Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 3
THE TRAGEDY OF THE FRIGATE MEDUSA
AMONG the countless episodes of disaster at sea, the fate of the French frigate Medusa and her people still possesses a poignant and mournful distinction. Other ships have gone down with much greater loss of life, including such modern instances as the Titanic and the Lusitania, or have been missing with all hands, but the story of the Medusa casts a dark shadow across the chronicles of human suffering, even though a century has passed since the event. There are some enterprises which seem foredoomed to failure by a conspiracy of circumstances, as if a spell of evil enchantment had been woven to thwart and destroy them. Of such a kind was this most unhappy voyage.
As an incident of the final overthrow of Napoleon, Great Britain returned to France the colonial territory of Sénégal on the west coast of Africa, between Cape Blanco and the Gambia River. A French expedition was equipped and sent out to reoccupy and govern the little settlements and clearings which thinly fringed the tropical wilderness. It included officials, scientists, soldiers, servants, and laborers, who sailed from Rochefort in the Medusa frigate and three smaller vessels on the seventeenth of June, 1816.
The French Navy had been shattered and swept from the seas by the broadsides of Nelson's fleets, and its morale had ebbed. This mission, moreover, was not a strictly naval affair, and the personnel of the frigate was recruited with no particular care. The seamen were the scrapings of the waterfront, and the officers had not been selected for efficiency. They were typical neither of the French arms nor people. It seemed a commonplace task, no doubt, to sail with the summer breezes on a voyage not much farther than the Cape Verd Islands and disembark the passengers and cargo.
Captain de Chaumareys of the Medusa was a light-hearted, agreeable shipmate, but he appears to have been a most indifferent seaman and a worse master of men and emergencies. When no more than ten days out from port he discovered that his reckoning had set him thirty leagues, or almost a hundred miles, out of his course. This was not enough to condemn him utterly, because navigation was a crude art a century ago and ships blundered about the high seas and found their way to port in the most astonishing manner. But Captain de Chaumareys was not made cautious by his error, and he drove along with fatuous confidence in his ability and would pay no heed to the opinions of his officers. He also managed to lose touch with the three smaller ships of the squadron, and they vanished from his ken. It was one fatal mischance after another.
On the first of July, when the frigate crossed the tropic of Cancer, the debonair captain made it an excuse for a holiday and took personal charge of the gaieties which so absorbed him that he turned over the command of the ship to M. Richefort, one of the civilian officials who had seen naval service. There was a feeling of uneasiness on board, for all the fiddling and singing and dancing, and the officers discussed it over their wine in the ward-room and the passengers were aware of it in the cabins, "while the crew performed the fantastic ceremonies usual on such occasions although the frigate was surrounded by all the unseen perils of the ocean. A few persons, aware of the danger, remonstrated, but without effect, even when it was ascertained that the Medusa was on the bank of Arguin."
The ship was, in fact, entrapped among the shoals and reefs which extended like a labyrinth far out from the African coast. It was an area of many disasters to stout ships, whose crews had been taken captive or killed by savage tribes, if they survived the hostility of the sea. M. Richefort, who was so obligingly acting as commander of the Medusa, insisted that there were a hundred fathoms of water under the keel and not the slightest cause for anxiety, and they still danced on deck to the scraping of the fiddles.
With a crash that flung the merry-makers this way and that, and brought the spars tumbling about their ears, the Medusa struck in only sixteen feet of water, and the deadly sands had inextricably gripped her. She was a lost ship on this bright day of calm seas and sunny weather and the sailors blithely tripping it heel-and-toe. It was soon realized that the frigate might pound to pieces in the first gale of wind, and that advantage had best be taken of the quiescent ocean to get away from her. The coast was known to be no more than forty miles distant, and the hope of escape was strong.
There was ample time in which to abandon ship with some order and method, to break out provisions and water-barrels, to build a number of buoyant rafts and carefully equip them, to safeguard the lives of the people as far as possible. The frigate carried carpenters, mechanics, and other artisans, and all manner of tools for the colony of Sénégal. Hundreds of people had been saved from other ships in situations even more desperate than this. There had been strong men, unwavering authority, and disciplined obedience in them, however, but this doomed frigate was like a madhouse, and panic ran from deck to deck. The crew was slack at best, but it could not be held altogether responsible for the demoralization. The soldiers and laborers were Spanish, French, Italian, and negroes, many of whom had probably been in prison or the convict hulks, and were sent to Africa for their country's good.
The frigate had five seaworthy boats, which were hurriedly launched and filled with people whose only thought was to save their own skins. In one of them was the governor of Sénégal and his family, and in another were placed four children and the wives of the officials. In this respect the ancient chivalry of the sea was lived up to. There were heroes among the French army officers, as might have been expected, for they kept clear of the struggle for the boats, and succeeded in holding most of their men, who were assigned to the one raft which had been frantically thrown together.
The five boats shoved off and waited for the raft, which it was proposed to take in tow. Barrels of bread and wine and water had been hoisted on deck, but in the confusion almost all the stores were thrown into the boats. M. Correard, geographical engineer attached to the expedition, had gallantly volunteered to take chances with his own men on the raft. He had kept his wits about him, and delayed to ask Captain de Chaumareys whether navigation instruments and charts had been provided for the raft. He was assured that a naval officer was attending to these essentials and would be in charge of the party. Forgetting his duty entirely, this faithless officer scrambled into one of the boats, and the raft was left without means of guidance.
There are cowards in all services, afloat and ashore, but they are seldom conspicuous. Among those who fled away in the boats was the gay Captain de Chaumareys, who oozed through a port-hole without delaying a moment. In this manner he disappeared from the narrative, the last glimpse of him as framed in the port-hole while his ship was still crowded with terrified castaways for whom there were no boats. He was a feather-brained poltroon who, by accident, happened to be a Frenchman.There were intrepid men in the Medusa who bullied the others into helping make a raft. The best that they could do was to launch a pitiful contrivance of spars and planks held together by lashings. It was sixty-five feet long and twenty broad, not even decked over, twisting and working to the motion of the waves which slapped over it or splashed between the timbers when the ocean was smooth. As soon as it floated alongside the frigate, one hundred and fifty persons wildly jammed themselves upon it, standing in water to their waists and in danger of slipping between the spars and planks. The only part of the raft which was unsubmerged when laden had room for no more than fifteen men to lie down upon it.
The weather was still calm, and the ship rested solidly upon her sandy bed, the upper decks clear of water. It seems incredible that no barrels of beef and biscuit were lashed to the timbers of the raft, no water-casks rolled from the tiers and swung overside. A kind of mob hysteria swept these people along, and the men of resolution were carried with it. They were unaccustomed to the sea, and a frenzied fear of it stampeded them. The flimsy, wave-washed raft floated away from the Medusa with only biscuit enough for one scanty meal and a few casks of wine. The stage was set, as one might say, for inevitable horrors.
One of the boats which was not so crowded as the others had the grace to row back to the ship with orders to take off a few, if there were men still aboard. To the surprise of the lieutenant in the boat, sixty men had been left behind because there was not even a foothold for them upon the raft. The boat managed to stow all but seventeen of them, who were very drunk by this time and preferred to stand by the ship and the spirit-room. The fear of death had ceased to trouble them.
For the moment let us shift the scene to survey the fate of these seventeen poor wretches who were abandoned on board of the Medusa. The five boats reached the African coast and most of their company lived to find Sénégal. The governor bethought himself that a large amount of specie had been left in the wreck, and he sent a little vessel off; but lack of provisions and bad weather drove her twice back to port, so that fifty-two days, more than seven weeks, had passed before the Medusa was sighted, her upper works still above water.
Three of the seventeen men were found alive, "but they lived in separate corners of the hulk and never met but to run at each other with drawn knives." Several others had sailed off on a tiny raft which was cast up on the coast of the Sahara, but the men were drowned. A lone sailor drifted away on a hencoop as the craft of his choice, and foundered in sight of the frigate. All the rest had died of too little food and too much rum, after the provisions had been lost or spoiled by the breaking up of the ship.
It was understood that the raft, with its burden of one hundred and fifty souls, was to be taken in tow by the five boats strung in a line, and this flotilla would make for the nearest coast, which might have been reached in two or three days of favoring weather. After a few hours of slow, but encouraging, progress, the tow-line of the captain's boat parted. Instead of making fast to the raft again, all the other boats cast off their cables and, under sail and oar, set off to the eastward to save themselves. The miserable people who beheld this desertion denounced it as an act of cruelty and perfidy beyond belief. It may have been in the captain's mind to make haste and send a vessel to pick up the castaways, but his previous behavior had been such that he scarcely deserves the benefit of the doubt.
On the makeshift raft there were those who knew how to die like Frenchmen and gentlemen. What they endured has been handed down to us in the personal accounts of M. Correard and M. Savigny, colonial officials who wrote with that touch, vivid and dramatic, which is the gift of many of their race. Even in translation it is profoundly moving. When they saw the boats forsake them and vanish at the edge of the azure horizon, a stupor fell upon these unfortunate people as they clung to one another with arms locked and bodies pressed together so that they might not be washed off the raft.
A small group in whom nobility of character burned like an unquenchable flame assumed the leadership, attempting to maintain some sort of discipline and decency, to ration the precious wine, to make the raft more seaworthy. One of the artisans had a pocket compass, which he displayed amid shouts of joy, but it slipped from his fingers and was lost. They had no chart or any other resource of the kind.
"The first day passed in a manner sufficiently tranquil. We talked of the means by which we would save ourselves; we spoke of it as a certain circumstance, which reanimated our courage; and we sustained that of the soldiers by cherishing in them the hope of being able, in a short time, to revenge themselves on those who had abandoned them. . . . In the evening our hearts and our prayers, by a feeling natural to the unfortunate, were turned toward Heaven. Surrounded by inevitable dangers, we addressed that invisible Being who has established the order of the universe. Our vows were fervent and we experienced from our prayers the cheering influence of hope. It is necessary to have been in similar circumstances before one can rightly imagine what a solace to the hearts of the sufferers is the sublime idea of a God protecting the afflicted."
Such were the reflections of a little group of devout and high-minded Frenchmen whose example helped to steady the rest of the castaways in the early hours of their ordeal. During the first night the wind increased, and the sea became so boisterous that the waves gushed and roared across the raft, most of which was three feet under water. A few ropes were stretched for the people to cling to, but they were washed to and fro, and many were caught and killed or cruelly hurt between the grinding timbers. Others were swept into the sea. Twenty of the company had perished before dawn. Two ship's boys and a baker, after bidding farewell to their comrades, threw themselves into the ocean as the easier end. A survivor wrote:
"During the whole of this night we struggled against death, holding ourselves closely to those spars which were firmly bound together; tossed by the waves from one end to the other, and sometimes precipitated into the sea; floating between life and death, mourning over our misfortunes, certain of perishing, yet contending for the remainder of existence with that cruel element which had determined to swallow us up. Such was our situation till break of day."
Already the minds of some of the castaways were affected. When the day came clear and beautiful, they saw visions of ships, of green shores, of loved ones at home. While the ocean granted them a respite, the emotion of hope strongly revived, and their manifold woes were forgotten as they gazed landward or waited for sight of a sail.
"Two young men raised and recognized their father who had fallen and was lying insensible among the feet of the soldiers. They believed him to be dead and their despair was expressed in the most affecting manner. He slowly revived and was restored to life in response to the prayers of his sons who supported him closely folded in their arms. This touching scene of filial piety drew our tears."
The second night again brought clouds and squally weather, which agitated the ocean and swept the raft. In a wailing mass the people were dashed to and fro and were crushed or drowned. The ruffianly soldiers and sailors broached the wine-casks, and so lost such last glimmerings of reason as terror had not deprived them of. They insanely attacked the other survivors, and at intervals a battle raged all night long, with sabers, knives, and bayonets. The brave M. Correard had fallen into a swoon of exhaustion, but was aroused by the cries of "To arms, comrades! Rally, or we are lost!" He mustered a small force of loyal laborers and a few officers and led them in a charge. The rebels surrounded them, but were beaten back after much bloodshed. The scenes were thus depicted by the pen of M. Savigny:
Firmly persuaded that they were all on the point of being drowned, both soldiers and sailors resolved to soothe their last moments by drinking until they lost their reason. Excited by the fumes acting on empty stomachs and heads already disordered by danger, they now became deaf to the voice of reason and boldly declared their intention to murder their officers and then cut the ropes which bound the raft together. One of them, seizing an axe, actually began the dreadful work. This was the signal for revolt. The officers rushed forward to quell the tumult and the mutineer with the axe was the first to fall, his head split by a sabre.
The passengers joined the officers but the mutineers were still the greater number. Luckily they were but badly armed, or the few bayonets and sabres of the opposite party could not have kept them at bay. One fellow, detected in secretly cutting the ropes, was immediately flung overboard. Others destroyed the shrouds and halliards of the sail, and the mast, deprived of support, fell upon a captain of infantry and broke his thigh. He was instantly seized by the soldiers and thrown into the sea, but the officers saved him. A furious assault was now made upon the mutineers, many of whom were cut down.At length this fit of desperation subsided into weeping cowardice. They cried out for mercy and asked for forgiveness upon their knees. It was now midnight and order appeared to be restored, but after an hour of deceitful calm the insurrection burst forth anew. The mutineers ran upon the officers like madmen, each having a knife or sabre in his hand, and such was the fury of the assailants that they tore with their teeth the flesh and even the clothing of their adversaries. There was no time for hesitation, a general slaughter took place, and the raft was strewn with dead bodies.
There was one woman on the raft, and the villains had thrown her overboard during the struggle, together with her husband, who had heroically defended her. M. Correard, gashed with saber-wounds as he was, leaped into the sea with a rope and rescued the wife, while Lavilette, the head workman, swam after the husband and hauled him to the raft.
The woman was a native of the Swiss Alps who had followed the armies of France as a sutler, or vivandière, for twenty years, through many of Napoleon's campaigns. Bronzed, intrepid, facing death with a gesture, she said to M. Correard:
I am a useful woman, you see, a veteran of great and glorious wars. Therefore, if you please, be so good as to continue to preserve my life. Ah, if you knew how often I have ventured upon the fields of battle and braved the bullets to carry assistance to our gallant men! Whether they had money or not, I always let them have my goods. Sometimes a battle would deprive me of my poor debtors, but after the victory others would pay me double or triple for what they had consumed before the engagement. Thus I came in for a share of the victories.
It was during a lull of the dreadful conflict among these pitiful castaways that M. Savigny was moved to exclaim:
The moon lighted with her melancholy rays this disastrous raft, this narrow space on which were found united so many torturing anxieties, a madness so insensate, a courage so heroic, and the most generous, the most amiable sentiments of nature and humanity.
Another night came, and the crazed mutineers made an attack even more savage. It was not altogether impelled by the blind instinct of survival, for again they tried to tear the raft apart and destroy themselves with it. They were so many ravening beasts. Those who resisted them displayed many instances of brave and beautiful self-sacrifice. One of the loyal laborers was seized by four of the rebels, who were about to kill him, but Lavilette, formerly a sergeant of Napoleon's Old Guard, rushed in and subdued them with the butt of a carbine and so saved the victim of their rage.
A young lieutenant fell into the hands of these maniacs, and again there were volunteers to rush in against overwhelming numbers and effect a rescue, regardless of their grievous wounds. Bleeding and exhausted, M. Coudin had fallen upon a barrel, but he still held in his arms a twelve-year-old sailor-boy whom he was trying to shield from harm. The rebels tossed them both into the sea, but M. Coudin clung to the lad and insisted that he be placed upon the raft before he permitted himself to be helped.
During these periods of hideous combat among men who should have been brethren and comrades in tribulation, as many as sixty of them were drowned or died of their wounds. Only two of these belonged to the little party of finely tempered souls who had shown themselves to be greatly heroic. They had withstood one onslaught after another, and there were never more than twenty of them, in honor preferring one another, untouched by the murderous delirium which had afflicted the others.
True, they saw phantasms and talked wildly, but the illusions were peaceful. M. Correard imagined that he was traveling through the lovely, fruitful fields of Italy. One of the officers said to him, quite calmly, "I recollect that we were abandoned by the boats, but there is no cause for anxiety. I am writing a letter to the Government, and in a few hours we shall be saved." And while they were babbling of the cafés of Paris and Bordeaux and ordering the most elaborate meals, they chewed the leather of the shoulder-belts and cartridges, and famine took its daily toll of them. In these circumstances it was inevitable that sooner or later they would begin devouring one another for food. The details are repugnant, and it is just as well to pass over them. With this same feeling in mind, one of the survivors confessed:
On the fourth day a dozen more had died, and the survivors were "extremely feeble, and bore upon their faces the stamp of approaching dissolution." Shipwrecked crews have lived much longer than this without food, but the situation of these sufferers was peculiarly dreadful. And yet one of them could say:
This day was serene and the ocean slumbered. Our hearts were in harmony with the comforting aspect of the heavens and received anew a ray of hope. A shoal of flying fish passed under our raft and as there was an infinite number of openings between the pieces which composed it, the fish were entangled in great numbers. We threw ourselves upon them and took about two hundred and put them in an empty barrel. This food seemed delicious, but one man would have required a score. Our first emotion was to give thanks to God for this unhoped for favor.
An ounce of gunpowder was discovered, and the sunshine dried it, so that with a steel and gun-flints a fire was kindled in a wetted cask and some of the little fish were cooked. This was the only food vouchsafed them, a mere shadow of substance among so many, "but the night was made tolerable and might have been happy if it had not been signalized by a new massacre."
A mob of Spaniards, Italians, and negroes had hatched a plot to throw all the others into the sea and so obtain the raft and what wine was left. The black men argued that the coast was near and that they could traverse it without danger from the natives and so act as guides. The leader of this outbreak was a Spaniard, who placed himself behind the mast, made the sign of the cross with one hand, waved a knife in the other, and invoked the name of God as the signal to rush forward and begin the affray. Two faithful French sailors, who were forewarned of this eruption, lost not a moment in grappling with this devout desperado, and he was thrown into the sea along with an Asiatic of gigantic stature who was suspected of being another ring-leader. A third instigator of the mob, perceiving that the plot was discovered, armed himself with a boarding-ax, hacked his way free, and plunged into the ocean.
The rest of the mutineers were hardier lunatics, and they fought wildly in the attempt to kill one of the officers, under the delusion that he was a Lieutenant Danglass, whom they had hated for his harsh manners while aboard the Medusa. At length they were repulsed, but when the morning came only thirty persons remained alive of the one hundred and fifty who had left the frigate. Occasional glimpses of reason prevailed, as when two soldiers were caught in the act of stealing wine from the only cask left, and were put to death after a summary courtmartial conducted with singular regard for form and ceremony.
Among those who mercifully passed out at the end of a week was the twelve-year-old sailor-boy, whose name was Leon. M. Savigny describes it so tenderly that the passage is worth quoting:
When the number of the living was reduced to twenty-seven, a solemn discussion was held, and a conclusion reached upon which it is not for us to pass judgment. It was evident that fifteen of the number were likely to live a few days longer, which gave them a tangible hope of rescue. The other twelve were about to die, all of them severely wounded and bereft of reason. There was still some wine in the last cask. To divide it with these doomed twelve was to deprive the fifteen stronger men of the chance of survival. It was decided to give these dying people to the merciful obliteration of the sea. The execution of this decree was undertaken by three soldiers and a sailor, chosen by lot, while the others wept and turned away their faces.
Among those whose feeble spark of life was snuffed out in this manner was that militant woman, the sutler who had followed Napoleon to the plains of Italy. Both she and her husband had been fatally wounded during the last night of the mutiny, and so they went out of life together, which was as they would have wished it. More than once in war the hopelessly wounded have been put out of the way in preference to leaving them in the wake of a retreat or burdening a column with them. In this tragedy of the sea the decision was held to be justifiable when the French Government investigated the circumstances.
With so few of them remaining, the fifteen survivors were able to assemble themselves upon a little platform raised in the center of the raft and to build a slight protection of plank and spars. To rehearse their sufferings at greater length would be to repel the modern reader. It is only in fiction that shipwreck can be employed as a theme for romance and enjoyable adventure. The reality is apt to be very stark and grim. It is more congenial to remember such fine bits as this, when the handful of them huddled upon the tiny platform in the final days of their agony:
On this new theatre we resolved to meet death in a manner becoming Frenchmen and with perfect resignation. Our time was almost wholly spent in talking of our beloved and unhappy country. All our wishes, our prayers, were for the prosperity of France.
It was the gallant M. Correard who assured his comrades that his presentiment of rescue was still unshaken, that a series of events so unheard of could not be destined to oblivion and that Providence would certainly preserve a few to tell to the world the melancholy story of the raft. In the bottom of a sack were found thirty cloves of garlic, which were distributed as a precious alleviation, and there was rejoicing over a little bottle of tooth-wash containing cinnamon and aromatics. A drop of it on the tongue produced an agreeable feeling,
and for a short time removed the thirst which destroyed us. Thus we sought with avidity an empty vial which one of us possessed and in which had once been some essence of roses. Every one, as he got hold of it, respired with delight the odor it exhaled, which imparted to his senses the most soothing impressions. Emaciated by privations, the slightest comfort was to us a supreme happiness.
On the ninth day they saw a butterfly of a species familiar to the gardens of France, and it fluttered to rest upon the mast. It was a harbinger of land and an omen of deliverance in their wistful sight. Other butterflies visited them, but the winds and currents failed to set them in close to the coast, and there was never a glimpse of a sail. They existed in quietude, with no more brawls or mutinies, until sixteen days had passed since the wreck of the Medusa. Then a captain of infantry, scanning the sea with aching eyes, saw the distant gleam of canvas.
Soon they were able to perceive that it was a brig, and they took it to be the Argus of their own squadron, which they had been hoping would be sent in search of them. They made a flag out of fragments of clothing, and a seaman climbed to the top of the mast and waved it until his strength failed. The vessel grew larger through half an hour of tears and supplication, and then its course was suddenly altered, and it dropped below the sky-line.
Despair overwhelmed them. They laid themselves down under a covering of sail-cloth and refused to glance at the ocean which had mocked them. It was proposed to write their names and a brief account of their experience upon a plank and affix it to the mast on the chance that the tidings might some day reach their government and their families in France.
It was the master gunner who crawled out, two hours later, and trembled as he stared at the brig which had made a long tack and was now steering straight toward the raft. The others dragged themselves to their feet, forgetting their sores and wounds and weakness, and embraced one another. From the foremast of the brig flew an ensign, which they joyously recognized, and they cried, as you might have expected of them, "It is, then, to Frenchmen that we shall owe our deliverance."
The Argus, which had been sent out by the governor of Sénégal, rounded to no more than a pistol-shot from the raft while the crew "ranged upon the deck and in the shrouds announced to us by the waving of their hands and hats, the pleasure they felt at coming to the; assistance of their unfortunate countrymen."
Fifteen men were taken on board the brig of the hundred and fifty who had shoved away from the frigate Medusa a little more than a fortnight earlier. There was no more fiddling and dancing on deck for "these helpless creatures almost naked, their bodies shrivelled by the rays of the sun, ten of them scarcely able to move, their limbs stripped of skin, their eyes hollow and almost savage, and the long beards giving them an air almost hideous."
They were most tenderly cared for by the surgeon of the Argus, but six of them died after reaching the African port of St. Louis. Only nine of the castaways of the Medusa's raft, therefore, lived to return to France. Their minds and bodies were marked with the scars of that experience, which you will find mentioned very frequently in the old records of shipwreck and disaster. It was an episode in human history, the best and the worst of it, and a reminder of man's eternal conflict with the sea.