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Méduse sailing close-hauled with brigs in the background
|Builder:||Crucy shipyard, Paimboeuf|
|Laid down:||24 June 1806|
|Launched:||1 July 1810|
|In service:||26 September 1810|
|Fate:||Beached on Bank of Arguin|
|Class and type:||Pallas-class frigate|
|Length:||46.93 m (154.0 ft)|
|Beam:||11.91 m (39.1 ft)|
|Draught:||5.9 m (19 ft)|
|Propulsion:||1,950 m2 (21,000 sq ft) of sail|
Méduse was a 40-gun Pallas-class frigate of the French Navy, launched in 1810. She took part in the Napoleonic Wars, namely in the late stages of the Mauritius campaign of 1809–1811 and in raids in the Caribbean.
Following the Bourbon Restoration, Méduse was armed en flûte to ferry French officials to the port of Saint-Louis, in Senegal, to formally re-establish French occupation of the colony under the terms of the First Peace of Paris. Through inept navigation by her captain, an émigré given command for political reasons but incompetent as a naval officer, Méduse struck the Bank of Arguin off the coast of present-day Mauritania and became a total loss.
Most of the 400 passengers on board evacuated, with 151 men forced to take refuge on an improvised raft towed by the frigate's launches. The towing proved impractical, however, and the boats soon abandoned the raft and its passengers in the open ocean. Without any means of navigating to shore, the situation aboard the raft rapidly turned disastrous. Dozens were washed into the sea by a storm, while others, drunk from wine, rebelled and were killed by officers. When supplies ran low, several injured men were thrown into the sea, and some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism. After 13 days at sea, the raft was discovered with only 15 men still alive.
News of the tragedy stirred considerable public emotion, making Méduse one of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Age of Sail. Two survivors, a surgeon and an officer, wrote a widely read book about the incident, and the episode was immortalised when Théodore Géricault painted The Raft of the Medusa, which became an iconic artwork of French Romanticism.
Méduse was commissioned in Nantes on 26 September 1810.
In 1811, she was sent off to Java with Nymphe, in a frigate division under the command of Joseph-François Raoul. On 2 September, the frigates arrived at Surabaya, tailed by the 32-gun frigate HMS Bucephalus. Two days later, another British ship, HMS Barracouta, joined the chase, but lost contact on 8 September. On 12 September, Méduse and Nymphe chased Bucephalus, which escaped and broke contact the next day. Méduse was back in Brest on 22 December 1811. She then served in the Atlantic, and in 1814, she was part of the fleet sent to retake Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
With the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, Louis XVIII decided to restore Royalist dominance of the senior ranks of both the French Navy and Army. Consequently, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was appointed Capitaine de frégate and given command of the Méduse, even though he had hardly sailed in 20 years.
On 17 June 1816, a convoy under the command of Chaumareys on Méduse departed Rochefort accompanied by the storeship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Écho to receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal. Méduse, armed en flûte, carried many passengers, including the appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, his wife Reine Schmaltz, and his secretary, Joseph Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Griffon du Bellay. Méduse's complement totaled 400, including 160 crew plus a contingent of marine infantrymen intended to serve as the garrison of Saint-Louis. The ship reached the island of Madeira on 27 June.
Schmaltz then wanted to reach Saint-Louis as fast as possible, by the most direct route, though this would take the fleet dangerously close to the shore, where there were many sandbars and reefs. Experienced crews sailed further out. Méduse was the fastest of the convoy and, disregarding his orders, Captain Chaumareys quickly lost contact with Loire and Argus. Écho kept pace and attempted to guide Méduse, but to no avail. Écho then prudently moved further out to sea.
Chaumareys had decided to involve one of the passengers, Richefort, in the navigation of the frigate. Richefort was a philosopher and a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde, but had no qualification to guide ships. As she closed on the coast of Africa, the course of Méduse became dangerous. Richefort apparently mistook a large cloud bank on the horizon for Cape Blanco on the African coast, and so underestimated the proximity of the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania.
On 2 July 1816, now more than 100 miles (161 km) off course, Méduse ran into increasingly shallow water, with both Chaumareys and Richefort ignoring signs such as white breakers and mud in the water. Eventually, Lieutenant Maudet took it upon himself to start taking soundings off the bow, and, measuring only 18 fathoms (33 m), warned his captain. Realising the danger at last, Chaumareys ordered the ship brought up into the wind, but it was too late, and Méduse ran aground 50 kilometres (31 mi) from the coast. The accident occurred at a spring high tide, which made it difficult to re-float the frigate. The captain refused to jettison the 14 three-tonne cannons and so the ship settled into the bank.
The Méduse was not carrying enough lifeboats to transport all of the passengers to safety in a single trip. Plans were proposed to use the ship's launches to ferry the passengers and crew to shore, just 50 kilometres (31 mi) away, which was expected to require at least two boat trips. Numerous ideas for lightening Méduse and immediately coming off the reef were also proposed, in particular that of building a raft on to which the crew could unload her cargo.[unreliable source?]
A raft measuring 20 metres (66 ft) long and 7 metres (23 ft) wide was soon constructed with wood salvaged from the wreck, and was nicknamed "la Machine" by the crew.[unreliable source?] On 5 July, a gale developed and Méduse showed signs of breaking up. The passengers and crew panicked, and Chaumareys decided to evacuate the frigate immediately, leaving no time to enact the original plan of making multiple ferry trips to shore. Instead, it was suggested that the raft could be used to carry passengers and Méduse's longboats could tow the raft to safety; 146 men and one woman boarded the woefully unstable raft. The raft had few supplies and no means of steering or navigation. Much of its deck was underwater. Seventeen men decided to stay with the disabled Méduse, and the rest boarded the ship's longboats.
The crews of the boats soon realised that towing the raft was impractical and began to fear being overwhelmed by the desperate survivors aboard the raft. After traveling only a few kilometers, it was decided that the tow ropes should be cut, leaving the raft and its occupants to their fate.[a] The lifeboats, with the captain and Governor Schmaltz aboard, sailed away to safety. Some landed immediately on the coast of Africa, with most of the survivors making their way overland to Senegal, though some died on the way.
On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Among the provisions were casks of wine instead of water. Fights broke out between the officers and passengers on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers on the other. On the first night adrift, 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Stormy weather threatened, and only the center of the raft was secure. Dozens died either in fighting to get to the center or because they were washed overboard by the waves. Rations dwindled rapidly; by the fourth day there were only 67 people left alive on the raft, and some resorted to cannibalism to survive. On the eighth day, the fittest decided to throw the weak and wounded overboard, leaving just 15 men remaining, all of whom survived another four days until their rescue on 17 July by the brig Argus, which accidentally encountered them.
Argus took the survivors of the raft to Saint-Louis to recover. Five of them, including Jean Charles, the last African crew member, died within days. Chaumareys decided to rescue the gold that was still on board Méduse and sent out a salvage crew, which discovered that the Méduse was still largely intact. Only three of the 17 men who had decided to stay on the Méduse were still alive 54 days later. British naval officers helped the survivors to return to France because aid from the French Minister of the Marine was not forthcoming.
Méduse's surviving surgeon, Henri Savigny, and the governor's secretary submitted their account of the tragedy to the authorities. It was leaked to an anti-Bourbon newspaper, the Journal des débats, and was published on 13 September 1816. The incident quickly became a scandal in French politics and Bourbon officials tried to cover it up. At his court-martial at Port de Rochefort in 1817, Chaumareys was tried on five counts but acquitted of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft; however, he was found guilty of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off. Even though this verdict exposed him to the death penalty, Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail. The court-martial was widely thought to be a "whitewash" and, in 1818, Senegal Governor Schmaltz was forced to resign. The Gouvion de Saint-Cyr Law later ensured that promotions in the French military would thereafter be based on merit.
Savigny and another survivor, the geographer-engineer Alexandre Corréard, subsequently wrote a book with their own account (Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse) of the incident, published in 1817. It went through five editions by 1821 and was also published with success in English, German, Dutch and Italian translations. A revision of the text in later editions increased the political thrust of the work.[not in citation given]
In 1980, a French marine archaeological expedition led by Jean-Yves Blot located the Méduse shipwreck site off the coast of modern-day Mauritania. The team operated out of the port city of Nouadhibou, approximately 160 kilometres (99 mi) north of the wreck site, and used four sailboats as the expedition's working vessels. The primary search tool was a one-of-a-kind magnetometer developed by the CEA.
The search area was defined on the basis of the accounts of survivors of Méduse and, more importantly, on the records of an 1817 French coastal mapping expedition that found the vessel's remains still projecting above the waves. The background research proved to be so good that the expedition team located the shipwreck site on the very first day of searching. They then recovered enough artifacts to identify the wreck positively and to mount an exhibit in the Marine Museum in Paris.
Impressed by accounts of the shipwreck, the 25-year-old artist Théodore Géricault decided to create an oil painting based on the incident and contacted the writers in 1818. His work depicts a moment recounted by one of the survivors: prior to their rescue, the passengers saw a ship on the horizon, which they tried to signal. She disappeared, and in the words of one of the surviving crew members, "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief". The ship Argus reappeared two hours later and rescued those who remained. The painting, titled Le Radeau de la Méduse (English: The Raft of the Medusa), is considered an iconic work of the French Romantic movement and Géricault's masterpiece. It is on display in the Louvre.
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