Saturday, July 18, 2009

Skeletons on the Zahara

It's been taking me a long time to finish books lately, and I've got three or four started. But I got invited to a book club and I had three days to find and read Skeletons of the Zahara, by Dean King. It's one of those unexpected adventure tales - a US commercial ship wrecks off the coast of Africa and everyone gets captured and enslaved. The author had found the original account - a best seller in the early 1800s, mentioned as a favorite by Abraham Lincoln - while researching something else. He's taken that account and the account of a second survivor and tried to mesh the two tales together.

The ship The Commerce set sail May 2, 1815 with 11 men and after stops in New Orleans and Gibralter (where a 12th hitched a ride) wrecked on the coast of North Africa on August 28. After a brief time on shore, they escaped capture by swimming back out to the grounded ship and continued in one of the ships longboats in hopes of being rescued by a passing ship. Instead they beached 200 miles south sometime between September 5 and 7. The men who survived with Captain Riley made it to safety of the Amerian Consul in Swearah on November 7, 1815. They'd been captives for two months. Four of the men left for Gibralter on January 4, 1816. Captain Riley followed sometime later and made it to New York City on March 19, 1816.

I thought maybe it was just me, but others in the group although thought the writing was pretty uninspired and it took everyone a while to get into the story. We know from the start that the captain, who wrote this, survives, since we have the book. But eventually you want to know how.

I don't think I ever considered that American sailors were taken as slaves by Arabic speakers in Africa. Their lives were pretty basic on the camel treks through the desert, but so were the lives of their new masters. I learned that you CAN survive on salt water if you mix it with fresh water; human urine is better than dying of thirst, and you can drink liquid stored inside a camel.
They placed the small intestines, with their contents still inside, in the kettle, along with the liver and lungs. One man slit open the camel's rumen - its first and largest stomach, where it partly digests its food before regurgitating it as cud - reached inside with a bowl, and scooped out some of the chunky green liquid. . .

Riley saw a teenage boy plunge his head into the camel's gaping rumen and drink. Hamet [the captor], seeing Riley's [the captured captain] interest, told him to remove the boy and take his place.

Riley scooped the nauseating cavity with a bowl and poured the ropy green fluid down his throat. What he swallowed could not have been more refreshing . . . [pp. 152-3]
That they survived was a combination of sheer luck, wit, and determination. The captain strove hard to have as many of his men saved as possible and talked his master into taking all four of the crew still with him, rather than save his own life without them. It appears that this loyalty to his men, in fact, impressed the master who eventually arranged to get him to an American consul in exchange for a sizeable ransom.

And while this characterization is based on what the Captain himself wrote, there was confirmation in the other account, written by a survivor who was separated from the captain's group and stayed captive an extra year. Furthermore, the captain also gave accounts where his behavior was not laudable - as when he escaped the first encounter with Africans by leaving the older, Gibraltar hitchhiker on the beach in his place. He rationalized that the man was not as critical to the survival of the rest as he himself.

The captain also had an ability to see the world through the eyes of others which I think also helped in their survival. You can see it in this passage where they were taunted by a black African slave. The slave, Boireck, had worked all day and came back to find the emaciated Americans, who had rested the day, in a tent. He tried to chase them out, but the master said no.

That evening [Boirek] amused the family and some visitors by taunting the Christians. He pointed at their slack genitals and laughingly compared them with his own. His sneering references to the gaunt Riley as "el rais" [the captain] brought howls of laughter. He poked their wounds with a sharp stick and made fun of their skin, which died and turned foul beneath the very image of Allah, the sun. What further proof was needed that these miserable white heathens were worthy only of slavery and scorn?

Clark fumed. "It's bad enough to be stripped, skinned alive, and mangled," he whispered to Riley, "without being obliged to bear the scoffs of a damned negro slave."

"It's good to know you're still alive, Jim, " Riley responded with a nod. The [camel] milk and water they had consumed that day, the rest, the shade had boosted his spirits. He would not let Boireck's buffoonery beat him down just now. "You feel the need to revenge an insult, but let the poor negro laugh if he can take pleasure in it," he told Clark. "God knows there's little enough here to provide that. He's only trying to gain favor with his masters and mistresses. I'm willing he should have it, even at our expense."[p. 136]

While author King only has Riley's word for what happened, the fact that he could even think like this - even if he didn't really say it - says a lot for him.

Of the seven who made it back from Africa, two died within seven years of their return at ages 29 and 44. Another died in 1831 at age 36. Captain Riley made it to age 62 dying at sea in 1840. Another died in 1847 at age 63. The other sailor to write an account of the trip upon which the book is based, Robbins, died in 1860 at 69. The youngest crew member who was only 15 when The Commerce set sail, died in 1882 at age 82. So, while the near starvation and severe physical strain affected them all, a couple still managed to live to a reasonable old age.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my favorite books! My roommate Matt recommended it. I found the passages like the ones you quoted above fascinating. To hear how (some) human bodies can survive on so little water, and to hear what lengths people will go to to get some liquid, any liquid and in any amount, when it is absolutely necessary....

    I think one of the best parts of the book for me, though, was how it was read. I listened to it on audio book, and it was read by Michael Prichard. I didn't recognize how good he was at first, but after a while I realized he had been doing voices and accents for all the different parts. He did it so well and so effortlessly that it just sounded like I was listening to real people talking to each other.
    I was able to get lost in the story, which for me is always the goal of reading.

    I also didn't realize how good Prichard was until I went to listen to other books on tape. These other books were each read by the author. What a terrible idea! Unless the author is also an actor, get someone else! I couldn't even finish those books, even though to prose was at times better than Dean King's.



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