Some stories are filled with tragedy, and others are simply filled with ineptitude. In the case of the Méduse, her story has both of them.
The Méduse was a Pallas-class frigate of the French Navy, which had seen all her splendour in the early 19th century, taking part in the Napoleonic Wars. She fought many battles and nothing ever happened to her, which would be the ship equivalent to having a very dangerous job in which you can get killed at any moment and then dying one day of a sudden pneumonia.
When the war ended, Napoleon was told to get lost and the Bourbons were put back on the throne, the Méduse was armed en flute and sent to carry French officials to Senegal, where King Louis XVIII wanted to re-establish their rule in the colony.
Because he was just back on the throne and wanted to look cool and have people like him again, the king appointed Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, who hadn’t sailed in over two decades, as the captain of the Méduse. Don’t forget this: massive ship, captain with zero knowledge of sailing.
So, in 1816, the ship left for Senegal, carrying 400 passengers, 160 of them crew. To make things even safer, Chaumareys convinced Richerfort, a passenger who was a philosopher with no experience sailing, to help him with the navigation after the ships accompanying the Méduse went sea inside, refusing to stay as near to the shore as the main ship was.
What happens when you are a huge ship moving through shallow water and captained by a man who probably thinks sea water is drinkable? What was expected to happen: the Méduse ran aground, crashing on a sandbank 50 kilometres near the shore.
After the ‘incident’, the crew began to build a raft that could take everyone to shore, also hoping that this would make the ship lighter so it could escape the reef she was trapped in.
But alas, the ship started breaking, so Chaumareys decided that was it and rushed everyone outside the Méduse, with only 17 men staying behind.
Well, not everyone left, because in the midst of the chaos, plenty of people drowned, others were too drunk to remember how to survive…the usual. And to make things worse, the raft was tied to the lifeboats, but the people aboard the boats quickly realised that towing a raft so big was a nuisance, so, what did they do? Yes, they cut off the ropes and left the raft people to their luck (i.e. imminent death).
The lifeboats then sailed away. Some of them even made it to Senegal, but most of their passengers had already died on the way there.
The raft was another story. For starters, they had packed wine instead of water, which didn’t make things better. Everyone kept fighting, and on the first night only, twenty men died (both killed and committing suicide).
Only the centre of the raft was safe, so it was a constant battle to get there. Most people died because they drowned while being on the edges or because they were pushed. Or both. After four days, only around 70 people remained, and that is when cannibalism started. After all, there are only so many days you can survive on wine.
Another four days passed until the weaker were thrown off the raft (apparently, they weren’t even worth eating), and the 15 that remained were eventually rescued by the ship Argus, which just happened to be around.
Five of the men rescued died within days, though. And Chaumareys, not happy enough with the mess he had caused, decided to send a salvage team to the Méduse, which turned out to be intact, with three of the seventeen men who had stayed behind still alive, almost two months later.
It is not exactly surprising that it became a political scandal, or that Chaumareys was tried. He was eventually found guilty of incompetent navigation (yes, you can declare someone officially incompetent) and sentenced to three years in jail –even though the law back then should have sentenced him to death. The trial itself also proved to be a scandal. Luckily, after this incident, a law was passed to make sure military promotions were only given based on merit. You know, like they actually should.
So the moral of the story is this: always check the captain’s credentials when you board a ship, and make sure you carry a cannibalism-proof armour with you.