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Six Months In A Leaky Boat

April 3, 2011

The Raft of Medusa - Theodore Gericault

The History

In June 1816, the French frigate Méduse departed from Rochefort, bound for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. She headed a convoy of three other ships: the storeship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Écho. Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys had been appointed captain of the frigate despite having scarcely sailed in 20 years. The frigate’s mission was to accept the British return of Senegal under the terms of France’s acceptance of the Peace of Paris. The appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, and his wife Reine Schmaltz were among the passengers.

In an effort to make good time, the Méduse overtook the other ships, but due to its speed it drifted 100 miles (161 km) off course. On July 2, it ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast, near today’s Mauritania. The collision was widely blamed on the incompetence of De Chaumereys, a returned émigré who lacked experience and ability, but had been granted his commission as a result of an act of political preferment.  Efforts to free the ship failed, so, on July 5, the frightened passengers and crew started an attempt to travel the 60 miles (97 km) to the African coast in the frigate’s six boats. Although the Méduse was carrying 400 people, including 160 crew, there was space for only about 250 in the boats. The remainder of the ship’s complement—at least 146 men and one woman—were piled onto a hastily-built raft, that partially submerged once it was loaded. Seventeen crew members opted to stay aboard the grounded Méduse. The captain and crew aboard the other boats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few miles the raft was turned loose.  For sustenance the crew of the raft had only a bag of ship’s biscuit (consumed on the first day), two casks of water (lost overboard during fighting) and a few casks of wine.

According to critic Jonathan Miles, the raft carried the survivors “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.” After 13 days, on July 17, 1816, the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance—no particular search effort was made by the French for the raft.  By this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, died of starvation, or thrown themselves into the sea in despair.  The incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French monarchy, only recently restored to power after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. ~ Source Wikipedia

Marie de Medici ~ Theodore Gericault

Image Credit: Linda Hines

The Artist

Two years later, the artist Théodore Géricault revealed his massive (16’x23’) painting, Raft of the “Medusa” . Géricault had thoroughly researched the subject by reading a pamphlet written by two of the survivors; he went to hospitals and morgues to study the dying and the dead (and even severed body parts which he let decay in his studio) and he set a raft out on the sea to see how it rode the waves. He also worked from live models and interestingly, the artist Eugène Delacroix was one of them. He is the corpse lying face down, arms outstretched, in the center of the composition.

The massive size of the painting is in keeping with traditional historical paintings, although the subject was a current event and unlike most historical paintings, there is no clear-cut hero(s). Instead we have victims. People who are literally cast off because they exist on the lower rungs of society; they are at the mercy of the more crass machinations of society and clearly, in the end, it’s every man for himself. [Read more]

Portrait of Lord Byron ~ Theodore Gericault

The Misery

Six Months in a Leaky Boat” is a single from New Zealand art rock group Split Enz’s album Time and Tide. It was written by Tim Finn and released as a single in 1982.

The song was not a comment on the 1982 Falklands War, despite some speculation. The song was written and recorded a month before the invasion; the title metaphor refers to lead singer Tim Finn’s nervous breakdown.  Click to watch YouTube

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One comment

  1. I knew this painting but not the story behind it — gruesome.



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