The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault (1818-19)

On 2 July 1816, the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania. Her captain was an émigré who had been given command for political reasons despite having scarcely sailed in 20 years.
Through his incompetent navigation the ship struck the Bank of Arguin and became a total loss. The Méduse was carrying 400 people, however there was space for only 250 in the lifeboats. Therefore 151 men had to evacuate on a hurriedly constructed raft, which partially submerged once it was loaded.
The captain and crew aboard the lifeboats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few miles they left it behind. For sustenance the people on the raft had only a bag of ship’s biscuit (consumed on the first day), two casks of water (lost overboard during fighting) and six casks of wine.
While many of them were washed into the sea by a storm, others, drunk from wine, rebelled and were killed by officers. When picked up 13 days later, on July 17, only 15 survived (of whom, five died shortly afterwards) after enduring starvation and dehydration and engaging in cannibalism
The scenes on the raft raised public emotion, and the infamous shipwreck was immortalised by Théodore Géricault in his “Raft of the Medusa”, which became an icon of French Romanticism.


« The raft carried the survivors to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest. »
(Jonathan Miles)

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