Artist: Moyo Okediji
Title: The French Medussa
Medium: acrylic on canvas.
In 1810, the French government launched a bad-ass naval frigate, the Méduse, rigged with 40 guns. The Méduse participated in the Napoleonic wars, and also dabble in marine raids off the coasts of the Caribbean, before departing in 1816 for Senegal on its ill-fated trip for which it became notorious.
A standard Pallas-class ship designed by Jacques-Noel Sané in 1805 as an improvement on his Hortense class, the Méduse was one of the last of the fifty-four ships that he built in the Netherlands–which was under French occupation–of the total order of the sixty-two that the French government placed.
The ship set sail on June 17, 1816, for Senegal as part of a convoy sent to supervise the British hand-over of Saint Louis, to the French. With the new governor of Senegal on board, the ship set sail with diplomats, sailors, naval officers, and crew totaling 400, under the command of an immigrant philosopher adept at lobbying but incompetent as a sailor.
The ship ran aground 30 miles off the coast of Mauritania, and because there were not enough lifeboats to carry survivors, the crew constructed a raft on which piled 150 survivors, including one woman. The raft was tied to a lifeboat and towed along the turbulent waters of the West African coast. A few days later it became clear that the raft was a problem, as the occupants became rowdy partly because they had insufficient supplies, having been provided casks of wine instead of water. A fight broke out on the raft, and the occupants of the towing boat cut it loose, to prevent the mutiny from spreading over to the lifeboat. The raft was on its own, under the merciless heat of the burning African sun. The desperate people on the raft fell upon one another, killing scores, while scores others committed suicide. Cannibalism was the only means of surviving the chaos, and the survivors had no other recourse but to feed on the abundant human flesh piled on the raft. Fishes had a feeding frenzy too on the bodies that littered the water. The raft was sinking. The law of the survival of the meanest became the rule, and the weak and dying were thrown overboard, leaving only fifteen survivors, rescued by a ship that accidentally happened upon them on July 15.