The Raft of the Medusa

The raft of Medusa


In 1816, a French frigate, The Medusa, set sail with two other ships - bound for a West African port in Senegal. The Captain of the fleet, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, was not qualified to lead. He had been given command based on the wealth and position of his family. At the time the ships departed France, he had not sailed in nearly 25 years and was widely perceived as lacking both experience and ability.


In order to make good time - much like the Titanic would do almost a century later - The Medusa sped ahead, leaving the two other ships behind. It went off course, and eventually ran aground about 60 miles off the coast.


Of the 400 passengers, only 250 could fit aboard the lifeboats. So 147 ‘other passengers’ - including some crew, blacks, and at least one woman - were set adrift on a hastily made raft. The other survivors tried to tow the raft behind them briefly, but soon cut it lose and abandoned those aboard to almost certain death.


13 days later the raft was spotted - by happenstance as no official rescue had been issued. Of the 147, only 15 still survived - the rest had died of dehydration, exposure - murder and suicide. Many were cannibalized.


The event was big news - lots of articles were written and debates were had. Then, two years later, a painter named Théodore Géricault created a larger-than-life, oil-on-canvas work called The Raft of the Medusa. It was uncommissioned, enormous, gory, and the result of two years of research. He interviewed survivors - even using one as a model. He spent weeks at the morgue trying to perfect the color of death and decay.


His resulting work created an uproar in both the Art and the Political world. People wept when the saw it. The figures of the dead and dying, abandoned by an incompetent leader, fueled those who wanted to keep the newly-returned monarchy in check. The image of the black man franticly waving a flag for rescue, spurred those who fought for abolition.


What is my point?


Two-fold.


Yet another example from history of the true danger of giving people positions of power based on wealth and privilege over experience. That to do so sets countless others adrift, vulnerable - and apt to devour each other.


And…


The importance of Art to point it all out. Again and again and again.


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