In the early 19th century, tales of slavery throughout the world were common. Not only was the transatlantic slave trade in full swing, but countries like Cuba, Spain, and Sweden were also grappling with the horrific cycle of human ownership. It was a pervasively one-sided relationship, typically demonstrated by the classic white master/dark slave dynamic. So, when an American captain by the name of James Riley published his harrowing memoir, Sufferings in Africa, depicting his brutal enslavement at the hands of North African Arabs, it became an instant must-read. Despite America’s typical relationship to African slaves, all racial bets were off when Riley was consumed by the exotic and terrifying people of the Sahara, an experience that would not only test his mettle but change the political course of his homeland.
Born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1777, James Riley was always a great admirer of the ocean and constantly sought the adventures of a fearless seafarer. Consequently, he became the master of his own ship at the young age of twenty where he was provided the opportunity to explore the most popular commercial points in the world, facilitating both adventure and storytelling. Upon returning from his marine exploits, Riley would fascinate audiences with his tales of exotic locales and barbaric tribes, providing Americans with some of the first reliable accounts on far-flung foreigners. His most harrowing adventure was still to come, however, when he sailed out on a mid-size merchant ship known as the Commerce and became shipwrecked off the western coast of North Africa in August of 1815.
Realizing it had sprung a leak, the Commerce landed in a seemingly desolate area off the coast of North Africa and began to make the needed repairs to continue its journey south. The men knew traveling through the nearby desert was impossible, and so they focused intently on their repairs, not noticing the Arab approaching with a spear until he was upon them. He began to help himself to their meager supplies while Riley and his men, too alarmed to protest, hoped he would take what he wanted and leave without incident. This was not to be. The man was only gone a short time before he returned again with two friends, both of whom seemed intent on finding conflict with the stranded men. Riley, sensing his crew was in serious danger, began to distract the natives with wild gestures and conversation, giving his men time to escape back to the loaded ship some hundred feet out.
The Arabs were not pleased when they realized the crew had escaped and insisted Riley give them money in exchange for his life. In accordance with a crewman’s loyalty, Riley’s first mate Antonio Michele swam back to shore to pay the men, at which point the captain ran out into the water to find safety on the boat. His relief was short-lived, however, as he watched the Arabs seize poor Michele and stab him repeatedly in the stomach, eventually dragging his body away with them.
Although desperate to escape, the Commerce was in no condition to continue its journey, so the crew decided to sail just a bit further south with the hopes of finding a rescue that would not arrive. Nine days later, when they had completely depleted their reserves of food and water, the men had no choice but to land their ship again just 200 miles south of the original beach, fearing they would likely encounter the same fate as poor Michele.
Out of choices, they positioned the boat near some high cliffs which would hopefully block them from view and began feverishly digging for water on the shore. With the intention of finding their next plan, Riley climbed to the top of the cliffs and was greeted by a vast expanse of nothing but flat, scorched Saharan desert.
Unable to find potable water on the beach, the crew joined Riley, and together they began their journey on foot through the burning 120° heat, praying for the sight of another human being–even if it meant they must offer themselves up as slaves. And that is precisely what happened. On the horizon, a band of roving Bedouins swathed in white turbans approached them on camels, soon fighting amongst themselves over who would become the master of the newly branded slaves. Breaking the crew up into agreeable portions, the band of Arabs separated Riley’s men and forced them in different directions. Now the property of a smaller group, Riley and a few of his crewmen began a terrifying journey in servitude, forced to live amongst the natives with no way to communicate or defend themselves. They pushed on through the desert, completely at the mercy of their captors, terrified, starving, and in bondage.
And so this went for some weeks until two Arab men arrived in the encampment one afternoon to conduct trade with Riley’s master. Upon seeing their mobility, Riley approached the strangers and, using whatever language skills he had, begged them to buy him and his men and take them to the closest city. Once there, he promised to handsomely compensate them for the job and even provide them with weapons. Little did these Arabs know, Riley knew absolutely no one in the territory and had no access to money, but he was American and that was likely worth something. Somewhat suspicious of his story, however, Riley was reminded they would gladly slit his throat the moment their agreement was broken. And so they took the white captives into their giant caravan of camels and began the second leg of their frightful journey.
Traveling through the endless desert for hundreds of miles, the new masters and their American slaves suffered together with little food and minimal water. It was especially hard on Riley’s men who were not accustomed to such relentless heat and exertion, sometimes even grateful to drink a camel’s urine out of desperate thirst. The men were beaten when they faltered and endured ferocious sunburns, swollen tongues, and a delirium so crippling that one famine-struck man actually began gnawing on the sun-charred flesh of his own arm.
At this point, the surviving men of the Commerce had lost half their body weight and were barely hanging onto their sanity–and they were not alone. Even the Arabs, considerably more accustomed to the punishing conditions, became desperate as they watched the camels begin to flag under the unbearable blanket of heat, grunting and snapping madly at the beetle-like parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the dying animals, their humps were caving in, and the men were forced to offer them whatever water or food they could–because without the giant animals to transport them, they had zero chance of survival.
For twenty-four more days, Riley and his men tracked through the deep, burning sand, watching as the Arabs continually dumped loads of salt they had hoped to trade in order to ease the camels’ burden. Finally, the leader of the Bedouins realized there was no way to salvage the caravan–they would not survive the rest of the journey–and ordered all but 300 of the best camels to be slaughtered so the men could drink their blood and the fluid stored in their rumens. And so it was done, and the men finally feasted on as much meat as they could handle,drying some in the process and taking it with them on their final stretch to the city.
Once the band of travelers had eaten and moved on, they eventually arrived at the outskirts of the capital and asked Riley how they should proceed. Desperate and having no idea what to do, he quickly drafted a note in English, addressed to the town’s consul, explaining his identity and condition and gave it to Hamet, the messenger. Once Hamet made it into the city, he found a young man who spoke English and, as it turned out, worked as an assistant to a British merchant in the area. Once the consul saw the details of Riley’s situation, he immediately rode out to the bedraggled group and hugging the Americans with tears in his eyes, paid the Arabs the agreed upon ransom. Riley and his men were saved!
As expected, the traumatized adventurers were anxious to return home, away from the pervasive nightmare of enslavement, starvation, and fear they had endured. Once back in the states, Riley’s story became the material for his famous memoir, Sufferings in Africa, considered particularly harrowing given the sensitive state of American politics on slavery at the time. Polite society had trouble imagining such a tale–a white Christian man being held a slave? The reversal of typical hierarchical roles was hard to digest. And yet, Riley’s first-hand account of personal enslavement at the hands of compellingly savage Arabs was a raw shred of reality–anyone could be enslaved given the right circumstances; it had more to do with the dominant paradigm than race or creed, an example that directly contradicted the perceptions of many American slaveholders.
Sufferings in Africa became an instant bestseller in 1817 and had been published no less than eighteen times by the year 1860. It was touted for its sheer excitement as well as its political commentary on perceived dominance and the reversal of roles abroad. It garnered the attention of then celebrity writers like Henry David Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper, both of whom felt the book was a major literary accomplishment. And above all, during a pivotal time when America was on the brink of emancipation, Abraham Lincoln included it in his personal biography–along with Pilgrim’s Progress and The Bible–as one of the most influential books of his youth.
Riley’s account remains poignant even today as parts the world refocus their fascination on the Muslim culture and how the “clash of civilizations” has played out in modern politics. But given the fabric of American history, it’s no surprise Riley’s memoir has taken hold of the contemporary imagination. Americans have long been enthralled by tales of captivity, remembering the birth of slavery through the African diaspora while simultaneously shuddering at stories of the first settlers falling into the sometimes brutal hands of Native Indians. The very theme is an inherent part of the national heritage and one that is perfectly preserved in the most frightful memoir ever written.
And the rest is history.