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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  9,496 ratings  ·  679 reviews
A spectacular true odyssey through the extremes of the Sahara Desert in the early 19th century. Reader and protagonist alike are challenged into new ways of understanding culture clash, slavery and the place of Islam in the social fabric of desert-dwelling peoples.

In a calm May morning in 1815, Captain James Riley and the crew of the Commerce left port in Connecticut for a
Paperback, 351 pages
Published April 12th 2005 by Back Bay Books (first published February 16th 2004)
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Glenn Nonfiction. Memoir. Adventure

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Average rating 4.05  · 
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 ·  9,496 ratings  ·  679 reviews

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Oct 02, 2008 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
Mar 19, 2012 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
When life gets a little tough for me, I tend to turn to non-fiction books about situations much worse than mine that people have survived – this usually helps to change my perspective a little and make me appreciate what I have, rather than what I don’t. Normally a dedicated introvert, even I have started to struggle a little with lockdown (helped by working from home) and so a little perspective adjusting was in order – this book fulfilled that perfectly.

Skeletons on the Zahara tells the terrib
Sep 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel, africa, 2000s
Suspect this would be an informative, entertaining re-read.
('Like'd several reviews by other readers.)
(Fading memory syndrome.)
Sep 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
The Quick and the Dead

Skeletons on the Zahara was a worthy addition to my “harrowing tales” shelf (42 books and growing). Obviously, I like this kind of book. What makes a good harrowing tale is more than depicting suffering, deprivation, and endurance. No, a good harrowing tale gives the reader a sense of what qualities allowed the central figure to endure.

Captain James Riley and eight of his crew, shipwrecked on the desolate Atlantic shore of the Sahara desert, escaped one band of marauding A
Dec 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
edited 11/23/19--comment added to original review:

Looking back on my review, I'm surprised I gave it 3 stars. This book has stayed with me all these years. Sometimes you don't know how a book will affect you in the future or if it will have stayed in your heart, and this one certainly has. I am bumping this up to 4 stars. / end of comment

I so hate the three star rating more than any other. I feel like giving it this usually means the book was just ok, average. This is not what this book was at a
Joy D
Harrowing true survival story of the crew of the American brig Commerce who were shipwrecked off the western coast of Africa in 1815, held as slaves by nomadic tribes, and subjected to extreme deprivation in crossing the Zahara (Sahara) desert in a desperate attempt to reach safety. It is a tale of courage, tenacity, quick-thinking, adaptability, endurance, and persuasion. Dean King has blended accounts written separately by two survivors, along with his own research, and his trip retracing the ...more
Jan 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book tells the true tale of American sailors on the cargo ship Commerce, who were shipwrecked in 1815 off the coast of Africa. They were captured, sold into slavery, beaten and starved. Through the efforts of Commerce Captain James Riley, many found their way to freedom.

To research the book, Dean King embarked on a National Geographic Society sponsored expedition to retrace the horrific journey of Riley and his crew across the Saharan ("Zahara") desert.

The main source of his information wh
Bob Schmitz
Jul 21, 2012 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
Jun 20, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-africa
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
Jul 10, 2011 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
Oct 08, 2013 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
Shelly Mullen
May 06, 2014 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
Tanja Berg
Jun 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
I liked it just enough to finish, but it was a close call at several points. I first started this book many years ago and gave up after ten pages or so. This time I found the historical aspects of the book fascinating enough to continue. The problem was that I had picked up more interesting reads at the airport bookshop that seemed more enticing. By this time I was so far into the fate of Riley and his men that I stuck with it.

Shortly told, Riley and his men run the brig "Commerce" aground on th
Jun 18, 2012 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
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
Feb 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Based on the true accounts of Captain James Riley and crew's shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815, Dean King compiles a riveting and engaging tale of strength and survival as the sailors spend over two months on the Sahara desert after being sold into slavery.

Wow, this was a terrific book. The barbarism these men were subjected to was horrific and I could scarce believe they managed to survive. The ingenuity, loyalty and perseverance by Captain James Riley is the stuff of legends.

I also app
Michael Armstrong
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I could not put this book down and when I had to it was a joy to return to it. Amazing! The best story of survival I ever read. I treasure all of my books but this one is special. The hot sand almost flows from the pages. Well written. When I read a book I let it draw me into its danger, its twists and message.
Oct 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is the survival story of Captain James Riley and the men of The Commerce in the year 1815. The Commerce shipwrecked off the coast of Africa after leaving Gibraltar. Riley and his crew were stripped of their belongings then taken captive by a band of Nomads and held as slaves, beaten and starved for over 2 months. The author spares no words in describing the deplorable condition these men were in. Made to travel the harsh Sahara scorching days and freezing nights. Skin peeling from their bod ...more
May 04, 2009 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
♥ Marlene♥
Dec 30, 2011 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
May 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
If you ever doubted that you're soft then you need to read this book! I would have lasted a day at most in these guy's place. The length, depth, and height of cruelty, desperation, resolve, and outright divine providence which led this poor group of shipwrecked sailors through their trials at the hands of these barbarians is truly amazing.

While reading you may find yourself questioning if this is fiction, yet this really happened and some lived to tell the tale.

A definite goodread for anyone wit
Abby Goldsmith
Be prepared for lots and lots of descriptions of suffering. But you knew that going in, and due to the time and place and people involved, this is a unique tale of survival in extreme hardship--and of heroism.

I will remember this passage:
"Bearded men like me should not cry."

My favorite part of this book was the epilogue, which tells of the impact the book had on emancipation in America, and the lasting gratitude and friendships formed from the ordeal. It's hard to imagine ties that strong in o
An excellent read that weaves together two published accounts of the survival of some crew members of a shipwreck. Some parts of their survival over the desert are gruesome, albeit true. Not for the fainthearted but being someone who loves true tales of courage and beating the odds this book fit the bill.
Ken Hammond
Aug 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Skeletons on the Zahara, the story set in 1815 of an American shipwreck of the west African coast. The crew of the Commerce captured and sold into slavery, with beatings, starvation & dehydration, & disease. It was a hellish story of survival against all the odds. Great story & should be made into a movie. ...more
Hugo Patricio
Apr 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A book based on a book that young Abraham Lincoln read as a boy "and never forgot Riley's graphic tale of captivity." Do I need to say more to convince you to read the book?

What these men went through and survived (some) is no ordinary feat. When you think things are bad for these men, it becomes and worse and worse. I've read survival's book before. Shackleton's story, being one of my favorites.

This book, however, is very different. The men not only having to fight to survive the harsh Saharan
Bonnie Kelly
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a remarkable tale of survival through the harshest of conditions. The will to live is stronger than the conditions that these shipwrecked sailers were forced to endure. Excellent book!
Apr 14, 2020 rated it liked it
The type of survival story that I think anyone would enjoy reading once. I thought it was a bit dry at times when the author continues to describe the desert environment, but Captain James Riley carries the story and is a great lead character. He shows remarkable courage throughout the entire ordeal and is inspiring. It’s a very captivating true story, but I can’t say it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.
Julain Schwartz
Nov 25, 2012 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
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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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31 likes · 11 comments
“[...] what's the use of lying down to die as long as we can stand up and walk.” 4 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.” 3 likes
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