This book takes us at the heart of the tragedy, depicting people who could have been our neighbours, including a poor 12-year-old boy named Léon, “who suddenly stopped living like an old lamp runs out of oil.” His death almost came as a relief. “As long as he had had the strength, he had run up and down the raft, calling for his mother, for food and water, stepping upon the legs of his comrades.” And the legs of the passengers, eaten up by salt, were as painful as open wounds.
There was also this “poor woman”, a cook, who had dedicated her life to feed the French soldiers. She was black. And her loving relationship with her husband moved the passengers to tears on the second day. But five days later, there was no room left for romanticism anymore: “there were only 27 of us left—out of which only fifteen seemed able to survive a few more days; the others, badly wounded, had run out of their minds. (...) We reckoned that they would drink 30 to 40 bottles of wine before they died—and those were highly valuable to us. (...) Driven by despair, we took the decision to throw them overboard. (...) Three sailors and one soldier took care of it, while we all looked away, shading bloody tears over those unfortunates. Among them was the (black woman)—and her husband. (...) This decision saved our lives.”
A brick from the expedition eventually rescued them—she was not looking for them, though; but for the wreck of the Medusa, where some riches had been left—but still had, for some of them, to walk through the desert to reach the colony—hence the coloured portrait of the king of the Moors, King Zaïde, added as a frontispiece to the second edition.
This book changed the life of its main author, Corréard, who was fired from his position following its unauthorized publication. It became so successful, that Corréard turned publisher in 1818. He multiplied the editions of his relation—which apparently sold like hot cakes—adding many parts and engravings, including one of Géricault’s painting. Both men knew each other well, and met several times while Géricault was working on his painting—Géricault also met Savigny, the co-author of the relation. As a matter of fact, Corréard appears on the painting, he is the man from the main group, who stretches his arm toward the horizon. Just like Géricault turned his painting into an allegorical cry for justice—including for the black slaves—, Corréard soon became a political figure. His bookshop, Au Naufragé de la Méduse / The Survivor of the Medusa, attracted the opponents of the Restauration. As soon as 1819, he printed a political almanac, Le Politique. Because of his positions and the pamphlets he published, he was condemned several times, including to eight years of prison. His certificate of bookseller was eventually revoked in September 1822—the government seized more than 8,000 books from him. He then unsuccessfully ran for the elections in 1848, and went to Fontainebleau to spend the end of his life. He died in 1857, far from the coast of Africa and the dangerous currents of politics.
The storm of the 19th century has calmed down, and might seem quite far from us. But as soon as you open this book, or take a look at Géricault’s masterpiece, you’ll feel the gale of terror and smell the horror. You’ll sight mankind, packed on a hand-made raft, drifting away on a dark and pitiless sea of pain and distress, led by arrogant and incompetent leaders who have no clue what direction to take—some things never change.