This bigger than life-size painting (measuring 23 x 16 feet) by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault was as famous as the events of 2 years earlier that inspired it. Scholarly works were written about the relationship of forms within composition and the colour palette used. It depicts the moment the shipwrecked survivors of the Meduse spot the sails of the rescue ship after 13 days at sea.
On 2 July 1816 French naval frigate Meduse ran aground on Arguin Bank, 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania in West Africa. The Meduse became an international scandal. This was partly because the events that followed were so horrific. But it was also due to the incompetence of her captain – who had been given command for political reasons, without naval officer experience-, and the subsequent cover-up attempt by the French authorities.
After running aground, the ship became a total loss when the captain refused to jettison the 14 3-ton cannons which would have re-floated the ship on the high tide. Realising all was lost, the 400 people on board had to evacuate.
151 men were put on a hurriedly constructed raft and towed by the frigate’s lifeboats. Three days later, the lifeboat crews realised towing the raft was impractical. Fearing being overwhelmed by the desperate survivors marooned on the raft, they decided to cut the ropes and leave the remaining 147 men on board to their fate.
A terrible ordeal rapidly developed. On the first night adrift 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Casks of water turned out to be wine. Drunkenness exacerbated the problem when some drunken men rebelled and were killed by the officers. When a storm threatened, the men sought safety on the middle of the raft. Dozens died either fighting to the centre or were washed overboard by the waves.
The scanty rations were exhausted by the 4th day adrift. Only 67 out of 147 were left alive. Some, dehydrated and desperate, drank sea water succumbing to madness. Others resorted to cannibalism.
On the 8th day, the fittest men decided to throw the weak and wounded overboard. This left 15 men, all of whom survived the four remaining days until their rescue.
I think what shocked me most when I first heard the story of the Meduse was how fast, and how completely, the thin veneer of civilisation was stripped away. It begs the question… Is this what we are really like? The naked ape stripped raw. The raft was only adrift for 13 days. 13 days at sea and over 136 people dead with murder, madness, drunkenness and cannibalism all playing a part.
PS: If the painting looks oddly familiar, it might be because the Pogues (fronted by Shane MacGowan of ‘Fairytale of New York’ fame) used the painting with the band’s faces replacing the survivors) for the cover of their album ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’.