Il Était un Petit Navire

“Il était un petit navire” (translated in English as “There was a little ship”) is a traditional French song that is now considered a children’s song. Not many people know the macabre story behind its lyrics.

2015.05.16 - Il était un petit navire

There is a verse “Straws were drawn all around, To figure out who’d be eaten, Ahoy! Ahoy!, Fate selected the youngest boy, It was thus him that was called [here you put any name you want], Ahoy! Ahoy!” that in the song may have a playful and childish tone but the story upon which this song is based is anything but playful.

The ship the song is referring to is a French Frigate called “Medusa” which sailed on 17 June 1816, with three other French ships, from France with final destination Senegal. Unfortunately, Medusa’s Captain who was somewhat inexperienced decided to plot his own course to Senegal and did not follow the other ships of the convoy. Apart from this he based part of his voyage planning to suggestions made by a simple passenger of the ship who claimed that he knew very well the seas and the coast of the area they were sailing to.

While the vessel was sailing she got grounder near the coasts of Africa. Despite the efforts made by the crew it was not possible to re-float the vessel, so the decision was taken to abandon her. However, the liferafts that were available onboard were not enough to safely evacuate all passengers and crew and so it was decided to build a larger raft using material from the ship. This superficial raft built by the vessel’s carpenters had initially attached to it the rest of the rafts that the ship initially had, although later on they were detached.

Almost 150 people boarded this raft which drifted for over 13 days to wherever the winds and the currents where taking it. During these 13 days terrible and horrific incidents took place onboard the raft. The food and water supplier were not enough and the a large number of the people onboard the raft died from starvation, dehydration and the hardships onboard the raft. Those that were able to somehow survive starvation and dehydration in their despair cannibalized the bodies of those that had died by desiccating the dead flesh in the sun in order to eat it (so the verse “To figure out who’d be eaten” must be taken literally!). Medusa’s raft was finally located and rescued by the ship “Argos”. Out of the 150 people that had initially boarded the raft only 10 managed to survive.

This story although an old one, apart from its historic relation with the well-known song “Il était un petit navire”, highlights a fact which professional navigating officers are well aware of and that is the importance of a careful and well prepared voyage plan. Mere suggestions and hypotheses must never be taken into consideration.

Detailed information about the French frigate Medusa can be found in wikipedia.

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