Review – Skeletons on the Zahara,
by Dean King
A keeper? Yep.
A couple of notes to start with – “Zahara” = “Sahara”, the way they spelled it in 1815.
And about that book cover with the weirdly elongated camels and people – those are shadows. The colorful line of something or other (maybe trash that the camels are wading through?) is an overhead photo of the real caravan.
What a story. In late summer of 1815, the square-rigger sailing ship Commerce, out of Middletown, Connecticut, was starting her voyage home from Gibraltar, alone in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to guide her captain but sightings of the stars and guesses about her speed. Two weeks after leaving Gibraltar she was much too far east of where she should have been, rapidly sailing into the coast of Africa, but Captain Riley had no idea of her danger until he heard surf breaking against the coast between 9 and 10 p.m. the evening of August 28. A few minutes later, the Commerce was aground, wedged helplessly between rocks.
The “Commerces” – as King calls the ship’s crew – managed to haul a chain from the crippled ship to the beach and offload themselves, and all the undamaged supplies and money they could salvage. But they were stranded on a nameless beach at the edge of the unknown desert, and nobody who might have helped them knew they were in trouble.
Then things got worse, much worse. The Commerces were taken prisoner by local tribes and enslaved. The wandering tribes lived in horribly difficult conditions, always on the edge of starvation and dehydration. They were not kind to their slaves; the sailors had to endure dreadful suffering. (I would not have survived long.)
By a mixture of defiance, conciliation, and bluff, Captain Riley managed to keep about half of the crew together and eventually arranged for their ransom and return home. One more of the sailors, Able Seaman Archie Robbins, who was sold to a tribe moving in the opposite direction from Riley’s owner, finally made his way to a place where he too could be rescued. The rest presumably died in the Sahara, either soon after being shipwrecked – some of them seemed near death when last seen – or, who knows, possibly after years of slavery.
The Captain couldn’t rescue his crew alone, of course. Without the protection of Captain Riley’s final owner, Sidi Hamet, none of the Commerces would ever have made their way home, except perhaps Robbins. Sidi Hamet promised the Captain that he would try to find the missing sailors. But he was apparently killed in an argument with another tribe while trying to keep his promise. The British consul-general, William Willshire, also deserves mention for advancing his own money as ransom without knowing if he would ever be repaid.
Skeletons on the Zahara draws heavily on the books that Riley and Robbins published about their experiences, expanded and clarified with information that wasn’t available to them, and an epilogue telling what happened to the rescued sailors. None of them escaped without lasting effects on their health, and sometimes on their mental state – today we would call it PTSD. But Captain Riley, at least, seems to have also learned to set aside many of the prejudices he would have grown up with – he became a passionate abolitionist and advocate for religious tolerance.
In the end, though, it’s the story of how much these men endured, of how they escaped at last, of the tricks and political maneuvers their unexpected allies had to use to help them to freedom that keeps you from putting Skeletons on the Zahara down until the surviving Commerces are safe back in Connecticut. And even then, you mourn the men who never got home.