Africa's Joola Shipwreck

5.0 out of 5 stars

The most incredible 21st Century disaster you've never heard of

Reviewed in the United States on May 2, 2021 (Brian Connors)

1,863 people die in a shipwreck—a maddeningly avoidable tragedy caused by weather, overcrowding, and a mix of governmental negligence and indifference. Sounds like a novel or a Hollywood blockbuster released on Memorial Day weekend. Or maybe a forgotten incident from a time before cable news and real-time internet reporting? This happened in the 21st Century, but few of us have ever heard about it.


In 2002, the Joola ferry went down in the Atlantic twenty miles off the coast of The Gambia and claimed hundreds more lives than the sinking of the Titanic. Karen Barton, a Professor of Geography at the University of Northern Colorado, went to Senegal with plans to research and write a book on a different subject. Upon hearing the accounts of those lost on the Joola, she concluded that this was the story she actually needed to tell.


Barton examines the forces of history, geography, and politics that shaped this maritime debacle. She avoids sensationalizing the grim details of the capsizing and sinking. The scope of the horror is self-evident. Instead, she considers why the world—and the United States in particular-- didn’t seem to notice or care when a ferry sank with 1,863 victims.


Yes, in the fall of 2002 the United States was rightly fixated on 9/11 and the military response to it. Can this explain why The New York Times first noted the Joola five months after the wreck? For a century, National Geographic has satisfied our understandable fascination with all things Titanic, but the magazine has never even mentioned the Joola. Why?


A ship goes down and there are no dramatic photos or video, so we care less? Is it that there were no American lives lost and that most of the victims were African Muslims? Barton poses these questions, and we may not be proud of the answers. This is a great and thoroughly researched book explaining a shocking story while simultaneously trying to figure out why we have ignored the story.