Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

by Dean King

Hardcover, 2004



Call number




Little, Brown and Company (2004), Edition: 1, 320 pages


Chronicles the hardships encountered by twelve American sailors who, in 1815, were shipwrecked on the coast of North Africa, captured, sold into slavery, and sent on a difficult odyssey through the perilous heart of the Sahara.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
Reading more like an historical adventure novel, Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King tells the true story of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815. Captured by Arab nomads, these men endured starvation, brutality, dehydration and constant fear. Separated from
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each other, marched back and forth across the desert, their survival, much less their return to America seemed an impossible dream, but this was often all these men had to hold onto.

The author obviously researched extensively and supplied many details about the land, the climate, and the people as well as the fate of these twelve sailors. Breathing life into a forgotten story from the past, this page-turner held my attention from beginning to end.

I was grateful that the author supplied lots of maps, which help define the journey these men were forced to bear, along with a glossary, and reading notes for further clarification. I suspect this will be a story that I long remember, Skeletons On The Zahara is a prime example of how absorbing narrative non-fiction can be.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5388. Skeletons on the Zahara A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (read 3 July 2016) This 2004 book is the result of the author discovering an 1817 book by James Riley, captain of the brig Commerce which left Connecticut in May 1815 and after stopping at New Orleans sailed to Gibralter and then
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was wrecked of the coast of Africa in August 1815. The officers and crew--12 people in all, including a 15-year-old cabin boy who was the nephew of the captain, managed to get ashore but were captured by mostly ill-behaving natives. The account of the terrible time they had in regard to food, water, and mistreatment is set out in gruesome detail. One must admire the excellent job the captain did in seeing to it that at least some of the crew survived and were ransomed In fact, since one is reading the book one knows that some survived--and this makes reading less dolorous.
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LibraryThing member mramos
Dean King blends two first-hand accounts with copious research to recount the 1815 wreck of the U.S. merchant ship Commerce off the west coast of Africa and the crew's captivity. What follows is a great description of the desert climate, local customs, nomadic life, heatstroke, starvation, and
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cruel enslavement endured by the sailors.

This classic of when the U.S. Commerce was shipwrecked near Cape Bojador should be required reading list. The story is riveting enough to capture and hold anyone's attention. The crew was captured by Sahrawi Arabs then sold into slavery. After which they experience travel across eight hundred miles of the Sahara Desert. Pressed into labor and fed meager portions of food we follow their story as they face dehydration, starvation, barbarism, murder, insects, sandstorms, ethnic hostility and death around every corner.

A true tale of endurance and adventure that will make you want to continue reading. This is a must read today as Riley's book "Narrative of the Loss of the American Big Commerce" in 1816. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote that he had read Riley's book and that it influenced his attitudes concerning slavery.
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LibraryThing member longhorndaniel
an excellent survival story; lets you feel what he is going thru while at the same time astounding you with what the human body can physically take
LibraryThing member sharonestelle
How often can you read a book read by Abraham Lincoln? This one profoundly influenced his views on slavery! The story was based on the narrative of James Riley, captain of the American Brig Commerce, which ran aground off the coast of Africa in 1815. Riley and his shipmates were captured by nomadic
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Arabs and forced into slavery. Originally published in 1817, Riley's narrative was a best-seller in the 19th century. After 100 years, National Geographic's Dean King went to Africa to retrace their steps through what is now Morocco in Western Africa and tell the story once again.
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LibraryThing member sew-what39
Loved it. Well-written and captivating.
LibraryThing member Carolfoasia
This is solid adventure story. It made me want to read Riley's original account of the shipwreck and enslavement of the crew of the Commerce in 1815.
LibraryThing member nathan.c.moore
"Skeletons on the Zahara" is a true but gut-wrenching, dehydrating, queasy story of fate of Captain James Riley and the men of The Commerce. The story itself is horrifying and contains a quality of human suffering that is incomprehensible to the first world mind. I read this book right after
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reading "Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" and I was constantly comparing the two the whole time. Both stories are remarkable and I can't imagine how anything but Divine providence could ever attribute to their survival. From a writing style, I found Dean King's prose preferable but a little choppy at times. His re-telling was much faster paced than Shackleton's though the events in Africa were far more eventful than in the Antarctic. Additionally, though King painted many scenes like a novelist would, I found myself wishing that he worked harder to develop his real-life characters and portrayed even more of their humanness.On a personal note, reading survival stories like those of Shackleton and Riley seem have a noticeable impact on my moral character. I can't imagine how one could read these stories and not find their hearts swelling in thanksgiving and gratitude. I am reminded how heavy God's hand of blessing and how light his hand of affliction has been on me.Shackleton and Riley have left their mark on me and I imagine I will tell these stories to my children (once they develop strong enough stomachs of course).
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LibraryThing member DrBrewhaha
Fantastic, page-turning tail of shipwrecked sailors in captivity to various groups of Arabs in the Sahara. Their tale of how they survived (some of them) and life on the desert is astounding. The survival tale was actually first written by the captain of the boat in the early 19th century and was a
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popular adventure book back in the day. Dean King discovered this tale and brought it back to light with additional background and corroborating information.
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LibraryThing member shawnd
Gripping. A survival novel based on historic Africa. This book taught me more about living in rustic rudimentary poverty than probably any other -- even better than Poverty by Vollmann. Although this is an adventure and survival story, the accounts of the lifestyle of the African nomads - how
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little they had to eat, how dear any morsel of food was, for their entire lives, their rituals of killing a sheep at midnight, all these things are indelibly marked on my brain.

Although technically some of the seafaring survival situations seem horrid, this one seems worse than all of them. The men were sold into slavery in Africa to incredible lean/poor nomads and treated terribly. The book is graphic and effected me emotionally. I won't spoil the end but the book does have a solid beginning, middle and end and I was relieved to get some closure on most of the men and what happened to them - as much of the book is based on historical journals.
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LibraryThing member PCorrigan
Fascinating true account!
LibraryThing member Marlene-NL
This book has been on my wish lists (yes, I have one on amazon, one on cliff's, 1 on Bookcrossing and one here although I need to add a lot of books I want to goodread for many years.)

So it was so much fun to receive a package from Hong on with 2 books I have been wanting to read for many years.
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Thanks azuki.
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LibraryThing member rdwhitenack
Listened to this as audiobook, which I think impacted my enjoyment of the book. I had searched my library's Overdrive system for this book for a few years, and I was thrilled that my searches finally paid off. Unfortunately the book in audio form just wasn't enjoyable. I think the reader is the
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cause for it. He has a great voice, but it's just too old and harsh to listen to for an extended period of time. I can only imagine I would have enjoyed the text of this book more.
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LibraryThing member Skybalon
Really a 3.5. While it does get a little slow early on, it ultimately becomes a compelling true story. In fact so compelling that it is hard to understand how anyone survived. I also appreciate the short post-script where the results of this ordeal were talked about.

A bit of a slog at times, but
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still worth the read.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Harrowing true survival story of the crew of the American brig Commerce who were shipwrecked off the western coast of Africa in 1815, held as slaves by nomadic tribes, and subjected to extreme deprivation in crossing the Zahara (Sahara) desert in a desperate attempt to reach safety. It is a tale of
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courage, tenacity, quick-thinking, adaptability, endurance, and persuasion. Dean King has blended accounts written separately by two survivors, along with his own research, and his trip retracing the path of the crew’s journey, to create a compelling narrative of survival in the face of tremendous adversity. The crew endured separation, enslavement, beatings, extremes of heat and cold in the desert, sandstorms, starvation, dehydration, and they were tested to their physical and mental limits.

I found this book well-plotted and engrossing. The writing is journalistic in style. One of my favorite parts is the bond of trust developed between two men of very different culture and language, and I thought the author did a great job depicting their characters. Content warnings include: consumption of bodily fluids, insects, (and worse), slaughter of animals, slavery, and brutality. The maps, images, list of terms, cast of characters, and footnotes are extremely helpful. Recommended to fans of maritime history, true adventure, and survival stories.
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LibraryThing member ikeman100
One of the best true tales of survival I have read. The event happened in 1815 but because the Arab life on the Sahara changed so little for centuries it could have occurred in 1715 or 1915. Lesson learned: It is better to be the slave of a rich man then a poor man.
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Entertaining introduction to a classic true adventure story. Although this is a modern retelling King often lapses into an early 19th bombastic style that makes it obvious he is paraphrasing from source material, it can feel stilted as a result. Further the remove of a journalist telling us what
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happened 200 years, versus the first-person memoir by Riley soon after the events - which is still fairly readable - makes me want to read the original. Although the inhuman "sufferings" of the crew are what most remark on, I was most drawn by the lifestyle of the desert natives since it seemed unchanged for 5000 years or more, and provides a glimpse into the age-old fight of settled vs nomadic peoples. Given how harsh nomadic life is I wondered why anyone practice it, and the answer became clear: "civilization" could be even more deadly, the desert was a refuge from cruel and capricious rulers and endless tribal feuds that could wipe out entire settlements.
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LibraryThing member arelenriel
A true "Survivor" tale. To heck with the fake tv show read this book. It is a wonderful tale of a group of sailors stranded off of the Ivory Coast of Africa in the 19th century.
LibraryThing member burritapal
Just amazing, this book will have you dropping your jaw at times upon reading some of the excerpts on life as a [white] slave in the early 19th century, in the Sahara. Compiled by drawing mostly on the written accounts of two of the survivors of the ship Commerce, and calling on other writings
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about shipwreck, and life in the Sahara, and his own travels through the this desert, King makes an ultimately very readable, engaging, and educational story.

Captain Riley of the Commerce faltered in his navigation of his ship from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands, and instead foundered on Cape Bojador, on the Ivory Coast of Africa. The ship was battered by the waves against the rocks, and whatever cargo they managed to pull up on shore was promptly robbed by Saharans. So the crew set about lowering the longboat and trying to keep it from breaking against the brig. They had some crazy idea that they could make their way to the Canary Islands in the longboat, 100 miles away to the west. They battled current, sleeplessness, and the water let in by holes made in the longboat, despite their care to keep it away from rocks. Fighting for days to row, and suffering from skin chafing, thirst and fatigue from rowing and bailing, they found themselves thrown up on a jagged coastline south of Cape Bojador. They fought their way onto the sand in collapse and were promptly seized by Saharans who made them their slaves. Their horror had only begun.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

320 p.; 9.5 inches


0316835145 / 9780316835145
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