DEATH RAFT: The Human Drama of the Medusa Shipwreck by Alexander McKee
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DEATH RAFT: The Human Drama of the Medusa Shipwreck

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This most notorious of sea stories is calmly and chillingly retold by Alexander McKee, the author of many books on naval subjects. Folly stranded the four hundred passengers and crew of the frigate Medusa on a sandbank off the Sahara in 1816, and desperation, panic, and sheer selfishness persuaded some of them--including the aristocratic captain and the opportunistic colonial governor--to abandon 150 people on a half-submerged makeshift raft, a fate tantamount to slow death. The simplicity of McKee's narrative adds to the horror of the situation as he proceeds from day to day, describing life in each lifeboat and on the terrible raft as conditions deteriorate. Worse, the situation was not necessary, for, as McKee points out, the Medusa did not sink for months--the people on the raft could have waited for help or been ferried ashore. Instead, those in the boats left them to drift, and they fell prey to hysterical violence, resorting to cannibalism and ""mercy killing"" until only fifteen remained to be rescued. The incident caused a political scandal in France, inspired Gericault's famous painting, and has been treated since as symbolic of everything from bourgeois decadence to innate human viciousness. Eschewing polemic, McKee attempts to infer some lesson about human nature by comparing the Medusa with four disasters in which people behaved better. His efforts to find a moral are not a great success, but all the sea stories here, obviously the work of a sailor, are cool, taut, and impossible to put down.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Scribners