Skeletons On The Zahara


A True Story of Survival

Everywhere hailed as a masterpiece of historical adventure, this enthralling narrative recounts the experiences of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured by desert nomads, sold into slavery, and subjected to a hellish two-month journey through the bone-dry heart of the Sahara. The ordeal of these men – who found themselves tested by barbarism, murder, starvation, death, dehydration, and hostile tribes that roamed the desert on camelback – is made indelibly vivid in this gripping account of courage, brotherhood, and survival.


SKELETONS ON THE ZAHARA, the documentary

Notes from the road

It was a once-in-a-lifetime find.

I was researching for my book Harbors and High Seas in the New York Yacht Club library, when, combing the shelves, I spotted a book entitled “Sufferings in Africa.” It was too much for me to resist. I pulled the musty volume down and read it, ignoring my work for the next day and a half. It was the memoir of Connecticut captain James Riley, published in 1817, telling the story of the wreck of the merchant brig Commerce on the west coast of Africa. His tale of suffering at sea and of enslavement, death and redemption on the Sahara was stunningly detailed and nuanced. Unable to forget the story, I crossed the street to the New York Public Library and researched

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both Riley and the other members of his crew. What I discovered set me off on my own journey through archives from New England to New Orleans and across the Atlantic in Gibraltar and Morocco. This all led me eventually to make my own seventeen-day trek in Land Rover and on camels across Western Sahara in the footsteps of Captain Riley and his crew of Connecticut River seamen.

After being enslaved by Arab nomads on the Sahara, half of the brig’s crew disappeared in the sands forever. The other half, including Riley, eventually made their way across 800 miles of some of the harshest terrain on earth and past the inimical tribes of the Atlas foothills to Mogadore (now Essaouira), Morocco, where they were ransomed. What made this account stand apart was not just the hair-raising escapes from danger and Riley’s detailed descriptions of life on the Sahara but his method of shepherding his men to safety. Riley encouraged his men to cooperate with their master, Sidi Hamet. The two leaders, the one a captain of the seas, the other a captain of the sands, came to respect and like each other, a fact that allowed them to negotiate the desert together against all odds.

When he was a boy, Abraham Lincoln read Riley’s account of escape from brutal slavery. Lincoln was so moved that in his 1860 campaign biography he mentioned Riley’s narrative as one of the six formative lessons of his youth.

Later, Riley’s story and the shipwreck of the Commerce were lost in history. Skeletons on the Zahara reminds us of the hard won lessons that these bold Connecticut sailors learned on the edge of the fierce Arab world.

.. recent paperback reviews

“An absorbing account of misfortune and fortitude, “Skeletons” is the story of Captain James Riley and his crew, whose merchant ship was wrecked off the northwest coast of Africa in 1815. They survived captivity at the hands of Arab slave traders and a trek across the Sahara.” – New York Times Book Review

“In this marvelous account of fortitude and faith, Dean King brings to life Capt. James Riley and his crew, whose merchant ship Commerce was wrecked off the northwest coast of Africa in 1815. They survived captivity at the hands of Muslim slave traders and endured the hardships of a lengthy trek across that most inhospitable of terrains, the Zahara – or as we know it today, Sahara – Desert.

“Skeletons also examines the various desert folk who enslaved and tormented the sailors and in one case ultimately saved some of their lives. From the opening sequence, a memorable description of a failed caravan traveling south across the desert to Timbuktu in western Africa, the reader will sense being in the hands of a masterly guide.” – San Francisco Chronicle, Best Books of 2004

“[This] painful tale of survival against enormous odds is beautifully written and researched.” – The Daily Telegraph, “Pick of the Paperbacks”

“Skeletons is a page-turner, replete with gruesome details about thirst, a diet of dried locusts and animal bone marrow, relentless exposure to the sun and the changes in bodily functions that result. King’s plot is right out of Homer: Will the stalwart captain and his mates ever see home again? He has structured it in such cinematic terms that one can almost see the words “An Anthony Minghella” superimposed on the opening scene — a caravan of 1,000 Arab merchants and their 4,000 camels stretched across the Sahara, caught in a howling sandstorm. . . . Even armchair adventurers satiated with exotic travelogues will appreciate heroism amid adversity in this fast-paced account of slow torture — and an almost-happy ending.” –Grace Lichtenstein, The Washington Post, Best Books of 2004

“Just when you think the true adventure story is an exhausted genre, Dean King comes along to prove that all it needs is a little sand. Well, make that a lot of sand, and a whole lot of sun to go with it. In 1815, the crew of a Connecticut-based merchant ship were stranded on the very inhospitable northwestern coast of Africa. Near-death in a longboat is followed by near-death on a shore that’s really just the edge of the Sahara Desert. Then the men are captured and enslaved by nomads. They survive nightmarish ordeals: days of forced marches on bleeding bare feet under the scorching sun (naked), starvation, thirst, beatings, sandstorms, even plagues of locusts. They see fabled cities and try to fathom their captors’ language and customs. One Muslim trader even seems to sympathize with the emaciated infidels, and a scheme involving ransom money, treachery and escape takes form. Based on the written accounts of survivors, “Skeletons on the Zahara” is a little bit H. Rider Haggard, a little bit Jon Krakauer, a little bit Nathaniel Philbrick and a whole lot of gruesome fun.” – Laura Miller,, Top-10 Books of 2004

“A Homeric journey…. King relates the hellish experiences of Captain James Riley and his crew (which inspired Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln) with vivid and often gut-wrenching prose that makes the imaginary trials of reality shows such as “Survivor” pale in comparison.” – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Best Books of 2004 Editors’ Picks, Top-10 History Book of 2004

“King has written a marvelous account of fortitude and faith, Skeletons on the Zahara. He has brought to life not only James Riley but also his crew— at least one of whom, Archie Robbins, also wrote a book that was widely read. In addition, Skeletons examines the various desert folk who enslaved and tormented the sailors and in one case ultimately saved some of their lives. From the beginning of Skeletons on the Zahara, with its memorable description of a failed caravan traveling south across the desert to Timbuktu in western Africa, the reader will sense that he is in the hands of a masterly guide: . . . This is not an author who needs the far-off to elicit his strengths as a narrator: His evocation of the Connecticut River — its landscape, its commerce, its society, its history, even its trying navigable exigencies — is as gripping as that of any exotic locale. Similarly, King has a lovely and vibrant sense of history: The War of 1812 has never seemed more real to me than while reading his account of how it was viewed in New England and of the effects the conflict had had on its economy. Indeed, King has an unusual talent for evoking the past — its essence as well as the smells, sights and sounds — while still managing to view it in the light of what we have come to know in the many decades since. This is evident not only in his attention to what anthropologists have discovered about the habits and practices of the Sahara peoples but also in his use of earlier and later explorer narratives (mostly European) about this area to put Riley and his crew’s experiences in some kind of context.

King is skillful at showing the travails of the exploiters without in any way indulging in moral relativism: Their cruelty and cupidity are never explained away or excused, no matter how harsh their circumstances are revealed to be. It is also interesting to see the extent to which their religion (Islam, with its rigid moral codes) is able on occasion, but not always, to mitigate or soften the cutthroat practices common to their unforgiving environment. King has piled his book high with details of all sorts, but far from loading it down or making it tedious, the very accretion of fact upon fact upon fact imbues the book with nuance and substance. This is one of the most absorbing and satisfying books to come out in a very long time.” –Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

“Dean King retells this narrative with great skill in Skeletons on the Zahara,which will fascinate the modern reader no less than those of a hundred and more years ago. With his careful reading of Riley’s original account, his study of other relevant literature, and most of all his adventurous and hair-raising retracing of Riley’s travels by camel and on foot, King brings to life the original power of Riley’s story and places it in the context of modern knowledge. The result is an adventure, a palpable lesson in ethnography and geography and a delicate study in psychology. Dean does not grab you by the throat and proclaim, “See what I have.” With the subtlety of a master writer he simply shows you, until it dawns that this is not a routine resurrection of an ancient tale but a re-creation that demands attention on its own.” – Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

“Riley’s agonies are of truly Shackletonian proportions. But there’s richness in the narrative too. Skeletons on the Zahara (the Z is a 19th century spelling) is more than a horror story. It’s a tale about a man who discovers his own courage in the face of catastrophe, and an instructive fable about cultural contact: Americans and Arabs searching for firm common ground in a wasteland of shifting sands. . . . A thoroughly researched, authoritative account.” – Lev Grossman, Time

“It reads like a cross between Master and Commander and Lawrence of Arabia.” – Ron Givens, People

“Enthralling.” – Vikaas Turakhia, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Amazing stories of thirst, sandstorms and slavery. . . . King also brilliantly describes the lives and culture of Western Sahara nomads.” – Andrea Ahles, Miami Herald

“A harrowing tale of

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survival . . . [that] horrifies as it fascinates and entrances us.” – Boston Globe

“A highly skilled chronicler, King is almost pornographic in his description of physical pain: Skin bubbles, eyeballs burn, lips blacken, and men shrivel to less than 90 pounds. It’s sensational stuff. . . . [A] fine, salty tale.” – Daniel Fierman, Entertainment Weekly

“The story of Riley and his men deserves to rank alongside the travails of Shackleton or the crew of the whaleship Essex – and now, thanks to Dean King, it will.” – National Geographic Adventure

“A dramatic retelling on a par with Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance… King’s book deftly explores this struggle for survival in the great desert – and the surprising bond that grew between Riley and his captors.” – Outside

“As with barbecued rib seasonings, this month’s best adventures come in two varieties: wet and dry. Dean King’s Skeletons… is the latter, and reader beware: This account of 12 Americans shipwrecked in North Africa in 1815, enslaved by nomads, and then hauled along on a Dantean odyssey through the desert, is scalding enough to induce vicarious dehydration.” – Jonathan Miles, Men’s Journal

“King has brought one of the greatest stories ever told out of hiding and exposed it to a new audience…. A truly gripping tale of survival, the sort of read you think about days and even weeks after you have closed the book.” – Sailing

“One of the greatest true-life adventure stories of the 19th century has come roaring back to life in Skeletons on the Zahara. ” – Connecticut Post

“A drama comparable to Shackleton’s. . . . A riveting adventure.” – Hartford Courant

“King retraced parts of the journey’s perilous path by camel caravan, which animates this dramatic tale. King nimbly uses a landscape of Arabic terms, and brilliantly makes the terrain and people come alive. With a leisurely prose style, good pacing, wonderful details, and helpful maps and illustrations, the book is an easy, enjoyable read.” – Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A deftly written, page-turning thriller that takes readers on a break-neck journey across the Sahara.” – Colleen Curran,

“Skeletons on the Zahara is a sprawling feast. . . [It] builds to a pressure-filled climax that depends solely on trust among strangers, and good men standing by their word. The ending is given emotional power by the depth of empathy you feel for Hamet, whose rescue scheme is almost hijacked by his own predacious father-in-law, the villain we first met in the book’s prologue. The endgame itself is a ripping yarn, a testament to King’s writing, since Hamet has long since proven himself a true, resourceful survivor and the reader already knows that the sailors will be saved. Riley and Hamet end up as comrades, their mutual salvation resounding as a message of hope we sorely need now.” – Neil Matthews, San Diego Union-Tribune

“King’s detailed research and breezy writing in Skeletons on the Zahara bring the story of the depravations these marooned men faced into vivid, stomach-churning reality.” – Tom Walker, Denver Post

“This page-trning account of survival in the desert doesn’t shy away from grisly graphic details of the crew’s ordeal, as they’re forced to drink urine and eat locusts to stay alive in the scorching empty landscape… In terms of excitement, Conrad’s fictional misadventures hardly compare to those of James Riley… [and] the world’s unluckiest crew.” – East Bay Express

“Riley was a legend in his own time, but no longer is in ours. He is back, brought to us by Dean King, who . . . has produced . . . a wonderful account of fortitude under the most extreme conditions at sea and on the desert. This is one of the great adventure stories, full of the tortures by man and nature, and of course of the success of an indomitable spirit. . . . [An] exciting and surprising narrative.” – Times of Acadiana (Lafayette, La.)

“The narrative flies under its own steam, though King ably guides its progression and the reader’s absorption, using two firsthand accounts published after the event as his source material. The degree of privation the men suffered was so absurd it’s a wonder the nomads kept them at all, for their work value as slaves was scant. Yet there they are: sun-blasted, sand-blasted, wind-blasted, thighs chafed to bleeding ribbons from riding camels, feet shredded to the bone by sharp rocks, so thirsty that drinking urine was a comfort, so hungry they ate pieces of infected flesh that had been cut off the camels and the skin peeling off their own bodies. The men were split up, briefly reunited, then rudely separated; King plays these episodes like stringed instruments upon the reader’s taut occupation with the proceedings . . . A jaw-dropping story kept on edge, along with the reader: exquisite and excruciating screw-turning.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“When the American cargo ship Commerce ran aground on the northwestern shores of Africa in 1815 along with its crew of 12 Connecticut-based sailors, the misfortunes that befell them came fast and hard, from enslavement to reality-bending bouts of dehydration. King’s aggressively researched account of the crew’s once-famous ordeal reads like historical fiction, with unbelievable stories of the seamen’s endurance of heat stroke, starvation and cruelty by their Saharan slavers. King, who went to Africa and, on camel and foot, retraced parts of the sailors’ journey, succeeds brilliantly at making the now familiar sandscape seem as imposing and new as it must have been to the sailors… Every dromedary step thuds out from the pages with its punishing awkwardness, and each drop of brackish found water reprieves and tortures with its perpetual insufficiency. King’s leisurely prose style rounds out the drama with well-parceled-out bits of context, such as the haggling barter culture of the Saharan nomadic Arabs and the geological history of Western Africa’s coastline. Zahara (King’s use of older and/or phonetic spellings helps evoke the foreignness of the time and place) impresses with its pacing, thoroughness and empathy for the plight of a dozen sailors heaved smack-hard into an unknown tribalism. By the time the surviving crew members make it back to their side of civilization, reader and protagonist alike are challenged by new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples.” – Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

“In 1815, 12 men boarded the merchant ship Commerce in Connecticut, bound for the Cape Verde Islands after a brief stopover in Gibraltar. Weather and unfamiliar surroundings, however, caused the ship to wreck on the inhospitable coast of what is now Mauritania. Taken as slaves by regional nomads and separated (some never to be seen again), the dozen sailors endured great hardships. King (Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed) rivets with this account of Captain Riley’s nine weeks of captivity: traveling inland nearly 800 miles, then back west, and finally north to Morocco, where he was luckily ransomed by an American consul. Referencing Riley’s

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journals and those of crewman Robbins (which became best sellers in their day), King writes an astoundingly researched treatise on Islamic customs, nomadic life, and desert natural history, as well as detailed descriptions of dehydration, starvation, and caloric intake. Included are an 85 title bibliography, detailed maps of the northwest coast of Mauritania and Morocco, a glossary of Arabic terms, and wonderful photographs of King’s own trip as he retraced Captain Riley’s journey of enslavement. A wonderful, inspiring story of humankind’s will to survive in spite of inhospitable conditions and inhumane treatment, this work should be in all public libraries, maritime libraries, and African collections.” – Jim Thorsen, Library Journal

“10/10. I had high hopes for this book, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Skeletons on the Zahara starts out well and just keeps on getting better. . . . I always rate a book by how many times I have to put it down while reading it. I have to admit that everything in my house went on without me while I read this book from cover to cover at one sitting. Yes, it’s that good. It might have been raining continuously during a spring day in Washington State, but I was off with Captain Riley and his crew in the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert and didn’t notice a thing. Mr. King has a great talent for painting his characters with sufficient detail to make them spring from the pages.” – Gothic Revue

“As a gut-wrenching adventure tale, Skeletons on the Zahara can hold its own against the likes of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition across the Antarctic in 1914-16 or more recent stories like Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, or the accounts of Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest in 1953. By combining firsthand accounts of the ordeal by Riley and Robbins with some of his own on-site research, King has created a moving and literary account of this ill-fated voyage. In the annals of adventure narratives, the story of the Commerce’s crew will always rank in the top 10.” – America: the National Catholic Weekly

“This is a grand book. It is scrupulously based on the historical record, but the events are reconstructed with a breadth of awareness and expertise, combined with a narrative imagination and story-telling skill, that make it an engaging and rewarding read. I was held by it, even though I knew the storywell.” – D.J. Ratcliffe, Emeritus Reader, History Department, University of Durham


“Known for his biography of the elusive Patrick O’Brian… Dean King has emerged from the great man’s shadow with a compelling work in his own right… Once ashore, King’s narrative, like Riley’s leadership, grows in stature and certainly… As King notes, the understanding, respect and compassion between these representatives of the Christian and Muslim worlds offers a timely example in our own troubled age.” – Sunday Times, London

“Genuinely gripping, full of twists and turns of fate … mesmerizing … The torturous journey, with parched tongues and aching bones, in constant fear of bandits who might capture and enslave them, is described in unsparing detail … The game of bluff and double bluff kept the crewman’s lives on a knife-edge. If you want to know the ending, the Hollywood movie can’t be too far behind.” – Daily Mail, London

“A truly memorable tale of survival; the sort of read you think about days and even weeks after you’ve closed the book.” – Maritime Life & Traditions, UK

“Without sacrificing pace, [King] finds time to tell us how camels survive for long periods without water, how one Bedouin tribe differs from another and why dying of thirst is so decidedly unpleasant. . . . At this point – terrific material, fully developed – enters the craftsman. In James Riley, King creates a larger-than-life yet believable hero – believable because flawed. If this God-fearing Christian had proved unable to summon another man to his death so that he himself could survive, neither would he have been able to forge an alliance with a sympathetic Muslim while repeatedly lying through his teeth, even while starving and exhausted, and swearing to the truth of his lies. . . Skeletons on the Zahara reads like an adventure classic.” – Globe and Mail, Toronto

“Skeletons is a magnificent read.” – New Zealand Listener

“Proving there’s more drama and nightmare in real life than in most novels, Dean King brings us a nearly 200-year-old story with all the freshness and impact of something that happened yesterday.” – Margie Thompson, New Zealand Herald

In his five crossings of the Sahara, Sidi Hamet had never seen worse conditions. Forty days out of Wednoon, the sand had turned as fine as house dust and as hot as coals of fire. With their heavy loads, the camels labored up shifting dunes in spine-buckling bursts, then stumbled down the other side. With each step, the dromedaries thrust in to their knees, their wide, padded feet, designed by Allah to skim over sand, sinking like stones.

Despite his experience on the desert, Hamet had had no say in choosing this, the most direct route to Tombuctoo, about twelve-hundred miles in all, one that would take many months to travel. Having dropped south from Wednoon, then east around the AntiAtlas Mountains in six days, the caravan of a thousand men had halted on the edge of the desert, collecting many tons of the date-size argan fruit. The men had extracted oil from the argan pits to fortify their food. They had roasted the meat of the pits, rolled it into balls, and packed these in tent-cloth sacks to serve as camel fodder and fuel for their fires. After ten days of preparations, the caravan headed southeast, navigating the trackless waste by moon, sun, and stars.

Hamet and his younger brother Seid, merchants from the north, near the city of Morocco, had only ten camels. Eight were their own and were richly loaded. The other two belonged to Hamet’s father-in- law, Sheik Ali, and they carried barley. There were four thousand other camels in the caravan, many of them milk camels to feed the men en route and four hundred to bear the provisions and water. About half belonged to a powerful warlord who was a friend of the caravan’s chief, Sidi Ishrel.

Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from

the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel’s caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels’ joints and bones. It

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did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel’s owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah’s sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

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seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods-iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices – in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their

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faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.

During the long hours of howling wind, Hamet recalled his reluctance to join Ishrel’s caravan. After he had returned to Wednoon from a previous Tombuctoo caravan, which had lasted eighteen moons, his father-in-law had punished him severely for not bringing him a suitable return on the goods he had sent. The caravan, nearly as large as this one, had traveled south on a western route, near the sea, where the poor coastal tribes were too weak to attack them. They had fed, watered, and rested the camels before leaving the north. Only three hundred camels of the three thousand died of thirst and fatigue on the journey, but Hamet and Seid lost two of their four. They returned with two slaves, gold dust worth six camels, and jewelry for their wives. Hamet’s father-in-law, Sheik Ali,

had demanded both slaves as part of his share. When Hamet refused, Ali destroyed his home and took back his wife along with their children.

Hamet had then fled back to his tribal home near Morocco, a depressed city still feeling the devastation of the Great Plague of 1800. He had sworn off the risky life of a caravan merchant and had begun accumulating livestock. A year later, Ali returned his family to him, but Hamet stayed in the north. Then, after another two years, a friend who had been with them on the caravan persuaded the two brothers to try again. Time had washed away the memory of the cuffing sands and the sting of Ali’s unjust demand and swift reprisal.

Drawn by an unnameable urge to return to the desert and counting on better luck this time, Seid and Hamet had sold their cattle and sheep, bought merchandise to trade, and joined this caravan.

And now this. For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!”

When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

For twenty-four more days they racked through deep, hot sand. To keep the camels from flagging under their loads, they gradually dumped tons of the salt they carried for trading. Although they encountered no more sandstorms, they found little forage for the suffering camels, whose humps grew flaccid and sagged. Before they had even reached Haherah, a celebrated watering place perhaps two-thirds of the way to Tombuctoo, they had lost three hundred more camels.

As they neared the oasis, those who had been there before described its verdure and big wells to those who had not. From the lush oasis they would, replenished, continue on to Tombuctoo and its great riches. They would return to the north with elephants’ tusks, gold dust and jewelry, gum senegal, ostrich feathers, and many slaves. A fine male slave could be bought for a two-dollar haik and sold back home for a hundred dollars. Yet now thirst coursed so deeply through their veins that greed for Tombuctoo’s treasures no longer motivated them. They dreamed not of gold dust but only of purging their cracked throats of dust. To encourage them, Sidi Ishrel let it be known that they would rest the caravan there for twenty days.

When they arrived in Haherah, the news spread like flying sand to the back of the caravan, reaching many of the men before they had even set foot in the much-anticipated valley: There had been no rain in over a year. Haherah’s

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famous wells were dry.

The cameleers panicked. For many, like Hamet and Seid, the camels and goods with them represented their whole fortune, all they possessed for the future support of their wives and children. The caravan disintegrated as men abandoned their stations and set out on their own, frantically scouring the brown valley for water.

After two fruitless days of searching, they realized that such an effort was hopeless. The despondent men made their way back to the caravan, where Sidi Ishrel marshaled them together in teams to remove sand and stones from the old dry wells and mine them deeper. For five days, the teams dug in unison but still found no water. Sidi Ishrel concluded that they had no hope of salvaging the caravan. They could only try to save themselves, so he ordered all but three hundred of the best camels to be slaughtered. They would drink their blood and the fluid stored in their rumens, and they would eat and dry as much of the meat as they needed.

Though aggrieved at what his losses would be, Hamet believed that this was, truthfully, their only choice. Thirty elders selected the camels to be spared, and the slaughter of the rest began. In the heat of the moment, with blood spilling from bellowing beasts and swirling dung dust burning the men’s eyes, coating their tongues, and inflaming their minds, they began to quarrel. At first they only brandished their scimitars threateningly, but it was as if death must beget death. Once the crescent-shaped blades clashed, friends joined friends. There was no escaping the feverish battle that resulted. It engulfed the men like a fire sucking in oxygen, leaping from one pocket to the next. Some maimed and killed to slake their helpless frustration; others fought back in self-defense. Seid was stabbed in the arm with a dagger and badly wounded. In their fury, some of the men murdered Sidi Ishrel. More than two hundred others died that day. The survivors drank their blood and butchered five hundred camels for their fluid.

Early that evening, in the exhaustion and despair after the bloodbath, Hamet decided to gather his friends and leave Haherah on his own. He had been made a captain in his previous caravan and knew how to navigate the desert. He and his wounded brother spread the word among their allies to quietly prepare to depart that night. Hamet and Seid killed four of their six remaining camels and fed their blood and water to the two strongest. Hamet packed as much of their barley and merchandise as they could reasonably carry, for they could not arrive at Tombuctoo empty-handed.

Around midnight, Hamet led thirty men and thirty-two camels silently out of the valley into the inky, cloud-dark night. The plain roared with Allah’s thunder as they went, but no rain fell.

North of the Niger River in the land Seid and Hamet called Soudan (now Mali), the merchants of Tombuctoo searched the horizon anxiously for the season’s caravan. The famous walled city brimmed with fresh stores of gold and slaves to be exchanged for the goods they coveted from the far side of the great void. Once a seasonal camp of the central-Saharan Tuareg nomads, Tombuctoo had risen to prominence in the fourteenth century as the continent’s chief marketplace and a locus of African Islam, with learned men and fine books. But its riches also made it a target, and it was sacked by Moroccan invaders in ????, precipitating a slow but steady decline. Nonetheless, two centuries later, the caravans still came and were sometimes even larger than the one Hamet and Seid had set out in. When the brothers’ small company finally limped into Tombuctoo, a total of twenty-one men and twelve camels had survived. They were weary, starving, broke, and alone. No one from their once mighty caravan had preceded them and no one followed.

It was a land of much hardship, and there was little remorse to spare for lost foreigners and even less sympathy for those who had had the fortune to be spared by Allah. The king of Tombuctoo conscripted Hamet, Seid, and ten of their companions and dispatched them in a caravan into the interior. They worked for nearly a year, each earning two haiks and some gold, and then joined a caravan of merchants from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Fez, returning to the north with

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turbans, ivory, gum, gold, and two thousand slaves.

On the deep desert, a large party of Tuareg, the Sahara’s most feared raiders, armed with muskets, spears, and scimitars, had lain waiting for them for months. They attacked quietly at night, holding their fire until the last minute and then pouring a furious storm of musket balls into the circled-up caravan. Hamet took one in the thigh. One of the Tuareg stabbed Seid in the chest with a dagger. The caravaneers fought for their lives. The raiders killed 230 men and wounded many more before being repulsed, but both brothers survived. Seid assuaged his anger by helping himself to one dead raider’s fine musket.

Two years after they had set out in Sidi Ishrel’s grand caravan, Hamet and Seid returned to Wednoon with one camel and a trifling amount of merchandise. Sheik Ali had once again failed to profit. This time, he cast Hamet and his brother out onto the Sahara with bundles of haiks and blue cloth to trade with the fierce Kabyles, the desert tribes who raised and raided for camels, hunted ostrich, and on occasion salvaged shipwrecks. Ali had instructed the brothers to trade for ostrich feathers to sell in Swearah or Morocco.

Hamet and Seid wandered south some three hundred miles. One sweltering late-September afternoon in 1815, they spied a cluster of worn-out tents and decided to seek shelter from the sun. They rode into the camp, where to their surprise, they discovered among some Arab women two Christian sailors. One of them was the captain of a merchant ship that had wrecked on the shores of Cape Bojador.

Through his deference to them and his overriding concern for his men, the captain quickly demonstrated that he was a brave and worthy man, no matter how diminished by the Sahara. He approached them with a proposition: He would pay them many pieces of silver if they would render him and his crew, who were scattered nearby among the nomads, a service. But, the brothers knew, the service was as risky as a donkey’s trek through a lion’s den. It would require that they invest all their goods and then travel across hundreds of miles of hammada, dunes, and Atlas foothills. The sailors, frail from thirst, starved, and flayed by the sun, might all die or be stolen before they could be ransomed.

Most of all, Hamet and Seid worried about being cheated in the end. Could they trust a kelb en-Nasrani-a Christian dog? Did they dare risk disappointing Sheik Ali again?

Sidi Hamet prayed to Allah for guidance.

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