Little Bits of History

July 2

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 2, 2017

1816: The French frigate Méduse runs aground. Names for the legendary Medusa, the ship was launched on July 1, 1810 and took part in the Napoleonic Wars. She was involved in the Mauritus campaign of 1809-11 and took part in raids throughout the Caribbean. After the Boubon Restoration, the Pallas-class frigate was sent to ferry French officials to Saint-Louis in Senegal to reestablish the colony there after the British handover. The ship was 154 feet long and 39 feet at the beam with a draft of 19 feet. She was driven by 21,000 square feet of sails. A full complement was 326 men manning the 44 or 46 guns she carried.

Her post-war captain received his position not because of seaworthy experience, but as a political favor to an émigré sent off to the west coast of Africa to recolonize the region. The newly appointed French governor and his family were on Méduse which was one of the three ships sailing from Rochefort. Because of poor sailing, the Méduse drifted 100 miles off course. The governor wanted to make up time and between his urging and the inability of the captain, the boat traveled into shallow waters. On this day there were 400 people aboard Méduse when her inept captain went into ever shallower waters. Soon the ship was stuck on the Bank of Arguin, one of the many sandbanks in the Bay of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania, another west African coast country, north of Senegal.

All 400 people were forced to evacuate and the ship was a total loss. An improvised raft was built to carry 151 of the men. These were towed by the launches, smaller boats carried by larger ships. Not actually lifeboats, but usable in this instance. Only 250 people could cram into the six boats available. The governor and his family were among those permitted in the boats. The launches were unable to keep pulling the raft and had to leave it behind while they went off for help. A storm blew up and washed dozens off the raft. At least much of the wine aboard (6 casks) survived the storm and the men who were left behind became drunk and disorderly and rebelled against those in command. The officers killed the rebels. There was a noticeable lack of food (a single bag of ship’s biscuits eaten the first day) and eventually the survivors turned to cannibalism. As supplies ran lower, injured but still living men were tossed overboard. When the raft was finally found, thirteen days later and only by chance, only fifteen men of the original 151 had survived.

Two of the survivors, a surgeon and an officer, each wrote a book about their ordeal. These were widely read and the public’s abhorrence made the Méduse shipwreck one of the most infamous of the Age of Sail. Artist Théodore Géricault painted his Raft of the Medusa. The oil on canvas painting done in 1818-19 which measured 16 feet by 23.5 feet and shows the disheveled state of the fifteen survivors as help finally approached. The dark painting, done mostly in brown pigments, depicts the despair and brokenness of the men aboard as the Argus approached and provided rescue.

The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea. – Ovid

The channel is known only to the natives; so that if any stranger should enter into the bay without one of their pilots he would run great danger of shipwreck. – Thomas More

Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. – Voltaire

There’s nothing like a shipwreck to spark the imagination of everyone who was not on that specific ship. – Jon Stewart

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