skeletons-on-the-zahara

Public Enemies screenwriter Ronan Bennett is taking on a potentially loaded project. He’ll adapt Dean King‘s book Skeletons on the Zahara, which tells the story of twelve American sailors who into submit themselves into slavery in Africa after being shipwrecked, hoping that as slaves they’ll be given enough sustenance to survive.

The story is based in part on the account of the ordeal written by one of the men, Captain James Riley. Riley’s account told of an arduous trek across the Sahara Desert and subsequently being taken captive and enslaved. (Abraham Lincoln reportedly said Riley’s book was one of the books that most influenced him.)

It’s classic adventure stuff, made rather more compelling by being true. There are excellent parts in here for a couple of actors — certainly an American to play Captain Riley, and then the North African merchant Hamet, who buys the men out of slavery and takes pity on their plight. Add in the details of a period recreation and what could be some tricky (and consequently very interesting) political navigation with respect to the story of Americans being sold into slavery, and you might have gold. [Deadline]

Here’s a rather long synopsis of the book, from Amazon. But reading these details I can see how a film would be a hell of a thing. Frankly, I’m surprised it has taken this long for a direct adaptation of the story. (There is a History Channel doc based on Riley’s account.)

Some stories are so enthralling they deserve to be retold generation after generation. The wreck in 1815 of the Connecticut merchant ship, Commerce, and the subsequent ordeal of its crew in the Sahara Desert, is one such story. With Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, Dean King refreshes the popular nineteenth-century narrative once read and admired by Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Abraham Lincoln. King’s version, which actually draws from two separate first person accounts of the Commerce’s crew, offers a page-turning blend of science, history, and classic adventure. The book begins with a seeming false start: tracing the lives of two merchants from North Africa, Seid and Sidi Hamet, who lose their fortunes—and almost their lives—when their massive camel caravan arrives at a desiccated oasis. King then jumps to the voyage of the Commerce under Captain Riley and his 11-man crew. After stops in New Orleans and Gibraltar, the ship falls off course en route to the Canary Islands and ultimately wrecks at the infamous Cape Bojador.

After the men survive the first predations of the nomads on the shore, they meander along the coast looking for a way inland as their supplies dwindle. They subsist for days by drinking their own urine. Eventually, to their horror, they discover that they have come aground on the edge of the Sahara Desert. They submit themselves, with hopes of getting food and water, as slaves to the Oulad Bou Sbaa. After days of abuse, they are bought by Hamet, who, after his own experiences with his failed caravan (described at the novels opening), sympathizes with the plight of the crew. Together, they set off on a hellish journey across the desert to collect a bounty for Hamet in Swearah. King embellishes this compelling narrative throughout with scientific and historical material explaining the origins of the camel, the market for English and American slaves, and the stages of dehydration.

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