For centuries pirates, known as the Barbary pirates, operated out of the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. European states paid tribute to them to ensure their people’s safe passage. Without British protection and with few financial or diplomatic resources, the new American nation’s ships and citizens were vulnerable on the high seas. Between 1785 and 1820, more than 700 Americans were taken hostage and often enslaved. The American public was fascinated by these captives' stories; their tales of desert cities, caravans, and harems bridged the previously popular Puritan captivity narratives and emerging slave narratives. The most influential of all these American Barbary narratives was James Riley’s Loss of the American Brig Commerce. A Connecticut sea captain, Riley ran aground in 1815 and was captured by wandering Arabs. He used his enslavement to call into question the enslavement of Africans and express a common humanity with the desert people he encountered.
About the middle of this day two strangers arrived, riding two camels loaded with goods: they came in front of my master’s tent, and having made the camels lie down, they dismounted, and seated themselves on the ground opposite the tent, with their faces turned the other way. There were in this valley six tents, besides that of my masters.
All the men had gone out a hunting on their camels, carrying their arms with them; that is to say, seeking for plunder as I concluded. My old and young mistresses went to see the strangers; they had no water to carry, as is customary, but took with them a large skin, with a roll of tent cloth to make them a shelter; the strangers rose as the women drew near, and saluted them by the words "Labez, Labez-Salem; Labez-Alikom;" peace, peace be with you, &c. and the women returned these salutations in similar words. They next ran to our tent, and took a couple of sticks, with the help of which and the skin and tent cloth, they soon made an awning for the strangers. This done, they took the bundles which were on the camels, and placed them in this tent, with the saddles and all the other things the strangers had brought. The two strangers had a couple of skins that contained water, which the women hung up on a frame they carried from our tent.
During the whole time the women were thus employed, the strangers remained seated on the ground beside their guns, for they had each a double barrelled musket, and so bright, that they glittered in the sun like silver. The women having finished their attentions, seated themselves near the strangers, and made inquiries, as near as I could comprehend, by saying, “where did you come from? what goods have you got? how long have you been on your journey?” &c. Having satisfied their curiosity on these points, they next came to me, and the old woman (in whom as yet I had not discovered one spark of pity) told me that Sidi Hamet had come with blankets and blue cloth to sell; that he came from the Sultan’s dominions, and that he could buy me and carry me there, if he chose, where I might find my friends, and kiss my wife and children.
Before my master returned I went to the tent of Sidi Hamet, with a wooden bowl, and begged for some water; showing my mouth which was extremely parched and stiff, so much so, that I could with difficulty speak. He looked at me, and asked if I was el Rais (the captain). I nodded assent; he told his brother, who was with him, to give me some water, but this his benevolent brother would not condescend to do; so taking the bowl myself, he poured into it near a quart of clear water, saying, “Sherub Rais”—that is, drink, captain, or chief. I drank about half of it, and after thanking him and imploring the blessing of Heaven upon him for his humanity, I was going to take the rest of it to our tent, where Clark lay stretched out on his back, a perfect wreck of almost naked bones; his belly and back nearly collapsed, and breathing like a person in the last agonies of death: but Sidi Hamet would not permit me to carry the water away, bidding me drink it myself. I pointed out to him my distressed companion; this excited his pity, and he suffered me to give Clark the remainder.
The water was perfectly fresh, and revived him exceedingly; it was a cordial to his desponding soul, being the first fresh water either of us had tasted since we left the boat: his eyes that were sunk deep in their sockets, brightened up—“this is good water (said he) and must have come from a better country than this; if we were once there, (added he) and I could get one good drink of such water, I could die with pleasure, but now I cannot live another day.” Our masters soon returned, and began, with others of the tribe, who had received the news of the arrival of strangers, to form circles and chat with them and each other; this continued till night, and I presume there were at least two hundred men present. After dark they began to separate, and by 10 o’clock at night none remained but my old master’s family, and three or four of their relations, at our tent. On this occasion we were turned out into the open air, and were obliged to pass the night without any shelter or covering. It was a long and tedious night; but at the time of milking the camels, our old master coming to us, as if afraid of losing his property by our death, and anxious we should live, dealt out about a pint of milk to each; this milk tasted better than any I had yet drank; it was a sweet and seasonable relief, and saved poor Clark from dissolution.
This was the first nourishment of any kind our master had given us in three days, and I concluded from this circumstance that he had hopes of selling us to the strangers. The next morning Sidi Hamet came towards the tent, and beckoned me to come there; he was at a considerable distance, and I made the best of my way to him; here he bade me sit down on the ground. I had by this time learned many words in their language, which is ancient Arabic, and could understand the general current of their conversation, by paying strict attention to it.
He now began to question me about my country, and the manner in which I had come here—I made him understand that I was an Englishman, and that my vessel and crew were of the same nation—I found he had heard of that country, and I stated as well as I could the manner of my shipwreck—told him we were reduced to the lowest depth of misery; that I had a wife and five children in my own country, besides Horace, whom I called my eldest son, mingling with my story sighs and tears, and all the signs of affection and despair which these recollections and my present situation naturally called forth.
I found him to be a very intelligent and feeling man—for although he knew no language but the Arabic, he comprehended so well what I wished to communicate, that he actually shed tears at the recital of my distresses, notwithstanding that, among the Arabs, weeping is regarded as a womanish weakness. He seemed to be ashamed of his own want of fortitude, and said that men who had beards like him ought not to shed tears; and he retired, wiping his eyes.
Finding I had awakened his sympathy, I thought if I could rouse his interest by large offers of money, he might buy me and my companions and carry us up from the desart—so accordingly the first time I saw him alone, I went to him, and begged him to buy me, and carry me to the Sultan of Morocco or Marocksh, where I could find a friend to redeem me. He said no, but he would carry me to Swearah, describing it a walled town and seaport. I told him I had seen the Sultan, and that he was a friend to my nation. He then asked me many other questions about Mohammed Rassool—I bowed and pointed to the east, then towards heaven, as if I thought he had ascended there: this seemed to please him, and he asked me how much money I would give him to carry me up; upon which I counted over fifty pieces of stones, signifying I would give as many dollars for myself and each of my men. “I will not buy the others,” said he, “but how much more than fifty dollars will you give me for yourself, if I buy you and carry you to your friends?” I told him one hundred dollars. "Have you any money in Swearah,“ asked he by signs and words, ”or do you mean to make me wait till you get it from your country?“ I replied that my friend in Swearah would give him the money so soon as he brought me there. ”You are deceiving me,“ said he. I made the most solemn protestations of my sincerity:—”I will buy you then,“ said he, ”but remember, if you deceive me, I will cut your throat,“ (making a motion to that effect.) This I assented to, and begged of him to buy my son Horace also, but he would not hear a word about any of my companions, as it would be impossible, he said, to get them up off the desart, which was a great distance. ”Say nothing about it to your old master,“ signified he to me, ”nor to my brother, or any of the others." He then left me, and I went out to seek for snails to relieve my hunger. I saw Mr. Savage and Hogan, and brought them with Clark near Sidi Hamet’s tent, where we sat down on the ground. He came out to see us, miserable objects as we were, and seemed very much shocked at the sight. I told my companions I had great hopes we should be bought by this man and carried up to the cultivated country—but they expressed great fears that they would be left behind. Sidi Hamet asked me many questions about my men—wished to know if any of them had died, and if they had wives and children. I tried all I could to interest him in their behalf, as well as my own, and mentioned to him my son, whom he had not yet seen. I found my companions had been very much stinted in milk as well as myself, and that they had no water, —they had found a few snails, which kept them alive; but even these now failed.
The 24th, we journeyed on towards the N. W. all day—the whole tribe, or nearly so, in company, and the strangers also kept in company with us. When my mistress pitched her tent near night, she made up one for Sidi Hamet also. I begged of him on my knees every time I had an opportunity, for him to buy me and my companions, and on the 25th I had the happiness to see him pay my old master for me: he gave him two blankets or coarse haicks, one blue cotton covering, and a bundle of ostrich feathers, with which the old man seemed much pleased, as he had now three suits of clothing. They were a long time in making the bargain.
This day Horace came with his master to fetch something to our tent; at his approach, I went to meet him, and embraced him with tears. Sidi Hamet was then fully convinced that he was my son. I had found a few snails this morning, and divided them between Mr. Savage and Horace before Sidi Hamet, who signified to me in the afternoon that he intended to set out with me in two days for Swearah; that he had tried to buy my son, but could not succeed, for his master would not sell him at any price: then said I "let me stay in his place; I will be a faithful slave to his master as long as I live—carry him up to Swearah; my friend will pay you for him, and send him home to his mother, whom I cannot see unless I bring her son with me.“ "You shall have your son, by Allah,” said Sidi Hamet. The whole tribe was gathered in council, and I supposed relative to this business. In the course of the afternoon they debated the matter over, and seemed to turn it every way; —they fought besides three or four battles with fists and scimitars, in their warm and loud discussions in settling individual disputes; but in the evening I was told that Horace was bought, as the tribe in council had forced his master to sell him, though at a great price. I now redoubled my entreaties with my new master to buy Mr. Savage and Clark, telling him that I would give him a large sum of money if he got us up safe; but he told me he should be obliged to carry us through bands of robbers, who would kill him for our sakes, and that his company was not strong enough to resist them by force of arms—I fell down on my knees, and implored him to buy Mr. Savage and Clark at any rate, thinking if he should buy them, he might be induced to purchase the remaining part of the crew.
My mind had been so busily employed in schemes of redemption, as almost to forget my sufferings since Sidi Hamet had bought me. He had given me two or three drinks of water, and had begged milk for me of my former master. On the morning of the 26th, I renewed my entreaties for him to purchase Mr. Savage, Clark, and Hogan—the others I had not seen since the second or third day after we were in the hands of the Arabs. I did not know where they were, and consequently could not designate them to my master Hamet, though I told him all their names. Mr. Savage and Hogan looked much more healthy and likely to live than Clark, and Sidi Hamet insisted that it was impossible that Clark could live more than three days, and that if he bought him, he should lose his money. I told him no, he should not lose his money, for whether he lived or died, I would pay him the same amount.
Clark was afflicted with the scalded head, rendered a raw sore in consequence of his sufferings, and his hair which was very long, was, of course, in a very filthy condition; this attracted the attention of Sidi Hamet and his brother, the latter of whom was a very surly and cross-looking fellow. They pushed the hair open with their sticks, and demanded to know what was the occasion of that filthy appearance. Clark assured them, that it was in consequence of his exposure to the sun, and as that was the reason I had assigned for the horrible sores and blisters that covered our scorched bodies and half-roasted flesh: they said, it might possibly be so, but asked why the heads of the rest of us were not in the same state.
Source: James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (New York: T. & W. Mercein, 1817), 99–107.