Political shipwrecks

Two harrowing tales of survival.

medusa 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
medusa 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Red Mutiny By Neal Bascomb Houghton Mifflin 400 pages; $26 Medusa By Jonathan Miles Jonathan Cape 288 pages; £17.99 Medusa by Jonathan Miles is the harrowing tale of the survivors of the infamous French frigate, which, thanks to its incompetent captain, was wrecked on the huge sandbank off southern Morocco in 1816. The officers and officials made off in the unfilled boats, cutting the hawser to a hastily constructed raft overloaded with 146 desperate men and one woman, standing room only, the raft sinking to a meter below the surface. In 24 hours there were less than a score of men left. Parched and starving, they soon fell to eating the corpses and even killing the dying. They were eventually rescued by the Argus, one of the French squadron led south by the Medusa with the intention of repossessing Senegal from the British. Those in the boats made disastrous landfalls in search of water and two separate parties made epic treks across the Sahara to safety, helped by tough but somehow humane Moroccan tribesmen. Two survivors of the raft, one of them the courageous radical Correard, wrote accounts of the shipwreck that exposed the ancien regime's cowardice, incompetence and coverup. Correard's book was translated into five languages and stirred a fiery political debate in Restoration France. But the raft of the Medusa was soon immortalized in the chef d'oeuvre of the idealistic and ambitious young painter Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), who seized upon the subject as a way of achieving fame. The painting's dramatic composition notwithstanding, The Raft of the Medusa was not a realistic description. The neo-classic figures are neither emaciated nor sunburned. The once handsome Gericault died an old man at 33, tortured by his once-passionate affair with a young aunt. He did not produce much but was a good painter of horses much in the manner of Gros, and I have long admired the small version of his Le Chasseur de la Garde which hangs in the Clark Institute at Williamstown, Massachusetts. Gericault is chiefly remembered not only for his Raft, but for his formative influence on Delacroix. This page-turner of a book deals at length with all aspects of the wreck and the immediate survival of its wretched leaders; with the scandal that followed and with the sad story of Gericault himself. IT WAS 1905, the first of many bad years for the autocrat of all the Russias, Tsar Nicholas. In the Far East, his navy was decisively beaten by the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima. But 1905 was just one of a lifetime of bad years for his sailors and the families they left behind in a Russia barely freed from serfdom. Their families were starving and the conscript sailors, brutalized by their officers and petty officers, were treated little better than galley slaves. On the Knyaz (Prince) Potemkin, the newest and biggest battleship of the Black Sea fleet, revolutionary agitators saw their chance to mutiny when the lower deck was infuriated at being served maggot-infested meat. Their leaders, Afansy Matyushenko and Grigory Vakulenchuk, hoped that the taking of the Potemkin (named for the brilliant general and lover of Catherine the Great) would spread mutiny throughout the restless fleet and ignite a revolution. After Vakulenchuk was shot, the Potemkin's hated captain was shot and thrown overboard, but Matyushenko put all but two of the officers safely ashore. Of the two still on board, one had volunteered to join the rebels and the other, a terrified ensign, was made to run the ship. Matyushenko quickly obtained food by threatening to shell Odessa, but was denied water and coal. In an incident immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, fleeing Odessans were massacred by Cossacks on the town's Richelieu Steps. But Matyushenko never bombarded any of the ports he threatened. Matyushenko was joined by two fiery civilian agitators from Odessa, both skilled orators, socialist Anatoly Berezovsky and the adventurous young Jewish Menshevik, Konstantin Feldmann. Their daring in raids was inspiring and their help in keeping the unmotivated among the sailors in line was invaluable. In Red Mutiny - Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, Neil Bascomb retells how the ship's last chance to steal some coal was foiled by the army, which killed or captured the leading mutineers who had come ashore with Feldmann. All were jailed pending a quick trial, but Feldmann escaped disguised as an officer. Three of the captives were hanged and the others sentenced to hard labor. It was the end of the mutiny. Its crew hungry, its boilers fouled by seawater, the Potemkin limped into the Romanian port of Constanza on the last of its coal. Promised a safe conduct by King Carol, the crew went ashore. Matyushenko scuttled the ship, but the harbor was too shallow for it to sink. Matyushenko fled to Bulgaria and Switzerland, where he met with Lenin. They did not get on, for Matyushenko was essentially a kindly humanist. Matyushenko could not stay away from Russia, but on his return with fake papers was quickly identified and executed, slowly strangled by a noose attached to a nail in a pole. Feldmann survived until 1937, when he disappeared in one of Stalin's purges. Bascomb's book is full of fascinating detail, but suffers from poor editing. The Russian sailors do not shout; they "holler." The bridge is confused with a conning tower, a submarine term; and so on. Another Russian ship helped launch the 1917 revolution. Rebel sailors aboard the light cruiser Aurora sent a shot at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, launching its fall to landing parties. When I went on board in the last year of the Soviet Union, its guns were still pointed at the palace, home of the Hermitage Museum.