Shipwrecks possess a compelling resonance that is difficult to explain. I have seldom been on boats, but from my youngest days I’ve been drawn to the coast. While a student in Boston I made weekend trips to Gloucester to be near the place where ships go out to sea, sitting by the quote from Psalm 107 at the base of the famous fisherman statue. Moby Dick has passed under my eyes many times. While at Nashotah House I was frequently tormented with nightmares of sinking ships. Titanic was a huge movie late in those years, and even before watching it, I dreamed of going unceasingly down. In a used bookstore, Alexander McKee’s Wreck of the Medusa recently caught my attention. Although I’d never heard of the Medusa, the name suggested classic themes, and the shipwreck, I knew, would entail suffering and loss and human drama. I knew I had to take it home with me.
The true story of the wreck is tragic in just about every conceivable context. The year was 1816 and aristocracy was still openly practiced. The Medusa, bound for Africa from France, ran aground and, in echoes of what would happen (at least in some instances) a century in the future, the insufficient number of lifeboats were claimed by the wealthy and powerful. The most tragic aspect, however, was the matter of the raft. The masts were felled and a poorly designed raft was hastily constructed (the Medusa was grounded, not sinking). The greatest number of people were herded onto this raft where the water came up to nearly their waists, as the six boats towed the makeshift craft toward shore. At the instigation of the about-to-be-installed governor of Senegal, those towing the raft dropped the line and rowed themselves to safety. The raft, with no means of propulsion, was left adrift where 135 people of the 150 on board slowly died over the next two weeks. The governor and his party made it safely to their destination.
To me, this election week, it seems that I’ve just read a potent parable. We have public officials in place who, like those safely in the boats, cry out “we abandon them” before the masses of those who expect and deserve their protection. Power, it is said, corrupts, and as we witness the constant increase of political power over the sea of humanity taught that their religion favors the party able to quote the Bible the loudest, we sometimes forget that sinking ships may leave very long memories. In another week we will reach the commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Essex, the Medusa, and countless other tragically doomed ships may easily slip our minds now being propelled at full speed toward the spending frenzy of Christmas. Meanwhile, I urge us all to take a few November moments to consider where this ship is heading, and if there is yet time to change her course.