Skeletons on the Zahara

by Dean King

Little, Brown, March, 2004.
Hardcover, 353 pages.
ISBN: 0316835145

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King In his forward to Skeletons on the Zahara, author Dean King relates that in the fall of 1995, while researching in the library of the New York Yacht Club, he came across a large book with the intriguing title of Sufferings in Africa. A bestseller in its time, the book detailed the story of American sea captain James Riley and the crew of the ill-fated brig, Commerce, which was shipwrecked in Africa. The crew was sold into slavery and suffered untold horrors at the hands of slavers. Dean King retells the story which, although written nearly two hundred years ago, has great importance to twenty-first century Americans who are facing a clash of cultures that very well may endure for a long time. The writer himself became involved in the book and in the storm that now involves the international community. Only three weeks after 9/11, Dean arrived in western Africa, financed by The National Geographic, and ready to retrace the steps of sea captain James Riley and the crew.

Abraham Lincoln listed Captain Riley's original narrative along with The Bible, Pilgrim's Progress and a few other books as being the strongest influences on his life. Captain Riley presented his manuscript to the head of the New York Historical Society in 1817, and the book went into three editions as well as being printed in England and a French edition. The book's account of the slavery of the crewmen and the disdain of the pious Muslim tribesmen for the "Christian dogs" had a powerful effect on many citizens in the U.S. who were grappling with a mirror image of equally pious white slave holders and their attitudes toward African slaves.

The importance of Skeletons on the Zahara to the reader of today becomes clear as the sufferings of Captain Riley and his men at the hands of the desert nomadic tribes are chronicled in relentless detail. The difference in cultures is evident on every page as the reader follows Riley 's countless miseries from sun, exhaustion and starvation. The nomadic tribes fight over their American slaves, steal from each other and follow a code that is incomprehensible to the Western traditions of personal property and truthfulness in personal dealings. It becomes evident that there may be sparse common ground for these greatly different cultures to coexist. Yet on an individual level Riley gives true examples of coexistence and mutual respect. The Arab trader, Sidi Hamet, helps Riley get back to Western civilization because he can collect a ransom, and he also believes that for some unknown reason that the captain is favored by Allah. The surprising final act of Sidi Hamet comes at the end of the book and is another confusing example of the clash of cultures.

Dean King writes in a quick-moving, factual style that carries the reader through the shocking cruelties of the wild desert nomads and the stark oppressiveness of the hostile terrain. Captain Riley's hopes rise and fall, but he never really gives up. Those who have been entertained by the current survival shows on TV will begin to see them as little more than a weekend survival skills exercise when compared to what the crew of the Commerce endured. Footnotes help the reader comprehend some of the vocabulary and customs without impeding the power of the story itself. Skeletons on the Zahara is extensively researched which makes this true account of human strength of character, perseverance and loyalty both uplifting and thought provoking.

-Sarah Reaves White

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This review was published in the March-April, 2004 of The Internet Writing Journal.

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