I picked up "Skeletons on the Zahara" after it was mentioned in passing on DailySpec, and it turned out to be a most enjoyable read.

As per the Amazon blurb, "Dean King refreshes the popular nineteenth-century narrative once read and admired by Henry David Thoreau, James Fennimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln. King's version, which actually draws from two separate first person accounts of the Commerce's crew, offers a page-turning blend of science, history, and classic adventure." The book is a compelling page-turner, an extraordinary story of survival against overwhelming odds. Perhaps even a better yarn than Shackleton because the crew struggled against Man as well as Nature.

Capt. Riley and his crew set off from Gibraltar in 1815, on their way back to Connecticut, and through a combination of bad weather, bad navigation, and bad luck, missed the Canary Islands and instead ran aground at Cape Bojador on the edge of the Sahara. On going ashore, they soon were swarmed by nomadic Arabs who, as was the custom in the area, looted their money, provisions, and even clothing. The Commerces swam for their lives, back to their grounded ship, but lost one crewman to the Arabs. Then they launched their lifeboat, hoping to make their way south to sub-Saharan Africa, away from the desert Arabs. But in a few days they were overwhelmed by hunger, thirst and sunstroke and had to land at Cape Barbas, a couple of hundred miles south of Bojador, even farther from 'civilization.'

After a long struggle to climb the sea-cliffs at Barbas, the Commerces find a bleak landscape with no sign of water or vegetation, and realize they'll be dead of dehydration in a day or two unless they find water. Wandering, they stumble on a group of Arabs at a well, who give them water, but then, as per custom, take them as slaves. After fighting among themselves, the Arabs divvy up the Commerces, one or two to each 'master.' Much of the book describes the Commerces' subsequent wanderings through the desert as slaves of the Oulad Bou Sbaa tribe. A good indicator of the privation and suffering they endure: Capt. Riley's weight drops from 240 to 90 pounds during his travails.

The sailors are traded several times as the tribes folk crisscross the desert. Early on, Capt. Riley is exchanged for a blanket, and remarks that he's worth substantially less than a camel, as seen by the Bou Sbaa.

The Commerces' only hope is to convince the Arabs they have connections in Swearah (modern Essaouira), a seaport outside Morocco (modern Marrakech) where the Western nations had consulates. The notion of ransoming "Christian slaves" captured by pirates or taken from shipwrecks was well-established, and gave rise to a fascinating economic structure, as described by King:

"In this way, in an agonizing peristalsis, the Sahara slowly yielded Christians north one territory at a time, the nearer to Swearah the higher the price, with the medium of exchange switching from bartered goods to cash at Wednoon, on the edge of the desert. On the Sahara, the French merchant Saugnier was traded once for a barrel of meal and a nine-foot bar of iron, and later for two young camels. He was sold twice at Wednoon, first for $150, then for $180. Seamen with him brought $50 to $95. Robert Adams of the Charles went in the latter range, once for $50 worth of blankets and dates, and a second time for $70 worth of blankets, dates, and gunpowder."

Eventually Capt. Riley and a few others are purchased by a trader from the north, Sidi Hamet, more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the Bou Sbaa nomads. King cleverly opens the book with a prologue from Hamet's perspective, describing his participation in a massive caravan from Wednoon to Timbuktu in 1812, led by a trader named Sidi Ishrel, that went awry after failing to find any water mid-desert:

"When they arrived in Haherah, the news spread like flying sand to the back of the caravan, reaching many of the men before they had even set foot in the much-anticipated valley: There had been no rain in over a year. Haherah's famous wells were dry. (.. ) Sidi Ishrel marshaled them together in teams to remove sand and stones from the old dry wells and mine them deeper. For five days the teams dug in unison, but still found no water. Sidi Ishrel concluded they had no hope of salvaging the caravan. The could only try to save themselves, so he ordered all but three hundred of the best camels to be slaughtered. They would drink their blood and the fluid stored in their rumens, and they would eat and dry the meat. (.. ) Thirty elders selected the camels to be spared, and the slaughter of the rest began. (.. ) In the heat of the moment, they began to quarrel. At first they only brandished their scimitars threateningly, but it was as if death must beget death. Once the crescent-shaped blades clashed, friends joined friends. There was no escaping the feverish battle that resulted. (.. ) In their fury, some of the men murdered Sidi Ishrel. More than two hundred others died that day. The survivors drank their blood." 

Sidi Hamet sees in the "Christians" a chance to make back his losses from this caravan, money he owes to his father-in-law, a powerful local warlord. Capt. Riley convinces Hamet he has a wealthy friend in Swearah, though in fact Riley has never been there, and suspects there are no Americans in the town, and fears the British consul will be hostile to Americans in the wake of the just-concluded War of 1812. His only chance is to give Hamet a generic letter "to his friend" that reads as if he and his sailors are British, and hope it falls into the right hands. He writes:

"Sir: The brig Commerce from Gibraltar for America, was wrecked on Cape Bojador, on the 28 August last; myself and four of my crew are here nearly naked in barbarian slavery: I conjure you by all the ties that bind man to man, by those of kindred blood, and every thing you hold most dear, and as much as liberty is dearer than life, to advance the money required for our redemption, which is nine hundred and twenty dollars, and two double barrelled guns: I can draw for any amount, the moment I am at liberty, on Batard, Sampson & Sharp, London — Cropper & Benson, Liverpool — Munroe & Burton, Lisbon, or on Horatio Sprague, Gibraltar. Should you not relieve me, my life must instantly pay the forfeit. I leave a wife and five helpless children to deplore my death. (.. ) My present master, Sidi Hamet, will hand you this, and tell you where we are — he is a worthy man. Worn down to the bones by the most dreadful of all sufferings — naked and a slave, I implore your pity. (.. ) I speak French and Spanish. James Riley, late Master and Supercargo of the brig Commerce" 

It's unclear whether Hamet believes Riley, and several times he emphasizes he'll slit Riley's throat in an instant if he discovers he's lying about his "friend." But now Hamet and Riley have a shared interest in delivering the Commerces to Swearah, and they set off together on an arduous journey though various provinces controlled by greedy warlords eager to steal any "Christian slaves" who pass through.

I won't spoil the fun by giving away any more of the plot. Read it and find out!

The author spent time in the Sahara "on foot and camel" while preparing the book, and his familiarity with the remote locations visited, and harsh conditions endured, by the Commerces shines through. And King writes with elegance and fluency. Altogether a wonderful book, great fun.


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