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The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) by Théodore Géricault.

The Medusa Shipwreck

British reaction to the French tragedy at sea immortalised in Géricault’s masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa.

‘The annals of the marine record no example of a shipwreck so terrible as that of the Medusa frigate. Two of the unfortunate crew, who have miraculously escaped from the catastrophe, impose upon themselves the painful and delicate task, of describing all the circumstances which attended it.’

So begins the voyage narrative Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse first published in 1817 by Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, a surgeon and a geographer/engineer respectively on the Medusa. Transporting soldiers and official passengers, including the newly-appointed governor Colonel Julien Schmaltz, to re-establish the French colony at Senegal, the ship ran aground off the west coast of Africa on July 2nd, 1816. As Savigny and Corréard’s tale unfolds, detailing acts of negligence and betrayal, of mutiny, slaughter and cannibalism, it is not difficult to see why news of this shipwreck and its notorious raft should have gripped Europe in the years following the Napoleonic Wars. But the Medusa was more than just another (albeit sensational) maritime disaster. In France it became a cause célèbre, embroiled in the complexities of Bourbon-restoration politics and tensions between the Liberal and Royalist factions, the nation’s fraught colonial ambitions and, as events progressed, with the highly emotive subject of the slave trade.

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