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Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century

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In June 1816, the Medusa, flagship of a French expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal from the British, set sail. She never arrived at her destination. Commanded by an incompetent captain, the frigate ran aground off the desolate West African coast. During the chaotic and cowardly evacuation, a privileged few claimed the lifeboats, while 147 men and one woman were herded aboard a makeshift raft that was soon cut loose by the very boats that had pledged to tow it to safety. Those on the boats made it ashore...
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The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century

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Overview

In June 1816, the Medusa, flagship of a French expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal from the British, set sail. She never arrived at her destination. Commanded by an incompetent captain, the frigate ran aground off the desolate West African coast. During the chaotic and cowardly evacuation, a privileged few claimed the lifeboats, while 147 men and one woman were herded aboard a makeshift raft that was soon cut loose by the very boats that had pledged to tow it to safety. Those on the boats made it ashore and undertook a two-hundred-mile trek through the sweltering Sahara, but conditions were far worse on the drifting raft, which carried its passengers to the very frontier of human experience. Crazed, parched, and starving, the diminishing band fell on itself; mayhem, mutiny, and murder ensued. When rescue arrived thirteen days later, only fifteen were alive. Among the handful of survivors were two men whose best-selling account of the tragedy scandalized Europe and inspired the promising artist Theodore Gericault. Reeling from an illicit affair with his young aunt, he threw himself into a study of the Medusa tragedy, turning it into a vast canvas. Jonathan Miles's The Wreck of the Medusa witnesses atrocity and outrage turned into a best seller, and that best seller transformed into one of the most unforgettable masterpieces of Western art.
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Editorial Reviews

Florence Williams
"The Raft of the Medusa," painted on a canvas nearly 23 feet long by 16 feet high…portrayed the survivors at their direst moment, surrounded by corpses and about to be forsaken by a ship in the distance. …Today, the painting hangs in the Louvre, and its artistic significance is well known—its intimate depiction of emotional wretchedness helped stimulate the Romantic movement. Less known is that the painting played an intriguing role in volatile Restoration politics, the result of a collaboration between the artist and one of the wreck's survivors, now enthrallingly recounted in The Wreck of the Medusa, by Jonathan Miles. Although marketed as another sea disaster tale (and the wreck is grippingly recounted), the book is as revealing about the powerfully resistant art of two colorful figures in post-Napoleonic France.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In June 1816 French frigate Medusaran aground on a sandbar off the African coast. What followed—gross incompetence, murder and cannibalism—shocked European society and pushed the fragile, recently restored French monarchy to the brink. From the swirl of characters boiling around the story—admirals, ministers and kings—Miles (David Jones: The Maker Unmade) anchors his tale on Medusasurvivor Alexandre Correard and painter Théodore Géricault. After surviving the wreck and subsequently drifting on a raft on which 133 of 147 died, Correard, an engineer fleeing the growing chaos in post-Napoleonic France, wrote a bestselling account of the tragedy and agitated for the monarchy's end. Revealed in the ensuing controversy was France's ongoing participation in the illegal trade of African slaves. With such great elements in place (flesh eating, palace intrigue and illicit love) this yarn has much promise. Unfortunately, while the story roars along with its own inherent momentum, Miles's prose is sometimes awkward ("Their union was obviously intense and, as with all true love, supremely precious. Catastrophically, it was to prove short-lived"). Nevertheless, the story of the wreck of the Medusaand the churning cultural machinations around it does make for a compelling read. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This is an exciting and highly readable adventure story with skillfully interwoven narratives of a famous sea disaster and the political trials of Restoration France. In 1816, the French frigate Medusawent on an ill-fated expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal. Off Senegal's shore, the ship ran aground, and the incompetent captain set some 150 passengers adrift on a crude raft. Only 15 survived. The fate of the Medusascandalized France and captured the imagination of young Romantic artist Theodore Gericault, whose resulting painting, The Raft of the Medusa, provided a graphic visual image of the tragedy. While not a professional academic, Miles (David Jones) has used archival sources to re-create the story in a fashion that will intrigue everyone from general readers to students of art history. The strength of his book is its ability to tell many tales at once, not only of the shipwreck itself but more importantly of those affected by it. Miles is also careful to explain how public interest in the case evolved and how the resulting uproar played a role in turning popular opinion in a more liberal direction. Highly recommended for both public libraries and academic collections.
—Marie Marmo Mullaney

Kirkus Reviews
A maritime disaster prompts unspeakable human behavior that has political ramifications in post-Napoleonic France. The stranding of the frigate Medusa on a sandy shoal off the West African coast in the summer of 1816 was history's most documented and controversial shipwreck before the sinking of the Titanic. Miles (David Jones, 1996) not only parses the event itself, but examines its broader impact on a French nation in sociopolitical turmoil as the deposed Napoleon was succeeded by a restored Bourbon, King Louis XVIII. The Medusa's lifeboats could not accommodate everyone on board; some 147 passengers and crew were relegated to a makeshift raft. Captain Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, whose neglect had caused the wreck, promised that five lifeboats would tow the raft to the coast, but it was soon cut loose and abandoned, apparently on his orders. In the two weeks that followed, violent conflict erupted on the raft between appointed leaders and the rest; dwindling supplies of water and food led to acts of cannibalism and, ultimately, outright murder of the injured and infirm to conserve resources for the fit. Only 15 survived. One of them, engineer Alexandre Correard, coauthored a bestselling account of the Medusa disaster. Republican opponents of the restored monarchy seized on it as an example of royalist corruption and incompetence. Correard's book also inspired Romantic painter Theodore Gericault to produce the monumental The Raft of the Medusa, still one of the Louvre's principal attractions. Miles ably marshals the sweep of these events and documents how Correard's text and Gericault's painting ratcheted up the political conflict. Diligent deconstruction of a shipwreck and a scandal.Agent: George Lucas/InkWell Management
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871139597
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/10/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Note xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Map xvii

1 A Severed Head 1

2 Voyages Out 6

3 The Wreck 50

4 On a Scorching Shore 66

5 The Raft 94

6 Tea and Pastries in Senegal 113

7 Sex and the Street 126

8 Breaking News and Stifling Scandal 132

9 The Fualdes Affair and the Love Affair 158

10 Trips to the Morgue 164

11 The Raft of the Medusa 173

12 The Medusa Sails On 187

13 A Larger Struggle 201

14 The Shipwreck and the Shipwrecked 230

Notes 251

Bibliography 279

Index 297

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