Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dean King's "Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival" (Steak Knives)

Another from the survival genre.  This time, its an account of the 1815 wreck of the Commerce along the Saharan coast of Africa, resulting in the enslavement of the surviving crew by the nomadic Oulad Bou Sbaa.

While the narrative spends much of its time on the crew's enslavement in the desert, the circumstances surrounding the initial wreck were as interesting for me.  Wrecking near shore, the crew was able to salvage a good deal from the broken Commerce and set up camp on shore.  It is only when locals appear and start to pillage the camp (leading to seizures of crew members, ransom and death), that the Captain and remaining crew decide to strike out for the Canary Islands (or further south to a European enclave) in their leaky, failing runabouts.  After several days of this and certain of their impending doom, they again make for shore without improving their survival prospects.  Before long, the emaciated and sun-scarred survivors approach the first locals they see (rather than hiding), knowing that their treatment will be brutal or worse, but having no other slim chance to live.

The rest of the tale I'll leave to those who wish to read it in full, suffice to say it involves some pretty brutal treatment as well as integrity and honour on the part of the Bou Sbaa nomads took ownership over the crew's lives, and other local characters.

What makes this a particularly interesting read for me in this genre is the fact that most survival literature I've read is straight-forward 'man vs. nature' (sic) kinda stuff.  Get off the mountain.  Find a way out of the jungle.  Survive at sea without food.  Here, we have the added element that the protagonists are navigating and negotiating with other people to survive in hostile culture and climate.

Captain of the Commerce, James Riley, published his memoirs (no spoiler here - how would we have the account otherwise?) upon return to the US, to great fame and wide readership.  In fact, the author notes that it inspired several abolitionists of his day, and the text is said to have had a large impact on a young Abe Lincoln.  One of the big questions Riley had while in custody related to how otherwise pious men could treat other humans with such little dignity and worth - something he later extended to the good Christian slave-owners in the US upon his return.  Still, there are many instances of kindness and faithfulness in the tale that make strong counterpoints within the historical/cultural context at hand.
In all, a really unique tale of survival, and well told by King...

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