The StoryOUTWARD BOUND
The date was 1816, one year after Waterloo. Napoleon was incarcerated on St. Helena and the monarchy was restored to France in the form of Louis XVIII the brother of the guillotined Louis XVI. A series of events which were directly attributable to the disaster which befell the Medusa. Like a stone thrown into a stream the ripples spread outward and one of them engulfed the Medusa.
The Medusa, a frigate, was the flagship of a four ship convoy, the other three consisting of the corvette "ECHO", the transport "LOIRE" and the brig "ARGOS". Their mission was to re-establish a French garrison on the coast of Senegal, handed back to the restored Bourbon monarchy by its British captors. The convoy gathered at Rochefort to embark its passengers, with the flagship Medusa carrying 240 passengers and 160 crew. The Captain, who rejoiced in the name of Duroy de Chaumereys, was an aristocrat who had fled to England during the revolution. He was 53 years of age and had not been to sea for 25 years. He had never commanded a ship in his life but he was a restored aristocrat and at that particular time that meant a great deal.Although de Chaumerey's C.V.inspired little confidence, his second in command, Lieutenant Reynaud, was an experienced officer of the Napoleonic navy, while his third in command, Lieutenant Espiaux had been wounded at Trafalgar and escaped captivity in England. The remainder of the crew were also experienced seamen who had fought at the Nile, Trafalgar and the Glorious First of June among others. Their feelings at being commanded by de Chaumereys can only be imagined.
De Chaumerey's orders were clear and concise - to keep the little flotilla in sight at all times and to sail well out to sea avoiding the dangerous coastlines. He immediately commenced to ignore both of these directives despite the strenuous efforts of his officers to advise him. The safe route to Senegal was out of the sight of land from beginning to end but due to his lack of seamanship de Chaumereys was loath to navigate at sea and chose a route which hugged the coast all the way. By so doing he ensured that he would encounter every hazard the route had to offer - the Gibraltar current, Madeira,the Canary Isles and most dangerous of all the Sahara coast.
And so the flotilla sailed from Rochefort towards Africa and right away the Medusa, never anything but consistent in it's perversity, raced into the lead, travelling 200 miles a day and leaving the three slower ships far behind. Within a week, off the coast of Spain, came the first portent of disaster. The passengers and crew crowded the rails to watch a school of porpoise and a 15 year old crewman fell overboard. De Chaumereys had not the skill to halt his ship and a six man rescue boat which was finally launched contained only three sailors. The seaman was lost without trace and the Medusa sailed on.
Somewhere off the island of Madeira it was discovered that the ship was 100 miles off course and an embarrassed de Chaumereys at last conceded that he needed help and again he was nothing if not consistent in his aberrations. But this time it was no mistake - it was a blunder of monumental proportions and it was fast becoming apparent that the Captain of the Medusa was not fit to sail a paper boat. Ignoring his experienced officers he turned for advice to one of the passengers, a Monsieur Richefort, fresh from serving a 10 year sentence in a British prison. From that point on Richefort was virtually in command of the ship. Naturally enough the officers made vigorous complaints but while the King of France was restored to his throne de Chaumereys was his representative on the high seas which spoke volumes for the Restoration.
So the ship wobbled along and Richefort, revelling in his role, volleyed his orders to all and sundry, alienating passengers and crew alike. In this way the Medusa and it's 400 souls approached the coast of Africa and some of the most dangerous waters in the world, led by two incompetents who rivalled Laurel and Hardy at their brilliant best. But it was not at all funny to the onlookers.THE SENSIBLE THING TO DO
All this time the ship had kept close to the coastlines and whilst this came under the heading of "not to be recommended" in temperate climes, performing the same procedure off the coast of Africa came under the heading "pure suicide". The tropical heat of the Sahara sucked in the winds from the sea and with them many sailing ships unwary enough to be caught. To compound the danger the Medusa was fast approaching the Arguin Bank.
The Arguin Bank was uncharted then and still is to this day. It stretched from Cape Blanco in the North to Senegal in the South -400 miles long. Each mile of the way reached 30 leagues into the Atlantic, consisting of sand-banks and gulleys ranging in depth from 6 to 600 feet, often only yards in distance apart, and once within the dreaded labyrinth there was no way out. It was an absolute imperative to avoid these shoals and even the Captain was aware of the fact. Quite rightly, he made plans to circumvent the danger and the plan he adopted was sensible---to look out for the Northern tip of the Arguin bank ( Cape Blanco ) and then sail well out to sea for the requisite 400 miles, approaching Senegal from the South and thereby avoiding the dreaded shoals altogether.INTO THE ABYSS
So Cape Blanco became the focus of all of his plans and its sighting was crucial to his change of course out to sea--it's importance was paramount.
Cape Blanco was, as the name suggests, a great white headland and very soon, the Captain's familiar, Richefort declared he had sighted the very Cape and de Chaumereys at once altered course. Unfortunately, the incomparably incompetent Richefort's "Cape" turned out to be a distant cloud and the ship was now being navigated with a passing cloud as a fix. The groundwork for disaster had been well and truly laid. True to the Captain's plan, the Medusa sailed out to sea and 400 miles further South headed back inland supposedly into Senegal harbour but in reality headed straight into the sandbanks they had planned so hard to avoid.
The first sign of danger arose when the sandy bottom was seen below the keel and the leadsman hailed 6 fathoms but typical of the morass they had entered, the next sounding was 400 fathoms. A further hundred yards and the depth changed again to 18 fathoms but the Captain kept his faith in Richefort to the bitter end and they sailed on until it was to late to turn back. The leadsman called 50 fathoms, 20 fathoms, 12 fathoms and so it went on until inevitably the Medusa struck bottom right in the centre of the place they had planned to avoid. De Chaumereys would have done better to consult the ship's cat.THE PLAN
At first there was a shocked silence and then uproar ensued with the Captain and his familiar in danger of being thrown to the sharks. But gradually it dawned that the ship was not about to sink but merely aground. The experienced officers at last took charge and efforts began to refloat the stricken ship. Anything superfluous was thrown overboard to lighten the ship without success and as a last resort, the masts also went overboard all to no avail.
At that time the situation was not desperate. The ship was not about to sink and the coast of Africa was quite close. The logistics of the problem were crystal clear to the experienced crew or to anyone with an iota of logical thought --to lighten the load and move the ship. To this end, the proposal was put to the Captain to throw overboard the 24 cannon and consistent in his perversity to all reason, he refused. In the face of the Captain's stubborness another plan was put forward which again was simple logic. This was to ferry the 400 persons aboard to the nearby coast using the small boats going back and forth. Once ashore all the ships company could march to their destination.The Captain and the hated Richefort had an alternative plan. Refusing to listen to reason and ways out of their difficulties the pair conceived a plan which even by their standards plumbed the depths of complete lunacy. The five lifeboats carried on the ship were capable of transporting 250 people. Instead of a ferrying operation, the whole of the ship's company would travel in a convoy with each boat linked to the next by a rope. The remaining 150 people who would not fit into the boats would be pulled along at the end of the convoy on a gigantic raft constructed aboard ship. 20 metres long and 7 metres wide, constructed of masts and booms and crudely lashed timbers and planks , the great raft was loaded with food and water and awaited it's passengers. The five lifeboats were already full with the future Governor of Senegal and his entourage naturally enough in the lead boat and sitting next to them Captain de Chaumereys and Richefort and of course all their luggage. The following lifeboats held crew and passengers in order of importance ( with Democracy to the rear )and all the boats were attached by a rope stem to stern. The bulk of the raft allocation were soldiers followed by sailors and then passengers low down in the pecking order so that the craft which needed the most skilled personnel was packed with the least capable. A rope was thrown to the huge raft and the whole caravan set off for land.
It was soon apparent to the crews of the lifeboats that the gigantic raft, far from being towed along, was in fact acting as a drag on the whole caravan. The nearest boat to the raft contained Lieutenant Reynaud and it was alleged that under orders he freed the rope that held the raft. There were other versions involving broken ropes, cut ropes and various people casting them adrift but whatever the truth of the matter the rope remained untied and 150 souls were abandoned to the sea - and the nightmare began. Conceived by the same two who had brought them to this disaster, the great raft was no more than a larger version of a schoolboy's plaything on a lake. There was no method of steering or propulsion and such was the weight of the people crammed onto the wooden beams that it was constantly awash with water. There were several barrels of water and wine but no food, compass or charts. When the lifeboats began to pull away the feeling of abandonment and desolation was overwhelming despite the shouted words of encouragement from the disappearing boats and their erstwhile companions.
STORMS AND SABRES
Drifting aimlessly on a glassy sea, tantalisingly close to the African coast, three men threw themselves overboard only a few hours after the last of the lifeboats had vanished over the horizon. And as evening arrived on that first day, the clouds gathered and erupted into a gale which lasted for two whole days and nights. During those days and nights the various groups split into two basic factions, officers and passengers who were in a minority, and soldiers who were in the large majority. The wine was drunk to excess and sabres and knives were drawn against the officers of the ci-devant Napoleonic navy and while mountainous seas boiled below and howling winds and rain came down from above, a bloody battle took place on the slippery beams. The battle raged back and forth in various degrees of ferocity over the two days, with long intervals set aside for resting and drinking before the enraged soldiers returned to the attack. The officers, although in the minority were professionals and gave a good account of themselves and as the storm finally subsided so the fighting ebbed to a cautious truce. Those who were still able, took stock of what remained after the hand-to-hand fighting and the storm had taken their toll ; of the original 150 souls there were a mere 60 left and half of those were dying.
DANTE'S INFERNO REVISITED
On the third day, a makeshift sail was erected but to little effect beneath a burning sun. The effects of starvation were now beginning to take their toll and several of the stronger castaways tried to catch the fish which swam beneath the raft and could be seen clearly through the gaps in the lashed beams, now beginning to disintegrate. Several others hacked pieces off the corpses littered around the raft and began to feast on the uncooked,human flesh. For the following eight days, the raft drifted aimlessly along, while more and more of the castaways reverted to cannibalism to keep alive, despite the revulsion they obviously felt. On the ninth day hand-to-hand fighting began anew and the officers were again made to defend themselves. The fighting surged to and fro through the night and the morning found a mere 30 souls alive although many of these had sabre wounds and broken bones to endure as well as the sun, sea and hunger.