Background on The Wrack of the Medusa

When looking for material for episodes, our writer Eddie Louise likes to find moments in history that have an impact. In the month of May, she has chosen the Wrack of the Medusa, a French frigate which struck the Bank of Arguin. Not only does this provide a moment in history where Sage & Savant can easily travel to – lots of dead bodies – but the events that transpired were beyond imagination.

The young, inexperienced Captain Chaumareys left Rochefort on 17 June, 1816. During the voyage, the captain allowed one of the passengers to navigate. Mistaking Cape Blanco on the African coast as a cloud bank, the ship ventured too close to the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania. Both the captain and the amateur navigator, Richefort, ignored the signs they were in shallow water. Lieutenant Maudet begun taking soundings at only 18 fathoms, but it was too late. Even through Captian Chaumareys ordered the ship into the wind, the Méduse ran aground on 2 July. The events of the tragedy did not stop there.

The captain refused to discard the canon, so the ship settled into the bank. Initial plans to ferry everyone to the coast, only 30 miles away and would have only taken 2 trips. Attempting to save the cargo, the captain ordered a raft built, which would be towed to shore by the boats. The raft was only 20 meters by 7 meters. However, a storm started brewing and the captain panicked. One hundred forty-six men and one woman boarded the raft. Much of the craft was underwater with the weight of cargo and crew.

The captain, the new French Governor of Senegal, Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, were aboard the boats. As they rowed toward shore, the boats decided it was impractical to tow the raft and they cut it lose. With no means of propulsion or steering, the raft drifted. Twenty died on the first night. Further storms weakened the raft and several fights broke out, and eventually, some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive. rescued on 17 July, only 15 men remained, and not all of them survived beyond a day or two upon reaching Senegal.

Not all those on the boats faired much better. Two of the boats were separated from the rest of the boats during a storm. They found their way to the coast but had to travel over harsh desserts to reach civilization.

There are numerous accounts from the survivors. These accounts forced the Port de Rochefort to court-martial Captain Chaumareys. He was tried on five counts but only found guilty of incompetence in navigation. While the verdict could have included the death penalty, Chaumareys only served three years in jail.

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