Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Review: Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King: here's another book where an early 19th-century ship out of New England is lost at sea, and that's only the beginning of the story (see also In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick). In this case, it's a merchant vessel that wrecks off the coast of Africa, in what is now Western Sahara. Just as with In the Heart of the Sea, you'd think the story of the wreck and how it came about would be interesting enough, and it is. But as I said, it's only the beginning.

You see, after the shipwreck, the crew of the boat Commerce were kidnapped into slavery by local tribes. The slavery didn't happen right away - the sailors made an initial attempt for shore as their boat was sinking but were rebuffed (quite violently) by the very hostile natives. After drifting off the coast for many days, as their food supply dwindled and their boat slowly fell apart, they finally decided to make for land again and take their chances with the natives. That's when they were sold into slavery and taken into the interior of Africa, vanishing in the vast Sahara desert.

Obviously, some of the men made it out of the ordeal alive, or we wouldn't be reading a book about their experiences. I won't tell you how many made it, or exactly how, but it is an amazing story that is actually quite incredible at times. I find that happens a lot with survival adventure stories - there always comes a point in the book/movie where I think, "OK, now surely, there is no way they lived through THIS." But they DID survive, and the story of how they did so is nothing short of fascinating.

A fun exercise is to read this book soon after reading In the Heart of the Sea, along with a friend or spouse, and then discuss which set of sailors had it worse. Their stories are very comparable, after all: early 19th-century American men who made their living at sea, thrown into unbelievably hostile conditions after suffering the loss of their ship at sea, both experiencing extremes in weather, inhospitable terrain, hunger, and thirst. Jeremy and I read both books and we can't seem to reach a consensus. I think we are both leaning toward In the Heart of the Sea being the more harrowing ordeal, but Skeletons on the Zahara certainly has plenty going for it, as well.

So: adrift at sea for months with nothing to eat but your fellow shipmates, or sold into slavery for a much longer period in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. What do you think?


Liz Johnson said...

Dead serious, I am debating in my head whether living in the Sahara or eating another person is worse. I'm really not a hot-weather person.

Bridget said...

I just realized it sounds like all the sailors were either rescued, or died immediately. The fact is that some of them were sold to different masters and were never heard from again. So it's possible they lived many years as slaves in the Sahara. In case that has any bearing on your decision, Liz.

Jeremy Palmer said...

I am actually not leaning one way or the other. I think they are equally terrible, but for different reasons. The crew in the Sahara did not know whether they would ever be saved over a long period of time. That must have been very depressing. The Essex crew knew that they would either be saved within a short while or they would be dead. So it's like either being rescued quickly or dying quickly - which might be a better alternative - or barely living for a long period of time and possibly without chance of release.

Susanne said...

Whoa..both sound super-dreadful. I guess the sea survival being the worse one slightly. I hope you don't have nightmares from reading these things.


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