Skeletons on the Zahara


Dean King


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

April 23, 2005

his book is the true story of an American merchant ship Commerce in 1815 that is wrecked off of the coast of Africa on Cape Bojador (a perilous spit of land poking out into the sea, where strong currents swept many a ship onto the rocks), just east of the Canary Islands. The captain and crew make it to shore, but there encounter hostile desert dwellers. They manage to escape in a long boat out into the ocean, hoping to reach the Canary Islands (where European traders would have given them a way back home. ), but they are unable to make it to the islands. After a long harrowing sea voyage, they realize that they don't have enough water, and so reluctantly turn back to the African coast, hoping to sail south far enough to find a European colony. But they come ashore too far north, and are quickly captured and enslaved by the savage dwellers of the desert.

Captain Riley wrote an encount of his ordeal when he finally returned to America (he does survive, though not all the crewmen do.) Riley's book is the primary source of material for this book by Dean King, but King also sources a shorter work written by one of the surviving crew - Robbins - and apparently King traveled over much of north-west Africa retracing the route that Riley and his men were dragged over.

Life as a slave in the desert is harsh. The men are starved, beaten, left nearly naked and exposed to the harsh heat and sun, and the bitter cold at night. Thirst is a constant suffering. The Arabs abuse them horribly. One of the slavers, Hamet, offers to take Riley and his men to Swearah, a city in Morocco, if Riley will pay a huge ransom. Riley assures Hamet that he will gladly pay the desired price, despite the fact that he knows nobody in Swearah. The description of the journey is tough to read. The Arabs are nomads, and constantly fight with each other, and steal anything not nailed down. Yet they also readily share food with anyone in the camp.

Camels are pretty much the only beast that can survive in the Sahara, a man's wealth can be measured by how many camels he has. Camels can eat anything, and can travel huge distances without water, and their meat and blood are used to sustain the nomads. It is interesting to read that in early-historic times the Sahara wasn't as big, it more of a semi-arid landscape with ostriches and crocodiles. I wonder if the camels, eating everything in sight, denuded the landscape to accelerate the growth of the Sahara. How much more has the desert expanded even from the time of Riley? I have read that the Sahara is advancing southward.

This book is worth reading. Some of the men do survive, but is an incredible ordeal. It takes forever to cover the last miles to Swearah (The British do indeed pay the ransom for Riley and his men) and treachery and violence threaten at every turn. It is incredible story to read.

If true stories about human triumph in the face of overwhelming odds is what you like to read, then I recommend Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Lansing, and The Long Walk by Rawicz.