The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century

The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century BY Jonathan Miles. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.

The cover of The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century

Jonathan Miles dedicates The Wreck of the Medusa, his feverish account of the sinking of the French frigate off the coast of Senegal in the early nineteenth century— which resulted in the death of scores of passengers and crew—to “all those misled by their leaders.” Indeed, it is impossible to read about the incompetence of the ship’s captain, who was awarded his post as political payback, and about the cynicism of the Restoration government, which exploited the tragedy to consolidate power in an era of political instability but gave not a whit for the actual victims, and then commuted the sentences of those responsible, without thinking of the Bush administration in the wake of the string of disasters of the past several years, including Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing fiasco in Iraq.

In 1816, a convoy of ships led by Hugo de Chaumareys set sail with the goal of reclaiming a colonized Senegal from the English. The captain was old and incapable of navigating the treacherous coastal waters, given that he had not been in command of a ship for more than twenty years; moreover, he arrogantly refused to take the advice of far more able officers. When the Medusa sank, Chaumareys did not go down with his ship: Together with officers and VIPs, he commandeered the lifeboats, and a makeshift raft was constructed for 147 sailors and other passengers. Though the raft was at first towed behind the boats, it was soon set adrift by the captain’s privileged entourage; this group would find its own cruel fate in the Senagalese desert. When the raft was finally found thirteen days later, only fifteen men were still alive: Most had died from exposure or from the anarchic violence that had ensued on board, while the survivors had staved off starvation by resorting to cannibalism. An outraged and highly publicized account written by two of the survivors, geographer Alexandre Corréard and surgeon Jean-Baptiste-Henri Savigny, became a runaway best seller in France and England and rocked the new Bourbon government. Théodore Géricault’s painting of the subject, which won a gold medal at the Salon of 1819, only added fuel to the fire.

This history is familiar to art historians, and beyond Corréard and Savigny’s account, Miles relies most heavily on art-historical literature to flesh out the details. Despite this, his treatment of Géricault’s iconic image is lacking. The book opens with Corréard arriving in the artist’s studio to advise him on the painting, and indeed Miles imagines that Géricault was a mere mouthpiece for Corréard’s antigovernment and antislavery politics. The inclusion of Corréard’s likeness in The Raft of the Medusa is treated not simply as a matter of historical accuracy; rather, the survivor’s gesture toward the African figure sitting atop a pyramidal arrangement of bodies, desperately signaling a rescue ship on the horizon, “[confirms] the selection and positioning of the figure, as if [Corréard] himself had something to do with the decision to show a black optimistically heralding a new dawn.” And even as Miles imagines Corréard directing the content and form of Géricault’s painting, he is unwilling to see Corréard and Savigny’s description of events as another form of representation, as an attempt by the two men to justify their actions on board the raft in the face of assertions that they had ordered the culling of victims to ensure their own survival. Corréard, in his claim to speak truth to power, wanted to be a hero, and Miles wants to turn him into one. But if we have learned anything in the past years, it’s that we don’t need another hero—we need history.