Robert F. Walch

The Sahara has never been a very hospitable place, least of all for interlopers from Western countries. Sailors who found themselves shipwrecked on the treacherous North African coast were subjected not only to brutal treatment by the warrior tribes of the Sahara but also to the harsh elements of the desert itself.

Skeletons on the Zahara recounts such a harrowing experience. The American merchant brig Commerce, sailing out of Middletown, Conn., went aground on the Moroccan coast in 1815. For Captain James Riley and his 12 crewmen, striking the rocks off Cape Bojador was not as big a disaster as what would follow over the next two-and-a-half months.

Using memoirs written by two survivors of the ordeal, Captain Riley and Seaman Archibald Robbins, Dean King, a noted journalist and biographer, retraces the sea and land route taken by the men of the Commerce from the time they embarked on this ill-fated cruise until some of them finally made it home again.

Once safe on shore, Captain Riley and the crew were eventually attacked and enslaved by the Sawhari, one of the more formidable tribes of the western Sahara. Treated with little respect, they became chattel to be bartered for blankets, guns or animals.

Often abused by their masters and their families, malnourished and shuttled from one sand-swept location to another, only seven of the men would eventually be ransomed and return to civilization. The rest either died in the desert or vanished without a trace.

An 800-mile trek marked the survivors’ desert odyssey that eventually ended in Swearah, Morocco, where William Willshire, the British consul general in the city, arranged their release.

As a gut-wrenching adventure tale, Skeletons on the Zahara can hold its own against the likes of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition across the Antarctic in 1914-16 or more recent stories like Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, or the accounts of Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest in 1953.

The physical hardships graphically described in the book will make many readers wince. The men were forced to drink not only their own urine but that of camels to stay alive, and Riley notes that they “preferred the beasts’ urine to their own.” Fed only after their captors’ dogs, the crew somehow survived on snails, the entrails of slaughtered animals and grasshoppers.

During one particularly grueling stretch, when there was practically no food for both the men and their Arab “owners,” King writes, “some of the men ate the skin off their peeling arms, gnawing into their own flesh. Horrified, Riley tied one man’s arms behind his back.”

While anger was a motivating force for a few men and despair held others in its clutches, some of the sailors saw their plight as part of a spiritual test. Robbins believed that “it is God’s will that we suffer; we must make the best we can of our situation, as wretched as it is.”

Even with the unspeakable hardship the enslaved men had to endure, there is a curious bright spot in the narrative. A surprising bond between Riley and a Muslim trader developed that transcended their very disparate cultural and religious beliefs. Granted, the Arab and his brother were motivated by profit, since they intended to demand a high price for their slaves. But a mutual respect and trust eventually developed to the point that Sidi Hamet, one of the merchants, risked his own life to protect the men of the Commerce.

In the latter stages of their journey, another individual, Rais Bel Cossim, a Moor in the employ of Willshire, jeopardized his own life to assure the crew’s safe arrival in Swearah.

Nearly two centuries ago over a million copies of Riley’s narrative were read by an audience thirsting for true adventure stories. Abraham Lincoln read the book in 1817; and, by his own admission, the sections on the men’s treatment influenced the future president’s views on slavery. Although Riley’s account did have its detractors and there were those who believed the story could not possibly be true, King writes that such influential men of letters as James Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau were wholeheartedly supportive of the book.

By combining firsthand accounts of the ordeal by Riley and Robbins with some of his own on-site research, King has created a moving and literary account of this ill-fated voyage. In the annals of adventure narratives, the story of the Commerce’s crew will always rank in the top 10.

Robert Walch, a California book columnist, is a retired English instructor who spent 39 years in parochial and public secondary education.