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Wreck of the Medusa: The Tragic Story of the Death Raft

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  388 ratings  ·  40 reviews
In July, 1816, a French frigate ran aground on a sandbar forty miles off the coast of Africa. Forced to abandon ship, 150 men and women embarked on an overloaded makeshift raft. After twelve days of riots, mutiny, murder, and, ultimately, cannibalism, only fifteen were alive.
Paperback, 294 pages
Published by Signet (first published January 1st 1975)
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Bill
Jan 31, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: under-sail
Originally published in 1974, this is a harrowing account of the grounding of the frigate Medusa off the coast of Africa and the abandonment of the ship by its 400 passengers and crew in seven boats and a poorly-built raft. McKee tells the story in a straightforward way, and he deftly moves the reader from boat to boat as his narrative shifts locations.

The book is a page-turner up until the last few chapters. The plight of the raft is gut-wrenching, and the actions of those who should have been
...more
Jay
Jan 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: History Buffs
Insane story. Before diving into this book, it would help to familiarize yourself with the colonization of Senegal throughout the early 1800s. There were no citations in the paperback copy I read. McKee tended to dwell on uninteresting facts without providing a vivid narrative of the story. Not to say the book isn't well written - it is, but many climactic events seem to come out of nowhere thanks to the bland writing style.

The entire story of the Medusa ends halfway through the book. The rest
...more
Ethan
Jan 16, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This is an interesting book about a fascinating event. The first half of the book describes the grounding of the Medusa, it's abandonment and the fate of the various parties in their various methods of escape, including the "death raft" of 150 individuals that was immediately cut loose by the other escape craft and left to drift on it's own, half sunk, overloaded, under supplied and dangerously exposed. That story is tense and engaging, and an absolute masterclass in the dramatic and terrible ef ...more
Rita
Oct 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
In 1816, an envoy of ships sailed from Rochelle, france headed for St Louis, Senegal, to replace the English government there with a French one. Command of the lead ship was given to an incompetent aristocrat, because of political policy at the time. Like much incompetent management world-over, this buffoon, because of stupidity in a relatively unchallenging situation, managed to run his ship into a sandbar. Worse, he cowardly saved his life and those of VIPs aboard, while abandoning more than h ...more
Gary Detrick
Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned-books
Quite a captivating read. I had a hard time again putting this one down and finding myself angered with the actions of the captain and officers on board, the cowardice, lies, etc, to protect their own asses for lack of a better word.
This is no surprise though as we still see examples of this even today from our "ruling" class. Thank God we still have many officers though that would not follow the atrocities committed here.
What I found very compelling was the outcome of the trials and the compar
...more
Tom Davitt
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely fascinating and harrowing book describing the true story of something that even the most imaginative Hollywood screenwriter could not invent.

I completely disagree with some of the previous comments that the latter portions of the book are irrelevant or filler. I think it is perfectly normal and appropriate to try and make sense of the psychological aspects of what happened on the raft by comparing it to subsequent scenarios.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book is the tu
...more
Ray Savarda
May 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-and-sold
For me, a can't put it down book, especially as the book continues; the farther in, the more I wanted to finish it.
Actually includes some "research" at the end, detailing a couple similar shipwrecks and some analysis of similar behaviors among people put in similar extreme circumstances and how they handled it differently and where the similarities in behavior were.
...more
Jim Rautenberg
Interesting story!

This was an incredible story. I wasn't a big fan of the writers style. It's seemed very haphazard and scattered to me. It was tough to get through on account of that.
...more
Eric
Mar 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
McKee’s narrative of the Medusa tragedy is off-beat and written as if composed in the 19th century. Lines such as, “the high-strung French tend to be more aggressive and nervous anyway.” makes you question his analysis of the missteps leading to the disaster.
Olivia
Sep 22, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall good book, could do without the last few chapters
Sarah
Sep 01, 2019 rated it liked it
An interesting investigation and exploration of a horrific true story.
David
Feb 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
2.5 Stars I love a good survival story, and this one is certainly up there, but I wish the author had done a better job with it. The story (not the author's fault) is so frustrating as an incompetent captain runs his ship aground off of West Africa, and then leaves a raft with 150 survivors on it behind. Only 14 men survive. I was worried when right off the bat when the author dated a major naval battle of the French Revolution 10 years early. My main problem with the book was that the author ha ...more
Mike Curtis
This book tells the true story of a notorious shipwreck. In 1816, the frigate Medusa left France with close to 400 passengers and sailors for the colony of Senegal on the west coast of Africa. Through an amazing display of incompetence, the ship ran aground on a known sandbar about 40 miles from shore near where the Sahara Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. During the ensuing evacuation of the ship, approximately 150 people were abandoned on a makeshift raft that had little chance to make it shore ...more
Evelyn
May 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 1600-1850, history
In July of 1816, a year after the final downfall of Napoleon, a convoy of four French ships were to sail south for a settlement on the African coast that was in the process of being turned over by the English to the French. They were to stay together for safety reasons, even though the ships had different speed capabilities. Certain parts of the African coast was (and still is) largely uncharted, so ships would sail south well away from the coast to avoid shallows and reefs. But a combination of ...more
Andrew
This is an astonishing tale. Nowadays the general public is inundated with heroic stories and actions to the point of seeming routine, but heroism is not commonplace and there is no better light than throwing courageous actions in contrast to their opposite. The tale of the Medusa is an excellent reminder that cowardice, incompetence, and indifference all retain their place in the human condition. This is a must-read for Francophiles, Mariners, those acquainted with Senegal, and would-be leaders ...more
John Haake
Mar 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is an interesting take on a story I was completely unfamiliar with, the fate of the Medusa. A harrowing shipwreck tail. The actual story of the how and what is included in the first half of this book the last half being mostly made up of aftermath, specifically the politics -- this was certainly the least enjoyable portion of this book. In the last chapters of the book the author takes on, surprisingly, two other aspects of the tale of the Medusa that I thought would also be boring (as ...more
Harvey Smith
Jun 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book, based on true history of the French ship the Medusa, who set sail in 1816 from France to the port of Senegal to reclaim the settlement from the British. The Medusa led a small fleet.

The story is hard to imagine, as the Medusa's captain was not competent, he took navigation advise from a fraudulent individual, and eventually sank the ship miles off the west coast of Africa.

The resulting tail is one of bad decisions, irresponsibility, and the horrible misery of those lost at sea.
...more
T.K. Naliaka
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
A disaster that didn't have to happen; a ship's command that had been chosen according to political connections, not practical experience, hubris in ignoring the navigation advice of sailors, and a panicked, not reasoned, abandon-ship order that cast 150 passengers and crew into what became a barely-floating cage match. Crew that chose to stay on board the stricken ship passed their days comfortably, unaware that they'd dodged a deadly and horrific ordeal floating just beyond their view.
A stunni
...more
Nathalie
Feb 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Can't help myself. My mom recommended it. She knows me too well...

Are you inexplicably drawn to stories that depict horrific human suffering? Do you enjoy reading about pompous and incompetent French naval commanders getting their comeuppance? Are you intrigued by tragedies that influence art movements? Are you disgusted by French colonialism in Africa and the havoc it wreaked in the 19th century? If you answered YES to any of these questions...

I loved every minute of this book with the exceptio
...more
Rachel
This book started out as a fascinating and thorough portrayal of the tragic shipwreck of the Medusa. The author is careful to discuss not only the political intrigue, but also the physical factors that led to the tragedy. But the second half of the book is taken up with a much more didactic accounting of every mention of the Medusa in art, a detailing of the courts martial resulting from the captain's actions, and even similar events in more recent history. In itself, this is not enough to turn ...more
Brian
Oct 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
I was a little worried that a book devoted to documenting and analyzing a horrific shipwreck off the coast of the SAhara desert would be very explicit and repulsive, but it was a very good read that left the repugnant details a bit off the page and also delved unexpectedly into the aftermath and a short history the famous painting by Théodore Géricault that captured the scene for all times. McKee also compared modern equivalents in search of the answer to his question of whether the Medusa Raft ...more
Mary Mortimer
Mar 25, 2015 rated it liked it
McKee paints a portrait of how devastating poor leadership can be. His nonfiction account of the tragedy of the medusa details the many mistakes made and how easily so many deaths could have been prevented. Overall a good book, however, the last several chapters should have been written as an essay to be read along side the book. They were irrelevant to the actual case of the Medusa and were more of minor history lessons and comparisons rather than about the tragedy itself.
Jane
Dec 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
well written account, very informative. didn't emotionalize or sensationalize, presented nice study of what happened. It covered the various surviving groups and I agree jumped a bit from one to other making it a bit difficult to follow. The aftermath showed the attempts to suppress or blame the wrong people. I am glad to read such stories as there is a lot of courage in the survivors not just for surviving event but for battling for truth afterwards. ...more
Jim
Nov 06, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Seemed like there were just too many things going on at the same time and not put together all that well, which made the book less enjoyable than I had hoped. There is a lot compeling here---shipwreck, post-revolutionary and Post-Napoleon adjustments, colonialism, art, scandal, etc., but it just wasn't well told. ...more
Donna
This includes more detail than Savigny & Corréard's first-hand account of the wreck and the raft, but I was frustrated by the lack of sources. The writing style is also too melodramatic for my taste. The final chapters, about how people reacted to similar events in more recent history, didn't hook into the rest of the book, which made for a choppy ending. ...more
Jim
Mar 03, 2013 rated it liked it
The first two thirds of this book are very good. The story of what happened to the Medusa was fascinating. The last third.... not so good. The author blathers on and on...about an artist who painted the wreck, about other events that were similar. It was almost as if the publisher demanded so many words and he was just trying to meet his quota.
Jan
May 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
another low cost ebook. ( check out bookgorilla and bookbub) I was interested in this because of Gericault's incredible painting about it. It is a story of the very worse and best in human beings. I now have more info I can share with my art history students. And to think it all could have been avoided. ...more
Dennis E. Flynn
Jun 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting book

Found the story a fascinating study in human nature under duress. The politics that caused the wreck and the public reaction to the events the survivors had gone through. Also a good follow up research into simular modern day events that helped explained the behavior of the victims.
Gayle Lawrence
Apr 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At first I wasn't sure I'd like this writing style, it was a bit disjointed. But then, it was a translation into English, and as I read on, it flowed better. Great story, I know I loved it, but have read a few books in between...
What I really need to do is write about the book the day I finish it. Yep!
...more
Fred
Dec 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ships, history
So what eventually became of M. Richeforte? I think everyone else was accounted for. I think this was pretty well written. I also liked the other two shipwrecks described in the end chapters, but the hostages in the airplanes should have been left off, I feel.
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Alexander McKee was no "yes-man", he dared to criticise many military, political, economic, media and academic icons and he always kept an open mind. He was fanatical about making his works as accurate as he possibly could. He was ever alert to plain-wrong, biased, distorted or sloppy reports and hidden agendas; wickedly delighting (the more so as a self-educated man) in criticising and exposing a ...more

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