1816 Wreck of the Medusa

21 May 2011

Ironic that Wreck of the Medusa followed Edgar Allen Poe on my to-read list.  Don’t get me wrong, Poe was definitely a very talented writer, but his subject matter was more boring than scary to me.  Screams in the night and dead relatives knocking at the door require too much suspension of belief to be really frightening.  I didn’t read the whole book; just a few of the more commonly known stories, and called it good. 

Then I picked up Wreak of the Medusa:The Tragic Story of the Death Raft by Alexander McKee.  I was suddenly thrown into a nightmare, all the more so because it actually happened.  I found myself holding tightly to the book in my hands, unable to put it down and unable to take a breath, and suffering a complete lack of appetite.  This, I thought in the moment I realized the story’s effect on me, was probably what Poe had been aiming for, but didn’t quite reach.

In July of 1816, a year after the final downfall of Napoleon, a convoy of four French ships were to sail south for a settlement on the African coast that was in the process of being turned over by the English to the French.  They were to stay together for safety reasons, even though the ships had different speed capabilities.  Certain parts of the African coast was (and still is) largely uncharted, so ships would sail south well away from the coast to avoid shallows and reefs.  But a combination of weakness and pride led the Medusa straight into them.  First, the captain of the Medusa sped off to leave all but one ship behind.  That ship stayed with the Medusa as long as the captain dared, but finally sailed west into more open waters.  The other two ships did not even attempt to sail close to the shore.  These three ships found their destination without mishap. 

To give just a brief account of the tragedy, I thought I might introduce some of the Interesting Characters:

de Chaumareys: the captain of the Medusa.  He hadn’t been to sea in 25 years, but he was given command of the convoy, along with the flagship Medusa.  He put up a front of being cocksure and arrogant, but in reality, as we will see, he was easily manipulated because of his weak character and uncertain knowledge of sailing. 

Reynaud: 1st Leiutenant (second in command) of the Medusa.  He was a seasoned sailor, but de Chaumareys doesn’t like him or listen to him.  The seeds of mutiny are planted here.  I started off feeling sorry for him, but was ultimately disappointed and disgusted by him.  His famous line: “We abandon them!”

Gov. Shmaltz:  the new governor of the settlement (as soon as it’s handed over to the French), a passenger on board the Medusa.  Prideful and arrogant, he somehow got the definitions of the words ‘governor’ and ‘god’ mixed up.  He insists that they reach the settlement as soon as possible, and pressures the weak de Chaumareys to leave the other ships behind and take the shortest route.  

Richefort:  harbor-master-to-be of the settlement, another passenger on the Medusa.  Fortunate favorite of the captain.  Spent the last 10 years in an English prison (France had been at war with England), but convinces de Chaumareys, who doesn’t know any better, that he is an expert sailor, and the captain therefore lets him step into Reynaud’s position, unofficially.  He then goes on a huge power trip, announcing that no one knows the African coast like he does and he can sail anywhere he likes.  The sailors hate him.

Espiaux - An officer in charge of one of the lifeboats.  One of the few heroes.  There were many, of course, throughout the course of the tragedy who were heroic, but many did not have the same opportunity that Espiaux had to rise to the occasion.

Charlotte Picard – A young woman traveling with her family.  She left an account of her experience.  She was in one of the lifeboats and suffered greatly, or at least you’ll think so until you read the part about those left on the raft. 

Savigny and Correard - A ship surgeon and an engineer respectively.  Men of high moral character that were abandoned on a raft in the middle of the ocean along with 148 other people for 13 days.  Only 15 survived, including these two, from whom we get an account of what happened.  The raft had been built to accommodate those that would not fit into the lifeboats, and was initially to be towed behind.  Because solid wood only has a certain amount of buoyancy, the weight of the 150 people held the raft a good 3 or 4 feet underwater, which meant the crowded group were up to their waists in an undulating sea with no place to sit, no place to move, nothing to hang on to, and virtually no food and water.  Death, of course, improved the limitations of space on the raft as well as the amount of water they were submerged in, but little else improved with time.

Alexander McKee did an excellent job telling the story from the various view-points of the participants.  He did not stop the story at the point of rescue, but went on to tell what had happened to each of the people we came to know through the pages of his book, though in most cases the shipwreck left such an impression on their lives that moving on was near impossible for them to do.  He also gave shorter accounts of similar tragedies, including how they were handled and how differing and similar circumstances affected the behavior of the castaways and the outcome of their affair.  Also included was a short but interesting chapter on Theodore Gericault, the painter who composed a lasting memorial to the Death Raft in his painting Scene of Shipwreck, later renamed Raft of the Medusa, since that is what it actually was.  Savigny and Correard even posed for their own part in the painting.

This book highlights the danger of a weak character, most especially in leadership positions, and the importance of the virtues of hope and fortitude.  Savigny, a doctor, was convinced that “Moral strength is of greater importance for survival than physical strength.”  It was not an enjoyable book to read, but it was addictively interesting and thought-provoking, and will go on my Favorite Books list.