Most of the religious blogs I visit have been filled lately with posts on Katrina and ways to help those affected … see Steve’s blog, for instance. All good and necessary stuff, but anything I could add would be redundant. Instead, I’m going off on an historical tangent, to ask if, when the going gets tough, those who are “the least” are those who are also left behind, whether it be in New Orleans or on the raft of the Medusa, on the seas off the coast of Africa.
– The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault
In 1816, after Napolean had been defeated and the monarchy restored to the throne of France by the English, the French were gifted with the port of St. Louis, in Senegal on the African west coast. St. Louis was a vital trading base, and a good place to stop on the way around the Cape of Good Hope. The French government sent a fleet os ships, carrying the new govenor, soldiers and gentry, to St. Louis.
Sadly, the choice of ship’s captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, was a political one, rather than a practical one, and this had much to do with the disaster that followed. Four ships set off for St. Louis … the captain’s ship, the Medusa, carried approximately 400 men, women and children, including Colonel Julien-De’sire’ Schmaltz, Commander in Chief and new Governor of Senegal, and M. Richefort, a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, an international organization dedicated to exploring the African interior. The crew and passangers were at the mercy of the ineptitude of these three men, as they chose a dangerous course close to the shoreline, outrunning the other ships.
Long story short, the Medusa was soon beached on a sandbar, several miles from shore. The crew tried to lighten the ship and get her off the sandbar while they were at high tide, but to no avail. The captain made the decision to abandon the ship. Unfortunately, there were not enough life boats for everyone, so the govenor decided that those wealthy passengers, the captain and himself, would take the few lifeboats, while the remaining crew and passengers could build and utilize a raft.
The raft, which was to be towed to shore by the lifeboats, was made of the masts and cross-beams of the boat, roughly 65 feet by 23 feet. It had no means of navigation and no oars. When some 150 men boarded it, they sank down in the sea to their waists and each man only had a square three feet on which to stand. A number of people decided to stay aboard the beached ship.
It was not long before the inevitable order was given by the captain to cut loose the raft and leave it at the mercy of the sea, four miles from shore, for the occupants of the lifeboats could not allow those less fortunateto destroy their chances. The situation on the raft deteriorated. As night approached, the men threw overboard many of their provisions in an effort to lighten the raft, and they then fell upon each other, fighting for space. By morning, the raft was 20 men lighter. As each day passed, things became worse … less rations, more mayhem and desperation … until finally white men and black, officers and crew, turned against each other, the weak and wounded thrown overboard and even the corpses of those dead consumed by the living. When those on the raft were finally rescued 13 days later by one of the other ships in their fleet, there were only 15 men out of the original 150 surviving.
Afterwards, De Chaumereys was court-martialed, but was found not guilty of desertion. With rumours of hidden gold secreted in the hull of the Medusa dancing in his head, the captain set sail for his wrecked ship. He finally found her but though he searched thoroughly, he found no gold … only three crazed and starving survivors who’d hung on for the 54 days since he’d abandoned them.
It’s been a couple hundred years, but I’m afraid that the more things change, the more they stay the same.