Sufferings in Africa: The Account That Helped End Slavery

Sometimes I buy books because I need them for a current project. Sometimes I buy books because they are classics I recognize and feel like I should read them. Other books I buy books because they look interesting and I think I might get around to them someday.

James Riley’s book, Sufferings in Africa, is just such a book. I purchased it in the early 2000’s at the downtown Niantic branch of The Book Barn. It was a new book at a used book store, but doubtless overstock since it was significantly marked down.

(Before going on, I must comment that The Book Barn is the best used book store I've ever been to. It was about 45 minutes from our apartment in Connecticut and it was always worth the time and energy to drive as we would find excellent books at a reasonable price in a charming environment. If you get within 3 hours of the location, it is worth your time to go.)

In any case, I can now justify this purchase made a decade ago because I finally have read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly. I suppose this should assuage my conscience for boxing it and moving it three separate times.

The book was originally published in 1817. It is the account of James Riley, an American sea captain, who was shipwrecked on the Western coast of Africa, captured by natives, sold as a slave, and subsequently redeemed by a British businessman. (Only a few years after open conflict between the U.S. and Britain!)

Suffering in Africa is largely an account of the misery of travel across the Saharan desert. It describes the practices used by the camel caravans to survive and the struggle Riley and his crew had to maintain the will to live despite the depredations of the desert, the little hope of a positive outcome, and the misery of a dearth of melanin under a scorching sun.

The narrative drags a bit in spots, with more details than seem necessary and a good deal of imprecise description. However, it is helpful to remember that Riley was telling the story to an audience that did not have National Geographic, atlases, or Google to fill in details. He was also working through a language he picked up while a slave, which may have resulted in some confusion on his part in some of the details. Still, the topic and suspense are enthralling.

No doubt many contemporary readers will find some of Riley’s depictions of his captors as stereotypical. (In fact, he may have helped create many of the stereotypes.) He describes some of the unreasonable arguments, tendency toward violence, and dishonesty among his captors in ways that will make the sensibilities of a citizen of the 21st century cringe.

Despite this, taken at face value and given due credit for the age in which it was written, Riley’s account is quite balanced and generous. Even after Riley was ransomed, he made contact with his old master to gather information about the life of a desert nomad, which is presented in the penultimate chapter of the book. Riley presents him positively and even comments that when they made their final parting,

I did not part with him without feelings of regret and shedding tears; for he had been a kind master to me, and to him I owed, under God, my life and deliverance from slavery; nor could I avoid reflecting on the wonderful means employed by Providence to bring about my redemption, and that of a part of my late and unfortunate crew. (pg. 293–294)

This was an engaging book and well worth the time and energy to read it. There are parts that warrant a closer read than others, but in all, it is a gripping story.

The book’s literary history is nearly as interesting as the narrative itself. This history is hinted at in the 1965 introduction, by Gordon H. Evans, which is included in the Lyons Press edition I read. This book was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln, who read it as a boy. At the time the book had sold approximately one million copies, which is astounding for that day since the population in the U.S. in 1830 was just under 13 million, with around 2 million of that number slaves.

In an essay on the impact of Riley’s Narrative on Lincoln, scholar Gerald McMurtry notes,

Of all the books that Lincoln read during his youth there is none more interesting and entertaining than Captain James Riley’s Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce. . . . Lincoln received from this book many ideas regarding slavery. He also found the book instructive and educational.

McMurty goes on to argue that Riley’s account, including his description of being evaluated as an object for purchase impacted Lincoln deeply. Thus, when at nineteen years old Lincoln made a trip to New Orleans and saw a slave market in full-swing, he was most likely significantly impacted. The wrongs done to Riley made the reality of the wrongs done to the black slaves more apparent. This was a book that was a powerful influence in the abolition movement.

This book is not, however, merely anti-slavery propaganda. As McMurtry points out, Riley’s books was written prior to slavery being recognized as a critical political issue. Instead, it was a simple, personal account of an evil that was done, which increased rather than diminished its powerful impact on a future world leader.

Riley did return to the United States as an abolitionist. Toward the end of his volume, a section which has unfortunately been removed from the edition I own, he does speak out against the slave trade in the United States. He pledged himself, and apparently was effective in leading others to work toward ending the slave trade in the U.S.

Near the end of the 1847 edition of his book, Riley wrote this important plea for assistance in ending slavery:

I will exert all my remaining faculties in endeavors to redeem the enslaved and to shiver in pieces the rod of oppression; and I trust I shall be aided in that holy work by every good and every pious, free, and high-minded citizen in the community, and by the friends of mankind throughout the civilized world.

This is a compelling call that is still important today.


Gerald McMurtry, “The Influence of Riley’s Narrative upon Abraham Lincoln,” in Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 34, no. 2, June 1934: 133-138.