The Crash Of The Medusa
So as the situation stood, the MEDUSA ship wasn’t damaged, just stuck. In an effort to raise her from her sandy foundation, the crew started hurling things overboard. They had a small window of time to get the ship off the sandbar: it was high spring tide, and each high tide was going to be lower than the last. But de Chaumereys put a stop to the jettison for fear that folks at home would be pretty annoyed to find their cannons had been chucked overboard. The boat sank deeper into the impossible muck. After pacing about in a jittery fashion and scratching himself, de Chaumereys decided to abandon ship. He called together some of his more trusted advisors (not the crew, of course), and had a bit of a powwow to see what could be done about a serious deficiency in lifeboats.
Schmaltz had the idea of building a raft to carry the soldiers and crew to shore. The more “important” of the passengers would be comfortably stowed in lifeboats strung together, and these would tow the raft to safety. The raft was made of the masts and cross-beams of the boat. It was crudely constructed, roughly 65 feet by 23 feet (or 20m x 7m). It had no means of navigation and no oars. When the men were loaded onto it, some 150 of them, they sank down in the sea to their waists. It was hopelessly overcrowded; each man only had a square three feet (1 m) on a side to stand in. Without even enough room to lie down in, they stood in the water, and their legs shriveled up like prunes.
Five of the six lifeboats, on the other hand, were ridiculously undermanned. Fewer men on the lifeboats meant more rations per person, which is what the rich folk expected. De Chaumereys (who was one of the first off the ship), Schmaltz, Schmaltz’s family and the other notable passengers had a far better chance of survival than the poor slobs on the raft, who were soaked, starving, cramped, and all but doomed. The lifeboats loaded first and launched. Seventeen men, rather than risk the raft, decided to stay on the Medusa and take their chances. De Chaumereys told the men on the raft that he had “provided [them] with everything [they] need.” Everything, that is, except a compass, enough food and water to accommodate so many men, a dry place to sleep, blankets or space to lie down. While details of their actual supplies are sketchy, we know they had little more than a few barrels of wine and fresh water, and some flour. They had no ability to build a fire of any kind for cooking or warmth.
Cutting The Chaff To Save The Wheat… Or Was It The Other Way Round?
It soon became apparent that the plan was a foolish one, not least because there was an overfilled raft full of resentful sailors wanting to boot the teeth clean out of the wealthy’s mouths. The occupants of the raft, desperate to save themselves, would soon have overwhelmed a lifeboat had it got anywhere near them. So whenever the raft drifted too near, the smaller vessels would hightail it away. De Chaumereys, afraid and desperate, finally gave the order to untie the raft and leave its occupants to the mercy of the seas. We can only speculate at the state of mind of these men left behind, as they watched the lifeboats disappear over the horizon, leaving the raft stranded, at sea some four miles from the shore. They’d be back, right? Wrong.
A Skinnier Box
Many of the barrels of provisions were soon knocked overboard by men crowding for space to sit, or waterlogged by seawater. But the real danger wasn’t starvation; the pressing threat came from the men themselves. As night fell, they began to realize how bad things really were. Unfortunately, as the parties responsible for their plight weren’t around (read: de Chaumereys and co.), the men starting fighting with each other. They stupidly threw barrels of wine and flour overboard. They hacked at each other with machetes; they tried to unlash the raft. By dawn on the first morning, the raft was lighter by more than 20 men, all lost through suicide or murder.
Hungry, sleep deprived, and without hope, the sailors only got nastier with each passing day. Slaughter was common, especially after dark, and rations were becoming increasingly scarce. It became a war between soldiers and officers. Factions appeared, the Africans against the Europeans, the workers against the officers. Every night the madness would grip them all and they’d fight it out till dawn, then recount their numbers, distribute rations and prepare themselves for death. Although numbers decreased rapidly, rations decreased more so. Finally, with unbearable thirst and hunger overcoming them, some of the men started tearing flesh from the corpses littering the raft. Many resisted this outrage, but it soon became apparent that those who had eaten were feeling stronger for it, and one by one, soldiers and officers alike, consumed the dead.