The wreck of the Medusa remains one of history's most negligent accidents, a mess of hubris that left a raft full of Frenchmen stranded with nothing but casks of wine and a plan for cannibalism.
On July 5, 1816, four ships (Echo, La Loire, Argus, and Medusa) carried French officials from the France to Senegal 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 tragedy was so infamous that it inspired The Raft of the Medusa, 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.
The Captain Let An Inexperienced Navigator Guide The Ship While He RelaxedPhoto: Ambroise-Louis Garneray / via Wikimedia Commons
The Medusa’s problems began with its captain, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys. An aristocrat who hadn’t been to sea in 20 years, Chaumareys was given the command because he was loyal to the monarch. Against numerous protests made by his officers, Chaumareys handed over the navigation duties to a philanthropist named Richefort, a man with no experience guiding ships.
Richefort bluffed his way into running the ship, while Chaumareys stayed below deck relaxing with his mistress.
The Navigator Wrecked The Ship After Mistaking Clouds For Land
Captain Chaumareys, in a hurry to reach his destination as quickly as possible, opted to sail the most direct route along the coastline even though his crew warned him that the area was filled with sandbars and the ship would be safer sailing farther out. The other three ships wisely moved away from the shore and lost contact with the Medusa.
Chaumareys and Richefort and 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 RaftPhoto: Alexandre Corréard / via Wikimedia Commons
As the Medusa started to show signs of breaking up, an evacuation plan was concocted. Unfortunately, there were was not enough room on the lifeboats for the Medusa's 400 person crew. 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 until an infantryman threatened to shoot anyone who refused to board the dodgy vessel. After 40 crew members boarded, the raft began to sink and passengers had throw their provisions overboard to make room for 107 more people who were expected to board the raft. During the chaos, 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.
The Lifeboats Abandoned Those On The Raft To DiePhoto: Jean-Jérôme Baugean / via Wikimedia Commons
Many crew members 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. The cries were made in vain. The lifeboats sailed off with both the captain and governor on board, along with luxury goods and wine. Although the boats were well below capacity, when some aboard the rafts tried to board the boats, they were threatened with swords.