July 11 1816: Seventh Day on the Raft

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“Such calculations were made futile when, on their seventh shadowless day afloat, two soldiers snuck behind the remaining wine cask, drilled a hole and started drinking. This crime was judged, by common consent, to be capital and the sentence was executed at once. The twelve-year-old cabin boy, Léon, whom Coudein had already rescued from death by drowning, perished in the Midshipman’s arms. This left only twenty-seven souls alive, fifteen of whom, from all appearances, were likely to be lost in the following hours. Gravely wounded or critically ill, those left alive had lost their sense of time and much of their reason. A council of the inner circle of leaders was held at which they discussed the state of their supplies and considered putting those closest to death on half-rations. With a sinister logic, they perceived that this would condemn the weakest to a slow but certain end; at the same time, it would consume the raft’s dwindling resources. Working under such a rationale, they agreed on an even tougher and more desperate solution. Amidst intense despair at the horror of what they had consented to do, they decided to throw the weakest overboard and thus secure, for those remaining, at least six more days of precious wine. Certain that they would all perish unless such hard-hearted measures were adopted, their instincts for self-preservation made them resolve to eliminate those too weak to resist. But who among them was willing to be the callous executioner? Who would be able to carry out such an inhuman act? Savigny and Corréard record that three sailors and a soldier ‘took upon themselves this cruel execution’. There was no command recorded, no drawing of lots. Perhaps there was a question of rank, but by that stage, after the innumerable sufferings, the violence, the degradations and indignities that had so deformed their sensibilities, any one of those who remained might have been capable of such an act. Among the victims was the lone woman, whose thigh had been broken between the masts and spars of the raft’s deck.

Also murdered was her husband, who had been severely wounded in the head. Using the pathos of this sutler’s story, Savigny and Corréard, aware that they were recording a new depth of abasement, interjected an appeal into their narrative: ‘Readers, who shudder at the cry of outraged humanity, recollect, at least, that it was other men, fellow countrymen and comrades, who had placed us in this abominable situation.’

The fifteen survivors of this cull next agreed to throw their sidearms into the sea, so as to avoid the crazed quarrels likely to erupt between such crippled spirits. They kept one sabre and a few tools, and were soon diverted by an unexpected visitor. A familiar sight in a meadow on a summer’s day in France, a common white butterfly flittered above this shambles, before settling on the mast. It signalled the proximity of land and the overjoyed but broken men scrambled to scour the horizon. Then more butterflies arrived, sending the men’s spirits soaring and fluttering with hope. Soon afterwards a gull was sighted, as if to confirm that land must be close, and so they prayed for a new storm that would carry them in and dash them onto the nearby shore. When other gulls arrived, the famished men attempted to snare one – but without success. Such gentle evidence of a world beyond the blood-stained frontiers of their raft brought them up sharp. But, despite their self-disgust, they were so cheered by these sightings that they set about constructing a new raised platform near the mast. On this they would make a shelter.”

 extract from Medusa: The Shipwreck, The Scandal, The Masterpiece by Miles Jonathan

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