Author's Sahara Trek Inspired by Classic Tale

January 27, 2004

When the American brig Commerce ran aground on the coast of northwest Africa in 1815, Captain James Riley and his crew knew enough to be terrified. Accounts written by other mariners shipwrecked along the same coast chronicled brutal enslavement at the hands of ruthless desert nomads. A few reports suggested that the natives were cannibals.

Rather than test the validity of those claims, the sailors quickly set back to sea in a longboat. Nine days later, plagued by thirst and suffering from exposure, they had no chance but to return to shore. Soon after, the crew was captured by Bedouins and forced to march across the Sahara for days with little food or water. Riley witnessed one of his men, in a famine-induced delirium, gnawing at the sun-charred flesh of his own forearm.

Eventually Riley convinced a desert trader named Sidi Hamet to purchase him and four members of his crew and take them north—to a trading post where they could be ransomed and returned home. Along the way, Riley and Hamet forged a bond that saw them through severe deprivation, an ambush by bandits, and the intrigues of Hamet's father-in-law, who sought personal profit from the sale of the crew.

When Riley finally reached safety in 1817, he recorded his ordeal which was eventually titled Sufferings in Africa. The book, widely read during the 19th century, went largely forgotten for over a hundred years.

Upon rediscovering Riley's classic survival narrative, author Dean King decided to travel to what is today the Morocco-controlled territory of Western Sahara to retrace Riley's route. Dean's retelling of Riley's story, titled Skeletons on the Zahara, is due out in February from Little, Brown, and Co., Inc. Excerpts from King's book and impressions of his trip appear in "The Cruelest Journey" in the February 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine. In the following interview, King recalls his journey tracking Riley's footprints across Saharan sands.

How did you discover Riley's narrative? What inspired you to retell it?

I was in the New York Yacht Club library, researching my previous book [Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian]. On one of the shelves, I spotted an old leather-bound book with the title Sufferings in Africa on the spine. Intrigued, I pulled it off the shelf and started reading. I ended up sitting down in an old leather club chair and reading for two days straight. I couldn't put it down; I realized that I'd uncovered a lost treasure.

Of all the brutal deprivations and remarkable struggles that faced the members of the Commerce on their journey, what stands out in your mind as the most grueling?

Definitely the fact that they were going on forced marches while consuming so little food and water. The survivors lost half their body weight. Riley reported that he went from 240 pounds (109 kilograms) to 120 (54 kilograms) and that some of his men at the end of the ordeal weighed around 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Before becoming enslaved, they'd already been at sea for nine days, scorched by the sun and without food. It's one thing to be traveling with no provisions and trying to save your own life. It's another being forced across the desert as a slave, which the men were forced to do for quite a while before Riley set out with Sidi Hamet on his epic journey north. As slaves, they traveled with no hope. The stamina and heart it took to keep going is remarkable.

What has been the greatest barrier to reconstructing the ordeal of the Commerce?

The biggest challenge for me was to take the material I had and make it come alive for today's reader. The way authors told a story back then was different than the way that we would tell a story today. They didn't write their emotions into a story; they didn't describe a lot of things in detail and omitted much of the sensory stuff that we're used to getting now. That was one of the reasons I decided to go to Western Sahara. I needed to run on the sharp stones that the sailors described running across and feel what that felt like so that I could breathe their experience into the modern retelling of the story.

So recovering those sensory impressions was the main reason behind your trip to Western Sahara?

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