Magazine article The Spectator

All at Sea

Magazine article The Spectator

All at Sea

Article excerpt

MEDUSA : THE SHIPWRECK, THE SCANDAL, THE MASTERPIECE by Jonathan Miles Cape, £17.99, pp. 334, ISBN 9780224073035 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

On 2 July 1816 the French frigate Medusa, en route for Senegal, ran aground on the dreaded Arguin sandbank off the west coast of Africa. Incompetent seamanship had landed the vessel there and attempts to refloat the Medusa over the next couple of days proved to be in vain. The decision was therefore taken to press on for St Louis in Senegal, a couple of hundred miles to the south, in various of the ship's boats and barges but, as they couldn't carry all the passengers and crew, a large raft was constructed, from spars and timber lashed together, which would be towed behind four of the larger boats.

The raft was substantial -- 20 metres long by 7 wide -- had a mast with a sail and even a small raised deck at the centre.

When the convoy headed off there was a considerable mass of people crowded on board the raft -- 146 men and 1 woman.

All this may sound reasonable and relatively resourceful but, as Jonathan Miles makes clear in this fascinating account of the ordeal that was to follow, nothing about the fateful voyage of the Medusa, or the historical context of the shipwreck or the consequences that followed, was simple. For the French, the grounding of the Medusa, and its aftermath, was one of those isolated events in time around which a series of socio-cultural-historical forces circled, intermingled and balefully collided. Napoleon was in exile; Louis XVIII was the new king of France. The captain of the Medusa was an inept sailor, an old Royalist rewarded for his loyalty to the French crown with this commission. The crew was fractious and undisciplined. On board were embittered republicans, men who saw post-Revolutionary France in a state of shocking decline. Everything that took place on and around the raft was, as one of the survivors put it, an example of the triumph of 'egotism and cowardice'.

The waterlogged raft was barely seaworthy and soon it was apparent it was holding the other boats back: the tow-rope was deliberately cut and the raft left to drift as the other boats made their way south or else headed for the African shore.

What followed over the next two weeks on the raft saw human beings reduced to their most bestial and desperate. There was a mutiny (inspired by mercenary soldiers) and savage hand-to-hand fighting broke out over one night that saw 60 dead the next morning. The bodies were heaved overboard but a second round of combat depleted numbers even more. …

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