governor, and in a few hours we shall be saved.” Mr. Corréard replied in the same tone, and as if he had been in an ordinary situation, “Have you a pigeon to carry your orders with as much celerity?”
All the while, the raft zig-zagged South at the whim of the wind, whilst sharks, attracted by the blood that seeped from the raft circled the sinking platform. Some attempted to catch them using improvised hooks and lines, but the unstable raft tangled their lines as it bobbed and twisted.
The next day, the atmosphere aboard the ship had again returned to quiet, as those left made efforts to conserve their energy. Having nothing to eat for four days, some took to eating the leather of their ammunition sacks, or from the scabbards of swords. Others, more grimly began looking at the piles of dead bodies and considered the flesh as a valuable resource. By the evening, the first members of the raft began cutting the limbs from the bodies, eating the flesh raw from the bones.
“Those whom death had spared in the disastrous night which we have just described, fell upon the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, and cut off pieces, which some instantly devoured. Many did not touch them; almost all the officers were of this number. Seeing that this horrid nourishment had given strength to those who had made use of it, it was proposed to dry it, in order to render it a little less disgusting.”
In a rare spot of luck, shortly after, a large school of flying fish passed the raft, with several jumping up onto the deck. They were quickly seized and stored in barrels and afterwards, a makeshift oven was constructed to cook the fish. Many members now took it upon themselves to partake in the human feast that lay on the decks of the raft, tearing strips from the bodies and cooking it, eating it together with the fish in an effort to disguise the taste. Realising that the bodies were a useful form of sustenance, more and more of the bodies were cut into strips, and hung from the ropes that held up the mast in order to dry the meat.
The fourth night fell upon the raft, which now looked like a Macabre scene of butchery. As many begun to sleep, a second mutiny sprung from a group of soldiers. This time, with more space to move, it was quickly shut down and by morning, their were only 30 of the original 147 passengers left alive. Days passed, melding into one another as the survivors baked under the tropical sun during the day and were cast into pitch black darkness at night. By the seventh day of drifting, two soldiers attempted to steal the remaining wine but were caught and promptly executed. 27 members now remained, half of which were slowly dying. A council was held amongst the remaining senior survivors and it was decided that those who were too weak to survive should be tossed overboard, in order to save the remaining rations of wine. Three members of the group walked around the survivors judging them either fit to survive and left alone, or too weak, at which point they were pushed from the raft and left to drown in the sea. This shocking turn was later justified by Savigny in his report of his time on the raft by blaming those that had put them in the situation in the first place.
“Three sailors and a soldier took on themselves this cruel execution: we turned our faces aside, and wept tears of blood over the fate of these unhappy men.”
“Readers who shudder at the cry of outraged humanity, recollect, at least, that it was other men, fellow countrymen and comrades, who had placed us in this abominable situation.”
Of the 15 members left alive after the brutal culling, it was decided that their weapons would be tossed overboard to ensure no more mutinies would take place and a concerted effort to survive as a group would be made. Using their remaining strength, they built a small shelter in the centre of the raft that afforded them some shade from the sun which burned and cracked their skin, already rubbed raw from the crystallisation of the sea salt that ripped at the dry surface every time they moved.
Sustenance remained in the form of dried meat, cut from the bodies of the dead and after the wine was depleted, they took to drinking urine, which they cooled by placing the containers in the sea and tied to the side of the raft. In his delusions and with little else to ponder, Savigny took to considering the differences of each members urine,
“Mr Savigny observed that the urine of some of us was more agreeable than that of others. There was a passenger who could never prevail upon himself to swallow it. In reality, it had not a disagreeable taste, but in some of us it became thick, and extraordinarily acrid; It produced an effect truly worthy of remark”
On the 10th day they were encircled by sharks, and whilst none managed to do any damage to the survivors, a school of jellyfish washed across the submerged deck, stinging them violently. Whilst the stings weren’t a danger to their lives, they caused sickness and intense, agonising pain. Beginning to feel despair hanging heavy over the raft once more, the next day some suggested building a smaller raft and attempting to row ashore. Summoning their strength once again, they build the boat, along with a set of oars, but as soon as they sent one member aboard to test it’s seaworthiness, it quickly sunk. Three more days passed. As the men began to seriously consider taking their own lives, unsure of where they had drifted, The Argus was spotted on the horizon. Tying a string of material together and hanging it from the mast as a signal, they attempted to flag her down, but she soon disappeared over the horizon. Sinking back onto the deck, things began to feel very bleak indeed. Strips of human flesh hung all around them, drying in the sun, the bodies left aboard rotting and stinking. Hope was all but lost.
“From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief; we envied the fate of those whom we had seen perish at our side, and we said to ourselves, when we shall be destitute of every thing, and our strength begins to forsake us, we will wrap ourselves up as well as we can, we will lay ourselves down on this platform, the scene of so many sufferings, and there we will await death with resignation. At last, to calm our despair, we wished to seek some consolation in the arms of sleep; the day before we had been consumed by the fire of a burning sun; this day, to avoid the fierceness of his beams, we made a tent with the sails of the frigate: as soon as it was put up, we all lay down under it, so that we could not perceive what was passing around us. We then proposed to inscribe upon a board an account of our adventures, to write all our names at the bottom of the narrative, and to fasten it to the upper part of the mast, in the hope that it would reach the government and our families.”
Two hours later, as they drifted listlessly in the ocean, a wake broke out across the deck of the raft. Turning their heads from the shelter, the Argus was drawing up alongside the bizarre looking raft of death.
“Those that I rescued had fed themselves on human flesh for several days, and at the moment I found them, the ropes which held the mast were covered with morsels of this flesh which they had hung up to dry.”
It must have been a truly horrifying sight, but for those aboard the raft, they had little room to be ashamed. They collapsed aboard the Argus which sailed back towards Saint-Louis. In their 14 days at sea, they had drifted 90 Nautical Miles South of the wreck of the Medusa. Of the 147 originally aboard, 15 had survived. As they pulled into the Senegal port two days later the survivors from the Medusa were finally reunited, those that had struggled and those that had escaped without a moments thought and sailed to Saint-Louis in relative opulence. Both the Senegal boat and the Captains barge had made the journey to Saint-Louis without trouble, feasting on luxury provisions until they met up with another ship from the original convoy, The Echo which they boarded and sailed the rest of the way in comfort.
Once back in Saint-Louis, the survivors who needed treatment were bunked into the local English hospital, whilst those fit enough found families to stay with, either French or sympathetic English. 52 days after the wreck, the Medusa was found by a salvage vessel sent from the French port and on board, they found three survivors, from the 17 who had been left behind. These men had survived by eating the rations left aboard the boat and were just barely left alive. Were they not found, it was estimated they would have died with days. As something of a catharsis, Henri Savigny begun writing his report of the time he spent aboard the raft and when he arrived home in France, it was leaked to the French left wing press who pounced on the story, creating a national embarrassment for the Ultra-Royalists in charge of the expedition. Des Chaumareys took it upon himself to blame the faulty charts given to him at the outset, but Savignys account was damning, he was eventually court martialed in Rochefort and tried on five counts. He was acquitted of abandoning his squadron, failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft, however he was found guilty of incompetent navigation, and abandoning the Medusa. The verdict lessened the severity of the trial and though he still stood against the possibility of the death penalty, he was given just three years in prison.
Of the 15 raft survivors, five more died within five months of rescue to do health complications directly caused by their time on the raft. The horrors they endured were painted by Theodore Gericault in 1819, in a large oil painting that shows the scene of the moment when the Argus came into view over the horizon and the 15 survivors attempted to signal the ship to effect their rescue. It was first displayed under the title of “shipwreck scene” though everyone who saw it was instantly aware that it was a scene from the raft of the Medusa. It was both artistically and politically confrontational, eventually purchased after Gericaults death in 1824 by the curator of the Louvre, where it still hangs today. The Wreck of the Medusa was uncovered in 1980 and it’s artefacts put on display in the Paris Marine Museum.
“Let the reader imagine fifteen unfortunate men, almost naked; their bodies and faces disfigured by the scorching beams of the sun; ten of the fifteen were hardly able to move; our limbs were excoriated, our sufferings were deeply imprinted on our features, our eyes were hollow, and almost wild, and our long beards rendered our appearance still more frightful; we were but the shadows of ourselves… Through how many terrible trials have we past! Where are the men who can say that they have been more unfortunate than we?”