Monday, December 27, 2010

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Méduse, a 40-gun Pallas-class frigate of the French Navy, was commissioned in Nantes on 26 September 1810. She took part in the Napoleonic wars, namely in the late stages of the Mauritius campaign of 1809–1811 and in raids in the Caribbean.

In 1811, she was sent off to Java with the frigate Nymphe. On the September 2, they arrived at Surabaya, tailed by the 32-gun frigate HMS Bucephalus. On the 4th, another British ship, HMS Barracouta, joined the chase, but lost contact on the 8th. On the 12th, the Méduse and Nymphe chased the Bucephalus, which escaped and broke contact the next day. The Méduse was back in Brest on 22 December 1811. She then served in the Atlantic and, in 1814, she was part of the fleet sent to retake Guadeloupe.

After the downfall of Napoleon, Louis XVIII attempted to put Royalists in charge of the navy once more. For political reasons, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was appointed Capitaine de frégate Méduse even though he had hardly sailed in 20 years and was incompetent as a naval officer.

Course to Senega

On 17 June 1816, a convoy under the command of De Chaumareys aboard the Méduse departed Rochefort to receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal. They were accompanied by the store ship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Écho.

The Méduse, armed en flûte, carried passengers, including the appointed French governor of Senegal and Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz with his wife Reine Schmaltz. The Méduse's complement totaled 400 which included 160 crew. She reached Madeira on 27 June.

Schmaltz then wanted to reach St. Louis as fast as possible and by the most direct route. But this would take the fleet dangerously close to shore, where there were many sandbars and reefs. The Méduse was the fastest of the convoy and, disregarding his orders, the Captain De Chaumareys quickly lost contact with the Loire and Argus. The Echo kept pace and attempted to guide Méduse, but to no avail. The Echo then prudently moved further out to sea.

Chaumareys then decided to involve one of the passengers, Richefort, in the navigation of his ship. Richefort was a philosopher and a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, but was not qualified to guide ships. As the Méduse closed on the coast of Africa, her course became dangerous. Richefort apparently mistook a large cloud bank on the horizon for Cape Blanco on the African coast, thereby underestimating the proximity of the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania.

On 2 July 1816 the Méduse ran into increasingly shallow water with both Chaumareys and Richefort ignoring signs such as white breakers and mud in the water. Eventually, Lieutenant Maudet took it upon himself to start taking soundings off the bow and, measuring only 18 fathoms, warned his captain. Realizing the danger at last, Chaumareys ordered the ship brought up into the wind, but it was too late ... the Méduse ran aground 50 kilometres off the coast. The accident occurred at a Spring high tide, which made it difficult to re-float the frigate. Because Chaumareys refused to jettison the 14 three-tonne cannons, the ship settled into the bank.
Meduse wrecked on the Bank of Arquin
The Raft

Plans were proposed to use the ship's launches to ferry the passengers and crew to shore. As it was 60 miles away, it would have taken two boat trips. Several ideas for lightening the Méduse in order to bring her off the reef were proposed including that of building a raft to unload her cargo. A raft measuring 20 metres in length and 7 metres in width was soon built and nicknamed "la Machine" by the crew.

On 5 July, a gale developed and the Méduse showed signs of breaking up. Passengers and crew panicked as did the captain who decided to evacuate the frigate immediately. 146 men and one woman boarded the unstable raft which was towed by Méduse’s boats. The raft had few supplies, no means of steering or navigation and much of its deck was under water.

Plan of the Raft Meduse
17 men decided to stay on the Méduse and the rest boarded the ship's longboats. The crew of the boats soon realized that towing the raft was impractical and began to fear being overwhelmed by the desperate survivors on the raft. It was decided to cut the ropes, leaving the raft and its occupants to their fate. The lifeboats, with the captain and Governor Schmaltz aboard, then sailed away to safety. Some landed immediately on the coast of Africa. Though some died on the way, most of the survivors made their way overland to Senegal.

On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Among the provisions were casks of wine instead of water. Fights broke out between the officers and passengers on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers on the other. On the first night adrift, 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 by the waves. Rations dwindled rapidly; 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 until only 15 men remained, all of whom survived until their rescue by the Argus which accidentally encountered them on 17 July.


The Argus took the survivors to Saint-Louis to recover. Five of them, including Jean Charles, the last African crew member, died within days. De Chaumareys decided to rescue the gold that was still on board the Méduse and sent out a salvage crew who discovered that the Méduse was still intact. Three of the 17 men who had decided to stay on the Méduse were still alive 54 days later. British naval officers helped the survivors to return to France because aid from the French Minister of the Marine was not forthcoming.

At his court martial at Port de Rochefort in 1817, De Chaumareys was tried on five counts and acquitted of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft. However he was found guilty of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off. Even though this verdict implied the death penalty, De Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail.
The Méduse's surviving surgeon, Henri Savigny, also submitted his account to the authorities. It was leaked to an anti-Bourbon newspaper, the "Journal des débats", and appeared on 13 September 1816. The news was particularly embarrassing to the royalist government and an attempt was made to suppress the sordid details, including the actions of the incompetent Captain Chaumareys, and a critical account of the incident written by Savigny and another survivor, the geographer Alexandre Corréard ("Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse"). It was published in 1817, went through five editions by 1821 and also published with success in English, German, Dutch and Italian. A revision of the text in later editions increased the political thrust of the work.

The court martial was widely thought to be a "whitewash" and in 1818 Governor Schmaltz was forced to resign. The Gouvion de Saint-Cyr Law later ensured that promotions in the French military were based on merit.

Le Radeau de la Méduse
Théodore Géricault, Le Radeau de la Méduse
Scenes on the raft instilled considerable public emotion and captured the imagination of the young artist Theodore Gericault, who was in the midst of a torrid affair with his young aunt, when he read Correard's book. Isolated by his family when she became pregnant, Gericault poured his energies into painting "The Raft of the Medusa," which he exhibited at the 1819 Salon.

Controversial from the moment it was displayed, its theme was obvious: Those marooned on a raft were abandoned by their leaders. It depicts a moment recounted by one of the survivors when, prior to their rescue, the passengers saw a ship on the horizon which they tried to signal. She disappeared and, in the words of a surviving crew member, "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief". The ship, Argus, reappeared two hours later and rescued those who remained.

Gericault's technique was as revolutionary as it was dramatic, with the viewer brought right up to the foot of the huge canvas. Official reaction was not favorable. As the king put it, "Sir, you have made a shipwreck." The painting became an icon of French Romanticism and proved to be a pivotal work in art history. It survives today as one of the treasures of the Louvre, yet many people are unaware that it was based on an historical event. Gericault did not live to see his painting achieve greatness; he died of tuberculosis in 1824.

Shipwreck site found

In 1980, a French marine archeological expedition led by Jean-Yves Blot located the Méduse shipwreck site off the coast of modern-day Mauritania. The team was based out of the port city of Nouadhibou, approximately 160 kilometres north of the wreck site, and used four sailboats as the expedition working vessels. The primary search tool was a one-of-a-kind magnetometer developed by the CEA.

The search area was defined on the basis of the accounts of survivors of the Méduse and, more importantly, on the records of an 1817 French coastal mapping expedition that found the vessel'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 recovered enough artifacts to identify the wreck positively and to mount an exhibit in the Marine Museum in Paris.

Movie ~ Le radeau de la Meduse (1994)

Starring Jean Yanne (Chaumareys), Claude Jade (Reine Schmaltz), Philippe Laudenbach (Julien Schmaltz), Lautent Terzieff (Theodore Gericault), Daniel Mesguich (Lt. Coudein), Alain Mace (Henri Savigny), Jean Desailly (La Tullaye) and Rufus (Soldier musician).

Portrayals in 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 is 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 Géricault's "softening" the impact of crude reality in order to preserve the aestheticism of the work.

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, was published in 2006 and 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!"

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 Méduse?" (Méduse is the French word for "jellyfish".)

French songwriter and poet Georges Brassens alludes to the raft of Méduse in his song Les copains d'abord (1964). The song is a hymn to friendship, symbolised 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 Méduse".

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.