16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History

Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa), by Théodore Géricault (c. 1818-1819). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The survivors of the Méduse, abandoned floating on a raft off the coast of Africa in 1816, descended into violence, murder, and cannibalism to survive 13 days adrift at sea

The Méduse was a French frigate, launched in 1810 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars before being subsequently employed in 1816 as a transport for officials voyaging to Saint-Louis, Senegal, to re-establish formal French occupation under the First Peace of Paris. Captained by Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a Royalist appointed for his political support despite having limited sailing proficiency or experience, in the course of the journey he incompetently navigated his charge into the Bank of Arguin, situated off the coast of modern-day Mauritania. This catastrophic failing resulted in the beaching of the frigate 50 kilometers from the mainland, demanding the abandonment of the ship. Evacuating the Méduse, the more than 400 passengers on board were unable to fit in the accompanying lifeboats and instead the panicked captain, fearing an impending storm, ordered approximately 150 people to travel on an improvised raft towed behind the frigate’s launches. After only a few miles the method was proving untenable, risking the lives of those aboard the lifeboats, and thus the launches cut the lines to abandon the raft in the open ocean.

With no means of steering or navigation, in addition to casks of wine instead of water for provisions, fights broke out almost immediately aboard the doomed inhabitants. Twenty men were killed or committed suicide on the first night, with dozens more killed from being washed overboard and from fighting in the days following; with only part of the raft not submerged, the survivors competed violently to gain position near the center. By the fourth day, just 67 people remained, whereupon they resorted to cannibalism for sustenance, whilst by the eighth the strongest threw the weak and wounded into the ocean to die. These fifteen survived another four days, before being rescued after 13 days at sea by the brig Argus, with a further 5 dying soon after. Captain Chaumareys was convicted by court-martial of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off. Despite the conventional punishment of death, he was sentenced to only three years imprisonment for his actions.