On a calm May morning in 1815, Captain James Riley and the crew of the Commerce left port in Connecticut for an ordinary trading voyage, never imagining what awaited them. Shipwrecked off the African coast, captured by desert nomads and sold into slavery, they were dragged along on an insane journey through the heart of the Sahara in an ...
On a calm May morning in 1815, Captain James Riley and the crew of the Commerce left port in Connecticut for an ordinary trading voyage, never imagining what awaited them. Shipwrecked off the African coast, captured by desert nomads and sold into slavery, they were dragged along on an insane journey through the heart of the Sahara in an unforgettable tale of survival, courage, and brotherhood.
This won?t be the last time you see a subtitle like A True Story of Survival in one of my reviews. In fact, those five words couldn?t better describe my favorite kind of nonfiction: books where real human beings find themselves in extraordinary struggles against astounding odds to keep existing.
Sometimes the circumstances in such books are seemingly pedestrian?more about internal conflicts than brushes with death. But they?re still about survivors. Two of my favorites are Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams?s levelheaded memoir of her battle against the ravages of floods and breast cancer, and Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore?s account of his fight to surmount and understand a family so dysfunctional that it helped to produce his notorious brother, executed murderer Gary Gilmore.
Then there are the nonfictions whose circumstances are almost incomprehensible. Flyboys: A True Story of Courage documents the tortuous conditions and barbaric mistreatment of eight U.S. soldiers held captive by the Japanese military in World War II. And, for me, perhaps the most memorable and moving book of this ilk is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Harriet Jacobs writes of fleeing her ruthless nineteenth-century slave-owner and enduring a disfiguring seven-year confinement that caused her unbearable physical and emotional pains, all in her quest to be free.
It?s a cheery stack of books, isn?t it? You might not think so, but each one painstakingly documents the perseverance of the soul, which is invariably captivating and inspiring. And that brings me to Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival. First and foremost, this book is an enduring story of human suffering. It?s the account of the 1815 shipwreck of the Commerce, a U.S. merchant ship. When the Commerce runs aground in a storm off the coast of Africa, her crew is thrust into a confounding foreign land and a desperate fight for survival. Guided by Captain James Riley, they escape their crippled vessel, make their way to a nearby beach, and are immediately overtaken by nomads seeking to loot everything of value.
All but one member of the 12-man crew are able to escape with their lives in an unsteady longboat. But after many storm-tossed days at sea, their dehydration forces them back to the coast, where they are stranded on the edge of the Sahara Desert (then called the Zahara) and their most desperate adventure begins. They stumble upon a Sahrawi tribe in the desert and soon discover the vehemence with which these Berber-Arabs desire Christian slaves. After the Sahrawi battle each other for possession of these new slaves, the 12 crew members find themselves separated and numbered among the animals and other belongings of individual slave-masters.
Author Dean King extensively researched his history of the Commerce tragedy, relying especially on the autobiographies of Captain Riley and Archibald Robbins (a crewman) for firsthand depictions of the entire saga. King is wholly successful in re-creating for the reader the vastness and harshness of the Sahara, the complexity of the cultures in that land, and both the personal and overarching narratives that represent this one shipwreck (of many) along Africa?s Cape Bojador. He depicts the intricate, debilitating stages of dehydration and the agonies of hunger, which reduced Captain Riley from his pre-wreck weight of 240 pounds to less than 90 pounds. From the brutality of slavery to the relentlessness of the sun and sand on naked skin to the bone-rattling, thigh-chafing rides atop camels, King paints a vivid picture.
Some of Riley?s men didn?t survive. Some were never able to escape slavery or the Sahara. Little is known of the fates of these men. But Riley and Robbins did live to tell of their harrowing time in Africa. They became national heroes, and their autobiographies were bestsellers. Abraham Lincoln read Riley?s An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce as a boy and considered it a seminal book from his youth. The story also influenced Henry David Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper. And after experiencing the astounding struggles of the Commerce?s seamen via Skeletons on the Zahara, I can understand why great men and school children were captivated by this timeless story of undying hope.
Sep 20, 2007
And incredible story turned into an incredible book.
Publishers Weekly, 2003-11-17 When the American cargo ship Commerce ran aground on the northwestern shores of Africa in 1815 along with its crew of 12 Connecticut-based sailors, the misfortunes that befell them came fast and hard, from enslavement to reality-bending bouts of dehydration. King's aggressively researched account of the crew's once-famous ordeal reads like historical fiction, with unbelievable stories of the seamen's endurance of heat stroke, starvation and cruelty by their Saharan slavers. King (Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed), who went to Africa and, on camel and foot, retraced parts of the sailors' journey, succeeds brilliantly at making the now familiar sandscape seem as imposing and new as it must have been to the sailors. Every dromedary step thuds out from the pages with its punishing awkwardness, and each drop of brackish found water reprieves and tortures with its perpetual insufficiency. King's leisurely prose style rounds out the drama with well-parceled-out bits of context, such as the haggling barter culture of the Saharan nomadic Arabs and the geological history of Western Africa's coastline. Zahara (King's use of older and/or phonetic spellings helps evoke the foreignness of the time and place) impresses with its pacing, thoroughness and empathy for the plight of a dozen sailors heaved smack-hard into an unknown tribalism. By the time the surviving crew members make it back to their side of civilization, reader and protagonist alike are challenged by new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples. Maps, illus. (Feb. 16) Forecast: A major media campaign, including ads in the New York Times Book Review, USA Today and Time; radio and TV interviews; and a six-city author tour will ignite interest in this captivating adventure tale. The book has earned advance praise from Nathaniel Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea) and Doug Stanton (In Harm's Way). (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Alibris, the Alibris logo, and Alibris.com are registered trademarks of Alibris, Inc.
Copyright in bibliographic data and cover images is held by Nielsen Book Services Limited, Baker & Taylor, Inc., or by their respective licensors, or by the publishers, or by their respective licensors. For personal use only. All rights reserved. All rights in images of books or other publications are reserved by the original copyright holders.