A great American naval adventure of the early nineteenth century
The year 1815 was a momentous one. On the muddy slopes of Waterloo in Belgium Napoleon, who had set Europe ablaze for two decades, was brought to ruin. Across the Atlantic the United States of America had concluded its war with Britain having ended the conflict with a famous victory at New Orleans. Meanwhile in the eastern Atlantic an American merchant vessel and its crew underwent a drama which, although it was not significant to the world at large, would mean catastrophe, slavery and death for some of them. The brig Commerce out of Connecticut was sailing between Gibraltar and the Cape Verde Islands on a trading voyage when she ran aground on Cape Bojador off the coast of the Western Sahara desert. The ship and crew were attacked by local tribesmen of the Sahrawi. One man was killed and the rest of the crew, after terrible ordeals, were captured by Bedouin tribesmen. They suffered constant brutality at the hands of their captors as they were force marched through the desolate landscape and suffered dehydration and starvation before their eventual liberation. This Leonaur edition contains two accounts by crew members including one by the ship’s master, James Riley. Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States cited Riley’s book as one as the most significant and inspirational books he read as a youth. Indeed, Riley’s account was a phenomenal bestseller in America at the time of its first publication selling over 1,000,000 copies. The second account here is by Archibald Robbins and is included to give readers a perspective on the incident from by one of the ship’s able seamen.
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As we went on in that direction, the valleys became less frequent and very shallow; the few thorn bushes they produced were very dry, and no other shrubs to be found; the camels could not fill their stomachs with the leaves and shrubs, nor with all that they could crop off, though they pulled away the branches as thick as a man’s finger. The milk began to fail, and consequently we had to be scanted, so that our allowance was reduced to half a pint a day, and as all the water they had taken from the well was expended, they could give us no more of that precious article. There were belonging to this tribe four mares that were the general property; they were clean limbed, and very lean; they fed them on milk every day, and every one took his turn in giving them as much water every two days as they would drink.<br>
These mares drank up the last of our water on the 19th, nor would my master allow me to drink what little was left in the bowl, not exceeding half a pint, and it was poured out as a drink offering before the Lord, while they prayed for rain, which indeed they had reason to expect, as the season they knew was approaching, when some rain generally happens. I supposed our distance from the sea, or the well that we had left, to be three hundred miles in a direct line, and feared very much that we should not find water at any other place. The sustenance we received was just sufficient to keep the breath of life in us, but our flesh was less inflamed than in the first days, for we had continued to lie under a part of the tent at night, and also in the daytime when it was pitched, which was generally the case about two o’clock in the afternoon.<br>
We had, however, become so emaciated, that we could scarcely stand, and they did not attempt to make me or Clark do any kind of work, except gather a few dry sticks, towards evening, to light a fire. The swellings had also gone down in some measure from our feet, as there was not substance enough in us to keep up a running sore; all the moisture in them seemed to dry away, and we could support the prickings and cutting of the stones better, as we became lighter and more inured to it. We had endeavoured to find some of the kind of root that was met with near the sea coast, but none could be procured. In every valley we came to, the natives would run about and search under a thorn bush, in hopes to find some herb, for they were nearly as hungry as ourselves. In some places a small plant was found, resembling what we call shepherd’s sprout; they were torn up by them and devoured in an instant. I got one or two, but they proved very bitter, and were impregnated, in a considerable degree, with salt: these plants were so rare as to be scarcely of any benefit.<br>
There were also found by the natives, in particular places, a small ground root, whose top showed itself like a single short spear of grass, about three inches above the ground; they dug it up with a stick; it was of the size of a small walnut, and in shape very much like an onion; its taste fresh, without any strong flavour; but it was very difficult to find, and afforded us very little relief, as we could not get more than half a dozen in a whole day’s search, and some days none at all.<br>
On the 19th of September, in the morning, the tribe having held a council the night before, at which I could observe my old master was looked up to as a man of superior judgment and influence, they began a route back again towards the sea, and the well near which we were first made slaves;—this convinced me that no fresh water could be procured nearer, and as the camels were almost dry, I much feared that myself and my companions must perish before we could reach it.<br>
I had been in the habit every day since I was on the desert, of relieving my excessive thirst by the disagreeable expedient before mentioned; but that resource now failed me for the want of moisture, nor had anything passed through my body since the day I left the well. We had journeyed for seven and a half days S. E. and I concluded it would require the same time to return; but on the 18th we had steered N. E. and on the 19th we took a N. W. direction, and in the course of the day we entered a very small valley, where we found a few dwarf thorn bushes, not more than two feet high; on these we found some snails, most of which were dead and dry, but I got about a handful that were alive, and when a fire was kindled, roasted and ate them: Clark did the same, and as we did not receive more than a gill of milk each in twenty-four hours, this nourishment was very serviceable.<br>
On the morning of the 20th we started as soon as it was light, and drove very fast all the day. We had no other drink than the camels’ urine, which we caught in our hands as they voided it; its taste was bitter, but not salt, and it relieved our fainting spirits. We were forced to keep up with the drove, but in the course of the day found a handful of snails each, which we at night roasted and ate. Our feet, though not much swollen, were extremely sore; our bodies and limbs were nearly deprived of skin and flesh, for we continually wasted away, and the little we had on our bones was dried hard, and stuck fast to them. My head had now become accustomed to the heat of the sun, and though it remained uncovered, it did not pain me. Hunger, that had preyed upon my companions to such a degree as to cause them to bite off the flesh from their arms, had not the same effect on me.<br>
I was forced in one instance to tie the arms of one of my men behind him, in order to prevent his gnawing his own flesh; and in another instance, two of them having caught one of the boys, a lad about four years old, out of sight of the tents, were about dashing his brains out with a stone, for the purpose of devouring his flesh, when luckily at that instant I came up and rescued the child, with some difficulty, from their voracity. They were so frantic with hunger, as to insist upon having one meal of his flesh, and then they said they would be willing to die; for they knew that not only themselves, but all the crew would be instantly massacred as soon as the murder should be discovered. I convinced them that it would be more manly to die with hunger than to become cannibals and eat their own other human flesh, telling them, at the same time, I did not doubt but our masters would give us sufficient nourishment to keep us alive, until they could sell us.<br>
On the 20th we had proceeded with much speed towards the N. W. or sea shore; but on the 21st we did not go forward. This day I met with Mr. Savage, Horace, Hogan, and the cook; their masters’ tents were pitched near ours; they were so weak, emaciated, and sore, that they could scarcely stand, and had been carried on the camels for the last few days. I was extremely glad to see them, and spoke to all but Horace, whose master drove me off with a stick one way, and Horace another, yelling most horribly at the same time, and laying it on Horace’s back with great fury. I soon returned to our tent, and felt very much dejected; they all thought they could not live another day: there were no snails to be found here, and we had not one drop of milk or water to drink. Horace, Hogan, and the cook were employed in attending their masters’ camels, in company with one or two Arabs, who kept flogging them nearly the whole of the time.<br>
My old master did not employ me or Clark in the same way, because he had two negro slaves to do that work; he was a rich man among them, and owned from sixty to seventy camels; he was also a kind of priest, for every evening he was joined, in his devotions, by all the old and most of the young men near his tent. They all first washed themselves with sand, in place of water; then wrapping themselves up with their strip of cloth and turning their faces to the east, my old master stepped out before them, and commenced by bowing twice, repeating at each time “Allah Houakibar;” then kneeling and bowing his head to the ground twice; then raising himself up on his feet, and repeating, “Hi el Allah Sheda Mohammed Rahsool Allah” bowing himself twice; and again prostrating himself on the earth as many times, then “Allah Houakibar” was three times repeated.<br>
He was always accompanied in his motions and words by all present who could see him distinctly, as he stood before them. He would then make a long prayer, and they recited all together what I afterwards found to be a chapter in the Koran; and then all joined in chanting or singing some hymn or sacred poetry for a considerable time. This ceremony being finished, they again prostrated themselves with their faces to the earth, and the service concluded.<br>
About the middle of this day two strangers arrived, riding two camels loaded with goods: they came in front of my master’s tent, and having made the camels lie down, they dismounted, and seated themselves on the ground opposite the tent, with their faces turned the other way. There were in this valley six tents, besides that of my masters.