Book review: Skeletons on the Zahara ~ Dean King


Dean King, 2005

This astonishing yarn expands on the gruelling tale of the 1815 wreck and enslavement of the crew of the American brig Commerce mentioned in Spanish Sahara reviewed elsewhere. The ordeal the crew suffered at the hands of the barbaric Western Saharan tribes (described collectively but not so accurately as ‘Saharawi’) is truly horrendous. At that time (and indeed right up to the St Exupery era), ransoming of foreigners to European trading posts at Essaouira or St Louis was the norm, but the Commerce had the misfortune to run around Cap Boujdour midway between the two.

Pounced upon and subsequently sold on and on to other nomads for a blanket or other chattels, the miseries of the beaten, stripped and starved crew as they tramp around the desert of present day southern Western Sahara and northern Mauritania are based chiefly on the Commerce‘s Captain Riley’s own account. This book gained wide popularity following his eventual rescue and even influenced Lincoln’s anti-slavery attitudes. For weeks at a time the best drink they could manage was cupping their hands behind a urinating camel and most lost half their body weight. Some lost their minds.

You do have a feeling the author, more familiar with maritime than desert matters, embellishes a little too heartily at times, but it all helps to drive the narrative along with barely a dull moment. This is a survival story on par with Shackleton’s amazing escape from Antarctica, and right up to the very end their continued depredations leave you guessing as to the final outcome.