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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

4.04  ·  Rating Details  ·  6,058 Ratings  ·  471 Reviews
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 te ...more
Paperback, 353 pages
Published April 12th 2005 by Back Bay Books (first published 2004)
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Mar 16, 2014 Ken rated it it was amazing
I have read a number of true adventure and survival stories, and this one stands out as one of the most extraordinary feats of survival I’ve read. The deprivations and hardships of Riley’s crew make for fascinating reading, and the odds of their survival — never mind making it back to civilization — are truly extreme. Riley is a highly intelligent, loyal, and sensitive captain, and he gambles a risky deal to save his life and his crew.

And the author has clearly done his research, determining man
Nathan Moore
Sep 06, 2012 Nathan Moore rated it really liked it
"Skeletons on the Zahara" is a true but gut-wrenching, dehydrating, queasy story of fate of Captain James Riley and the men of The Commerce. The story itself is horrifying and contains a quality of human suffering that is incomprehensible to the first world mind. I read this book right after reading "Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" and I was constantly comparing the two the whole time.

Both stories are remarkable and I can't imagine how anything but Divine providence could ever attribu
Bob Schmitz
Jul 21, 2012 Bob Schmitz rated it liked it
Many readers have complained that the book is dry. It is. It is very repetitious. It is also amazing. 12 American sailors are shipwrecked on the coast of Africa in 1815 and taken as slaves by desert nomads. They are beaten, poorly fed, often nude, worked to skin and bones and traded among different groups for as little as a torn blanket. In two months Captain Riley goes from 240lbs to 90 and others are reduced to 40lbs. Through Riley's determination, leadership and guile 5 of the group eventuall ...more
I enjoyed Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival better than this book. In Unbound, it seemed like King had better handle on his subjects, not surprising considering the modern setting. Here the only subject King seems to have a handle on is Capt Riley (not surprising, he wrote a book).

It is, however, a fasinating, if not riveting, story about survival and far more interesting than say Robinson Crusoe. Not only did Riley and co have to live though the shipwreck, they had to cross the Z
Shelly Mullen
May 17, 2014 Shelly Mullen rated it it was amazing
This book is one of the very best books I've ever read. It is the true story of twelve American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815. They faced incredible odds when they were captured by Arab nomads and sold into slavery. They crossed the Sahara (called the Zahara back then) and faced starvation, beatings, dehydration, sunburn, and hostile tribes. They did incredible things in order to survive. I started this book and was about 40 pages into it and put it down for a week as I was ...more
May 04, 2009 Travis rated it it was amazing
I noticed my daughter recently added this book to her "to read" list, and since I read it and recommended it to her about a year ago, I thought I'd write a quick review of it.

"Skeletons on the Zahara" is a perfect example of why I'm a big fan of true-life adventure narratives--you can't make this stuff up, as they say. The book is a fascinating, and sometimes horrifying, account of early 19th century sea captain James Riley and his crew of the Commerce, who fought an epic battle to survive capti
Jun 02, 2015 Carol rated it it was amazing
What an excellent writer, sometimes I found it hard to read about the all the brutality that these men lived through.It is truly a story about survival, courage, and brotherhood. I couldn't put the book down. I was surprised that I never heard of this story since I live in Connecticut. I will definitely purchase this book.

The story starts on a May 1815, where Captain James Riley, and the crew of the Commerce, left port in Connecticut for an ordinary trading voyage. But they would never imagine w
Jurij Fedorov
Apr 12, 2016 Jurij Fedorov rated it it was amazing
Very well researched and written survival tale.

This book has a lot of historical context. So much so that you kinda feel like you step into their shoes even though it's a totally different world where white men often got taken as slaves in Africa. And random killings were not uncommon in 1815 Africa. The book is very well written and perfectly researched. I actually didn't know areas of Africa used to be so awful. And I also didn't know that this is how you survive in the desert. Dr. Livings
May 19, 2013 Mitch rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographical
This is an account of the fates of several men who shipwrecked off the coast of Western Africa, were caught and then held for ransom by the Arabs who lived there back in 1815.

The facts of this account were drawn largely from narratives published by two of the men after their ordeal. Supplementary material came from the author's wide readings and I have to say, some of these were quite noticeably inserted into the storyline.

For a real life adventure book, I give this high marks. It is interestin
Jul 10, 2011 Deidre rated it it was amazing
When the crew of the ship, Commerce, left America, the War of 1812 had just ended. The captain of the ship, James Riley, decided to lead the ship in order to recoup some of the fortune he lost during the war. It surprised me that a ship headed to Africa would only have a crew of eleven. Captain Riley was only thirty-seven years old. He was an accomplished sea captain. His crew had sailed together before, some were neighbors on land, and there was a close bond among them.

The ship crashed off the
I thought this book was generally fairly dry, but punctuated by oases of fascinating material. Har har.
But seriously, it taught me a lot about the Sahara and the people who live there, along with some amazing facts about camels. I really came to like Captain Riley- his loyalty, his perseverance, his faith, his general pluck and intelligence. In order to enjoy those nuggets, though, I felt like I had to wade through a lot of boring geography (then they came to a wadi, then they came to some dune
Julain Schwartz
Nov 25, 2012 Julain Schwartz rated it it was amazing
Imagine being stranded on the coast of the Zahara desert, with an extremely scarce amount of food and water. The nomadic locals are far from hospitable and there is seemingly no way to survive. This is the true story of Captain James Riley told in Skeletons on the Zahara written by Dean King and published in February 2004 by Little, Brown and company. I found the book interesting from a historical standpoint. It also taught me a lot about leadership and overall human nature. I was most impresse ...more
Jun 25, 2012 Anne rated it liked it
This is a remarkable and true survival story which reminded me of the incredible courage, perseverence and determination which can be mustered by certain individuals in unimaginable and horrific circumstances, and what makes survival stories a favorite of mine. i thoroughly enjoyed Krakauer's stories Into Thin Air and Into the Wild so was intrigued when i read this book's description. I was probably also a little bit drawn to this book because of the main character's name, James Riley (my younge ...more
♥ Marlene♥
Jun 19, 2013 ♥ Marlene♥ rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone!
This book has been on my wish lists (yes, I have one on amazon, one on cliff's, 1 on Bookcrossing and one here although I need to add a lot of books I want to goodread for many years.)

So it was so much fun to receive a package from Hong Kong with 2 books I have been wanting to read for many years. Thanks azuki.

Update June 19 2013:

What a fantastic read! After the first 5 to 10 dry pages it got so that I could not stop reading. Right now I am reading another book like this one, survival book, this
Bill Glose
Aug 15, 2013 Bill Glose rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most amazing survival tales ever told. On the Sahara, the American crew of a shipwrecked vessel endured the most grueling hardships imaginable. Stripped of their clothes, beaten and starved, the stranded crew roasted on the hellish landscape of the world’s largest desert. When they rode camels, the “racking” motion ground their naked thighs into bloody ribbons, and when they fell off, they had to run barefoot across the rocky hammada, shredding the soles of their feet. Crewmem ...more
Enjoyed the heck out of it! Really excellent. This is an updated account of a story from 1815 about American shipwrecked sailors and how they survived starvation, slavery, ill-treatment in Saharan Africa. Their own fortitude along with help from well-meaning Arabs & Brits makes for an amazing tale. I found myself wondering, "How is it have I never even heard about this story before?!" Especially, when the original narrative (which forms the basis for King's book) was published, it was hugely ...more
Jul 28, 2009 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Here is a remarkable story of adventure, suffering, and redemption. The true story presented paradoxes that took the events beyond a simple tale of survival. During a period in history when white Americans enslaved non-whites, a crew of white American sailors find themselves enslaved by Arabs. And yet, while I wanted to condemn Arabs as barbarians, it is an Arab who risks his own life to deliver the Americans from their cruel fate. One of the most stunning moments in the story is when, despite t ...more
Lana Owens
Mar 31, 2013 Lana Owens rated it really liked it
Not for everyone but a good recommendation for those of us (mostly survivors in one way or another I suspect) who are hooked on true life human endurance stories. If you liked books like The Perfect Storm, Endurance, Into Thin Air, Annapurna, you'll like Skeletons on the Zahara. It is the story of ship of British soldiers shipwrecked of the coast of Africa in 1815 who were captured by Bedouins and held as starved slaves in a nomadic trek across the desert. The survivors journals provided the res ...more
Jul 31, 2013 Sarah rated it it was amazing
This book is the kind of treasure I look for in trying to get a sense of what a place and time was like for my writing. The descriptions are sharp and evocative- and at the same time extremely accurate. It reads like a combination adventure- historical novel. My only slight disappointment is that he doesn't, in the footnotes, tell us what the modern spellings of some of the places on the way are. I'm sure some of them no longer exist, but it would be nice to be able to follow the shipmates' trav ...more
Mar 20, 2010 Leigh-ann rated it really liked it
A bit dry in parts (no pun intended), and the beginning reads like a history textbook (not a good thing), but after the first three or four chapters the story is so engrossing, appalling, and harrowing that it becomes impossible to put down. What these men endured at the hands of their captors (and at the mercy of the desert) is almost unimaginable, and it will sure make you appreciate the comfy clothes you're wearing, the meal you're eating, and the kitchen faucet that provides an endless suppl ...more
Jan 21, 2016 Wanda marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Wanda by: Ethan S.
22 JAN 2016 - a kind recommendation through Ethan. Thank you very much!
May 02, 2009 Colleen rated it it was amazing
Read this about 3 years ago. Absolutely stunning. The story is true. And it takes place in the early 1800s when a crew of white New England sailors shipwreck off the coast of West Africa, somewhere below Morrocco. The captain kept a diary and it was a horrendous tale of capture by Bedouins, and survival during the trek to the slave market across the Sahara. The captain makes it back to civilization and spends the rest of his life trying to eliminate slavery in the US. His story was corroborated ...more
Jan 13, 2013 Michael rated it really liked it
This book will make you thirsty! Ha ha!! After reading this book... i will never complain about being thirsty again. I don't know what thirsty is. The men in this book? They know what thirsty is. This is a very interesting read. A amazing story. Despite the fact I really didn't quite know exactly what this book was about when I started, it is very well written and turned out to be a great story and good read. And you learn a few things about human endurance and tolerance to extreme climates and ...more
Jul 16, 2012 Jeannie rated it it was amazing
I love it when I find a 5 star book, it doesn't happen often enough. This is a shocking and gripping true story of survival. The author Dean King does a great job of re-writing the original book titled "Sufferings in Africa", published in 1817. He actually traveled to the Western Sahara to research and experience first-hand what the survivors had lived through. I was shocked at what these men had endured, this story just grabbed ahold of me and never let go. This story is a treasure forgotten in ...more
Jun 24, 2016 Tdogg rated it liked it
This book is very interesting as it gives insight into Muslim culture, life in the harshest of environments, and the human will to survive. It has a lot of anthropological as well as survivalist value to it. As I read this book I found myself not taking my first-world amenities (food, water, shower) for granted. I gave the book three stars out of five due to the fact that while the book is compelling it does get monotonous in certain parts. There were some parts where I didn't want to put the bo ...more
Connor Best
Apr 04, 2016 Connor Best rated it it was amazing
Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King is truly a masterpiece of historical non-fiction. It tells the awe inspiring true story of Captain James Riley and his crew's shipwreck off the western coast of Africa shortly after the war of 1812. In an attempt to regain some of the wealth they lost during the war, the crew of the Commerce sailed east in hope of salvation, but all they found was ruin and torment as the harsh nature of the sub Saharan tribes and environment tests the bodies and minds of the ...more
Chris Dillon
Oct 03, 2014 Chris Dillon rated it it was amazing
“Skeletons on the Zahara” is an enthralling narrative with a riveting storyline written by Dean King. The trial and tribulation story recounts the diary of a shipwrecked American sailor who was alongside his crew while stranded on the north west coast of Africa in 1815.
Captain Riley and his crew of the Commerce were subjected to slavery and a journey across northern Africa. Their misfortune began when they were captured by a nomad tribe who then exposed them to problems such as starvation, de
Chris Scott
Aug 20, 2014 Chris Scott rated it really liked it
Shelves: sahara
This astonishing yarn expands on the grueling tale of the 1815 wreck and enslavement of the crew of the American brig, Commerce. The ordeal the crew suffered at the hands of the barbaric Western Saharan tribes (described collectively but not so accurately as ‘Saharawi’) is truly horrendous. At that time (and indeed right up to the St Exupery era) ransoming of foreigners to European trading posts at Essaouira or St Louis was the norm, but the Commerce had the misfortune to run around Cap Boujdour ...more
Elisabeth Cole
Mar 29, 2014 Elisabeth Cole rated it it was amazing
What an incredible true story! A lot of books I've read that are historical fact have huge gaps but this one didn't, probably because the author had two first-person accounts to refer to. The things these sailors had to go through literally made my blood run cold. The sailors who are captured are pretty much split up between different tribesmen and quickly lose touch with each other. Later on the captain's group meets up with another group and one of the other sailors happened to be in that seco ...more
Feb 04, 2014 Terry rated it it was amazing
This is an engrossing true story of how shipwrecked American sailors survived months to years of slavery, deprivation, starvation, and one of the most inhospitable climates on earth and managed to return and tell the tale. Dean King not only researched the history of the brig Commerce, which sailed from Connecticut in 1815, he also traveled to the Sahara desert to recreate the journey of James Riley and his crewmen. Amazingly, many of the customs and habits Riley experienced are still found in t ...more
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I like to read, wander cross-country, travel in cultures I don't understand, cycle, play squash, and I'm a foodie. But most of all I like to be in the throes of writing a book. This is invigorating work. The moment when the hard-won research combines with a bit of sweat and blood and occasionally a tear to become a fluid paragraph is like no other. What I hope to achieve is to suspend time and dis ...more
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“[...] what's the use of lying down to die as long as we can stand up and walk.” 3 likes
“Hamet, Seid, and Abdallah were stung by the irony that on the wild desert, where people had virtually nothing, they shared freely, but here, where resources were comparatively abundant, no one would offer them so much as a drink.” 2 likes
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