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Incompetence Marked Medusa Disaster

By James Donahue

The wreck of the French frigate Medusa and the loss of nearly 200 passengers and crew in July, 1816, off the coast of Africa, has gone down in history as among the great nautical disasters of the century. Historians have blamed the incompetence of the ship’s pilot, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, for the loss of the ship and all of the souls that perished.

The Napoleonic Wars were ended and the Medusa was the flagship of a convoy of four French ships, the storeship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Echo, sent to secure the port of Saint-Louis, Senegal, from British rule. Among the compliment of 166 crew members, 171 soldiers and 66 passengers was the appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz. Schmaltz was in a hurry to reach Senegal and ordered Chaumareys to take the shortest route.

Chaumareys, who had not been to sea in some 20 years, had received his command of the Medusa as a political favor. In attempting to follow Schmaltz’s wishes, he chose to steer the ship dangerously close to the African coast. Experienced sailors avoided this area because they knew it was filled with sandbars and reefs. Since the Meduse was the fastest ship in the convoy, it soon lost contact with the other vessels that chose the better route farther out to sea.

Chaumareys quickly sailed his 154-long frigate right into the Bank of Arguin where it went aground about 30 miles off the coast of Africa. The grounding happened at a spring high tide, which hampered efforts to refloat the ship. In fact, Chaumareys refused to jettison the 14 three-ton cannons which might have lightened the ship enough to return to deep water.

The Medusa was carrying five small boats on its decks. They included a captain’s barge and the governor’s barge, both large enough to carry 50 each, a longboat, a pinnace and a boat called the Senegal. Together they were not large enough to carry off the ship’s compliment of some 400 souls.

The ship’s carpenters set to work building a raft out of spare planks, masts and any wood they could find. But when the 146 men and one woman got on the raft, it was not large enough to support them. Before this could be corrected, a storm came up, there was a panic, and the captain, Schmaltz and the ship’s crew boarded the small boats and headed for shore.

They tied a rope to the raft and promised to tow it behind them, thus enticing the 147 passengers to get on the raft anyway, even though some stood in water up to their waists. They had a cask of what they thought was water, but it turned out to be full of wine, to drink. Just after pulling away from the wreck, the rope to the raft was cut and the 147 were left adrift with no way of driving or steering their way.

The raft drifted for 13 days before it was found by the Argus. By then there were only 15 survivors. They told horror stories of panic, fighting for places on the raft, and cannibalism.

There were 17 people who chose to stay with the wreck. When it was visited weeks later, it was found still intact and all but five of the people still aboard were alive.

The glaring mistakes by Chaumareys have since been blamed for the disaster. Had he been aware of the dangers along the African coast and listened to the advice of the more experienced seamen, he would have avoided the grounding. Had he been willing to jettison the cannon and other heavy objects he might have refloated the Medusa. Had he simply used the small boats and made two trips to shore, he could likely have saved everybody.

At his court martial in 1817, Chaumareys was tried on five counts but acquitted of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft. He was found guilty of incompetence and abandoning the Meduse before all of the passengers were safely removed. Normally the verdict would have led to the death penalty, but Chaumareys was only sentenced to three years in jail.

There was political backlash as people saw the trial as a government "whitewash." The following year Governor Schmaltz was forced out of office.