The story of the raft of the Medusa, is a horrible tale, that I found fascinating when I first heard it as a child. The Medusa was a French ship that was wrecked off the coast of Africa, on July 17th 1816. There were not enough life boats for the crew and passengers, of which there were nearly four hundred, and almost 150 of them found themselves abandoned in a hastily constructed raft. From Wikipedia:
On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Men began to throw wine and flour out of spite and fight among themselves. On the first night 20 men – whites and Africans, soldiers and officers – were killed or committed suicide. Rations dwindled ever more rapidly and on the fourth day some on the raft resorted to cannibalism.
The surviving ship's surgeon and ship's geographer produced an account of their experiences on the raft (a copy of which can be found on Project Gutenberg) which describes their time on the ocean, in more horrifying detail. An extract:
We were now only twenty-seven remaining; of this number but fifteen seemed likely to live some days: all the rest, covered with large wounds, had almost entirely lost their reason; yet they had a share in the distribution of provisions, and might, before their death, consume thirty or forty bottles of wine, which were of inestimable value to us. We deliberated thus: to put the sick on half allowance would have been killing them by inches. So after a debate, at which the most dreadful despair presided, it was resolved to throw them into the sea. This measure, however repugnant it was to ourselves, procured the survivors wine for six days; when the decision was made, who would dare to execute it? The habit of seeing death ready to pounce upon us as his prey, the certainty of our infallible destruction, without this fatal expedient, every thing in a word, had hardened our hearts, and rendered them callous to all feeling except that of self preservation. Three sailors and a soldier took on themselves this cruel execution: we turned our faces aside, and wept tears of blood over the fate of these unhappy men. Among them were the unfortunate woman and her husband. Both of them had been severely wounded in the various combats: the woman had a thigh broken between the pieces of wood composing the raft, and her husband had received a deep wound with a sabre on his head. Every thing announced their speedy dissolution. We must seek to console ourselves, by the belief, that our cruel resolution shortened, but for a few moments only, the measure of their existence.
And what does the tale of the raft of the Medusa tell us about human existence? That some on the raft desired to continue to live, so very much, that they survived the harshest and most treacherous of conditions. And that humans in extraordinary circumstances can act in ways which seem inhuman. Don't judge them too harshly (though they are all long dead). If you were lost at sea, for 13 days, would you fare so well?Go Top