Cover image for Skeletons on the Zahara : a true story of survival
Skeletons on the Zahara : a true story of survival
King, Dean.
Personal Author:
[Large print edition].
Publication Information:
Waterville, ME : Thorndike Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
619 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DT189 .K56 2004B Adult Large Print - Floating collection Floating Collection - Large Print

On Order



A crucial, forgotten chapter of American history--immortalized in a survivor's firsthand account that became one of the bestselling books in 19th-century America and influenced Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on slavery--is brilliantly retold for a new generation.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This shipwreck-and-survival saga occurred in 1815 in the wind-tortured territory of the modern Western Sahara and was promptly written down by American brigantine captain James Riley. So popular it appeared in six different editions, Riley's account is revived here with the benefit of author King's journey to retrace, in part, the 800-mile desert trek of Riley and his shipwrecked crew. King provides animated descriptions of the desert environment while covering the events Riley related, which included being sold into slavery. The dramatic incidents are supported with relevant details, such as the way the body reacts to dehydration and sun poisoning. Perhaps the story's most intriguing element is the mutual understanding that developed between Riley and his eventual master, Sidi Hamet. A debt Hamet owed to his father-in-law propels the entire drama, as Hamet spirits his slaves through lands of scimitar-swinging brigands for ransoming to a Western consul. This is both a forcefully visceral and culturally astute account. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Feb. 16) Forecast: A major media campaign, including ads in the New York Times Book Review, USA Today and Time; radio and TV interviews; and a six-city author tour will ignite interest in this captivating adventure tale. The book has earned advance praise from Nathaniel Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea) and Doug Stanton (In Harm's Way). (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1815, 12 men boarded the merchant ship Commerce in Connecticut, bound for the Cape Verde Islands after a brief stopover in Gibraltar. Weather and unfamiliar surroundings, however, caused the ship to wreck on the inhospitable coast of what is now Mauritania. Taken as slaves by regional nomads and separated (some never to be seen again), the dozen sailors endured great hardships. King (Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed) rivets with this account of Captain Riley's nine weeks of captivity: traveling inland nearly 800 miles, then back west, and finally north to Morocco, where he was luckily ransomed by an American consul. Referencing Riley's journals and those of crewman Robbin (which became best sellers in their day), King writes an astoundingly researched treatise on Islamic customs, nomadic life, and desert natural history, as well as detailed descriptions of dehydration, starvation, and caloric intake. Included are an 85-title bibliography, detailed maps of the northwest coast of Mauritania and Morocco, a glossary of Arabic terms, and wonderful photographs of King's own trip as he retraced Captain Riley's journey of enslavement. A wonderful, inspiring story of humankind's will to survive in spite of inhospitable conditions and inhumane treatment, this work should be in all public libraries, maritime libraries, and African collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/03.]-Jim Thorsen, Weaverville, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.