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When the American brig Commerce ran aground on the coast of northwest Africa in 1815, Captain James Riley and his crew knew enough to be terrified. Accounts written by other mariners shipwrecked along the same coast chronicled brutal enslavement at the hands of ruthless desert nomads. A few reports suggested that the natives were cannibals. Rather than test the validity of those claims, the sailors quickly set back to sea in a longboat. Nine days later, plagued by thirst and suffering from exposure, we had no chance but to return to shore. Soon after, the crew was captured by Bedouins and forced to march across the Sahara for days with little food or water. Riley witnessed one of his men, in a famine-induced delirium, gnawing at the sun-charred flesh of his own forearm.
When Riley finally reached safety in 1817, he recorded his ordeal which was eventually titled Sufferings in Africa. The book, widely read during the 19th century, went largely forgotten for over a hundred years.
How did you discover Riley's narrative? What inspired you to retell it?
I was in the New York Yacht Club library, researching my previous book (Harbors and High Seas: An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Complete Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian). On one of the shelves, I spotted an old leather-bound book with the title Sufferings in Africa on the spine. Intrigued, I pulled it off the shelf and started reading. I ended up sitting down in an old leather club chair and reading for two days straight. I couldn't put it down; I realized that I'd uncovered a lost treasure.
Of all the brutal deprivations and remarkable struggles that faced the members of the Commerce on their journey, what stands out in your mind as the most grueling?
Definitely the fact that they were going on forced marches while consuming so little food and water. The survivors lost half their body weight. Riley reported that he went from 240 pounds (109 kilograms) to 120 (54 kilograms) and that some of his men at the end of the ordeal weighed around 40 pounds (18 kilograms). Before becoming enslaved, they'd already been at sea for nine days, scorched by the sun and without food. It's one thing to be traveling with no provisions and trying to save your own life. It's another being forced across the desert as a slave, which the men were forced to do for quite a while before Riley set out with Sidi Hamet on his epic journey north. As slaves, they traveled with no hope. The stamina and heart it took to keep going is remarkable.
What has been the greatest barrier to reconstructing the ordeal of the Commerce?
The biggest challenge for me was to take the material I had and make it come alive for today's reader. The way authors told a story back then was different than the way that we would tell a story today. They didn't write their emotions into a story; they didn't describe a lot of things in detail and omitted much of the sensory stuff that we're used to getting now. That was one of the reasons I decided to go to Western Sahara. I needed to run on the sharp stones that the sailors described running across and feel what that felt like so that I could breathe their experience into the modern retelling of the story.
So recovering those sensory impressions was the main reason behind your trip to Western Sahara?
Yes, but I also wanted to verify the accuracy of what Riley and Robbins reported [Archibald Robbins, a sailor aboard the Commerce who suffered an additional 19th month of captivity, also published an account of the wreck]. In their time, there were a lot of wild tales circulating, both in print and verbally, but I immediately realized when I read Riley's memoir that it was authentic. He took his reporting seriously, but in the book he sometimes wrote far-fetched thingslike seeing people who were 300 years old. He also reported that the nomads lived off of camel milk and camel urine. I didn't know if that was really possible. It seemed unrealistic to me. I felt a need to research and find out what was true, and the surprising thing was that a lot of what Riley reported still happens today.
What's a good example?
The thing that hit me the hardest was when I was riding with a guide in a Land Rover and I noticed that he had a long thin scar on his neck. I remembered reading in Riley that the nomads treated illnesses by heating up a long blade, the size of a Bowie knife, and using the back end to brand different parts of the bodytypically, the ankles, wrist, shoulders, neck. One of the sailors was treated that way for dysentery in Riley's narrative. I found it horrific and unbelievable. Riley's critics didn't believe it either. I asked the driver how he got the scar and he told me that he had been very sick several years ago and had been treated in the exact way Riley described. My jaw dropped. I was shocked that that kind of medical treatment is still being used today. He told me that the treatment saved his life and that he also treats his children with it.
In the book, Riley describes being so thirsty that he is driven to drink camel urine. Did you get a chance to try camel urine yourself?
I did not taste camel urine, but I did inquire about it. One of my guides was quite loquacious on the topic and said that yes, indeed, they do drink camel urine on occasion, particularly the urine of a pregnant camel because it has certain nutrients and is believed to help cure stomach ailments and mouth sores. And, of course, if you're dying of thirst you will drink any kind of camel urine. The fact that Riley reported that the nomads preferred camel urine to their own was somewhat shocking, but once you get over there, you find out that it's not that uncommon.
What was the most trying aspect of your attempt to retrace Riley's steps?
From my reading, I had expected that we would be able to go farther and faster on the camels than we were actually able to. I trained for the trip to prepare for it, as did the people who were with me. But the camels and the camel drivers, they're just not used to doing the kind of hard, forced march that I wanted to reenact. I wanted to do up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) a day. It turned out that if we could do 30 miles (48 kilometers) that was an excellent day. A more typical day would be 20 (32 kilometers). Riley reported doing up to 100 (161 kilometers). I doubt that he was actually doing that many, but I think that sometimes he did travel 50, 60 miles (97 kilometers) in a day. T.E. Lawrence [aka Lawrence of Arabia] once did 100 miles in a day, but Lawrence was known for almost killing his camels. His guides wouldn't ride with him at times because he pushed the camels so hard.
How was your own experience astride a camel?
Your relationship with your camel is a remarkable thing. It's like nothing we know. The people of the Sahara measure their wealth in camels. Camels provide their foodcamel milkand older, lame camels are slaughtered for meat. They're also your transportation. You rely on the camel so much that you love your camel. Even being there for a short time, I discovered that the camel is such an essential aspect of life on the desert that you just have to respect the camel. It's a much different kind of relationship than we know with our animals.
What protections from the harsh Sahara were available to you today that weren't available to Riley and his men?
Sunglasses were huge. One of the sailors, Roger Porter, went sun blind toward the end. The glare fried his eyes; he eventually recovered after not being able to see for a good stretch of time. We also had saddles for our camels and, importantly, we had clothes. For the most part, the sailors didn't have any clothes because the clothes that they had were so valuable to the nomads that they were all taken. Along the Western Sahara, there are fierce winds. The sand blows everywhere and if you don't have what they called a shesh, sand pretty much penetrates everywhereit gets in your ears, up your nose, in your mouth. Even if you have that protective gear on, it still gets everywhere. I was walking across a desert beach to look at a wrecked ship. I had my reading glasses in a case in my pocket. The sand somehow blew in, entered my pocket, got into my glasses case, and scratched up the lenses. A photographer will tell you that every photographic lens must be kept in a sealed plastic bag.
After your experience in the desert, do you think you could have survived the ordeal of the Commerce?
I like to think that I could have dug deep and come up with what it takes to survive that kind of ordeal. But, in the knowledge that a person can be broken, that your spirit can be broken, I'm not sure that you can entirely control yourself. I know that at one point, Riley's spirit was broken and he looked for a rock to bash his own head on. But he survived that moment and transcended it and it actually gave him more strength. So I think that if you're in that kind of situation, you're going to face a crisis, or it may be several crises, and those are the moments that you have to figure out how to get through and gather strength from. You just don't know. I like to think I could have faced it.
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