Sufferings In Africa

by James Riley

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To The Reader


The following Narrative of my misfortunes and sufferings, and my consequent travels and observations in Africa, is submitted to the perusal of a candid and an enlightened public, with much diffidence, particularly as I write without having had the advantages that may be derived from an Academic education, and being quite unskilled in the art of composing for the press. My aim has been merely to record, in plain and unvarnished language, scenes in which I was. a principal actor, of real and heart-appalling distresses. The very deep and indelible impression made on my mind by the extraordinary circumstances attending my late shipwreck, and the miserable captivity of myself and my surviving shipmates, and believing that a knowledge of many of these incidents might prove useful and interesting to the world, as well as peculiarly instructive to my sea-faring brethren; together with the strong and repeated solicitations of many of my valuable friends, among whom was the honourable James Munroe, Secretary of State, and several distinguished members of Congress: these considerations, together with a view of being enabled by my labours to afford some relief to the surviving sufferers, and the destitute families of that part of my late crew, whose lot it was to perish in Africa, or who are still groaning out the little remains of their existence in the cruel bonds of barbarian slavery, have induced me to undertake the very arduous and difficult task of preparing and publishing a work so large and expensive.

The Narrative up to the time of my redemption* was written entirely from memory, unaided by notes or any journal, but I committed the principal facts to writing in Mogadore, when every circumstance was fresh in my memory, (which is naturally a retentive one,) and I then compared my own recollections with those of my ransomed companions: this was done with a view of showing to my friends the unparalleled sufferings I had endured, and not for the particular purpose of making them public by means of the press. It should be remembered by the reader, that the occurrences here recorded, took place out of the common course of a sailor’s life; and that each particular event was of a nature calculated to impress itself so powerfully on the mind, as not easily to be effaced. Having, previously, in the course of my life, visited and travelled through several foreign countries, my mind was by no means unaccustomed to pay attention to, and make observations on whatever came within the reach of my notice, and for this reason, the strange events of the desart, and the novel objects and scenes which I had an opportunity of witnessing in the country of the Moors, were not suffered to pass without awakening and exercising my curiosity as well as interest, and becoming the subject of careful and habitual reflections.

Respecting my conversations with the Arabs, I have put down what I knew at the time to be their exact meaning, as nearly as I could translate their words and signs combined. I had, previously, learned the French and Spanish languages, both by grammar and practice, and had also been accustomed to hear spoken the Russian and different dialects of the German, as well as the Portuguese, Italian, and several other languages, so that my ear had become familiar with their sounds and pronunciation. Perceiving an affinity between the Arabian and Spanish,

I soon began to learn the names of common things, in Arabic, and to compare them in my mind with those I had met with in Turkish and other Oriental history. I had no hope of ever being redeemed, unless I could make myself understood, and I therefore took the utmost care to treasure up every word and sentence T heard spoken by the Arabs, to reflect on their bearing, and to find out their true meaning, by which means, in the course of a very few days, I was enabled to comprehend the general tenor and drift of their ordinary conversation, and to find out the whole meaning of their signs and gestures. My four companions, however, could scarcely comprehend a single word of Arabic, even after they were redeemed.

In regard to the route, and various courses of our travel, I would observe, that after I was purchased by the Arabian merchants, and taken off across the desart; I was suffering under the most excruciating bodily pains as well as the most cruel privations; it will not, therefore, be a matter of wonder, if on this vast, smooth, and trackless desart, I should have mistaken one eastern course for another, or have erred in computing the distances travelled over; for I was frequently in such agony, and so weighed down with weariness and despair, that a day seemed to me of endless duration. A long experience on the ocean had before taught me to ascertain the latitude by the apparent height ef the polar star above the horizon, so that in this particular, I could not be much mistaken; and the tending of the coast where our boat was driven on shore, proves it must have been near Cape Barbas. After we approached the sea-coast again, I became more attentive to the surrounding objects, as my hopes of being ransomed diseased, so that not only the courses, but the distances as I have given them, will agree in all their essential points.

The designs for the engravings were drawn from tny own original sketches; (and they were merely rough sketches, for I have no skill in drawing;) they have, however, been executed by artists of considerable repute, and under my own inspection.

In compiling the map, particular care has been taken to consult the best authorities, but I considered, at the same time, that the information I received from my old Arabian master, was sufficiently correct, and would warrant me in giving full scope to my consequent geographical impressions, in tracing the river Niger to the Atlantic ocean. Admitting that my idea prove hereafter to be just, and that this river actually discharges its waters with those of the Congo, into the gulf of Guinea, I am of opinion, that not less than one-fourth of the whole distance in a straight line, should be added for its bends and windings, in order to calculate its real length.

While I was at Mogadore, a number of singular and interesting transactions took place, such as da not often occur even in that country ; and a person might reside there for many years, without having an opportunity of witnessing a repetition of them; yet their authenticity, as well as that of the other circumstances I have related, can be substantiated by many living witnesses, men of respectability and unquestionable veracity.

My observations on the currents which have heretofore proved fatal to a vast number of vessels, and their crews, on the western coast of Africa, are made with a view to promote the further investigation of this subject, as well as to caution the unwary mariner against their too often disastrous effects.

It gives me sincere pleasure, to acknowledge the services rendered me by my respectable friend, Anthony Bleecker, Esquire, of New-York, who has, at my request, revised the whole of my written manuscript, and suggested some very important explanations. I have been governed, in my corrections, by his advice throughout, which was of a character that can only flow from the most pure and disinterested motives;—his talents, judgment, and erudition, have contributed, in a considerable degree, to smooth down the asperities of my unlearned style, and he is pre-eminently entitled to my warmest thanks.

To my very intimate friend, Mr. Josiah Shippey, Jun. of New-York, I am under many obligations— he has separately perused my whole manuscript, with great care and interest, and has suggested improvements, both in point of diction and grammar;— his highly classical learning, together with his pious adherence to the true principles of sound morality, and his friendly advice, have been of essential utility, and are highly appreciated.

With respect to the extraordinary circumstance mentioned in the Narrative, of the sudden subsiding of the surf, when we were about committing ourselves to the open sea, in our shattered boat, I am aware that it will be the subject of much comment, and, probably, of some raillery. I was advised by a friend, to suppress this fact, lest those who are disposed to believe in the particular interposition of Divine Providence, should make use of it an argument against the correctness of the other parts of my Narrative. This, probably, would have been good policy in me, as a mere author for I am pretty sure that previous to this signal mercy, I myself of a writer who should have related what to me would have appeared such an improbable occurrence. Sentiments add feelings, however, of a very different kind from any that mere worldly interest can excite, forbid me to suppress or deny what so clearly appeared to me and my companions at the time, as the immediate and merciful act of the Almighty, listening to our prayers, and granting our petition, at the awful moment when dismay, despair, and death, were pressing close upon us with all their accumulated horrors. My heart still glows with holy gratitude for this mercy, and I will never be ashamed nor afraid to acknowledge and make known to the world, the infinite goodness of my divine Creator and Preserver. “ The waters of the sea had well-nigh covered us: the proud waves had well-nigh gone over our soul. Then cried we unto thee, O Lord, and thou didst deliver us out of our distresses. Thou didst send forth thy commandment; and the windy storm ceased, and was turned into a calm.”


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