Commerce (ship)

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The Commerce was a Connecticut-based American merchant sailing ship that ran aground on 28 August 1815[1] at Cape Bojador, off the coast of what is now Morocco. Far more famous than the ship itself is the story of the crew who survived the shipwreck, who went on to become slaves of local tribes who captured them.[2]

The Commerce, sailing from Gibraltar to Cape Verde Islands, was led by American Captain James Riley and crewed by 11 others also mostly Americans. After sailing for several days in dense fog, the ship ran aground on a reef near Cape Bojador. After being attacked and ransacked on shore by Sahrawi natives, who killed in cold blood one of the seamen, the crew returned to their rowboat and attempted to reach the Cape Verde Islands or hoped to meet another passing ship. This proved impossible, as their meager provisions were running out, and they decided to return to shore and take their chances with the local tribes. Landing some 300 miles further south down the coast, near Cape Barbas, less than one hundred miles North of Cape Blanco, they were taken captive by nomads of the Oulad Bou Sbaa tribe.

Their story of extreme dehydration, severe starvation and ever-present brutality while roaming the Sahara desert with their captors became a published story, first in the 1820s in retelling by Captain Riley himself, and then in the 2004 account Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by American writer Dean H. King. The original Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce by the "Late Master and Supercargo James Riley is quoted by Abraham Lincoln as one of the six most influential books he read in his youth, and was republished as Sufferings in Africa, ISBN 978-1-59921-211-1.[3]

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