This is a classic true story of negligence, suicide, murder, and cannibalism.
In June 1816, the French frigate Medusa departed from Rochefort, bound for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. She headed a convoy of three other ships: the storeship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Écho. The frigate's mission was to accept the British return of Senegal under the terms of France's acceptance of the Peace of Paris.
In an effort to make good time, the Medusa overtook the other ships, but due to poor navigation it drifted 100 miles off course and ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast, near today's Mauritania. Efforts to free the ship failed, so, the frightened passengers and crew attempted to travel the 60 miles to the African coast in the frigate's six boats.
Although the Medusa was carrying 400 people, there was space for only about 250 in the boats. At least 146 men and one woman were piled onto a hastily built raft, that partially submerged once it was loaded. Seventeen crew members opted to stay aboard the grounded Medusa. The captain and crew aboard the other boats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few miles the raft was turned loose. For sustenance the crew of the raft had only a bag of ship's biscuit, two casks of water, and six casks of wine.
According to critic Jonathan Miles, the raft carried the survivors “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest." After 13 days, the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance. By this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, died of starvation, or had thrown themselves into the sea in despair.
The Medusa’s story entered nautical lore as one of history’s most horrific nautical misadventures.