We can all agree that cannibalism is horrible, but circumstances distinguish desperation from evil. It’s one thing to eat a dead body because there’s nothing else to sustain life, but quite another thing to murder someone …and then eat them. History is full of both kinds of cannibalism, like the survivors of the French frigate Méduse.
In early 1816, after the Napoleonic Wars gave France control of Senegal, the Méduse sailed south to Africa to take the reins of its new territory. But tragedy struck. Fifty miles offshore, the ship ran aground. It quickly dawned on the ship’s 400 passengers and crew that there weren’t enough lifeboats to save everybody.
Instead, those who couldn’t fit into the lifeboats—147 passengers in total—huddled onto a makeshift raft. (Some passengers, meanwhile, opted to stay behind with the frigate.) Initially, the raft was towed by the remaining lifeboats … until someone made the fateful decision to cut the ropes. For 13 days, the raft drifted aimlessly. People died—from murder, from being washed (and tossed) overboard, from starvation. Eventually, the survivors turned to cannibalism (and drank their own urine). By the time the raft was discovered, only 15 people were still alive. The tragedy would later inspire one of the biggest paintings of the 19th century, the 16-by-23-foot The Raft of The Medusa.
Read that story, and those of six other incidents of cannibalism at Mental Floss.
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