Medusa (ship)

Medusa (ship)

Infobox Painting|

title=The Raft of the Medusa
artist=Théodore Géricault
type=Oil on canvas
width_inch =282.3
museum=Musée du Louvre

"The Medusa" (original French name: "La Méduse)" was a French frigate that gained notoriety when it struck the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Senegal in 1816, resulting in the catastrophic evacuation of its company, and one of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Age of Sail.

The incident, which led to the demise of 150 crew and passengers, was popularized throughout Europe by account of survivors and led to a scandal in the French government because of the incompetence of the ship's captain and the feeble rescue effort. It was later the subject of several notable paintings, the most famous of which is Théodore Géricault's "Raft of the Medusa", which hangs in the Louvre.


In 1816 the new Bourbon government of France sent a small fleet to officially receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal to France. The fleet consisted of four ships; the storeship "Loire", the brig "Argus", the corvette "Echo" and the frigate "Medusa" as the flotilla's flagship. The "Medusa" carried passengers, including the appointed French governor of Senegal , Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz and his wife Reine Schmaltz. "Medusa's" complement totaled 400, including 160 crew.

The French Ministry of the Marine appointed the inexperienced Frigate-Captain Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys to lead the fleet. He had mainly worked as a customs officer more than twenty years previously and had worked against Napoleon. His crew did not particularly appreciate him, because they had served with Napoleon during his reign. [Matthew Zarzeczny, “Theodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’”, "Member’s Bulletin of The Napoleonic Society of America" (Fall 2001); Matthew Zarzeczny, “Theodore Géricault’s "The Raft of the Medusa", Part II”, "Member’s Bulletin of The Napoleonic Society of America" (Spring 2002).]

The fleet left the Île-d'Aix on June 17, 1816. The "Medusa" was quickly left behind by the rest of the ships. One of the passengers on the "Medusa" was a Monsieur Richefort, who was a philosopher and a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde. Though he possessed no real maritime knowledge, he convinced Captain Chaumereys that he was an expert at the art of navigation. Lacking a master, the individual usually responsible for the actual navigation and sailing of a vessel, de Chaumereys, impressed by the credentials of his guest, soon turned over the navigational duties to Richefort. This was to prove disastrous. [Snow, Edward Rowe: "Tales of Terror and Tragedy", page 64. Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1979.]

The ship's navigation became erratic, especially once it approached the coast of Africa. Passengers and officers protested, yet Captain Chaumereys continued to place the safety of his vessel in Richefort's hands. The "Echo" reappeared at one point and desperately attempted to stop the "Medusa"'s efforts to run aground, but eventually left on her own course. The "Medusa" reached Madeira on June 27 and neared Cape Blanco shortly after. According to two survivors, Savigny and Corréard, Monsieur Richefort convinced the captain that a large cloud bank on the horizon was in fact the cape, though experienced mariners disagreed. Further compounding this error, Richefort and Captain Chaumereys ignored the French Ministry of Marine instructions that they give the Bank of Arguin a wide berth. They should have steered west and then south to double the bank, 100 miles off the shore, but instead the "Medusa" was immediately turned south. [Snow, Edward Rowe: "Tales of Terror and Tragedy", page 65-66, 1979.]

According to the statements of Savigny and Corréard, the ship began sailing over increasingly shallow water, yet de Chaumereys and Richefort ignored all the signs, insisting they were sailing in deep water. Some of the signs included white breakers, sand rolling in the waves, and changes in color of the water. Finally one of the officers took it upon himself to start taking soundings off the bow, without the captain's permission. Monsieur Maudet, the officer, quickly found they were passing over 18 fathoms, and warned the captain. Finally alerted to their danger, de Chaumereys ordered the ship brought up into the wind, but it was too late. The ship ran hard aground. [Snow, Edward Rowe: "Tales of Terror and Tragedy", page 67, 1979.]

Wild disorder took over as discipline vanished. Numerous ideas for lightening the ship and immediately coming off the reef were proposed to the captain, but nothing was done. Plans were also proposed to begin ferrying the 400 or more persons to the shore, 60 miles to the north, which would have taken two trips with the ship's boats. That night, a gale developed, and the ship showed signs of breaking up. Governor Julien Schmaltz suggested that a huge raft be built, and the idea was met with almost total agreement. A raft measuring 20 meters in length and 7 meters in width was rapidly constructed, but it was woefully unstable. It could have fit perhaps 15 people, but 146 men and 1 woman boarded it. Seventeen men decided to stay on the "Medusa", and the rest crowded into the ship's longboats. [Snow, Edward Rowe: "Tales of Terror and Tragedy", page 68, 1979.]

Those in lifeboats soon realized that towing the raft was impractical. It was decided to cut the rope and leave the rest of the crew to its fate, after making good progress towards shore. (According to some sources it was Governor Schmaltz's boat that was first to drop the tow line to the raft.)

On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Fighting arose between the officers and passengers against the sailors and soldiers. On the first night 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Stormy weather threatened, and only the center of the raft was secure. Dozens died either in fighting to get to the center, or because they were washed overboard in the large waves. Rations dwindled rapidly and by the fourth day there were only 67 left alive on the raft, and some resorted to cannibalism. On the eighth day, the fittest began throwing the weak and wounded overboard. By that time only fifteen men remained, all of whom survived until their rescue two weeks later. [Riding, Christine: "The Raft of the Medusa in Britain", "Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism", page 75. Tate Publishing, 2003.] [Snow, Edward Rowe: "Tales of Terror and Tragedy", page 69-70, 1979.]

The ship "Argus" took the survivors to Saint-Louis to recover. Five of the survivors, including Jean Charles, the last African crew member, died within days. Three of the seventeen men that had decided to stay on the "Medusa" were later recovered alive. British naval officers helped the survivors to return to France because aid from the French Minister of the Marine was not forthcoming.

"Medusa"'s surviving surgeon Henri Savigny submitted his account to the authorities. It was leaked to an anti-Bourbon newspaper, the "Journal des débats", and appeared on September 13, 1816. The matter became a scandal embroiled in French internal politics and officials tried to cover it up. De Chaumereys was found guilty in a court martial at Port de Rochefort.

Savigny and ship's geographer Alexander Corréard released their own account ("Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse") of the incident in 1817. It went through five editions by 1821 and was also published in an English translation.

Géricault's depiction

Impressed by accounts of the shipwreck, the 25-year-old artist Théodore Géricault decided to make a painting based on the incident and contacted the writers in 1818. In order to make his "Raft of the Medusa" as realistic as possible, Géricault made sketches of bodies in the morgue of the Hospital Beaujon. The painting depicts a moment recounted by one of the survivors: prior to their rescue, the passengers saw a ship on the horizon, which they tried to signal (it can be seen in the upper right of the painting). It disappeared, and in the words of one of the surviving crew members, "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound dispondency [sic] and grief". [Riding, Christine, page 77, 2003.] The ship, "Argus," reappeared two hours later and rescued those who remained.

Géricault used friends as models, notably the painter Eugène Delacroix as the figure in the foreground with his face turned downward and arms outstretched. The work, which was realized on the epic scale of a history painting, yet based on a current news story, first appeared in the Paris Salon in 1819 and was a sensation. It currently resides in the Louvre.

hipwreck site found

In 1980 a French marine archeological expedition led by Jean-Yves Blot located the "Medusa" shipwreck site off the coast of modern-day Mauritania. The team was based out of the port city of Nouadhibou, approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the wreck site and used four sailboats as the expedition work vessels. The primary search tool was a one-of-a-kind magnetometer developed by a group at the French Atomic Energy Agency. The search area was defined on the basis of the accounts of the "Medusa" survivors and more importantly on the records of an 1817 French coastal mapping expedition that found the "Medusa"'s remains still projecting above the waves. The background research proved to be so good that the expedition team located the shipwreck site on the very first day of searching. They then recovered enough artifacts to positively establish the identity of the wreck and to mount an exhibit in the Marine Museum in Paris. Jean-Yves Blot wrote a book titled "Chronique d'un Naufrage Ordinaire" about the shipwreck and the expedition.


Portrayals in film

* Iradj Azimi. "Le Radeau de la Méduse", French film, 1994
**Cast: Jean Yanne (Chaumareys), Claude Jade (Reine Schmaltz), Philippe Laudenbach (Julien Schmaltz), Laurent Terzieff (Théodore Géricault), Daniel Mesguich (Lt. Coudein), Alain Macé (Henri Savigny), Jean Desailly (La Tullaye), Rufus (Soldier musician).

Portrayals in classical music

* In 1968 the German composer Hans Werner Henze wrote an oratorio, "Das Floß der Medusa" in memory of Che Guevara.

Portrayals in literature

* "A History of the World in 10½ Chapters" by Julian Barnes — a semi-fictional work that attempts to deglaze and satirise popular historical legends. The chapter "Shipwreck" is devoted to the analysis of this painting. The first half narrates the incidents leading to the shipwreck and the survival of the crew members. The second half of the chapter renders a dark platonic and satirical analysis of the painting itself, and Gericault's "softening" the impact of crude reality in order to preserve the aestheticism of the work.

* In "Watchmen" by Alan Moore, one of the parallel storylines involves a shipwrecked man making a raft out of the dead bodies of his shipmates, and being assailed by a shark.

* The German dramatist Georg Kaiser wrote a play "The Raft of the Medusa" ("Das Floß der Medusa") (1940-1943).

* The untranslated second volume of Peter Weiss's novel "The Aesthetics of Resistance" ("Die Ästhetik des Widerstands") opens with a detailed historical account of the Medusa and subsequently describes Géricault's painting.

* "The Raft" by Arabella Edge, published in 2006, is a fictional account describing how Géricault may have come to his painting. (The American edition, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster, is titled "The God of Spring.")

* "Oceano Mare" by Alessandro Baricco — The "second book" describes the event from the point of view of one of the passengers of the raft.

* In Arthur C. Clarke's "2061," Dr. Heywood Floyd's friends give him a print of the painting as a tongue-in-cheek going-away present for his trip to Halley's comet. Their inscription reads, "Getting there is half the fun."

Other portrayals in popular culture

The rock group Great White used this painting as the cover art for their album "Sail Away".

The second album by Irish folk-rock group The Pogues, "Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash", uses the famous painting as its album cover, with the faces of the band members replacing those of the men on the raft. Also, on their album "Hell's Ditch" they pay tribute to the incident with the song "The Wake of the Medusa."

The layout of the scene is copied in the French comic book "Astérix Légionnaire" (Goscinny/Uderzo, 1967) to depict yet another shipwreck of Astérix's recurring pirate enemies. The captain's comment is the pun, "Je suis médusé" ("I am dumbfounded"). Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge in their English translation replaced this pun with a different joke specifically relating to the painting, having the captain say, "We've been framed, by Jericho!" [" [ Asterix: The pictorial element] ]

In The Adventures of Tintin comic "The Red Sea Sharks," while the protagonists are escaping on a raft, a wave washes Captain Haddock off. He climbs back on with a jellyfish on his head. Tintin asks him: "Do you think this is some raft of Medusa?" ("medusa" meaning the same as "jellyfish")

French songwriter and poet Georges Brassens alludes to the raft of Medusa in his song "Les copains d'abord" (1964). The song is a hymn to friendship, symbolized by the crew of a ship named "Les Copains d'Abord" (Friends first), and in the first verse it says that she was not "the raft of Medusa".

Dr. Lecter's mind wanders to Géricault's anatomical studies for "The Raft of the Medusa" while waiting for Senator Martin to focus on their conversation in the novel "The Silence of the Lambs."



* Edward Rowe Snow. "Tales of Terror and Tragedy" (1979)
* Alexander McKee. "Wreck of the Medusa, The Tragic Story of the Death Raft" (1975)
* J. B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Correard. "Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816", available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg by clicking [ here]

ee also

* List of shipwrecks
* French political scandals
* R. v. Dudley and Stephens

External links

*Gutenberg|no=11772|name=Corréard, Alexander, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816...
*Gutenberg|no=22792|name=Perils and Captivity Contains "The sufferings of the Picard family after the shipwreck of the Medusa, in the year 1816".
* [ Death and the masterpiece] The Times, March 24, 2007
* [,,2062638,00.html Has the sea ever been more cruel?] Kelly Grovier, The Observer 22 April 2007
* [ "Le radeau de la Méduse" – Géricault]
* [ Entertaining article on the events surrounding the Medusa's disastrous last voyage]
* [ France Maritime Museum Official Web Site]
* [ The tale of the shipwreck and how it inspired Gericault to paint his famous tableau.] Some interesting vignettes about the painting itself.

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