Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007

309 pages, $25.00

“Sir, you have made a shipwreck”

On the morning of July 2, 1816, the French frigate Medusa, enroute to Senegal, hit a reef off the coast of Africa. The result was one of the great nautical disasters of the century; a 19th century version of the Titanic, without the iceberg. With a crew of 166 officers and men, 171 soldiers and 66 passengers, the Medusa carried more than 400 souls. As the overloaded frigate remained grounded, chaos erupted on board as the soldiers and sailors, ignoring the passengers, fought for places in the lifeboats. Eventually the boats were launched but 147 people were left on board to fend for themselves. They fashioned a raft and drifted for two weeks until the handful still alive were rescued

Jonathan Miles weaves three stories together in this tale of woe. The first, as already described, was the sinking of the Medusa and the fate of those who survived the wreck, which led to a dramatic painting by Theodore Gericault. At the same time Miles is describing the short, sad life of Gericault, the Romantic artist who died at 32. As with many famous artists, Gericault died before his greatness as a painter was fully appreciated. Equally important to the book was the French political situation in 1816. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, ultra conservative forces restored Louis XVIII to the throne. After 25 years of war the mood in France was grim. According to an English visitor Paris was “a vast mourning family. Three people out of five one meets are habited in black”.

It was in this atmosphere that the Medusa disaster occurred. The captain of the ship was Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a royalist appointee who had not been to sea for 20 years. The ship had inadequate charts as she set sail for Senegal in a vain attempt to regain a piece of France’s lost glory. In addition to soldiers and sailors, the passengers included explorers, engineers, scientists, teachers, carpenters and tradesmen. According to Miles, “The clamor of contradictory voices on board the Medusa echoed the discord that resounded throughout France, where divisiveness, selfishness and suspicion were the upshot of thirty years of ideological struggle. If passions ran high at home, emotions intensified in the creaking confines of an overloaded frigate only 154 feet long.”

There have been many disasters at sea, but Miles has written a gripping account of one of the worst. When the 147 people were deserted on the raft, they descended into a Darwinian struggle for survival, which included mutiny, shark attacks and cannibalism. After 14 days only 15 people were left alive. When the news broke back in France, it was particularly embarrassing to the royalist government and an attempt was made to suppress the sordid details, including the actions of the incompetent Captain Chaumareys, and a critical account written by a survivor, Alexandre Correard.

Theodore Gericault was in the midst of a torrid affair with his young aunt, when he read Correard’s book. Isolated by his family when she became pregnant, Gericault poured his energies into painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” which he exhibited at the 1819 Salon. The painting was controversial from the moment it was displayed. The theme was obvious; those marooned on a raft being abandoned by their leaders. Gericault’s technique was as revolutionary as it was dramatic, with the viewer brought right up to the foot of the huge canvas. Suffice it to say, official reaction was not favorable. As the king put it, “Sir, you have made a shipwreck.”

Gericault did not live to see his painting achieve greatness; he died of tuberculosis in 1824. All was not lost, however. Miles reminds us that “the burial process may have been slow, but the Medusa scandal played its part in disparaging the procedures of the ancient regime and toppling the ultra faction.” Today “The Raft of the Medusa” hangs in the Louvre, where it remains one of the museum’s major attractions.