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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival.



By Dean King

[pounds sterling]16.99 William Heinemann

ISBN 0-434-00889-3

The western Sahara is a baking hot and desolate place, home only to nomads and their camels, and to locusts, snails and thorny scrub. On 28 August 1815 the US brig Commerce was dashed against Mauritania's Cape Bojador and lost, although through bravery and quick thinking the ship's captain, James Riley, managed to lead all of his crew to safety. Or at least to safety from the immediate threat of death by drowning.


What followed was an extraordinary and desperate battle for survival in the face of human hostility, hunger, dehydration and despair, as the crew were captured, robbed and enslaved.

Sometimes together, more often apart, the sailors were dragged or driven through the desert by their new owners who neither spoke their language nor cared for their plight, except insofar as they represented a financial investment in their own fantastically impoverished circumstances.

They were reduced to drinking urine (their own and the camels'), flayed by the sun, crippled by walking miles across burning stones and sand, and losing half their bodyweight, some of them nonetheless held on to their sanity.

And over time James Riley and Sidi Hamet, slave and captor, came to recognise in each other men worthy of respect and the ransom not only of Riley himself but also of a handful of his crew suddenly seemed possible. But Sidi Hamet had enemies of his own, and to reach safety the sailors had to overcome not only the desert but also the greed and anger of those who would keep them in captivity.

From the cold waters of the Atlantic to the searing Saharan sands, Skeletons on the Zahara is a spectacular odyssey, an unforgettable tale of survival, courage and brotherhood.
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Publication:African Business
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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