2006-10-26 / News

Jamestown descendent of Capt. Riley, subject of History Channel program

By Donna K. Drago

Jamie Bennett Jamie Bennett On Saturday night, the History Channel will present a two-hour story about the 1815 journey of ship's Captain James Riley and the brig Commerce. The ship was wrecked off the coast of Africa, putting the captain and his crew in great peril at the hands of Bedouin camel traders, who enslaved them.

In Jamestown, James Riley Bennett, the great-great-great grandson of Capt. Riley will be anxiously watching to see the story of his courageous ancestor told on national television.

Bennett, 62, a computer programmer for Fidelity, said he only learned the whole story of his fascinating forebear after Dean King wrote the book "Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival," published in 2004 by Back Bay Books.

Bennett, known as Jamie, said he knew a little bit of the story after his grandfather, James Riley Hodder, a one-time commodore of the Boston Yacht Club, gave him a copy of the book "The Vengeful Sea," by Edward Rowe Snow, when he was a child. The book is a collection of short stories about great ocean adventures and includes a chapter called "Captain Riley."

But the seven-page chapter barely covers the dramatic period of his brutal enslavement, when Capt. Riley, though starving and near death, mustered his cleverness to bluff two Moroccan merchants into buying him and his crew and taking them to the port city of Mogador. There, Riley promised, a handsome ransom would be paid for his safe return. This sounds plausible until one learns that Riley didn't know a soul in Mogador and had bet his life that a ransom would be paid.

Over the last couple of years, the King book has spurred a new interest in Capt. Riley, not just for the general public, but for his own descendents, who have already had a family reunion to meet each other, Bennett said.

The event was held in Celina, Ohio, where Capt. Riley lived for 10 years as a land surveyor, and where the local historical society is housed in his former home, Bennett said. At that reunion, he met many of his relatives for the first time, toured the historical society and heard a presentation by author Dean King about Capt. Riley's adventure, Bennett said.

During this time, Bennett realized that he had in his possession an artifact attributable to Capt. Riley. He had a conservator look at it to determine its authenticity. "I always heard about Riley's ransom," Bennett said about the document, but he really didn't place much importance on it until he learned that the short letter, hand-written in elegant 19th-century script, was the receipt that indicated that the man who put up the funds to ransom Riley in Mogador, Horatio Sprague, was paid in full by the United States government.

The note says:

Received New York 26th April 1816 from Capt. James Riley Eighteen hundred fifty two 45/100 Dollars which is in full for the amount advanced by Horatio Sprague Esq. of Gibraltar for the redemption of him and four of the crew of the Brig Commerce from the Arabs. Horatio Sprague by his Atty

Alfred Edwards"

Bennett said that he doesn't have a monetary value on the receipt, but if he ever decides to let it go, it will go to the historical society in Celina.

In total, four residents of Newport County are descended from Capt. Riley, Bennett said. Himself, his son Harry, who is the great-greatgreat great grandson of the captain; his sister Rebecca Gunn, who also lives in Jamestown, and a first cousin, who lives in Newport.

Bennett has learned that not only does he have Capt. Riley's lure of the sea in his blood. He is also a lifelong sailor who has traveled from New England to South America and back on his Dutch ketch, the Picaro. Bennett said his mother was a great sailor, and he recently learned that Capt. Riley's daughter, Mahalie, took an around the world journey at the age of 80.

The program, also called "Skeletons on the Sahara," will premiere Saturday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. The History Channel is available locally on channel 41.

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