Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sufferings In Africa,204,203,200_.jpg(from amazon)

Abraham Lincoln said the books that most influenced him growing up were the Bible, Aesop's Fables, Pilgrim's Progress, the Parson Weems biography of George Washington, the Life of [Benjamin] Franklin and James Riley's, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce.  All except the last would be familiar (at least in name) to modern readers, so THC has done the work of reading Riley's work on your behalf.

The full title of Riley's Narrative, today more commonly known as Sufferings In Africa is:

An Authentic Narrative 
of the Loss of the


Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Month of August, 1815


An Account of the Sufferings

Of Her

Surviving Officers and Crew

Who Were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs on the Great



Observations, Historical, Geographical, &c.
Made During the Travels of the Author While A Slave To
The Arabs, and In The Empire of Morocco

Late Master and Supercargo   

First published in 1817, Captain Riley's narrative tells of the wreck of his ship off the coast of what is now Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, illegally annexed by Morocco in the 1970s.

James Riley, born in Middletown, Connecticut on October 27, 1777, in the midst of the American revolt against England, labored on farms in that town between the ages of 8 and 14.  Although his parents wanted him to learn the trade of a mechanic, Riley, in his own words "having become tired of hard work on the land, I concluded the best way to get rid of it, was to go to sea and visit foreign countries", shipped on board a sloop bound for the West Indies at the age of 15.  Eventually he assumed command of his own vessel, sailing out of New York harbor, prospering until his ship was seized by the French in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars.  Remaining in France until the end of 1809 he put his stay into good use, learning to read, write and speak French and Spanish (on later journeys he was to acquire some ability with Italian, Russian, German and Portuguese).

He encountered difficulty in regaining prosperity, struggling to support his wife and four children, despite voyages to South America, New Orleans, the West Indies, Spain and Portugal, before his career went completely aground with the start of the War of 1812.  When the war ended, he was given the opportunity to command the brig Commerce, sailing out of Hartford, Connecticut.  After first sailing to New Orleans, the Commerce then went to Gibraltar with a cargo of tobacco and flour.  Leaving Gibraltar on August 23, 1815, with a cargo of brandies and wines along with two thousand dollars, Riley planned to make for the Cape Verde Islands to take on a load of salt before returning across the Atlantic.

It was on this leg of the trip, that the vessel went offcourse in dense fog and wrecked on the African shore.  All eleven of the crew made it ashore, to find themselves in a barren land.  After one man was killed on the landing beach by natives, Riley and the rest of the crew escaped in a small, damaged boat on which they traveled several days further south before being wrecked again.  After several days traveling on the desolate shoreline, they made their way further inland and found themselves dying in the desert.  Discovered by wandering Arabs they were enslaved and distributed among various families.
(from public domain review)

Riley's account of the three months from the wreck to his redemption are harrowing in its day by day detail.  The first part of his journey through the desert was particularly brutal, as stripped of clothing, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, he is driven to looking for a rock to dash his head in with.  It's almost unbearable to read at times and difficult to understand how the captives survived. His salvation comes when he encounters Sidi Hamet, who purchases him, along with, at Riley's plea, four of his companions.  Hamet pledges to return Riley to the city of Mogadore (modern day Essaouira in Morocco), where Riley has told him a foreign consul will pay ransom money.  Hamet is portrayed as a sympathetic and honorable figure, though he also tells Riley that if they complete the journey and there is no ransom he will slit the Captain's throat.  Though not as extreme as the first part of the journey, the travels with Hamet remain dangerous, with robbers threatening to take the slaves, food often in short supply, and desperate times aplenty.  According to Riley, he and Hamet developed a bond, particularly as Riley learned some basic Arabic. lines show Riley's journey, from dean king)

The descriptions of the lands, people and customs are fascinating and it's enjoyable to see Riley's attempts to spell some words; he tells us of delicious Cubbub (Keebab) at one point.  In response to a messenger Hamet sends to Mogadore, Riley receives a letter from William Willshire, the British Consul.  The letter is worth the price of the book.  Willshire has agreed to pay the $920 ransom (a large sum in those days) out of his own funds, in hope of eventual reimbursement and writes Riley, whom he does not know:
I trust there is no occasion for me to say how truly I commiserate and enter into all your misfortunes: when God grants me the pleasure to embrace you, it will be to me a day of true rejoicing. - I beg you will assure every one with you of my truest regard; and with sentiments embittered by the thoughts of the miseries you have undergone, but with the most sanguine hope of a happy end to all your sufferings, I subscribe myself, with the greatest esteem, my dear Sir, your friend, William Willshire.
Upon reaching Mogadore and Willshire's hospitality, Riley immediately began to write his account of his time since the shipwreck.  He also reports that Willshire insisted on Riley and his companions being weighed.  Riley was only 90 pounds, compared to his normal 240 (early in the book he describes himself as a "stout boy").
Ramparts of Essaouira.JPG(Mogadore, now Essaouira, 2008, from Wikipedia)

Although Riley is unsparing in writing of his captors brutality he also describes positive aspects and there are several Arab characters, besides Hamet, who are favorably portrayed.  Even as he recuperates, he asks Hamet to tell him in detail of his two caravans journeys across the Sahara to the fabled Timbuktu, an account he includes in his narrative.  One of those travels ended in disaster, of a caravan consisting of 1,000 men and 3,000 camels, only 21 men and 12 camels made it to Timbuktu.  Riley is also astounded to find that the Arabs navigate across the featureless, trackless desert by means of the stars, and remarks that their knowledge is even greater than his, as an experienced sailor. He also admires some Arab customs and observes that the Arabic language:
is spoken with great fluency, and is distinguished for its powerful emphasis, and elegant cadence.  When they converse peaceably, (and they are much given to talking with each other) it thrills on the ear like the breathings of soft wind-music, and excites in the soul the most smoothing sensations; but when they speak in anger, it sounds as hoarse as the roarings of irritated anger . . . 
But in the end, the desert dominates, creating a brutal world:
Such is the wandering Arab of the great African desert; his hand is against every man, and consequently every man's hand is against him. 
The details of Riley's description of the terrain and of Arab life have held up well over time with the only discrepancy his tendency to overestimate the distances covered in each day's travels.  Even some aspects of his account that triggered some skepticism at the time have been proven correct, including the drinking of camel urine in desperate situations.

Riley returned to the United States in 1816 and his Narrative was published the following year.  It sold quite a few copies, with eighteen printings between then and the Civil War (there was also an English edition and French and German translations), and Riley became a national celebrity, meeting with Secretary of State James Monroe.  Even more than the book sales, it was the newspaper reports (including excerpts from the Narrative), its inclusion in anthologies and the use of the tale in a popular series of children's books that kept the book and its author in the public eye for years as pointed out in an intriguing 2007 article by Donald J Ratcliffe and published by the American Antiquarian Society.  Even Henry David Thoreau mentions Riley in his works and James Fenimore Cooper praised the book.
Title page of Riley’s Narrative, with a portrait of Riley on the left(from spotlights)

Sufferings In Africa can be read as a rip-roaring travel yarn, a marvel of human endurance, a ethnographic travelogue, but it is also about slavery.  We don't know for certain if this aspect made a direct impact on young Lincoln, but the book and its author did become associated with the anti-slavery cause (Riley favored emancipation, followed by transport back to Africa).

THC has not been able to find out much about Riley's later life.  He did move with his family to Ohio, near state line with Indiana, founding a town and in 1824 was elected to the Ohio General Assembly, and he continued to make occasional sea voyages.

And he never forgot William Willshire.  Willshire was only 24 years old when sent by an English trading house to Mogadore in 1814.  In addition to representing the trading house, he was also British Vice Consul and agent for the American Consul General in Tangier.  One of the duties of the deeply religious consul was to rescue and ransom English and American captives, and over the years he was to exert himself beyond all expectations to do so. According to some sources, Riley and Willshire became business partners and the U.S. Congress voted him its thanks for his role in the rescue. Riley named his third son, William Willshire Riley in honor of the consult and named the town he founded in Ohio, Willshire (it still exists).  Riley visited Willshire in Mogadore in later years and reportedly purchased a home in the New York for him in anticipation of a planed move to America, a plan cut short by James Riley's death while at sea in 1840.  Willshire and his family's prosperity ended when a French fleet besieged Mogadore in 1844, triggering a raid by Arab desert tribesmen, who sacked the town and robbed Willshire of everything.  Though he subsequently became British consul in Adrianople (in the Ottoman Empire) he died impoverished in 1851. One of Riley's sons called Willshire "an honour to his nation and an ornament to mankind".

In 2003, author Dean King sought to recreate Riley's journey and he discusses what he found in this National Geographic article.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting historical account!