In June 1815, Capt. James Riley and the crew of the U.S. merchant ship Commerce set sail for Gibraltar near the Portuguese coast. Fate intervened, and two months later, the brig foundered at Cape Bojador on the western beaches of North Africa, where Riley and his men were captured by nomadic Sahrawi Arabs. Naturally suspicious of all Christian whites, the natives forced the sailors into slavery and dragged them along on a two-month, 800-mile journey across the hostile Sahara Desert.
The ravages the captives suffered are wholly unimaginable: pressed into hard labor by their new masters and clad only in tattered rags, they endured sweltering Torrid Zone heat; battled for survival in a desolate land of sand and scorpions; and had to accept meager rations that often consisted of goat meat and camel urine. Most of the 12 sailors lived to return to freedom, including Riley, who wrote an account of the harrowing adventure in 1817. Noted naval author and biographer Dean King has drawn upon Riley's book and other documents to craft this unsentimental retelling of harsh desert life led under barbaric conditions. He successfully illustrates the mental toughness Riley and his men had to summon in order to stay alive throughout their ordeal, which was ended when an honorable Arab tribal leader brought the exhausted and nearly broken men to the provincial trading post of Swearah, where local British official William Willshire paid the ransom for their freedom.
King's prose is mostly of the "just-the-facts, ma'am" variety, but its straight-ahead pulse never wavers in recounting the seemingly endless horrors of the protagonists' journey and in depicting the alien (and quite fearful) trappings of nomadic Saharan life. In an age where seagoing film adventures such as Master and Commander hold sway, and King's inspiring, true-life chronicle should invite the interest of many history-minded readers.