Humans can endure madness, starvation and cannibalism to stay alive

The tragedy of Medusa was one of the worst tragedies at sea. In June of 1816, four ships sailed from France to Senegal with the new governor and expeditionary corps. The flagship, frigate Medusa, ran aground. The officers and the captain left on the boats. Only a few lived by July 17, when they were rescued, nearly all the rest were killed in fights over water.

One of the most famous paintings of the Romantic Era by French artist Theodore Gericault, "The Raft of the Medusa," was dedicated to those tragic events. The giant canvas impresses with its expressive power. Gericault was able to recreate vivid images of people on the brink of death, joining the dead and the living, hope and despair. Significant preparatory work preceded the painting. Gericault made numerous sketches of the dying and the dead bodies of those executed.

Dark clouds are hovering over the ocean. Heavy, huge waves are surging toward the sky, threatening to flood the raft and unhappy people crowded on it.

Historians say that the crash of raft Medusa in the eyes of the people of the 19th century was about the same as "Titanic" for the twentieth century. In the morning of June 17, 1816, the French expedition set off to Senegal. It consisted of frigate Medusa, caravel Echo, flute Loire, and brig Argus. These ships were transporting the new governor of the colony, and officials with their families. Besides them, the so-called African battalion was heading to Senegal, consisting of three units of 84 people each. The head of the entire expedition was the Captain of Medusa, Captain of 1st Rank Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys. The name of this person will be cursed by generations.

The ships were to pass Cape Blanc, but the cape with a characteristic white rock was not in sight at the appointed time. Captain Chaumereys did not think much of it, and the next day, answering questions from the crew, he said that the day before they sailed past something similar to Blanc. In fact, Medusa at night was drifted to the south, and the course was straightened only in the morning, so that the frigate could not have avoided Blanc. Caravel Echo, without deviating from the course, in the morning was ahead of Medusa. 

In the fatal night on July 2nd, Chaumereys never asked where the ship was heading, but in the morning he was a bit surprised by the disappearance of Echo. He did not even try to figure out what had happened to the caravel. Other ships that accompanied the frigate lagged behind a few days before.

Caravel Echo continued to follow the right course. Medusa was moving in the same direction, but closer to the shore. Chaumereys ordered to measure the depth of the seabed and, not feeling the bottom, he decided that he would be able to freely steer the ship to the shore. Despite numerous warnings of the crew that the ship was in the area of a shoal, the Captain continued to advance Medusa to the shore.

Once again he measured the depth of the sea, and it was only 18 cubits instead of the expected 80. In this situation, the frigate could have been saved only by a fast reaction of the captain, but Chaumereys fell into a stupor and did not turn the ship. Soon, "Medusa" ran aground - between the Canary Islands and Cape Verde.

All attempts to remove the frigate from the shoals were in vain. The body of the vessel was leaking, and on July 5, it was decided to leave the sinking ship. According to all maritime rules and laws, Chaumereys as the captain, was to leave the ship last. However, the Captain, the governor and his entourage and senior officers were placed in the boats. 150 sailors and soldiers got on a raft built by the ship's carpenter.

At first, the boats towed the raft to the shore that was relatively close. But, fearing a storm, the commanders of the boats have cut the tow ropes. People were left to the will of the waves on a small raft filled with water that was almost impossible to control.

When the boats were moving away, there were cries of despair and rage on the boats. Horror gripped those doomed to destruction. It was terribly hot, and the raft was heavily immersed in water. Soon it was discovered that in a hurry too little fresh water and food was brought from the frigate. Unprotected from the weather and sun, without food and water supplies, exhausted, people hardened and rose up against each other.

By night the raft began sinking into the water, and for the first time a bloody massacre broke out on it over the last drops of water and the safest place around the mast. After the second massacre, only 28 people remained alive. Wounded, exhausted, tormented by thirst and hunger, people have fallen into a state of apathy and utter hopelessness. Many people have lost their mind.

Among those who survived, some were so hungry that they would eat the remains of one of their companions in misfortune. They dismembered the corpse and began their horrible meal. Thus cannibalism started. For twelve days the raft floated over the ocean waves. Early in the morning of July 17th, a ship showed on the horizon. Brig Argus found the raft and took on board 15 emaciated, half-mad people (five of them subsequently died).

52 days after the disaster Medusa has been found that did not sink. Of the 17 people only three had survived. The French society, shaken by the tragedy, was brought to the limit. The responsibility for this disaster fell on the captain of Medusa who was not the last one to leave the sinking ship.

Chaumereys appeared before the tribunal and was dismissed from the Navy and sentenced to three years in prison. In the area where he spent the rest of his life, everyone knew about his "exploits" and treated him with contempt and hostility. He lived a long life, died at 78 years, but longevity did not bring him joy. The rest of his life he had to spend a recluse. His only son committed suicide, unable to carry his father's shame.

Gericault's famous painting "The Raft of the Medusa" is currently displayed on the first floor of the Denon gallery in the Louvre.

Andrei Mikhailov


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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov