Book review: ‘Skeletons on the Zahara,’ by Dean King |

Book review: ‘Skeletons on the Zahara,’ by Dean King

"Skeletons on the Zahara," by Dean King.
Special to the Daily |

The Sahara Desert, one of the world’s most famously forbidding swaths of land, has claimed the lives of countless poor souls, but it is also a region with a rich history and a hardy and proud population. The western shore of Africa has long been a focal point for both commerce and contention, a pivotal location for trade and exploration, but it is also a place where lives were once torn apart as the burgeoning slave trade of the colonial era engulfed and overwhelmed an entire race of people.

In an ironic and karmic twist of fate, even as the lives of black slaves were being demeaned and destroyed, carted by shiploads across turbulent seas to a life of servitude and subjugation, some white Westerners were themselves taken captive and held in bondage upon the African continent. Dean King’s absorbing book “Skeletons on the Zahara” tells the gut-wrenching story of one unlucky shipload of American sailors whose cargo ship broke apart on the rocky cliffs of Morocco.

Capt. James Riley and his 10 crewmates set sail in 1815 for the Cape Verde Islands, their hope being to secure a cargo of salt, which had been sitting unclaimed after the trade-stalling War of 1812. Interestingly, the author does not rule out the possibility that slaves were also a potential return cargo, making what happened all the more poignant.

Riley, a veteran seaman, was ready to leave the war behind and get back to his calling, which was working as a merchant sailor on the open seas. Eager to be on the water, the crew of the “Commerce” made good time, crossing the Atlantic in six weeks before unloading cargo in Gibraltar. They did have several brushes with disaster, which, to more superstitious men, might have been ample warning against continuing south into the lesser-known and notoriously perilous waters between the Canary Islands and Africa.

Not only was the region poorly mapped, but it was infamous for being a destructive spot for ships. Though Riley aimed for a more familiar and benign channel of water that split the Canary Islands, a bank of fog and heavy seas put him off course. The chilling sound of breakers crashing against rocks changed their destiny very quickly, and they found themselves with no option but to abandon ship and make for shore in a battered longboat.

Trusting their fate to land did not come easily, for it was rumored that savage cannibals inhabited the shores, and tales of captured seamen being held for ransom were common. Perhaps indicative of his concern, Riley handed out Spanish coins to each man in hopes that the money would provide leverage if they were captured. Ultimately, they hoped to go unnoticed and to set back to sea when the waters calmed.

Their first encounter with natives is recorded in their preserved narratives, and the recollections are laden with scorn and the same sense of racial superiority that steered many Western men of the time. As often as possible, King lets the words of the men speak for themselves, allowing their ingrained bigotry and the juxtaposition of their mounting despair to articulate volumes.

King also provides detailed maps that illustrate the desperate steps the men took to escape from the Sahrawis who spotted them on the beach. So fearful of their fates if they stayed on land, the men opted for the sea in their inadequate longboat, but that only made them weaker and more vulnerable when the inevitable return to shore arrived.

And if peril on the high seas and a shipwreck were not enough fodder for an adventure book, what follows once the men regain land is very much an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” sort of scenario. Already starving and extremely dehydrated, when the men see the vast expanse of barren dunes, they know their only hope for survival is to submit themselves to the local tribes, hoping that with the inevitable captivity they will at least get food and water and a chance to offer themselves for ransom.

What unfolds once they are in the clutches of the desert nomads is right out of a horror story. Stripped of their clothes, their sensitive skin vulnerable to the scalding sun and the chafing of their camels, the men are quickly separated and their freedoms are repeatedly sold, while hope slowly dies.

Hard to put down, “Skeletons on the Zahara” captivates and teaches, as King utilizes careful research and a clarity of prose to weave the fates of the 11 men into the lives of the nomads who tortured them, enslaved them and ultimately saved them.

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