New Arrivals in Liberia:

Chapter IV: Medicine

by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


I did not attend to do much traveling in Liberia.  I had greatly desired to spend the remainder of my life with my wife, mother, and son in Monrovia.  But my hardware business failed due to the fact that few colonists possessed money.  Though I tried to get by through barter, the poverty-stricken Liberians could offer me little more than stashes of books that they themselves could not read. These books were held up in a small dark two-room hovel in the hotel known as Union Hotel where my family squatted for a time. My wife slept in one room while my mother and my son held up in the second one.


To each family, a farm, a town-lot, or both, have been assigned. Three towns, viz:—those of Monrovia, Caldwell, and Millsburg, have been formed.


My brother, sister, and other children decided to journey into some of the farming towns and try and earn their living planting food crops.


Instead of first going to a settlement in which the government provided land for my mother, my wife, and my boy Cuffee, I desired to survey the region first as well as find employment that might square me with debts that I had acquired over a month’s time.


For eighteen or twenty dollars a month, myself, my mother, and son were to have three meals a day at the hotel; and though this, anywhere in the United States, would be a very high price for such living as I found, yet, considering the scarcity and high price of provisions of Liberia, it was moderate there. To earn my way, my mother and wife served as washerwomen to several wealthy families in Monrovia.  My boy Cuffee gained employment as a Cooper.  He was very gifted at repairing wooden vessels as well as their barrels and tubs, but I knew that my son could learn a more honorable trade. 


I sold my pocket watch and rifle to Randolph Cooper, a black Virginian, a jack of all trades; he was a farmer, lawyer, barber, tavern keeper, and owner of the hotel. 


We were given a large tin top which my mother and wife found a well to fill it for our weekly baths.  It was my son’s responsibility to empty the two chamber pots that Mr. Cooper had supplied us with, in the back of the hotel, for the duration of our stay. 


I desired to find a more lucrative means to provide for my family.


I learned that a doctor from the Greenville settlement, but now here in Monrovia, needed assistants for his work across the Liberian territories. To find this man, I needed to go to the government-house.  So earlier on Monday morning, I and my son Cuffee found ourselves walking down a stony path winding among the bushes. We slowly mounted a steep hill; and after stopping several times to take a breath, we at length found ourselves on top, nearly in front of an anomalous triangular structure, consisting of a wall of dark-red stone, about fifteen feet high, intended for a fortress, as  I afterward learned. 


Passing to the left of this, we came to a little green street running nearly east and west, on the right-hand side of which, near us, stood a small two-story wooden building. Quite overshadowed by a double tier of the broad piazza. 


“That is the government-house, father,” said Cuffee.


I turned to him and said, “Yes son, that dingy, neglected building.  It is the best we have been able to do for a government-house.”


As we entered the building, we mounted to the second story, then into an airy little parlor, we found three or four persons talking and laughing.


The building had been occupied by the society agents who had financed and made the major decisions about the destiny of the colony.  There were areas in the building were used as an open public lounging-place, holding meetings of militia officers and councils, in the parlor, and at the monthly sessions of the courts, along with twenty noisy, dirty negroes, under the name of a grand-jury, to sit in the same room. The two upper rooms were in tolerable condition, with some very respectable furniture. The other lower rooms were a mere receptacle of rubbish, with broken windows and defaced walls. 


In one of the lower rooms, Dr. Cuffee W. Taylor had fixed his office, where he served as an assistant-physician.  Dr. Taylor, a Negro, had been in Washington D.C. and studied medicine as a student under the support of the Colonization Society.  He was able to buy his wife in D.C. out of slavery for 300 dollars. When he returned to Liberia, he received a salary of five hundred dollars a year.


When my son and I walked into Dr. Taylor’s room we encountered Dr. David Francis Bacon. 


“Dr. Bacon I presume,” said I as I inspected the doctor’s professional appearance.


The first thing that I noticed was that he was an elderly man with quite a few missing teeth. He wore a long wig, long black coat, Hessian boats, and gold-headed cane.


I thought to myself, that I had not seen a white man in quite some time.  Dr. Bacon was no ordinary white man.  Bacon was the son of Reverend David Bacon, a missionary.  He graduated from Yale Medical School.  Dr. Bacon made the arduous journey by sea on the ship the Roundout to educate a generation of doctors and Apothecarians.  I later learned that Bacon, a white man, was often verbally assaulted by citizens of the colony. 

Dr. Bacon was not only a white man but one who when he first came to us was a Grahamite.  He subscribed to Sylvester Graham who preached the virtues of vegetarianism and frequent bathing. When he came to us, he had to abandon these insane ideas of diet and constant washing.  Once in Liberia, limited food rations forced Dr. Bacon to abandon the female habit of eating so many vegetables. 


He looked at me and said, “Mr. Brown I presume.” 


We all shook hands.  


Dr. Bacon said to me, “Brown we need a man to assist us in our medical work in the various regions of Liberia. Sir, will you join us on a few expeditions?”


My son asked, “What would you require us to do?”


“Learn some of my trade,” he said.  “A doctor in Liberia needs assistants in so many cases of illness.”


My son asked, “What kind of compensation would we receive?”


Dr. Bacon looked at my son as he circled him as he leaned on his cane.“You would be paid handsomely and you women would not need to work as a washerwoman.  We would pay for your family’s room and board while you travel with my team of doctors.” 

“You are looking at my son? Is there something more that you desire from our services?”


Dr. Bacon smiled again and widely revealed a loss of numerous teeth.


“I need someone who is able to read, write, and follow directions. I need one of you to learn the art of Apothecary.”


It was decided that my boy would quit his work as a cooper on ships and devote his efforts to learning all he could about the sciences of medicine under Dr. David Francis Bacon.  I would also serve as an assistant, but I would not be responsible for learning the trade of Apothecary.  I would serve as the helper in the shop for the druggist.  Working with Dr. Bacon, Cuffee and I became employed by the American Colonization Society.


Dr. Bacon’s Apothecary was in a one-story building with three small rooms.  In a back room, the entire walls were on desks filled with chemicals, herbs, tonics, and potions.   A second room included desks containing every flask, every type of bottle that one could imagine, and a drape serving as a divider for the medicine and operation room.


Because my boy studied under Bacon, I was given the freedom to unpack the strange solids and liquids in clear and brown bottles.  I saw bottles labeled with such strange names as opium, calomel, morphine, gum Arabic, Jalap, Tincture of Myrrh, water of Ammonia, and so many other wonderful oddities. 


The room at the front of the Apothecary was inhabited with a mechanical cash register, a balance scale, a rather large mortar and pestle, and a few African masks covering the walls.


As I continued my work in the Apothecary, unpacking boxes and placing bottles in cabinets Dr. Bacon cane in to talk to me.  When I lived in the United States, white folks felt they could speak their mind to Negroes without let or hindrance. I reasoned that Bacon was a good man who meant well, but whose upbringing had trained him to desire to offer liberation to Negro, but also to loathe the Negroes very existence. Bacon made the mistake of talking to me on a morning when my head felt hot and bothered.


“I must confess to you my friend that many of your race are hopelessly depraved.”


I tore into a box and placed two jars filled with some sort of white powder on a shelf. I turned and looked at the white men with a surly grin.


“Does that mean that I am depraved?  After all, I am a Negro.”


Dr. Bacon smiled.


“Well, you, your son, and the other men here are the exceptions of your race.”


I put down a book and up it up and take out an African mask and place it on a table.  I try and come up with a worthy response.


“Why are we exceptional?  Do you not see us all as dumb Nigras?


He ignored my statements and told me something that I had only known through rumor.


“I mean no disrespect, but I feel that you deserve honesty from your employer.”


I said a thing to him that I did not desire to know.


“Dr. Bacon, do you have some secret that I must know?


He laughed.


“Mr. Brown, you do not know the true character of the men who lead this colony.”


I began to laugh as well.


“But you do?” I questioned. 


“Do you know Hillary Teage, the Baptist minister?”


My hands became sweaty.


“I know of him. I believe he is the owner of the Liberian Herald.”


He smiled as he revealed a secret.


“He appeared to be about thirty years old, and was a very good-looking man of his color, with an expression of great honesty and sincerity, and a manner which, though not graceful, was rather gentlemanly. But he was limited by extensive ulceration of the foot and leg.”


I smiled.


“You are a great doctor, you…”


He blurted it out.


“I treated his syphilis with Iodide of Mercury, a blessed curse. He was a sinner outside his marriage.”


I countered.


“What does that prove?”


Instead of my answering my question he continued with his revelations.


“What about Williams? What he did with a young girl was beyond the pale.”


I dropped my gleaning broom. 


“You spend your time spouting rumors.  Do you expect me to judge Negro behavior by a few bad eggs?”


He said to me, “I have seen much of the Negro.  I know the Negro.”


Dr. Bacon appeared to be an earnest man. Like many of these white men who showed kindness to Negroes, they thought they could make us into moral white men.


“It is we white men who through our force of slave degraded your kind.”


I said something to a white man that in America I would never perform if I had been in America.  But in Liberia, a nation of blacks, the white man could not string me up in a tree or give me a hundred lashes for sassing.


“If we are as a race degraded, are not you white men also a product of degradations?  Degradations of slave owners?”


Dr. Bacon turned his face from mine and forced his eyes to look down at the floor. Then he turned his face up in a fit of rage.


 “Thomas, since I have been in your country, I was cheated and robbed, not by one man nor by two, but by a public body of men in your government.


I began to laugh and then said to him:


‘You are a foreigner here!  This is not your country!”


He turned away from me with dim prospects, muttering to himself, “This is not my country.”


I came and stood up even closer to him. 


I said to him, “Are you like many white men who believe that the American Negro is far beneath the native African?  Here.


He became timid and grew silent.


I opened another box and attempted to put its contents in their proper place. Then I stood as close to the doctor as I could smell him. I stared him directly into his eyes.  He stepped back from me slightly.  Then he tried to jimmy up some courage against me.


“Mr. Thomas Brown I had a negro whom I had employed on board the Rondout as a steward in dispensing the provisions to the emigrants, whom I found, a few weeks after, to be a great rascal, as he had stolen a considerable amount of sugar and coffee, as well as the greater part of the small utensils in his charge belonging to the Society.”


I began to laugh and looked the good doctor directly into his eyes.


“You white men do not change. You now believe that one bad Negro characterizes us all in Liberia.  That boy who stole from you was not a bad sort, but desperate.  You will see many of us here who hoped for a better life than we had had in America.  Many Negroes came here with nothing.  Little or no learning and even less wealth.  Dr. Bacon, we are dying here and we need your knowledge to help us. We need you to help us.”   


I pointed my colored finger at his white face.


“Dr. Bacon, you have not been in Africa very long, but you will find that in every trait of families, as well as in moral and intellectual capabilities, the American Negro is far superior and involved as the native African. As you travel around this country will discover many reasons why some things succeed in Africa and why others fail. You shall learn here in this country that the American Negro is the only force that stands in the way of the rule of slavery and savagery.”


At that moment, Dr. Bacon’s body trembled. His face reddened.  A tear fell from his left eye.  Then he turned away from me and never brought up the subject of Negro depravity again


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