Like all warm-blooded human beings, I have a certain list of criteria for what makes a good shipwreck story: Incompetent leadership. Selfishness. Cannibalism. Historical context. Drinking your own urine. Lots of lies and conflicting accounts of the event.
The Wreck of the Medusa by Jonathan Miles satisfies all of these. More than a tragedy, the 1816 wreck of the French ship Medusa was a political embarrassment, a catalyst for change, an inspiration for a famous work of art, and a salacious scandal with far-reaching repercussions for the survivors.
So let’s start with the Captain of the Medusa, one Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys (sounds like a tool already), a mariner who made up a bunch of heroic acts about his early sailing days and then reclined on his laurels for the next twenty-five years before cronyism led to his appointment sailing the Medusa in a trio of ships bound for Senegal, where the French were reestablishing their control of the Saint Louis colony.
With the majority of the Medusa’s officers having seen some ocean action a little more recently than the French Revolution, they naturally resented the crusty Captain’s appointment, leading to a tense situation made worse by bad maps and a notoriously shallow, shipwreck-lovin’ bay called the Arguin bank.
Against the advice of his officers, Chaumerys decides to listen to some dude named Richefort who claims to have ALL of the knowledge, but really only has a big mouth, and the ship ends up, predictably, stuck in the shallow waters of the bay. Of course, there are not enough lifeboats for the 400 people aboard, so they build a raft out of assorted pieces of the ship and shove 147 men (and one woman) onto the raft to be towed by the other lifeboats, comfortably occupied by the Captain and his cronies, as well as the future governor of Saint Louis, class A jerk Julien Schmaltz.
The towing scheme doesn’t work so well, and pretty shortly the men on the lifeboats cut the tow ropes, leaving the raft riders to drift with nothing but a dinky mast for steering.
Of the 147 souls aboard the raft, only 15 survive.
Two of the lifeboats end up beaching and cast their fortune with the Sahara (which is a pretty big place, so I’m told), sending them on a trek through hell in the blistering desert.
Nobody wins. Some people end up drinking acrid plant goop, some eat their companions.
The author Jonathan Miles does a great job of situating the Medusa’s misfortune in the greater historical context. Napoleon is done for real, and the constitutional monarchy is tentatively making steps towards the restoration of France, hampered by the royalist right, the Ultras, who want to restore full monarchy and stop all this liberal, freedom-mongering nonsense. The Ultra agenda is responsible for the installment of moth-eaten Chaumereys as the Medusa’s Captain, and is thus greatly embarrassed by the shipwreck and the incompetence clinging to the voyage like barnacles.
The Medusa tragedy becomes a political tool wielded by the left to defeat the Ultras, but the principle players in the tragedy get off light by comparison. Thus, the political grandstanding of 19th century France isn’t that far off from modern tragedies, in which both sides of the aisle and our ubiquitous social media scramble to manufacture political gain and meaningless memes out of lost lives.
The wreck of the Medusa also occurred at a pivotal time in art trends, as artists were migrating away from the defined classical forms to the softer lines of Romanticism. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about art, so I’ll just take the author’s word for it. The artist Theodore Gericault is responsible for the seminal work, The Raft of the Medusa, which showed the survivors of the raft sighting their sister ship on the horizon, before it disappeared into the horizon. An image of false hope and disappointment, as well as an indictment of French politics, the work was stunning and controversial.
Miles spends a considerable portion of the book delving into Gericault’s life, including his doomed love affair with his aunt (l’amour, je ne sais pas), and his friendship with agitative raft survivor, Alexandre Correard. Correard would end up writing a book about the tragedy along with fellow survivor Savigny and spent his life as a burr in the government’s side.
Although initially the painting remained unsold and rolled up in storage, it was eventually purchased and today hangs in some arcane museum called The Louvre.
TRUTH, LIES, HALF-TRUTHS, AND FICTIONS
Late in the book, Miles acknowledges the “problematic” dearth of information, common to historical narratives, where fact and fiction meld until there is little hope of distinguishing one from another. He concludes that “what is of interest to perpetuity is not the exact truth of the contestable details but rather to what end the various versions of these errors and follies have been used.”
In other words, irregardless of the truth, the impact on history matters more than the history itself. Indeed we can see this in our own lives, as we make and remake memories each time we recall them from the depths of our minds, creating mythologies and narratives that sculpt and shape the person we share with the world.
Miles beautifully illustrates this point by pointing out that he had “dared to depart from the literal truth in his expression of a more profound meaning.” This included the placement of a black man at the apex of the painting, signalling to the distant ship, the beacon of hope standing on the splintered remains of a ship sent by a country still ambivalent about abolishing the slave trade.
There isn’t a pat answer for whether or not the hard facts would be better; certainly our myths and romanticisms have often blurred the sharp edges of past atrocities, yet in the hands of artists and writers and creators, old histories become alive and made meaningful. We might say we want the truth when in actuality we just want a good story. Many times, history intersects to bring us both, and sometimes we have to be content with what we don’t know, and to approach those dubious histories with care and the willingness to learn.
- One of the more jarring aspects of the story is how the shipwreck survivors satiate themselves with wine and brandy, which is more plentiful than water, either unaware or uncaring that the dehydrating effect of alcohol is likely hastening their horrifying deaths.
- The ultimate catch-22: Take your chances in the desert or drifting in the ocean? Let’s see…Desert: dry, hot, no water, no food, sunburn, sand everywhere in your everything all the time. Ocean: wet, hot, water you can’t drink, sometimes a fish (sometimes a shark to eat you), sunburn, saltwater everywhere in your everything all the time. Lose lose.
- Related reads: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, The Man Who Ate His Boots by Anthony Brandt.
JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
The cover of the book depicts the famous work of art by Gericault, and while it seems pretty dreary and depressing here, the original work is 16’1″ by 23’6″ in size! That’s huge! According to Miles, the painting was originally hung over a doorway, but it didn’t make a true impact until it was hung at a lower level, where observers felt they could walk right into the painting.