« AnteriorContinuar »
They succeeded in erecting a kind of mast, and hoisting one of the royals that had belonged to the frigate. . Night at length came on, the wind freshened, and the sea began to swell; the only consolation now was the belief that they should discover the boats the following morning. About midnight the •weather became very stormy; and the waves broke over them in every direction.
'During the whole of this night,' say the narrators, ' we struggled against death, holding ourselves closely to the spars which were firmly bound together. Tossed by the waves from one end to the other, and sometimes precipitated into the sea; floating between life and death; mourning over our misfortunes, certain of perishing, yet contending for the remains of existence with that cruel element, which menaced to swallow us up; such was our situation till break of day—horrible situation! how shall we convey an idea of it which will not fall far short of the reality!'
In the morning the wind abated, and the sea subsided a little; but a dreadful spectacle presented itself—ten or twelve of the unhappy men, having their lower extremities jammed between the spars of the raft,' unable to extricate themselves, had perished in that situation; several others had been swept off by the violence of the waves: in calling over the list it was found that twenty had disappeared. 'Already,' says the narrator, with exquisite simplicity, (after informing us that the only feeling from which they derived consolation in their awful condition, was the hope of revenge,) ' already was the moral character of the people greatly changed!' Two young seamen threw themselves into the sea, after deliberately taking leave of their comrades; some fancied that they saw the land; and others, ships approaching to rescue them.
All this, however, was nothing to the dreadful scene which took place the following night. The day had been beautiful, and no one seemed to doubt that the boats would appear in the course of it, to relieve them from their perilous state; but the evening approached, and none were seen: from that moment a spirit of sedition spread from man to man, and manifested itself by the most furious shouts: night came on; the heavens were obscured with thick clouds; the wind rose, and with it the sea; the waves broke over them *>very moment; numbers were swept away, particularly near the extremities of the raft; and the crowding towards the centre of it was so great, that several poor wretches were smothered by the pressure of their comrades, who were unable to keep on their legs.
Firmly persuaded that they were all on the point of being swallowed up, both soldiers and sailors resolved 'to south their last moments by drinking till they lost their reason.' They bored a hole in the head of a large cask, from which they continued to swill till the salt water, mixing with the wine, rendered it no longer potable.
Excited Excited by the fumes, acting on empty stomachs and heads alreadv disordered by danger, they now- became deaf to the voice of reason; boldly declared their intention to murder their officers, and then cut the ropes which bound the raft together: one of them, seizing an axe, actually began the»dreadful work—this was the signal for revolt; the officers rushed forward to quell the tumult, and the man with the hatchet was the first that fell—the stroke of a sabre terminated his existence.
The passengers joined the officers, but the mutineers were still the greater number; luckily they were but badly armed, or the few bayonets and sabres of the opposite party could not have kept them at bay. One fellow was detected secretly cutting the ropes, and immediately flung overboard; others destroyed the shrouds and halyards, and the mast, deprived of support, fell on a captain of infantry, and broke his thigh; he was instantly seized by the soldiers and thrown into the sea, but was saved by the opposite party. A furious charge was now made upon the mutineers, many of whom were cut down: at length this fit of desperation subsided into egregious cowardice; they cried out for mercy, and asked forgiveness on their knees. It was now midnight, and order appeared to be restored; but after an hour of deceitful tranquillity, the insurrection burst forth anew: the mutineers ran upon the officers like desperate men, each having a knife or a sabre in his hand, aud such was the fury of the assailants, that they tore their flesh and even their clothes with their teeth: there was no time for hesitation; a general slaughter took place, and the raft was strewed with dead bodies.
Some palliation must be allowed on account of their miserable condition; the constant dread of death, want of rest and of food had impaired their faculties—nor did the officers themselves entirely escape. A sort of half-waking dream, a wandering of the imagination, seized most of them: some fancied they saw around them a beautiful country, covered with the most delightful plantations; others became wild, with honors, and threw themselves into the sea. Several, on casting themselves off, said calmly to their companions, ' I am going to seek for assistance, and you shall soon see roe return.'
'In the midst of this general madness,' says the narrative, ' one saw these unhappy men rushing upon their companions, sword in hand, and demanding from them the wing of a chicken to appease the hunger which was preying upon them; others asked for their hammocks, that they might go between decks and get a little sleep; many imagined themselves to be still on board the Meduse. Even after this fatal night many imagined themselves, in the morning, to have awaked from a frightful dream, in which battles and slaughter had disturbed their rest.'
On the return of day it was found, that in the course of the pre
ceding night of horror, sixty-five of the mutineers had perished, and two of the small party attached to the officers. One cask of wine only remained. Before the allowance was served out they contrived to get up their mast afresh; but having no compass, and not knowing how to direct their course, they let the raft drive before the wind, apparently indifferent whither they went. Enfeebled with hunger, they now tried to catch fish, but could not succeed, and abandoned the attempt.
'It was necessary, however, that some extreme measure should be adopted to support our miserable existence; we shudder with horror on finding ourselves under the necessity of retracing that which we put in practice; we feel the pen drop from our hands; a deadly coldness freezes all our limbs, and our hair stands cm end—Readers, we entreat you not to entertain, for men already too unfortunate, a sentiment of indignation; but to grieve for them, and to shed a tear of pity over tlieir unhappy lot.'
The ' extreme measure' was, indeed, horrible: the unhappy men, whom death had spared in the course of the night, fell upon the carcasses of the dead and began to devour them ; some tried to eat their sword-belts and cartridge-boxes; others devoured their linen, and others the leathers of their hals; but all these expedients, and others of a still more loathsome nature, were of no avail.
A third night of horror now approached; but it proved to be a night of tranquillity, disturbed only by the piercing cries of those whom hunger and thirst devoured. The water was up to their knees, and they could only attempt to get a little sleep by crowding closely together, so as to form an immoveable mass. The morning's sun shewed them ten or a dozen unfortunate creatures stretched lifeless on the raft: all of whom were committed to the deep with the exception of one, destined for the support of those who the evening before had pressed his trembling hands in vowing eternal friendship. At this period, fortunately, a shoal of flying fish, in passing the raft, left nearly three hundred entangled between the spars. By means of a little gunpowder and linen, and by erecting an empty cask, they contrived to make a fire; and mixing with the fish the flesh of their deceased comrade, they all partook of a' meal, which, by this means, was rendered less revolting.
The fourth night was marked by another massacre. Some Spaniards, Italians, and negroes, who had taken no part with the former mutineers, now entered into a conspiracy to throw the rest into the sea. The negroes had persuaded the others that the land was close to them, and that once on shore, they would answer for their crossing Africa without the least danger. A Spaniard was the first to advance with a drawn knife; the sailors seized and threw him into the sea. An Italian, seeing this, jumped overboard; the rest were easilv mastered, and order was once more restored.
Thirty persons only now remained, many of whom were in a most deplorable state, the salt-water having entirely removed the epidermis of'their lower extremities, which, with contusions and wounds, rendered them unable to support themselves. The remains of the fish and the wine were calculated to be just enough to support life for four days; but in these four they also calculated that ships might arrive from St. Louis to save them. At this moment two soldiers were discovered behind the cask of wine, through which they had bored a hole, for the purpose of drinking it through a reed; they had just before all pledged themselves to punish with death whoever should be found guilty of such a proceeding, and the sentence was immediately carried into execution by throwing the culprits into the sea.
Their numbers were thus reduced to twenty-eight, fifteen of whom only appeared to be able to exist for a few days; the other thirteen were so reduced, that they had nearly lost all sense of existence; as their case was hopeless, and as while they lived they would consume a part of the little that was left, a council was held, and, after a deliberation at which the most horrible despair is said to have presided, it was decided to throw them overboard. 'Three sailors and a soldier undertook the execution of this cruel sentence: we turned away our eyes and shed tears of blood on the fate of these unfortunate men; but this painful sacrifice saved the fifteen who remained; and who, after this dreadful catastrophe, had six days of suffering to undergo before they were relieved from their dismal situation.' At the end of this period, a small vessel was descried at a distance; she proved to be the Argus brig, which had been dispatched from Senegal to look out for them. All hearts on board were melted with pity at their deplorable condition.—' Let any one,' say our unfortunate narrators, 'figure to himself fifteen unhappy creatures almost naked, their bodies shrivelled by the rays of the sun, ten of them scarcely able to move:' our limbs stripped of the skin; a total change in all our features; our eyes hollow and almost savage; our long beards which gave us an air almost hideous—we were in fact but the shadows of ourselves.'
Such is the history of these unfortunate men! Of the hundred and fifty embarked on the raft, fifteen only were received on board the brig, and of these six died shortly after their arrival at St. Louis; and the remaining nine, covered with cicatrices, and exhausted by the sufferings to which they were so long exposed, are stated to have been entirely altered in appearance and constitution. We are shocked to add, that such were the neglect and indifference of their shipmates who had arrived there in safety, that had it not been for the humane attention of Major Peddy and Captain Campbell, they would in all probability have experienced the fate of their unfortunate companions.
Of the boats, two only (those in which the governor and the captain of the frigate had embarked) arrived at Senegal: the other four made the shore in difFerent places, and landed their people. They suffered extremely from hunger and thirst, and the effects of a burning sun reflected from a surface of naked sand; with the exception, however, of two or three, they all reached Senegal.
The governor, recollecting that the Meduse had on board two liundred thousand francs in specie, sent off a little vessel to visit the wreck; but (that no one part of this wretched expedition might reflect disgrace on another) with only eight days provisions on board; so that she was compelled to return without being able to approach it: she was again sent out with twenty-five days provisions, but being ill found, and the weather bad, she returned to port a second time. On the third attempt she reached the wreck, fifty-two days after it had been abandoned; but what were the horror and astonishment of those who ascended it, to discover on board three miserable wretches just on the point of expiring!
It now appeared that seventeen men had clung to the wreck when the boats and the raft departed; their first object had been to collect a sufficient quantity of biscuit, wine, brandy and pork for the subsistence of a certain number of days. While this lasted, they were quiet; but forty-two days having passed without any succour appearing, twelve of the most determined, seeing themselves on the point of starving, resolved to make for the land; they therefore constructed a raft, or float, which they bound together with ropes, and on which they set off with a small quantity of provisions, without oars and without sails, and were drowned. Another, who had refused to embark with them, took it into his head, a few days after, to try for the shore; he placed himself in a hen-coop, dropped from the wreck, and at the distance of about half a cable's length from it, sunk to rise no more. The remaining four resolved to die by the wreck; one of them had just expired when the vessel from Senegal arrived; the other three were so exhausted, that a few hours more would have put an end to their misery.
It is impossible not to be struck with the extraordinary difference of conduct in the officers and crew of the Meduse and those of His Majesty's ship Alceste.* These two frigates were wrecked nearly about the same time—the distance from the nearest friendly port pretty nearly the same—in the one case all the people were kept together, in a perfect state of discipline and subordination, and brought safely home from the opposite side of the globe;—in the other, every one seems to have been left to shift for himself, and the greater part perished in-the horrible way we have just seen.'
• See No. XXXIV. Art. VIII.