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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival Paperback – April 12, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

Some stories are so enthralling they deserve to be retold generation after generation. The wreck in 1815 of the Connecticut merchant ship, Commerce, and the subsequent ordeal of its crew in the Sahara Desert, is one such story. With Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, Dean King refreshes the popular nineteenth-century narrative once read and admired by Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln. King’s version, which actually draws from two separate first person accounts of the Commerce's crew, offers a page-turning blend of science, history, and classic adventure. The book begins with a seeming false start: tracing the lives of two merchants from North Africa, Seid and Sidi Hamet, who lose their fortunes—and almost their lives—when their massive camel caravan arrives at a desiccated oasis. King then jumps to the voyage of the Commerce under Captain Riley and his 11-man crew. After stops in New Orleans and Gibraltar, the ship falls off course en route to the Canary Islands and ultimately wrecks at the infamous Cape Bojador. After the men survive the first predations of the nomads on the shore, they meander along the coast looking for a way inland as their supplies dwindle. They subsist for days by drinking their own urine. Eventually, to their horror, they discover that they have come aground on the edge of the Sahara Desert. They submit themselves, with hopes of getting food and water, as slaves to the Oulad Bou Sbaa. After days of abuse, they are bought by Hamet, who, after his own experiences with his failed caravan (described at the novels opening), sympathizes with the plight of the crew. Together, they set off on a hellish journey across the desert to collect a bounty for Hamet in Swearah. King embellishes this compelling narrative throughout with scientific and historical material explaining the origins of the camel, the market for English and American slaves, and the stages of dehydration. He also humanizes the Sahrawi with background on the tribes and on the lives of Hamet and Seid. This material, doled out in sufficient amounts to enrich the story without derailing it makes Skeletons on the Zahara a perfectly entertaining bit of history that feels like a guilty pleasure. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

When the American cargo ship Commerce ran aground on the northwestern shores of Africa in 1815 along with its crew of 12 Connecticut-based sailors, the misfortunes that befell them came fast and hard, from enslavement to reality-bending bouts of dehydration. King's aggressively researched account of the crew's once-famous ordeal reads like historical fiction, with unbelievable stories of the seamen's endurance of heat stroke, starvation and cruelty by their Saharan slavers. King (Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed), who went to Africa and, on camel and foot, retraced parts of the sailors' journey, succeeds brilliantly at making the now familiar sandscape seem as imposing and new as it must have been to the sailors. Every dromedary step thuds out from the pages with its punishing awkwardness, and each drop of brackish found water reprieves and tortures with its perpetual insufficiency. King's leisurely prose style rounds out the drama with well-parceled-out bits of context, such as the haggling barter culture of the Saharan nomadic Arabs and the geological history of Western Africa's coastline. Zahara (King's use of older and/or phonetic spellings helps evoke the foreignness of the time and place) impresses with its pacing, thoroughness and empathy for the plight of a dozen sailors heaved smack-hard into an unknown tribalism. By the time the surviving crew members make it back to their side of civilization, reader and protagonist alike are challenged by new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples. Maps, illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (April 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316159352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316159357
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (290 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #26,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dean King is an award-winning author of nine non-fiction books. You can learn more about him at or keep up with him on Facebook. King has chased stories across Europe, Asia, Africa and now Appalachia. His goal is to draw you into a nuanced and accurate historical narrative that allows you to live with the characters, to feel their pain, striving, and joy, and to grow with them. He rides the camels, climbs the 14,000 foot passes, walks the yard-arms, and tracks down far flung sources. (He was shot at beside the Tug River while researching his latest book, THE FEUD.) Then he writes and edits until his knuckles have no skin, his elbows ache, and his family is looking for him, all to give you pleasure in lean and meaningful prose. If he makes you eager to take his book to your favorite easy chair or crawl into bed and curl up with it, he's happy. If you learn something or feel changed, then all the better. King's writing has appeared in Granta, Garden & Gun, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, New York Magazine and the New York Times. He is a contributing editor of Virginia Living and a nationally known speaker, who has been the chief story-teller on two History Channel documentaries.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

105 of 109 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a boy, Abraham Lincoln read the memoir of Captain James Riley, and never forgot its story of slavery in the Sahara (or Zahara, as Riley would have known it). Thoreau knew the book. It was an international bestseller, and it might have been one of the few books besides the Bible in some American homes. Riley was a legend in his own time, but no longer is in ours. He is back, brought to us by Dean King, who read Riley's memoir of his adventure in the Sahara, and then read a narrative of the same adventure from a fellow crewman of Riley's, and then himself traveled in the still inhospitable and dangerous regions described in the two books. King has produced _Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival_ (Little, Brown), a wonderful account of fortitude under the most extreme conditions at sea and on the desert. This is one of the great adventure stories, full of the tortures by man and nature, and of course of the success of an indomitable spirit.
Captain Riley and his "good Yankee crew" of eleven left Connecticut for an ordinary merchant voyage in 1815, and eventually foundered on the west coast of the Sahara, six hundred miles south of Morocco. They were beset by hostile, thieving nomads, but briefly escaped by taking to sea in the ship's longboats. They were eager to be away from the Sahara, which everyone knew was a realm of death but which was at the time uncharted, mysterious, and full (so the stories went) of cannibals. They ran out of provisions at sea and were forced to make for Sahara land south of Bojador, and their prospects were just as bad. Other tribesmen captured them, took their goods, and made them slaves. There are many pages devoted here to pain, extreme sunburn, thirst, hunger and other travails.
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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Cort W. Hayhurst on March 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was first attracted to this book after reading a review in the Smithsonian magazine. The original story was apparently one of the most influential books of Abraham Lincoln's youth. I was also intrigued by the location in which the story took place, Morocco, where I had spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer on the border with Algeria. The story was rich with the descriptions of a sailor's life and the hardships of shifting to a struggle for survival in the desert of the Sahara. I had some experience with nomads and Touaregs in the Sahara and was amazed at how King's descriptions of nomadic lifestyles and customs of 200 years ago are still alive today.
It's probably apparent by now that I am not a book reviewer, this is my first review. In fact I don't read much any more as I am usually disappointed and quit before finishing most books. This book, however, was one which I could not put down. It is a work that I must place at the top of my all time favorites.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on March 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In 1815 a New England merchant brig foundered in rocky seas off North Africa. Its crew survived though perhaps they later wished they hadn't.
In the first days, hostile nomads drove them to escape back to the sea in a small boat with a broken oar only to suffer such dehydration and starvation that even enslavement by the dreaded nomads seemed preferable - until it happened.
After a slow, thoughtful start laying out the background of the men and the voyage, Dean's story of the crew's ordeal reads like a runaway suspense thriller with torture. And it's well written and chock full of information you didn't know you needed - the camel, for instance, is an astonishing physical specimen, a creature with a face built for sandstorms; an animal that doesn't sweat or pant, but stores its heat for the cold nights when it becomes a kind of living stove.
Dean's book is based largely on two firsthand accounts - one by ship's captain James Riley, and another by crewman Archibald Robbins. Dean also retraced much of Riley's trek, and his selected bibliography is lengthy.
Near death, the crew puts back into shore and, unable to find water, throws themselves on the mercy of the first nomads they encounter. The men are immediately stripped naked, then parceled out as slaves - after a bloody and protracted fight among the desert dwellers. Their first guzzle of water and sour camel's milk rips through their intestines, a cycle that is to be repeated throughout their ordeal.
Separated, sunburned, depleted, still naked and unable to keep up, the men are put on camels. "It is no coincidence that a camel's gait is called a `rack'." Blood was soon dripping from chafed thighs and calves.
The ordeal goes from horror to worse.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By J.L. Alig on May 23, 2005
Format: Paperback
An 1815 shipwreck and slavery by Arabs told under the Sahara sun today

Dean King studied Captain James Riley's story of his 1815 shipwreck off the coast of Africa, and the subsequent slavery of Riley and crew when captured by the Arabs. After months in the formidable Sahara Desert, Riley and crew were freed from being hostages, by Englishman William Willshire. Riley returned to the States and in 1816 published his book, "Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce." Riley accepted an 1819 appointment from the U.S. Surveyor General Edward Tiffin to survey land in northwest Ohio, following the U.S. Treaties with the Indian Nations. In 1822, Riley platted Willshire, Ohio, to honor his benefactor, Wm. Willshire. Riley went on to become Northwest Ohio's Representative to Ohio Congress, 1834/24. In the 1830's, Riley returned to sea. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote that he had read Riley's book, which influenced his attitudes concerning slavery.

Dean King read Riley's "Narrative," and became so intrigued with Riley's story, that he planned and implemented a trip in the Sahara, following Riley's route on camels. King questioned his Arab guides and related stories written by Riley, to confirm the authenticity of Riley's "Narrative." King kept a daily journal which is now posted on his website, King's daily journal is worthy of being a companion book to his book about Riley, because it takes the reader with him under the hot desert sun.

How do I know to advise the reader to read Dean King's book about Captain James Riley? I served as Director of the Mercer County Historical Museum, The Riley Home, Celina, Ohio, for over three decades.
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