Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Skeletons on the Zahara" by Dean King

Summary: A true account of American sailors whose ship wrecked on the coast of Africa in 1815 and were subsequently taken as slaves by nomad desert tribesmen.

Musings: I love a really engaging nonfiction narrative (e.g., The Lost City of Z or We Die Alone), and while Skeletons of the Zahara didn't grab my interest the way others have, it's still a compelling true story.

What's of particular interest is the Americans' encounter with a vastly different culture than their own.  The nomadic tribesmen live a life built around the scarcity of water and a reliance on camels.  It's a difficult life that the captives are especially unprepared for, which is shown by their vast physical deterioration during their enslavement.  The book also depicts the sailors' absolute helplessness in the situation.  They're in an unfamiliar land, unable to speak the language, and unable to subsist without their masters' provisions of food and water.

King's account is taken largely from the first-person narratives of the captain, Riley, and another one of the sailors.  In doing so, King is able to recount the Americans' conflicting opinions of the people they encounter.  Some they regard as abject and cruel savages, but they also respect the honor in others, particularly Hamet, a trader who buys them and ultimately sells their freedom, and bel Cossim, who helps arrange their release through a British consul.

For a modern reader, it's easy to see some of the hypocrisy in the sailors' complaints of their poor treatment, as African slaves were being treated the same or worse by American slave-owners of the time period.  However, it was good to see that, upon his return, Riley became an outspoken abolitionist, recognizing his experience in the lives of American slaves.

King does a good job of keeping Skeletons of the Zahara as the adventure-survival story it should be, with clear prose and an appropriate pace, even though some of the material lacked a little spark for me.

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