Monday, April 28, 2008

A Voyage to Senegal in 1816 - at length daylight came, and disclosed all the horrors of the scene

A Voyage to Senegal in 1816 (1817) is not the account of just any voyage to Senegal – see left. It’s that voyage to Senegal. H. B. Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard are two of the fifteen (or eleven) survivors, out of 150, who were abandoned on a raft when the Medusa, bound for Senegal, foundered on a shoal off the coast of modern Mauritania. Géricault’s painting was based directly on this book.

The book is, in part, a legal brief against the incompetence of the captain and the malfeasance of others. The five boats of the Medusa, some barely seaworthy themselves, were insufficient for the number of crew and passengers, so a large raft, twenty meters by seven, was constructed for the excess, mostly soldiers doomed, or anyway assigned, to colonial service. Savigny, a surgeon, and Corréard, a geographer, were among the non-soldiers. Despite the size of the raft, 150 people plus minimal supplies filled it enough that most people had little room to move. The other boats were supposed to tow the raft, but they had troubles of their own, and abandoned the raft almost immediately. This is not, mostly, an edifying story of heroism.

Two things I had never understood. First, between the wave action and the raft’s poor buoyancy, most people on the raft were up to their knees, or waist, in seawater much of the time. The small raft in the painting is a platform that the survivors had built to keep themselves (barely) out of the water – the bulk of the raft was actually underwater.

Second, almost all of the deaths were caused not by exposure, disease, or privation, but on the battlefield. On the second night adrift, the soldiers, mostly criminals forced into military service, many probably half-crazed by liquor, dehydration, and exhaustion, staged a mutiny. The battle for control of the raft raged for about two days. Fifteen people survived the battle. These fifteen then survived almost another two weeks on the raft, although four died soon after they were rescued.

An alternative to Géricault’s horror, which does at least depict a moment of hope, is to picture a pitched battle with sabers and clubs (the gunpowder is all ruined), waist-deep in seawater, at night, during a storm. Much of A Voyage to Senegal is what they call a page-turner.

One stylistic note: On the rare occasions when dialogue is reported, it is always in the form of a declamation, as if it were from a Racine play. “Believe me, Major, France can also boast of a great number of men, whose patriotism and humanity may rival those which are found so frequently in Great Britain. Like you we are formed to the sentiments, to the duties which compose” and on and on for another page or so (p. 243-4), all in the finest French classical style. This helps one appreciate the innovations of the French Romantics, the relative realism of Balzac and Stendhal, Alfred de Vigny and Hugo. That classical bombast gets old fast.