The Raft of the Medusa

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The Raft of the Medusa

In 1819, the French painter, Theodore Gerricault, created a sensation in Parisian art circles and high-society when he unveiled a huge and impressive canvas entitled "Scene of Shipwreck." Not only is the painting gigantic (16 ft high and almost 24 ft wide), but is also quietly horrifying. A group men on crowded fat are making an attempt to get a faraway ship to notice them. Survival looks almost impossible, and but the desperate situation does not even begin to suggest the abject horror which overtook the people of the raft. The real story which inspired the painting had taken place in 1816 . . .

In Paris of that year, where the French monarchy was back in power—with the "permission" of the English, who had recently, through the efforts of Wellington, ended Napoleon's reign at Waterloo. In a tangle of diplomatic details, Britain attempted to make friends with the re-installed French king, and offered him a port city in colonial Africa—a settlement called St. Louis in Senegal on the African west coast. St. Louis had established itself a viable trading post and was strategically located for ships to take pause during long voyages around the Cape of Good Hope

The plan was in place for the French to send four ships filled with soldiers and other friends of the throne to St. Louis along with its new Governor. The man in charge of the expedition was a man named Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys. As it turned out, he was not a very good choice for the job—for a lot reasons. He hadn't been to sea in more than twenty years, had never commanded an entire ship, and some reports even claimed he was not a seaman at all, but a land-based customs agent. The only credential that qualified him for the assignment was a good, however: he was a friend of the newly re-instated king.

Whether wise or brave or just uninformed, de Chaumereys, back in 1795, had sided against the French revolutionaries. He was living in exile in England, but maneuvered himself into a position for reward in 1814 when Louis XVIII reclaimed the throne. Hughes Duroy de Chaumereys had been a good friend of the king's brother, and persuaded him to get him a sinecurial command in the department of the French Navy. This was not an unreasonable request because he had long ago demonstrated his loyalty to the crown. But there was one big problem—de Chaumereys had no idea how to assume control of an ocean-going frigate. There was only one way to overcome such an obstacle, and that was to ignore it, and the king granted the request. When Duroy de Chaumereys assumed his command, he experienced resistance and friction from his First Officer and much of the crew. In the first place, he was perceived to be a foppish and sissified, not at all a military man. Worse, many of the crew had served under Napoleon, and were not happy to hear that their new captain had been in exile in England.

Despite these issues, de Chaumereys' squadron of his flagship, the Medusa, plus three others: the Loire, the Argus, and the Echo, set sail on June 17, 1816. The Medusa was a fairly large vessel, carrying around 400 men, women, and children. It boasted a sizable crew of 160 men, and the newly-appointed Governor of Senegal, a man, who like de Chaumereys, had been given a post in the new government for being loyal to the monarchy—Colonel Julien-De'sire' Schmaltz. It is said Schmaltz, (like most empty-headed aristocrats) was a man filled with (unearned) self-importance and a lot of arrogance. This bad combination of traits apparently impressed Fleet Commander de Chaumereys, who seemed to like and respect the new Governor, and wanted to do anything to impress him. Schmaltz wanted to reach St. Louis as fast as possible, by the most direct route. Unfortunately, this would take the fleet dangerously close to the shoreline. There were sandbars, reefs, and a whole gamut of tricky navigational problems the entire length of the African coast including the notorious Arguin...
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