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Gilbert: Suffering In Africa

In 1815, two hundred years ago today, the American brig Commerce, with its two square-rigged masts, was wrecked on the northwestern coast of Africa. The surviving officers and crew fended off an attack by nomads and fled in their longboat only to be forced back to shore a bit further south on the watery edge of the arid Sahara. There they were stranded with precious little food or water; it was clear that only intervention by other humans could save them.

When they saw the light of a distant campfire, they said a prayer together, walked toward the glow, and in a most terrifying encounter were taken as slaves. They suffered tremendous hardship during their two months of captivity and travel in the blistering heat of the Sahara.

After regaining his freedom in Morocco, the ship’s captain, James Riley, published Sufferings in Africa, a powerful account of their incredible ordeal. The narrative was an enormous success, selling more than a million copies over the next fifty years. It’s still a good read, but to most people I’d recommend instead Dean King’s bestselling nonfiction book about the wreck and all that followed. Published in 2004, it’s entitled Skeletons on the Zahara, A True Story of Survival.

Captain Riley’s book and story are worth our attention for many reasons, including the fact that one of its many readers when it was first published, was a very young Abraham Lincoln, who then lived in western Indiana, where books were not particularly abundant. Lincoln would later say that the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Riley’s Sufferings in Africa were the three works that most influenced the formation of his political ideology, particularly his views on slavery.

Some believe that two experiences had an especially powerful effect on the future Great Emancipator’s attitude toward slavery - his visit to the New Orleans slave market when he was 19, and before that, his reading of Riley’s account of his enslavement in the Sahara.

I can’t help but wonder whether Riley's vivid account of the experience of slavery captured the imagination of and horrified the young Lincoln – only to be reinforced and magnified when, in 1828, he saw the reality of the New Orleans slave market with his own eyes.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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