The first reports of a gruesome disaster reached Paris on 5 September 1816. A French frigate, the Medusa, had run aground on the notorious and poorly mapped Arguin Bank off the coast of West Africa. It was the flagship of a small expedition sent to repossess the settlement of Senegal, which had been handed back to the French by the Treaties of Paris (1814 and 1815). The captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, was, in Jonathan Miles’s words, ‘a rusty relic from the Ancien Régime who had not put to sea for about a quarter of a century’. When it ran aground, the Medusa had become separated from the rest of the expedition. There wasn’t enough room in its longboats and barges for all the passengers and crew, so a raft was fashioned from some of the wreckage. It was about a quarter of the size of the Medusa’s main deck. One hundred and forty-seven people were put on the raft, which was to be towed by the other boats. The leading boat contained Captain Chaumareys, who had smartly abandoned ship before the evacuation was complete.
For some reason, the tow rope was cut, and the rudderless raft left to its fate. Twelve days later, it was discovered by one of the other ships on the expedition. The captain of the Argus filed his report on 19 July:
I found on this raft 15 people … These unfortunates had been obliged to fight and kill a large number of their comrades who had revolted in order to seize the provisions … Others had been taken by the sea, or died of hunger or madness. Those that I rescued had fed themselves on human flesh for several days, and, at the moment when I found them, the ropes which held the mast were covered with morsels of this flesh which they had hung up to dry.
Five of the 15 survivors died within a few months.
Two of the youngest, Alexandre Corréard, a former officer in Napoleon’s Garde Impériale, and Henri Savigny, a ship’s surgeon, published a passionately self-righteous account of the disaster. Naufrage de la frégate ‘La Méduse’ became an instant bestseller. It was a timely indictment of the Restoration government, which appeared to favour fossilised émigrés like Chaumareys simply because they had remained loyal to the king. The fact that Chaumareys received a light sentence (he was struck off the list of officers and sent to prison for three years) seemed to confirm the rottenness of the regime. The account was translated into Dutch, English, German and Italian, so that foreigners could gloat over the callous ineptitude of the French. However, it also served the purposes of Louis XVIII’s chief minister, Elie Decazes, who was trying to neutralise the influence of the royalist Ultras.
It was this sensational account of civilised men driven to cannibalism by an aristocratic imbecile that brought Alexandre Corréard to the attention of the young painter Théodore Géricault. In the opening pages of Miles’s book, Géricault has shaved his head and vowed to stay indoors until he has finished a painting on the subject of the shipwreck. To help him with his research, he has assembled an impressive collection of putrid and bleeding body parts, ‘arranged lovingly, like delicacies’. Corréard has come to view the painting of the raft, in which he is depicted with his co-author, Savigny. In one of the many psychologically bizarre moments in Miles’s admirably energetic account, Corréard is completely unfazed by the gore: having spent several days eating ‘the hacked-off limbs of dead companions’, ‘he showed no sign of shock at the butchery and neither did the reek of rotting flesh upset him.’
Miles allows his tale to be whipped along by the fashionably hysterical eloquence of Corréard and Savigny. Disaster movies have taught us to expect long periods of ordinariness, to contrast with the impending horror, but in the nerve-shattering world of Romantic disaster, nothing is allowed to lapse into banality. For the survivors on one of the boats, who were forced to trudge across the desert to Saint-Louis, the heat is not just oppressive, it makes one’s head ‘feel as if it were full of bubbling, boiling liquid’. Instead of finding the going somewhat soft, they discover that ‘any attempt to walk on this shifting terrain would plunge their feet deep into the burning ground’. When the party finally staggers back to the coast, Charlotte Picard – who published an account of her ordeal in 1824 – is ‘almost crushed’ by an overexcited donkey. Later, she and her mother wake from an exhausted sleep ‘only to fall back in a faint’, as women must, ‘overcome by the sight of several large, bearded Moors towering above them on camels’, but are relieved to hear one of the Moors address the mother: ‘Madame, reassure yourself, beneath this Arab costume is an Irishman come here to help you.’ (This was a certain Kearney, who had been sent by the British commander in Senegal to find the castaways.)
All this reheated Romantic frenzy gives Miles’s account a pleasant dash and stumble, but it requires enormous reserves of synonyms. It takes Joseph Conrad or Cormac McCarthy to prolong monotonous misery in a satisfying manner. When the tone is frantic from the start, supplies are soon exhausted, and even the narrator seems to lose interest: ‘There were … all kinds of combustible moments between half-crazed people seared by the heat.’ Thirty pages after the donkey incident, the skeletal crew of the raft, having sipped their wine rations, are becoming ‘feisty’, and ‘a general testiness’ prevails. Fortunately, even when his tongue is black and stuck to the roof of his mouth, a Frenchman’s palate never lets him down. Urine, cooled in small tins, turns out to be ‘a valuable source of ingestible liquid’, and the survivors on the raft divert ‘themselves with comparative tastings’. ‘Savigny observed that certain people produced decidedly tasty urine, whereas the output of others was bitter and unpalatable.’
Horrendous disasters, which seem to be tailor-made for the popular historian, present enormous difficulties. Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters has a seriously witty chapter on the subject. Miles does not mention it, though it might have provided him with some useful observations on how a painter turns ‘catastrophe into art’. Recounted in the idiom of the time, extreme misfortune has a tendency to tip over into farce. As Miles says of the political situation in Restoration Paris, ‘the situation was not only combustible, it was absurd.’ Or, as Barnes puts it, referring to Géricault’s preliminary sketches: ‘Tone was always going to be the problem here.’ Miles doesn’t make it easy to keep a straight face, with his puns (Géricault was ‘not quite ready to take the wreck of the Medusa on board’), his costume drama clichés (‘piercing eyes’, ‘bitter winter’ and ‘not a moment too soon’ appear in the first two sentences), and his fondness for appositional phrases, which, since they leave the meaning briefly in suspense, have to be used with caution. ‘A hideous sight in the underpants given to him by Kearney,’ to quote a particularly striking example, ‘he looked like someone about to be ferried over the Styx.’
One of the other paintings on the subject – Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio’s The Abandoning of the Raft of the ‘Medusa’, which is reproduced in the illustrations but not mentioned in the text – shows the castaways, arms raised in remonstration like an opera chorus, at the precise moment when they realise that they are being left to die. It might have been titled ‘Come Back, You Bastards!’ The figures are so wooden and their reaction so stagily co-ordinated that it is almost impossible not to snigger at their predicament. Géricault’s painting is saved from ridicule by the dramatic arrangement of the figures, forming a powerful, unbalanced human pyramid like the soldiers in Joe Rosenthal’s ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’, by the beauty of their incongruously healthy limbs and torsos, and by the fact that it depicts a moment of hope. But since suffering has to conform to certain conventions in order to elicit pity, even Géricault’s painting is becoming quainter by the year. It would now take several pages of art-historical analysis to explain why Eugène Delacroix, who posed for one of the figures, was so terrified by this assemblage of separate studies that he ran ‘all the way back … to the far end of the faubourg Saint-Germain’.
The other, more serious problem facing the disaster historian is the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. Almost everything that was written about the Medusa reeks of lies, exaggeration, false memories, self-justification, political point-scoring and cheap fiction. By choosing to smooth over the discrepancies and to use ‘the most probable or trustworthy source’ in order to produce a coherent and entertaining narrative, Miles deprives his readers of the pleasure of weighing up the different versions. The most suspect account of all is the main source: Naufrage de la frégate ‘La Méduse’, by Corréard and Savigny. Until the last few pages of his book, Miles gives the two survivors the benefit of the doubt and presents them as they wanted to be seen: earnest and honourable young men, representing Romantic liberalism, embroiled in a terrible disaster by an incompetent old fool, representing a corrupt monarchical regime.
Even a cursory reading of the various accounts makes it clear that most of the details are in doubt. Corréard and Savigny evidently sounded plausible at the time: men of such elevated sensibility could not possibly have committed unspeakable acts, and if, as readers were bound to suspect, they allowed themselves an occasional mouthful of meat, their courage and decency entitled them to survive the ordeal. Now, in a society that has been liberalised to an extent that would have horrified the liberal Corréard and Savigny, it is impossible to believe their account. Even by the standards of the time, they were snobs. In their version of events, the lower orders are constitutionally ‘deaf to the voice of reason’. At the slightest opportunity, they drink themselves even more stupid than they already are. The common soldiers cheat the other castaways out of their rations. Two cabin boys and a baker demonstrate their weakness under pressure by committing suicide. A delirious ‘Asiatic’ – a huge, hideous man with ‘a swarthy complexion’ and an enormous nose – has to be run through with a sabre.
Miles makes much of the inclusion of black men in Géricault’s painting, and points out that, as liberals, Corréard and Savigny were opposed to the slave trade. Their account does, briefly, express sympathy with those ‘unhappy blacks who are torn away from their families’, but they were clearly more concerned by ‘the enslavement of the press’. In describing Géricault’s painting, they say almost nothing of the black figures, and mention only ‘an African who understands nothing of what is going on around him’.
Perhaps even Corréard and Savigny realised that their fictional selves were too good to be credible. In later editions, they included some expert testimony which supported the view that good breeding always wins out. Despite their ‘vigorous’ nature and experience of ‘the most laborious trades’, the lower orders were bound to succumb ‘under the weight of common destiny’, while the young gentlemen were destined to survive because of ‘the education they had received, the exercise of their intellectual faculties, and the elevated nature of their sentiments’. ‘It was to this that they owed their astonishing superiority and salvation.’
Apart from obvious superficial differences, this is still the conventional manner of depicting behaviour in mass disasters. In the aftermath, individual acts of extraordinary, redemptive courage are discovered, and are often attributed to people who, for various reasons, are thought to deserve a reputation for bravery. Ironically, by telling such a suspiciously self-aggrandising tale, Corréard and Savigny suggest that, in reality, disaster victims tend to behave like normal human beings. Miles allows the Romantic illusion to survive until halfway through the last chapter, when he mentions ‘inconsistencies between their narrative and other accounts’, and finds a partial explanation for these in the authors’ desire to blacken their political enemies and to ‘whitewash’ their own ‘questionable roles on the raft’.
Even at this point, with some other horrible truth beginning to appear on the horizon, he plays down the discrepancies. He attaches little importance to the revisionist account published by Charlotte Picard, who wanted to correct ‘what is wanting in exactitude’ in the earlier account. Picard quotes the passage in which Corréard and Savigny described a Moor sneaking up on the sleeping girl: he lifted up her shawl and gazed in astonishment or lust at her white breasts before returning ‘to his place, where he joyfully related to his comrades what he had just seen’. Charlotte’s father then decided to dress his wife and daughter in military uniform. ‘Well!’ she writes. ‘I beg the pardon of MM. Corréard and Savigny, but there is not a single word of truth in all of that. How could those Gentlemen have seen from their Raft what was happening on 12 July on the coast of the Sahara desert?’ This and other corrections to the account may be ‘slight’, as Miles says, but they confirm the untrustworthiness of Savigny and Corréard.
By this point in the book, the two survivors’ account is utterly discredited in any case. Their attempt to show that the Restoration was the root of the whole disaster is so clumsy that one is hardly surprised the censor let it pass. The castaways on the raft (in Miles’s paraphrase) ‘mumbled in their delirium about the sad state of France … Others craved the chance to take on the Bourbon enemies of liberty. Still others longed for a death that would deliver them from the oppressions of the new regime.’ It is just possible to imagine drafting a stiff letter to the minister of transport shortly before dying at sea, but would any rational person console himself with the thought that at least he wouldn’t have to put up with the current government? As he saw the raft being cut adrift and contemplated his wretched end, did Alexandre Corréard really think, ‘If that was the kind of leadership that the Bourbon restoration gave the French, then it was clearly in the interests of France … to overthrow this regime’?
All this casts an eerie light over the whole affair. It might have turned the story of the Medusa into a Restoration whodunnit, in which the narrators are eventually revealed, by their own testimony, to be mass murderers. Miles explains that ‘some accused’ Savigny ‘of having orchestrated the slaughter of the lower ranks on board the raft’. Three witnesses independently claimed that Savigny and two or three officers ‘devised an atrocious system of destruction’, that they bribed the soldiers with wine, and organised the drunken crew into a nocturnal death squad. This ‘tactical cull’, as Miles puts it, ‘continues to haunt the story of the shipwreck’, though it can only haunt his version of the story if the book is read twice or read backwards. Was this, in fact, ‘a class battle in which the leaders believed that they had a greater claim to life’? Anyone who reads the original account is likely to answer ‘yes’. Miles, however, is inclined to accept Savigny’s account. Who was more likely to conduct the systematic butchering of his fellow castaways, he asks: ‘a lone doctor, albeit a plucky and frightened one’, or ‘a rabble of combustible professional killers’ (the soldiers)? But one might also ask why three separate witnesses contradicted the account by Corréard and Savigny when they had no obvious reason for doing so.
This novelistic sympathy with the young Romantic liberals also determines the portrayal of Géricault as an artiste maudit. He fell in love with his aunt, had liberal opinions, received some bad reviews and contracted tuberculosis of the spine, from which he died at the age of 32. Yet his painting (politically subversive by implication) was accepted by the jury of the 1819 Salon, where it won a gold medal and was complimented by the king: ‘Sir, you have made a shipwreck which is not one for you.’ (Barnes puts it better: ‘Monsieur Géricault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster.’) When The Raft of the ‘Medusa’ was exhibited in London in 1820, it earned Géricault more than 17,000 francs; the director of museums tried to buy it for the Palace of Versailles. Géricault had the good fortune or the foresight to paint a scene of maritime disaster at precisely the time when shipwrecks were in fashion. (Alain Corbin’s Le Territoire du vide might have provided some cultural perspective here: he describes Restoration tourists at seaside resorts deriving emotional pleasure from ‘the curious and gripping spectacle’ of shipwreck victims drowning within sight of the shore.)
As a corollary of this approach, Captain Chaumareys is shown no mercy. Corréard and Savigny wanted the captain to be executed, in the name of ‘humanity’, though, according to the verdict as reproduced in their own account, this would have meant passing a new law to fit the case, which would hardly have put a stop to corrupt practices. Miles himself condemns Chaumareys for lying ‘to save his skin’ when he was captured after the royalist invasion of the Breton coast at Quiberon in 1795, which seems a bit harsh, especially since he is prepared to be lenient to opportunistic cannibals and murderers.
Almost everything that was written about Chaumareys was contradictory. His conduct on the Medusa makes him sound completely brainless, but he defended himself skilfully in court. Miles wonders whether he was mad or merely dim. Chaumareys later ‘retired to the small town of Haute-Vienne’ (the town was Bellac; Haute-Vienne is the département), where he swallowed his remorse and accepted a sinecure as a tax collector. Miles doesn’t mention the sinecure, but he does describe the captain’s wretched retirement: ‘It was rumoured that he slept on vine shoots to atone for his failings.’ Peasants booed him and their children pelted him with stones (tax collecting can hardly have helped), and he was a virtual prisoner in his château. Some ‘sympathisers’, interestingly, tried to obtain Géricault’s painting so that it could be destroyed and the painful memory expunged. Chaumareys’s wife died in 1837, closely followed by his younger son, who had refused to marry ‘because he did not wish to perpetuate the line’. It would be nice to know more about this miserable and enigmatic man. In a world of manufactured, self-promoting ‘heroes’, we need more exemplary cowards like Captain Chaumareys.