Two accounts of terrible shipwreck and the struggle for survival
The wreck of the Medusa is one of the most famous and infamous shipwrecks from the great age of sailing ships. The Medusa was a French frigate which struck the Bank of Arguin, off the coast of Senegal in 1816 shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The vessel had to be abandoned and this was undertaken with such complete incompetence by the officers and crew that it resulted in the loss of over 150 lives in such appalling circumstances that it scandalised the general public of Europe and became an incurable embarrassment for the French government of the day. The event was even immortalised by a great artist of the period, and Gericault's 'Raft of the Medusa' endures to ensure it still remains widely known in all its horror two centuries later. The outrage of the Medusa gained particular notoriety because several of the survivors wrote harrowing accounts of their experiences of the events that took place. Two of these first hand narratives are included in this Leonaur edition making it a fascinating book for all those with an interest in sailing ships, voyages of times past and the perils of the sea.
At noon, on the 2nd of July, soundings were taken. M. Maudet, ensign of the watch, was convinced we were upon the edge of the Arguin Bank. The Captain said to him, as well as to everyone, that there was no cause of alarm. In the mean while, the wind blowing with great violence, impelled us nearer and nearer to the danger which menaced us. A species of stupor overpowered all our spirits, and every one preserved a mournful silence, as if they were persuaded we would soon touch the bank. The colour of the water entirely changed, a circumstance even remarked by the ladies. About three in the afternoon, being in 19° 30' north latitude, and 19° 45' west longitude, an universal cry was heard upon deck. All declared they saw sand rolling among the ripple of the sea. The Captain in an instant ordered to sound. The line gave eighteen fathoms; but on a second sounding it only gave six. He at last saw his error, and hesitated no longer on changing the route, but it was too late. A strong concussion told us the frigate had struck. Terror and consternation were instantly depicted on every face. The crew stood motionless; the passengers in utter despair. In the midst of this general panic, cries of vengeance were heard against the principal author of our misfortunes, wishing to throw him overboard; but some generous persons interposed, and endeavoured to calm their spirits, by diverting their attention to the means of our safety. The confusion was already so great, that M. Poinsignon, commandant of a troop, struck my sister Caroline a severe blow, doubtless thinking it was one of his soldiers. At this crisis my father was buried in profound sleep, but he quickly awoke, the cries and the tumult upon deck having informed him of our misfortunes. He poured out a thousand reproaches on those whose ignorance and boasting had been so disastrous to us. However, they set about the means of averting our danger. The officers, with an altered voice, issued their orders, expecting every moment to see the ship go in pieces. They strove to lighten her, but the sea was very rough and the current strong. Much time was lost in doing nothing; they only pursued half measures, and all of them unfortunately failed.<br>
When it was discovered that the danger of the Medusa was not so great as was at first supposed, various persons proposed to transport the troops to the island of Arguin, which was conjectured to be not far from the place where we lay aground. Others advised to take us all successively to the coast of the desert of Sahara, by the means of our boats, and with provisions sufficient to form a caravan, to reach the island of Saint Louis, at Senegal. The events which afterwards ensued proved this plan to have been the best, and which would have been crowned with success; unfortunately it was not adopted. M. Schmaltz, the governor, suggested the making of a raft of a sufficient size to carry two hundred men, with provisions: which latter plan was seconded by the two officers of the frigate, and put in execution.<br>
The fatal raft was then begun to be constructed, which would, they said, carry provisions for everyone. Masts, planks, boards, cordage, were thrown overboard. Two officers were charged with the framing of these together. Large barrels were emptied and placed at the angles of the machine, and the workmen were taught to say, that the passengers would be in greater security there, and more at their ease, than in the boats. However, as it was forgotten to erect rails, every one supposed, and with reason, that those who had given the plan of the raft, had had no design of embarking upon it themselves. <br>
When it was completed, the two chief officers of the frigate publicly promised, that all the boats would tow it to the shore of the desert; and, when there, stores of provisions and fire-arms would be given us to form a caravan to take us all to Senegal. Why was not this plan executed? Why were these promises, sworn before the French flag, made in vain? But it is necessary to draw a veil over the past. I will only add, that if these promises had been fulfilled, everyone would have been saved, and that, in spite of the detestable egotism of certain personages, humanity would not now have had to deplore the scenes of horror consequent on the wreck of the Medusa!