As part of the 1815 Peace of Paris settlement that ended the Napoleonic Wars, England agreed to cede to France some West African possessions near Gambia and Senegal. To implement this turnover, the French maritime authorities sent the vessel Medusa and three smaller ships to the Senegalese coast: these were named the Echo, the La Loire, and the Argus. The Medusa itself was captained by one Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, a man who had had very little navigational experience. The Medusa sailed from the island of Aix on June 17, 1816.
Also aboard ship were the designated French governor of Senegal, Julien-Desire Schmaltz, as well as his wife Reine Schmaltz. The other ships also included a large number of civilians together with their families. Thus were mixed together soldiers, sailors, engineers, doctors, wives and children.
The voyage was cursed from its inception. Captain de Chaumereys had little seagoing experience, and this was bad enough; to make it worse, he relied on the advice of a boastful and useless “navigator” named Richefort. As incompetence in one often is dazzled by boastfulness in others, Richefort had convinced the captain that he was an expert in all things having to do with sailing along the African coast.
Richefort’s membership in the Cape Verde Philanthropic society was held out by him as evidence of his fitness for the task of navigation, when in fact it added nothing to his suitability for the job. Thus the stage was set for one of the most gruesome sea tragedies of the early 19th century.
Inevitably, the Medusa became separated from the other ships. Although the ship did successfully reach Madeira on June 27, disaster struck soon after. The two incompetents—Richefort and de Chaumereys—apparently mistook a cloud on the horizon for a shoal, and guided the ship directly into harm’s way. The ship ran aground, sticking fast in a reef. The West African coast is an extremely difficult one to navigate, as has been known since ancient times. It is an area of strong currents and blustery winds, and the waters are filled with shoals, reefs, and small islands that add to the mariner’s tribulations.
It is a challenge for even the most competent of sailors, but a deathtrap for the inexperienced. Even the ancient Phoenicians, who are counted among the best of their era, only with great difficulty were able to circumnavigate the shores of Africa; and this feat, we are told by the ancient geographers, had taken several years.
Thus was the Medusa brought on a collision course with a prominent reef called the Arguin Bank, which extends about one hundred miles from the African coast. Panic seized the passengers when the ship ran aground; there were over 400 people aboard, and most of them, as civilians, had little or no ability to manage themselves in a crisis. Proposals to jettison some of the Medusa’s cargo, so as to free her from the grip of the reef, came to nothing. When it became clear that the ship would soon break up from the effects of the wind and waves, Governor Schmaltz finally ordered that a raft be built (the longboats themselves had insufficient capacity to hold all the passengers).
And with this, the fate of hundreds was sealed.
An engineer named Savigny, who later wrote an account of the tragedy, described the raft as being about 20 meters in length and about 7 meters in width. It was on this flimsy craft that the governor now proposed to deposit 147 passengers. The raft was incapable of handling this number, and many of the passengers were crammed only a few feet from the perilous edges of the raft. The plan was to head for the African shore, judged to be about 60 miles away.
It would prove to be the bloodiest and most horrifying raft journey ever undertaken.
Accompanying the raft were several longboats. What now ensued was a grisly battle for survival, in which all semblance of civilization and altruism was jettisoned like so much useless ballast. Decent, vigorous leadership undoubtedly could have saved the situation. But there was none to be had, and the survivors were now plunged into the depths of depravity.
On the very first night, the number of survivors in the raft dropped from 147 to 127; twenty were either pushed, or fell, into the rough seas. The lack of good leadership led to a selfish survivalist ethic to seize each man or woman; disunity and demoralization was aided by the drunken misbehavior of a number of soldiers.
On the second night, the raft was buffeted by a major storm. Passengers, having going without food or drink for some time, now began to fight each other to reach the safest part of the craft (the center). Factions arose, and a group of sailors and soldiers tried to force their will upon the others; in the battle that followed, many on both sides were either slain or thrown into the sea, to be consumed by the sharks that were now stalking the craft.
Fifty seven men died in the darkness of the second night. Many of the survivors cut up the corpses of the slain and began to consume the viands raw. More combat between the factions took place on the third night as well; by now, only sixty seven men remained alive. Savigny later described it:
It was nearly midnight, and after an hour of apparent tranquility, the soldiers rose afresh. They attacked us, we charged them in turn, and immediately the raft was strewn with their dead bodies. Those of our adversaries who had no weapons endeavored to attack us with their sharp teeth…Many others were wounded; and many cuts were found in our clothes from knives and sabres.
The number of survivors now dwindled to thirty. After the fifth day, and as the food supply ran out, a decision was made to kill the twelve weakest survivors and feed their remains to the others. Peace was finally restored not so much because of any agreement, but because the number of survivors had now fallen to fifteen. The raft was now drifting aimlessly; for two weeks, the survivors baked in the sun without nourishment or water, waiting for the elements or the sharks to take them.
On the seventeenth day, by a miracle, the Argus reappeared on the horizon and eventually spotted the raft. The survivors, by now haggard skeletons, were hauled aboard the Argus; only nine of the original 147 passengers of the raft had survived.
Eventually, when word of the tragedy made its way back to France, an investigation was held. The incident became an national scandal, as the French public rightly believed that the incompetents Captain de Chaumareys and Governor Schmaltz had owed their appointments not to merit but to patronage. In this belief they were correct. Compounding the sense of outrage was the fact that no rescue mission for the Medusa had been sent out by the French authorities, a fact that has never been adequately explained. The disaster was immortalized in paint with Theodore Gericault’s famous piece The Raft of the Medusa.
The episode stands today as a stark example of the consequences of arrogance, ineptitude, and a lack of good leadership.
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