history The Worst Shipwreck of All Time Led To The Crew Cannibalizing Each Other  

Tamar Altebarmakian
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The Raft of the Medusa is a well-known painting by the French Romantic painter Theodore Gericault. The painting is a 24-foot-long masterpiece housed in the Louvre, right around the corner from the Mona Lisa. While the painting is one of the most important works of 19th-century art, inspiring the likes of Manet and Delacroix, the events leading up to the scene in the painting aren’t well-known.

On July 5, 1816, four ships (Echo, La Loire, Argus, and Medusa) carried French officials to assume control of Senegal from the British. Among the passengers of the flagship Medusa (in French, Méduse) were the French governor of Senegal, Julien-Desire Schmaltz, and the ship’s captain, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys. It was Chaumereys’s incompetence which led to the horrifying events that unfolded shortly after the Medusa set out to sea.

The wreck of the Medusa remains a sobering example of what happens when careless and incompetent people are put in charge. People suffer unspeakable degradation and endure nightmarish depravities. Also, cannibalism.


The Incompetent Captain Let A Total Amateur Guide The Ship While He Relaxed

The Incompetent Captain Let A ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Worst Shipwreck of All Time Led To The Crew Cannibalizing Each Other
Photo: Ambroise-Louis Garneray/via Wikimedia Commons

The fate of the Medusa’s passengers could have been avoided with better leadership. Unfortunately, it was captained by Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, an aristocrat who hadn’t been at sea in 20 years and was only given the command because he was loyal to the monarch. Against numerous protests made by his officers, Chaumareys made the foolish decision to hand over the navigation duties to a philanthropist named Richefort, a man who had no experience guiding ships. Richefort bluffed his way into running the ship, while Chaumareys stayed below deck relaxing with his mistress.


The Inexperienced Navigator Mistook Some Clouds For Land And Wrecked The Ship

The Inexperienced Navigator Mi... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Worst Shipwreck of All Time Led To The Crew Cannibalizing Each Other
Photo:  Victor Levasseur/via Wikimedia Commons

The captain was in a hurry to reach their destination as quickly as possible, so he opted to sail the most direct route, along the coastline, even though this crew warned him that the area was filled with sandbars and it would be safer to sail farther out. The other three ships wisely moved away from the shore and lost contact with the Medusa.

Richefort and Chaumareys ignored many signs that the water around them was too shallow to be safe. Most egregiously, Richefort thought a large bank of clouds on the horizon was Cape Blanco and based on that miscalculation, didn't have an accurate picture of where they where sailing. The Medusa ran aground about 30 miles off the coast.

Even after running aground, the ship could likely have been saved if the Captain Chaumareys had agreed to jettison the ship's heavy cannons, lightening the load, but he refused to do so. The Senegalese governor on board likewise refused to throw over heavy barrels of flour.


147 Passengers Were Forced At Gun-Point Onto A Makeshift Raft

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Photo: Alexandre Corréard/via Wikimedia Commons

As the Medusa started to show signs of breaking up, an evacuation plan was concocted. There were about 400 people on the Medusa, but there supposedly was not enough room on the lifeboats for all of them, so the governor of Senegal devised a plan to build a raft that would comfortably hold 200 passengers, as well as provisions. Under the threat of their ship sinking, the passengers hurriedly began to build a raft, but the result wasn’t the sturdy and spacious luxury raft the governor had envisioned.

The passengers were hesitant to board the raft, so an infantryman threatened to shoot anyone who refused to board the dodgy, semi-floating heap. When it had 40 people on board, the raft began to sink, so the passengers had to start throwing their provisions overboard to make room for the 107 more people who would eventually get on the raft. As this was happening, the governor, comfortably seated in his arm chair, was carried to one of the lifeboats, along with the rest of his family and a number of large, heavy chests. Classism at its best.


The Lifeboats Abandoned Those On The Raft To Die

The Lifeboats Abandoned Those ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Worst Shipwreck of All Time Led To The Crew Cannibalizing Each Other
Photo: Jean-Jérôme Baugean/via Wikimedia Commons

Some men decided to stay on the Medusa, whereas the rest chose to board the longboats. The plan was that the lifeboats would tow the raft, but the officers on those boats believed their chances of survival would be stronger if they didn’t have to tug the raft and its desperate survivors. They cut the ropes that bound their boats to the raft, leaving their fellow passengers to their doom.

When the people on the raft realized what was happening, they began to cry, “Vive le Roi!” ("long live the king!") in an effort to appeal to their fellow Frenchmen’s sense of duty. Their cries were made in vain. The lifeboats sailed off with both the captain and governor on board. The lifeboats were filled with luxury goods and wine and were well below capacity, but when some aboard the rafts tried to board the boats, they were threatened with swords.