The Wreck of the Medusa, by Jonathan Miles, Atlantic Monthly Press, $25
Shipwreck stories are so inherently dramatic that they have long been one of the most popular genres in publishing. Ships catch on fire; they run into icebergs, reefs, each other; they are staved by whales. People on the ships are cast adrift without food, water, or shelter in small boats or on makeshift rafts; they find themselves at the mercy of storms, sharks, the pitiless tropical sun. They must make terrible decisions: What should they do if a lifeboat becomes too full to let others on? If they run out of water, do they drink their own urine? If they are starving, do they eat the dead? If no one has died yet, do they kill one another for food?
Writers as well as readers are attracted to the genre. Mark Twain was in Hawaii in 1866 when the 15 survivors of the clipper ship Hornet, which burned and sank in the South Pacific, arrived after 43 days adrift in an open boat. His report, based on interviews with the survivors, appeared first in the Sacramento Union, but within a short time he placed an expanded version of it in Harper’s—it was his first national publication. He later said that it launched his career. Edgar Allan Poe used a shipwreck account from 1811 to write The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Gerard Manley Hopkins made his reputation with his long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” based on the wreck of a ship of that name on the east coast of England. Classic Portuguese literature from its golden age during the 16th century derives from the shipwreck accounts written by men who survived the long and dangerous journeys home from India, which Camões used as a major theme in The Lusiads.
Few shipwreck stories, however, have had the impact that the wreck of the frigate Medusa had on the culture and politics of France. The wreck occurred in 1816 off the coast of what is now Mauritania. It stands out not only because of the horrific nature of what happened but also because it was the inspiration for Théodore Géricault’s great painting The Raft of the Medusa. The painting dominates its gallery in the Louvre and has become a symbol of the indifference of authority to the suffering of its subjects. The wreck was a huge embarrassment to the French monarchy, which had been recently restored to power after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. The criminal behavior of the incompetent French officer in charge of the Medusa represented the ineffectiveness of the new government and fed anti-monarchical sentiment throughout France for years.
Jonathan Miles, the author of this excellent account, tells the story quickly and well. As part of the peace settlements that ended the Napoleonic Wars, England restored Senegal, previously a French colony, to France, and in 1816 the French government sent a convoy of four ships to the colony with a new governor named Julien Desiré Schmaltz, two companies of soldiers, most of them from African colonies, a party of settlers, most of them republican sympathizers looking to make a new start outside of France, plus 90,000 francs in coins and other supplies. The Medusa was the convoy’s flagship, and the French navy put Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys in charge. The restored Bourbon monarchy believed that it owed Chaumareys the post. Loyal to the monarchy throughout the wars, he had participated in a raid on the French coast led by royalists who hoped to rally the countryside to the king in a march on Paris. They were all taken prisoner, and most of them were executed; Chaumareys, however, denied participating in the raid and then escaped. Safely back in England, he exaggerated his role in the affair and used that tale to gain command of the Medusa when the monarchy was restored. He had not been to sea in some 25 years.
Chaumareys proved so incompetent that instead of following the advice of the officers under him, many of them republicans who had fought for France during the wars, he relied on that of a passenger who claimed to know the treacherous, badly mapped West African coastline well. This passenger led the ship straight onto the Arguin Bank, a sandbar that extends far into the Atlantic. All efforts to free the ship were in vain. Those on the other ships in the convoy had lost sight of the Medusa and did not know what had happened.
There were 400 people on the ship and conditions were chaotic. None of the officers on board had any respect for Chaumareys, but no one else would take charge. The ship was somewhere off the western Sahara Desert, where resident Moors routinely preyed on shipwrecked sailors and sold them into slavery. The Medusa had five smaller boats on its decks: a captain’s barge, which might hold 50; the governor’s barge, of the same size; a longboat; a pinnace; and a boat called the Senegal. None left filled to capacity, but even if they had, there would not have been enough room for everyone. The ship’s carpenters quickly built a raft out of spare planks, masts, and whatever other wood came to hand. When the 146 men and one woman got on this raft, it proved too small and light to support them. They stood in water up to their waists. They had only some biscuits and a cask of wine for provisions. Chaumareys and Schmaltz, who promised those on the raft that the other boats would tow them to shore, instead had the ropes cut and abandoned the raft. It drifted for 13 days. Only 15 of the 147 people on board survived.
What transpired on the raft is a horror story of mutiny, starvation, and despair. By the third day the living were eating the dead. But Miles, who previously co-wrote a book on the Welsh painter David Jones, is as interested in Géricault and the process by which he came to take an interest in the scandal and paint his famous work as he is in the wreck itself. And Géricault is as extraordinary and as interesting as the shipwreck. Young, passionate, swept away by his emotions, Géricault had recently been forced to end an affair with his aunt by marriage when she bore his child, and it had thrown him into a frenzy of anguish. He was also a political creature, and the Medusa story galvanized his republican sympathies. To paint the Raft he immersed himself in its horrors, visiting the Paris morgue to view and sketch dead bodies, taking amputated limbs and an amputated head from a nearby hospital to his studio in order to study the effects of decay on the body. He lived with these human fragments for months at a time. The stench, his friends said, was unendurable.
Miles delves into the political ramifications of the shipwreck, the government’s attempts to suppress accounts of it, the trial of Chaumareys—the long aftermath of this signature event, which came to define the hapless government of Louis XVIII. Chaumareys lived out his life in disgrace, confined to his garden, because “each time he walked abroad,” notes Miles, “he was booed by peasants, whose children pelted him with stones.” A few years after Géricault finished the Raft, he died at 32 of tuberculosis of the spine. In 2002 the Musée d’Orsay held a small exhibition of death masks, one of which was of Géricault. It is clear from the mask that he died in agony. But the painting remains one of the great witnesses of human indifference to the suffering of others.
Miles has taken a shipwreck and placed it into its political and historical and artistic context. We can only hope he writes more books as fine and compelling as The Wreck of the Medusa.