Skeletons On The Zahara

BOOK: Skeletons On The Zahara
2.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

While researching a book in the library of the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan in the fall of 1995, I spotted an old leather tome with an intriguing title. It said simply Sufferings in Africa. I pulled this volume down and soon found myself lost in its musty pages. Though written in language and sentiment not far removed from the Puritan roots of its author, Connecticut sea captain James Riley, this true story of survival— of shipwreck, captivity on the Sahara, and a long journey— was powerful, touching, and extreme.

The year was 1815. The War of 1812 had just come to an end, and the merchant brig Commerce set out with a crew of eleven, who held great hopes of restoring fortunes that had suffered during the war. The Commerce lost its way in fog and wrecked on the west coast of Africa, on the edge of the continent's Great Desert, a vast uncharted place said to be inhabited by cannibals. Instead, it was camel-riding Arab nomads who captured the starving sailors and introduced them to the strange and rigorous world of the bedouin, traveling from well to well in sweltering heat and sandstorms and living on camel milk. Despised and working as slaves, the sailors faced unimaginable hardships while trying to figure out how to get themselves off the desert and back to their families.

Since at least Homer's day, such accounts of distant voyages, especially voyages gone bad, have mesmerized their audiences, reawakening them from domestic slumber to the world's wonders: its raging elements, its exotic and unyielding geography, its isolated peoples. The best of these accounts demonstrate anew man's ingenuity in the face of adversity, his will to survive, and, in the end, his intense desire to go home again.

Riley's story did this and more. Like Richard Henry Dana Jr., in his American classic Two Years Before the Mast, Riley recounted his voyage with the candor of a man who had nothing to prove. Riley and his men were not professional explorers, like Cook and Banks or Shackleton. They were not sent to the desert like T. E. Lawrence or drawn to explore it like Wilfred Thesiger or Michel Vieuchange. The men of the Commerce were just going about the business of being merchant seamen when they were suddenly thrust onto the Sahara. Many of the crew left wives and children at home, who expected them to be back soon with wages much needed to right overdue accounts.

Not burdened with the need to make history or fulfill the inflated expectations of a waiting public, Riley, like Dana, reflected a historical time and place with the greater clarity.

Riley's story, published in New York in 1817, gained considerable notoriety, attracting such devotees as Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln held up Riley's narrative as one of the half dozen most influential books of his youth. But Riley's account had its detractors, skeptics who did not believe that what he wrote could possibly be true.

Likewise intrigued and curious, I tracked down the memoir of another survivor of the ordeal, able seaman Archibald Robbins, whose 1818 account, though briefer, covered an even longer period of captivity. My own quest had begun. In Skeletons on the Zahara these two firsthand accounts have finally come together for the first time to tell the story of the wreck of the Commerce and the fate of her captain and crew. But I also felt compelled to go to the Sahara myself to help bring life to their amazing story after so many decades. Due to political conditions, unfortunate timing— I arrived three weeks after 9/11— and the presence of land mines in Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony now controlled by Morocco, I was prevented from reaching many points of interest; however, what I found during my eight-hundred-mile trek on camels and in Land Rovers retracing Riley's route as best as I could through remote coastal desert was that a great many of Riley's and Robbins's descriptions of the people and conditions hold true today.

In fact, the region remains so little explored and so little changed by modernity that scholars still cite Riley's observations— accurate, with a few notable exceptions— regarding the lives of the nomadic Sahrawis, their customs and beliefs, and the grueling nature of the western Sahara. Riley's is the rare case where disaster begat discovery, instead of the other way around.

In Lincoln's day, Riley's account also spoke to a burning issue: the troubling institution of slavery. Inverting the American paradigm, it provided a useful perspective and helped expose the brutality of that abysmal practice. In our time, when one of the great challenges we face is to find common ground for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the plight of the crew of the Commerce achieves a new relevance. It is my hope that the poignant story of the wreck of the Commerce and the journey to redemption of part of her crew will open our eyes anew, at least in some small part, to possibilities.

The Officers and Crew of the Connecticut Merchant Brig Commerce, August 1815


James Riley, age 37, of Middletown, master

George Williams, age 48, of Wethersfield, first mate

Aaron R. Savage, age 20, of Middletown, second mate

Able Seamen

Thomas Burns, age 41, of Hadlyme

James Clark, age 24, of Hartford

William Porter, age 31, of Windsor

Archibald Robbins, age 22, of Stepney

Ordinary Seamen

James Barrett, of Portland, Massachusetts

joined ship in New Orleans

John Hogan, of Portland, Massachusetts

joined ship in New Orleans

Richard Deslisle, of Hartford, cook

Horace Savage, age 15, of Hartford, cabin boy

Antonio Michel, of New Orleans, working passenger;

joined ship in Gibraltar

For Jessica

The crew of the Commerce seem to have been designed to suffer themselves, that the world, through them, might learn.

— Archibald Robbins, A Journal Comprising an Account of the Loss of the Brig Commerce

Prologue: 1812

In his five crossings of the Sahara, Sidi Hamet had never seen worse conditions. Forty days out of Wednoon, the sand had turned as fine as house dust and as hot as coals of fire. With their heavy loads, the camels labored up shifting dunes in spine-buckling bursts, then stumbled down the other side. With each step, the dromedaries thrust in to their knees, their wide, padded feet, designed by Allah to skim over sand, sinking like stones.

Despite his experience on the desert, Hamet had had no say in choosing this, the most direct route to Tombuctoo, about twelve-hundred miles in all, one that would take many months to travel. Having dropped south from Wednoon, then east around the Anti-Atlas Mountains in six days, the caravan of a thousand men had halted on the edge of the desert, collecting many tons of the date-size argan fruit. The men had extracted oil from the argan pits to fortify their food. They had roasted the meat of the pits, rolled it into balls, and packed these in tent-cloth sacks to serve as camel fodder and fuel for their fires.1 After ten days of preparations, the caravan headed southeast, navigating the trackless waste by moon, sun, and stars.

Hamet and his younger brother Seid, merchants from the north, near the city of Morocco, had only ten camels. Eight were their own and were richly loaded. The other two belonged to Hamet's father-in-law, Sheik Ali, and they carried barley. There were four thousand other camels in the caravan, many of them milk camels to feed the men en route and four hundred to bear the provisions and water. About half belonged to a powerful warlord who was a friend of the caravan's chief, Sidi Ishrel.

Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel's caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels' joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel's owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah's sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods— iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices— in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.

During the long hours of howling wind, Hamet recalled his reluctance to join Ishrel's caravan. After he had returned to Wednoon from a previous Tombuctoo caravan, which had lasted eighteen moons, his father-in-law had punished him severely for not bringing him a suitable return on the goods he had sent. The caravan, nearly as large as this one, had traveled south on a western route, near the sea, where the poor coastal tribes were too weak to attack them. They had fed, watered, and rested the camels before leaving the north. Only three hundred camels of the three thousand died of thirst and fatigue on the journey, but Hamet and Seid lost two of their four. They returned with two slaves, gold dust worth six camels, and jewelry for their wives. Hamet's father-in-law, Sheik Ali, had demanded both slaves as part of his share. When Hamet refused, Ali destroyed his home and took back his wife along with their children.

Hamet had then fled back to his tribal home near Morocco, a depressed city still feeling the devastation of the Great Plague of 1800. He had sworn off the risky life of a caravan merchant and had begun accumulating livestock. A year later, Ali returned his family to him, but Hamet stayed in the north. Then, after another two years, a friend who had been with them on the caravan persuaded the two brothers to try again. Time had washed away the memory of the cuffing sands and the sting of Ali's unjust demand and swift reprisal. Drawn by an unnameable urge to return to the desert and counting on better luck this time, Seid and Hamet had sold their cattle and sheep, bought merchandise to trade, and joined this caravan.

And now this. For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!”

When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

For twenty-four more days they racked through deep, hot sand. To keep the camels from flagging under their loads, they gradually dumped tons of the salt they carried for trading. Although they encountered no more sandstorms, they found little forage for the suffering camels, whose humps grew flaccid and sagged. Before they had even reached Haherah, a celebrated watering place perhaps two-thirds of the way to Tombuctoo, they had lost three hundred more camels.

As they neared the oasis, those who had been there before described its verdure and big wells to those who had not. From the lush oasis they would, replenished, continue on to Tombuctoo and its great riches. They would return to the north with elephants' tusks, gold dust and jewelry, gum senegal, ostrich feathers, and many slaves. A fine male slave could be bought for a two-dollar haik and sold back home for a hundred dollars. Yet now thirst coursed so deeply through their veins that greed for Tombuctoo's treasures no longer motivated them. They dreamed not of gold dust but only of purging their cracked throats of dust. To encourage them, Sidi Ishrel let it be known that they would rest the caravan there for twenty days.

When they arrived in Haherah, the news spread like flying sand to the back of the caravan, reaching many of the men before they had even set foot in the much-anticipated valley: There had been no rain in over a year. Haherah's famous wells were dry.

BOOK: Skeletons On The Zahara
2.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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