Skeletons On The Zahara (9 page)

BOOK: Skeletons On The Zahara
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The bucket was emptied on the end of a blanket in front of the jackal, whose eyes gleamed. The sight of such a treasure made him feel suddenly vulnerable, and he ordered his people to carry it down the beach, away from the brig. With their weapons drawn, the Sahrawi men hustled Riley along with them, followed by the women, who kept the jackal's crude spear homed on their captive's back.

After a short walk, the group sat down, and the old man jubilantly divvied up the coins, pushing stacks of ten into three equal sparkling piles: one for the camel men, one for his wives, and one for himself. As the piles disappeared into their haiks, Riley sensed that in their greed they had momentarily forgotten him. He decided to make a break for it.

As soon as he made a move to rise, however, an alert youth lunged at him with his scimitar. Riley dodged the blow, but the blade drilled his waistcoat before he could roll away from it. The young man prepared to strike again, but the jackal stopped him and gave some commands, which Riley could not understand. The party rose and prepared to leave the beach, and he could see they intended to take him with them. Desperate not to be carried off into the interior, he indicated to the jackal that his crew had more money. This had its intended effect. Instead of leaving, the Sahrawis took him back down the beach and ordered him to hail his men.

What exactly Riley had in mind at this point is hard to tell. “I imagined if I could get Antonio Michel on shore,” he later wrote, “I should be able to make my escape.” He does not further explain his intentions, claiming that he “knew not how, nor had I formed any plan for effecting it.”

Why Antonio Michel, the old sailor on his way home after years at sea? Was he the only man Riley deemed expendable? Did he feel less responsibility for him than for the crew he had hired?

From the brig, the sailors could see that both sides were playing their final cards. The Sahrawis repeatedly threatened Riley with their blades, as he hailed his crew. Of the brave men who shortly before had vowed to go down fighting, not one was now willing to venture ashore. Riley's desperate voice became a croak.

Aaron Savage finally screwed up his courage and hauled himself to shore on the hawser. When he neared the beach, Riley motioned for him to stay in the surf. The jackal, thinking Riley meant to instruct Savage to bring the money ashore, allowed them to talk to each other. Riley told Savage his plan, one that would trouble the captain ever after, though no one ever criticized him for it.

Savage returned to the wreck and told Michel that Riley wanted him on shore. The working passenger from New Orleans dutifully obeyed. The Sahrawis surrounded Michel menacingly as he trudged onto the beach. They expected more money. He had, of course, nothing but the clothes on his back. Enraged, they beat him with their fists and the butts of their daggers. They ripped off his clothes, and the youths jabbed him with the points of their blades. Forced to his knees, Michel pleaded with them to stop.

Wreck of the brig Commerce on the coast of Africa

(from An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, 1817)

Riley instructed Michel to tell them that he knew where the crew had buried money. This was true. Near the tent, they had planted a new spyglass, a saw, and some other useful tools in one hole and a sack containing $400 in another. In a quavering voice, the rattled old sailor made himself understood. With blows, his captors drove him to the spot.

Seated on the sand, Riley watched intently, the jackal's spear poised at his chest and a young brute's scimitar inches from his head. He knew that he was out of ploys. He also knew that when the buried treasure was dug up, greed would get the better of his guards, at least for a moment. Slowly, imperceptibly, he inched his legs up under his body.

When the excited cries came at last, his guards turned reflexively to look, as he had predicted. Riley sprang to his feet and bolted for the sea. Nothing but his own escape filled his brain, but his legs were slow and dumb on the sand. The padding feet of his pursuers closed on him. He dived headfirst into the surf. The jackal followed him in.

Riley swam underwater, holding his breath until he could no longer resist the urge to surface. As he breached, he swiveled to see where the Sahrawis were. No more than ten feet behind him bobbed the head of the jackal. Riley felt the spear plunge near his body. Just then a breaker caught the jackal and knocked him backward. Riley swam as hard as he could. He fought through the cresting waves until he felt the hands of his men grabbing his shirt. They pulled him over the stern of the Commerce.

He collapsed on the deck.

Chapter 5

Misery in an Open Boat

As wind and water swept the Commerce's deck, stinging the sailors' hands and faces, they watched the Sahrawis beat and stab Michel. Finally they loaded his back with their plunder and forced him over the dunes. It was terrible to observe and cast a pall over the men. Not only were they unable to help their brutalized shipmate, but their own helplessness was driven home in the most graphic manner.

Nevertheless, there was no time to dwell on it. Each wave hammered the longboat against the brig's hull, racking the smaller craft and jarring the tenuous deck on which they crouched. They now had to pick from their own dismal options. They could return to the shore and try to negotiate their surrender to the Sahrawis; at best they would be beaten and enslaved, like Michel, and quite possibly murdered if they gave offense. Or they could try their luck at sea in the longboat, gambling that it could weather the twenty-foot waves and stay afloat long enough for them to flag down a passing ship.

According to Robbins, there was “long deliberation” on the question, but this certainly did not amount to more than a matter of minutes. They saw no hope in surrendering to the Sahrawis, whom they bitterly called “barbarians,” “savages,” and “merciless ruffians.” Instead, most of the talk concerned the feasibility of putting to sea in the rudderless, hastily repaired longboat. In Robbins's opinion, it was “shattered.” Riley called its condition “crazy,” a technical term in his day meaning “in bad shape,” and said it “writhed like an old basket.” Crammed with eleven men, the sixteen-foot craft would ride dangerously low in the water. They took heart in the one factor that had turned in their favor: The wind had grown more easterly, which would help them get clear of the dangerous coast. While the odds were stacked against an escape at sea, the crew opted for the element they knew best, the natural force they had wrestled with all their lives as opposed to the strange and malevolent human one on shore. They would try their luck in the longboat.

The captain set two hands, probably the ordinary seamen Hogan and Barrett, to bailing out the longboat with buckets. He sent Porter, a strong swimmer, to the momentarily deserted beach to retrieve the two broken oars, which they needed to get through the surf.1

Riley instructed the rest of the crew, under the two mates, to lash together some spars and rig them out over the stern of the Commerce in its lee. They were to guide the boat there and secure its bow and stern lines to the ends of the spars so that the boat was held clear from the brig. When it came time to cast off, Riley hoped, this would give them headway and prevent them from being smashed by a wave on the hull of the brig.

Riley had much to orchestrate before they left the wreck, but he personally attended to the most important thing: securing fresh water. At the brig's hatchway, he stripped off his shirt and lowered himself into the dark abyss. Guided by touch, he moved through the trapped seawater down through the hold, now on its side, until he surfaced in a pocket of air. As he took in the strange sensations, the odd, muted shifting of the cold water, the echo of the surf, the ominous creaking of the brig's straining timbers, his thoughts inevitably turned to Michel.

The story of Michel's fate was something that the captain, caught up in an insidious cycle of guilt and denial, would never quite get straight. Despite later stating that he did not actually see what happened to Michel, he offers a graphic description in his Narrative anyway: The angry Sahrawis, he wrote, plunging “a spear into his body near his left breast downwards, laid him dead at their feet.” They dragged Michel's “lifeless trunk across the sand hills” and he felt “an inexpressible pang” at the sudden realization that he alone was responsible for the sailor's “massacre.” He was momentarily “bereft . . . of all sensation.”

In reality, it did not happen that way. In a letter published in the Connecticut Courant predating this account, Riley wrote that the crew escaped the “armed Arabs, all except Antonio Michael [sic], whom they seized and kept.” Robbins's version concurred with Riley's letter. Perhaps Riley later concluded that it was more reprehensible to have left a captive than a dead man.

Riley certainly knew that he had encountered a moral conundrum.2 As a captain, a man who was used to bearing total responsibility for his ship and men, he believed that he had done what he had to do to protect his crew. He was correct that the practical effect of his actions had been best for his men, preserving for them an indisputable leader rather than an outsider, and an old man at that. Yet he continued to struggle with the morality of his decision and his lingering guilt.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark hold, Riley sifted through the floating tangle of hammocks, sea chests, and odd planks until he found what he was looking for. Rolling over a large half-full cask, he felt the bung still tight. This good luck encouraged him, and he applied all his strength to maneuvering the barrel through the flooded wreckage and up the hatchway to the surface.

On deck, Savage and Clark helped him stave in the cask and transfer the water to a four-gallon keg that would fit in the boat. There was enough left over for everyone to drink as much as he wanted. It was a moment to savor. Some— the lucky ones— would not fully assuage their thirst again for a long time.

Porter returned with the oars. Of his own accord, he had also dug up and lugged back the sack of silver coins buried the day before. This was apparently the same bag of dollars that Antonio Michel was digging for when Riley made his escape. For this to be the case, Michel must have dug up the instruments that they had buried nearby instead of the silver, and either the silver must have been forgotten after Riley's escape, which seems improbable, or Michel could not find it. Ironically, the Sahrawis would have preferred the dollars, and the sailors could have made much better use of the spyglass and tools. In any case, Riley only shook his head, thinking that either greed had overcome Porter's sense or he was foolishly optimistic. Later he would make Porter bury it again.

“Stow the gear,” ordered Riley. Wading through the surf from the brig to the longboat under the mates' direction, the men loaded the small boat's jib and mainsail, the brig's fore-topmast staysail, and a spar for a mast, as well as the few items they had rummaged from what had already been passed over once. In addition to the keg of water and a dozen bottles of wine, which were probably stowed amidship, they had fished out of the sea several pieces of salt pork and a four-pound bag of figs. They loaded the brig's colors, which in that day bore fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, and the lucky if scrawny pig, which had defied the odds and survived. Its pluckiness made it an apt and reassuring mascot— and a potential meal for later.

With a mixture of foreboding and eagerness, the crew positioned themselves in the longboat two by two on the six narrow planks that served as seats. No one recorded the seating arrangement, but given the clearly defined roles of the mariner's profession, it is easy to approximate. Deslisle, the cook, and Horace, the smallest member of the crew, together with the pig, probably sat in the narrow bow. The two ordinary seamen, Hogan and Barrett, would have come next, followed by Burns and Clark, then the two mates in the center. Porter and Robbins, both powerful, skilled seamen, and close friends, would have been positioned aft of center, where the oars could be used to best advantage. Riley would have taken the all-important forward-looking stern seat to steer and to have a commanding view of his men, all of whom, with the possible exception of the bowmen, faced the rear, looking only at him and where they had been. Each man would spend the coming days in a space about two feet by three feet submerged up to his ankles and sometimes higher in salt water.

Riley now did one of the hardest things a captain can be called upon to do. He finally abandoned his sweet, new, now broken-backed ship, the one his uncle Justus had entrusted to him, the one with good enough prospects for Josiah Savage to ship a son and a nephew on board. Climbing into the stern of the longboat, he looked into the grim faces of his men beneath their furrowed hats. Before casting off, he asked them to uncover their heads. Riley begged the “great Creator and preserver of the universe” to spare their lives and to let them pass through the surf to the open sea. “But if we are doomed to perish,” he implored, expressing what was on the mind of each of the family men, “oh, universal Father, protect and preserve our widows and children.”

Riley examined the heaving sea around them for a clue to their escape. Because they had no means of fashioning a makeshift rudder and no place to lash an oar except the stern ring, which was too unsteady, he would steer with a plank. He saw no possible way to evade the breakers without divine intervention. All he could do was to force the issue. “Haul out the boat!” he ordered. The men released the lines, and they floated free of the Commerce. On command, the men heaved to the oars.

And then, the miraculous did happen. The wind died down, and between the giant swells— each one capable of flipping the overloaded longboat like a leaf in a storm— a path suddenly appeared. The men pulled in unison as waves crashed around them and Riley steered toward the open sea. A mile out, he told them to rest. Hearts racing, each took a last look at the dismal coast, the wreck, and the surf they had just evaded. A spontaneous cheer burst from the crew. Robbins recalled that they doffed their hats again, and “Capt. Riley returned thanks to Heaven.” Riley had no doubt that an “immediate and merciful act of the Almighty” had saved them from the surf at Bojador. According to him, all of his men believed this too. Later, when a friend advised him to play down this conviction, because skeptics would use it to discredit the rest of his account of the voyage, Riley refused.

BOOK: Skeletons On The Zahara
3.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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