New Arrivals in Liberia: This Episode:

On Board the Good Ship Hercules


by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Some scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts.  Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported by Benjamin Anderson.


In December, in the year of Our Lord 1834, I did not reason that leaving my city of Columbia, South Carolina, and going to Liberia was not merely to escape harm for myself and my family. I went to Liberia with the hope that I might have a positive impact on the citizens who lived in that new country. I had some of my lumber placed on the ship. 


I took with me six hundred dollars. More important to me were the books that I brought with me, which included, a few copies of Frederick Douglass’ The Liberator, David Walker's anti-slavery book titled Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, Count Volney's Ruins of Nations, a book about world civilization, an elementary English grammar, and the King James Version of the Bible. 


I boarded the Hercules with twelve Negroes from the state of Georgia.  Our crew was small for the tonnage of the vessel, being only four ordinary seamen, a boy, and a cook, besides the captain.


The Hercules braved the waves and the winds of the Atlantic Ocean with one hundred and seventy-four souls, not including the crew.


On much of our journey, the weather continued so cold that my family and I preferred to stay below. But below the deck, the sailors made a fire in the ship’s furnace, filling the dirty little cabin with a little soot and smoke, which nearly suffocated me, and drove me on deck quite sickened.


I looked at my family members.


“Thomas, you look faint,” said my wife.


“I feel nausea, I feel…”


My mother said, “Son, you should go below.”


I did what she commanded.


While I lay in my bed, our vessel traveled Cape Fear, the southernmost point of a sandy island, and then out to sea.


One day, as the Hercules sailed across the sea, the wind became mild.  On that day, my family and other Negro families could enjoy the unusual luxury of a pleasant December evening.  The weather, at this time, did not require us to wear our over-coats or cloaks. The women on the ship did not need to drape themselves in woolen quilts.


I remember, on another early morning, standing on the deck of the ship with my oldest son, Peter, whom I named after one of Christ's disciples. My son, who had a clubbed foot, which the family ignored, smiled as I had never seen him smile before.  It was as if God had liberated him since I made the decision to settle in Liberia.


"Father, I have never seen the sun that glorious and that large.”


I took my cotton vest off and I put my hand on his shoulder.


"I am told that in Liberia you will see even more wonders."


My eldest son Peter and I later conversed with a group of sailors who were on deck and who gave an account of some of our supplies. I overheard a stout White man say,


"We have a great amount of stoneware, molasses, and pounds of flour."


I thought to myself how I had wanted to have a few vegetables, maybe even a lemon or two.  But I guess the sailors and the captain of our ship knew that with flour we might feed more people than with vegetables that might go bad on such a long trip.


My son Peter glared at the western horizon where America could no longer be seen.  He moved closer to me, dragging his clubbed foot, and looked at me and asked,


"Father, how long will it be?


I said to him, "A month, maybe two. Then we will reach Monrovia."


Now my family and I had learned a lot about Monrovia long before we had decided to make the voyage to this undiscovered country.  Monrovia was named for our President James Monroe.


Monrovia is located on Cape Montserado and is situated five degrees north of the equator. It extends along the coast to the length of about 150 miles. Monrovia reaches into the interior, one day’s journey, or a distance of 20 to 30 miles. It is separated from the interior by a host of woodland. Rivers, some of considerable size, water the country throughout.


It was said by the White benefactors in America, who paid for our voyage, that the soil there is extremely fertile, and abounds in all the productions of tropical climates. Before I embarked on the Hercules, I was told that the native tribes, degraded and wasted by the slave trade, were too feeble to oppose a serious barrier to the progress of the Colony in Liberia.


I often sat around the Hercules listening to an African sailor, who had been educated among the British, by the name of Tad. Tad was a special kind of African. He was an Igbo, an African who often became sailors when they were not involved in the slave trade.  Tad told and retold the story as to how it all began.  In his deep husky voice, he said,


“Well mates, the first ship to arrive on this coast with Negro colonizers was the Elizabeth.  In 1820, the Elizabeth brought eighty-six free souls to make a new land with the notion that all men are created same by God.”


A White sailor, with a long scar on the left side of his cheek, began to laugh and said,


“Yea mate, they made the African free alright.  Free to give up their land to others.”


The other sailors sounding the African began to laugh.  Tad, who greatly admired American Negroes and the British, was not deterred from telling his tale, he went on to say,


“Monrovia got for a half a dozen gallons of rum a half amount of African trade cloth and tobacco. More land was swiped for a little bit more.  Some native tribes, well they fought them with daggers and spear.”


Tad looked around to see if he still retained the attention of his fellows then continued his tale.


“The Africans tried to stop the taming of their jungles and woods by Negros from the Americas, but the firepower of the muskets carried by Americans, with the help of British ship cannons gave them the power to take over the African’s lands in what we now call Liberia.”


I tried to ignore what Tad had revealed.  I had to imagine that the Africans had not done a thing with the lands and how we Americans would help them with our Bibles and our superior farming techniques.


An older Negro stopped near us and took out a charm bag from his pocket.  He rubbed it and put it back in his pocket.  I knew what the old-timer had because I had seen a bag of similar marking among the superstitious Coloreds in Columbia, South Carolina.  I knew that the charm bag probably had a rabbit’s foot, bones of a frog, and maybe a spoonful of graveyard dirt.  That man probably wanted to get some luck as he made his journey across many a troubled waters.


My mother Judith believed in such superstitions. My mother saw what the man had and looked at me and said,


“Thomas, I know you don’t believe in such things, but Jesus used the sort of thing in his day.”


I looked at my mother and smiled.


She hugged me tightly.


“Oh Thomas, my boy you must think your mother is so silly. Believing in such magic.”


As I hugged my mother, I kissed her on the cheek.


“Mother, I know that you are closer to Jesus than anyone on this ship.”          


The time on the Hercules was not always a peaceful one.


The northeast wind proved less kind than my family had wished. The ship banked away from the north and then journeyed into a southern course.  While my mother and wife spent most of their tour in our sleeping quarters, myself, my brother Gregory and sister Chastity, my sons Peter and Richard, and my daughter Clementine spent most of our waking time looking out at the outline of the American continent.


Its visibility vanished from our view as sunset overtook our old home.   No bad omen affected us as we left our old home’s wintery shore.  The northerly wind blew us ever southward, taking the ship into an atmosphere which I could feel growing warmer with every day and every knot or nautical mile that we traveled. 


When the ship encountered the Gulf Stream, which was a warm air current, we found ourselves in a tropical sea, in which the sun seem to cover the entire sky on most mornings. 


On long lonely nights, I often rose from my bed and walked the decks.  I looked up in the pitch blackness of night.  I thought about how America had robbed me and others who looked like me of our efforts to be treated like human beings. On numerous nights, I stood nearly alone on the deck of the ship, my face burning with anger at the way most Whites, of all ages, treated me as if I had been but a boy and never truly a full-grown man.


Here on the deck of the ship, sometimes alone and other times with family and new acquaintances, I felt freedom on days when the air was loaded with the peculiar vapor of the warm current, and when the sky was a mere alternation of cloud and thin white haze.        


On a day of storm and rain, dark, dreary, and dismal shadows, I still felt my heart pound, not from the fear from White men sporting angry reddened faces, but from the joy of being among the freest beings anywhere alive. 


The Hercules allowed all of us Negroes to look over its sides to witness the green-blue hue of the waters of the ocean. Peering deeply through the surf of the waters, I could see a dark indigo color that changed into a color as wonderful and as a clear cloudless sky. 


One day, when all the passengers and crew walked around the deck.  The White captain of the ship came over to a crowd of us and said, “If you desire to see waves mountain-high, come on deck and look!”


We all did as he had suggested. A crowd of Negroes walked up planks of stairs onto the ship’s deck. We all peered at the ocean’s horizon.  I have heard talk about sailors who had described huge waves out at sea but took them as exaggerations.   But for the first time, I heard the horrible roar of the sea.


I said to my wife Caroline when I saw what erupted on the horizon, “Dang, it is really is as high as a mountain”


My wife nervously laughed, as she saw the large roaring wave, and looked at me and said,


“Lord have mercy!”


The wave of water grew and grew, and ruthlessly hit our vessel. A deluge of heavy sea fell upon the deck, making the ship tremble and stagger.  Then something unexpected happened.  A thunderous roar came from out of the sky.


I looked up and then at my kin and shouted to them, “A black cloud!”


Then we heard the captain say, “Men secure the vessel!”


The sky darkened.  Everywhere around the ship blue-green ocean seemed to turn a blue-black.  From the sky came a constant howling boom as wind swirled around bobbing the Hercules back and forth.  The crew scrambled to lower the foretopsail-yard. I had a lot to learn about ships.  But I later learned that a foretopsail-yard was part of the sail rigging. The captain continued his orders to the sailors about other parts of the sail rigging, ropes, and larger sails that became too technical for me to fully understand.


Then a burst of the storm brought on rushes of rain that fell down on the deck and us with an incredible force. The captain said to us all.


“Below deck!  Below!”


Holding oil lamps, we all scrambled down the dark recesses of the Hercules and into our cabins. 


During the mighty gale, our real motion through the water, as shown by the log-line every watch, was eight or nine knots an hour, on average, and sometimes fully ten.  But after five hours, the vessel survived the storm and sailed on toward our destination.


The storm we endured was of little consequence compared to what fate came to the Hercules in the weeks to come.


Then it happened. The reality of what happens to men and women who set out on leaky ships and put their fate in nature. One day a swarm of mosquitoes filtered across the deck of the ship and pinched the skin of so many settlers.


Onboard the ship, I had to watch as forty-nine people out of the one hundred seventy-four perish from all sorts of ills.  A few of the children grew sores over their bodies until they expired.  Some of the elderly expired for reasons that could not be explained.  Some of the younger women took the fever and died.


My wife Caroline, who did not want to leave South Carolina, decided to sleep with her girls and not enter my bed.  During dinner on the ship, Caroline often looked at me cross-eyed. Every morning, for the duration of our trip, she wore her black mourning dress so that she could respect those mothers and grandmothers who had lost their loved ones.  And every morning, my sweet Caroline would have only harsh words in her heart for me.


"Thomas, you were wrong for sending our family on this fool's errand."


When she would say such words, my heart would sink into my chest.  I would clear my throat and try and put my scarred hands upon her dainty hands. Then my sweet Caroline would recoil in anger.


"Our son Peter did not die, but this voyage, the musty air in the quarters has weakened his constitution."


Before we made the journey to Liberia, we were told that only two percent of the emigrants get the fever.  But we later learned that more than twenty percent of the people who travel or even arrive in Liberia are afflicted with the illness that we later learned was called Malaria. My son Peter got Malaria.


Peter tossed and turn in his bed.


“Mother are we there? Have we made it?”


Tears flowed from my wife Caroline’s eyes.


“No my son.  We have not arrived.”


Carolina put a hot towel on Peter’s hot forehead.


My wife Caroline turned and looked sternly into my eyes.


“You did this to him!”


I came closer to her as I became enraged.


“It is the fever. I had nothing to do with his sickness Caroline.”


She stood up from where our son lay and pushed me on my chest.  I fell back and hit the ship’s wall.


“Caroline, we all knew that we would have risks.”


Her hands shook as she returned fits of rage upon me.


“I never expected this for my son.  For my family!”


When Caroline uttered these words, I would do my best in comforting her.


"So many misfortunes have occurred along the way, but my love, our Lord Jesus Christ does not give us adversity unless it makes our faith stronger."


Carolina did not like my encouraging words.  She often would strike back with her own understanding of scripture and theology.


"Thomas, our savior must not speak to your heart, because he teaches us how to preserve life, not to tear it down. Leaving our home in Columbia and coming here in this savage wilderness is not what Jesus wants for us.”


I could only look at my wife and say, “I no longer believe I know what Jesus wants for us. But we cannot turn back and go home now.” 


In such discussions, I often found that my wife had the greater of the wisdoms, and often I would hold back my tears while she displayed the emotions of the weaker sex; pulling out her hair and tearing parts of her dress.


Then I would say to myself, my wife Caroline is having what doctors call nervous exhaustion.


At those times, my eldest daughter and my sisters would take Caroline back to her cabin and she would cry in bed until exhaustion called her to sleep.   


While walking on the deck of the Hercules, I came across an old Negro sailor.  I asked him about the fever and he said to me,


“Whoever goes to Africa, ought to go with the expectation of living, and if he should get sick he ought to try to get well again and avoid all excitement, and to endeavor to be cheerful and contented.”


A month went by.  The condition of my family including my wife Carolina improved.


Arriving in Liberia:


My family and I followed those courageous men and women when we left the Hercules and entered the brave new world of Liberia. In spite of what happened to my son, I still had high expectations regarding the future. My mother Judith said to me,


"Thomas, my son, now we live as a free people."


I looked into my mother’s water-swept eyes and said, “Yes mother we are now free."


I thought about the wonders around me.  There were terrors that I would later experience, but for several days, my innocence allowed me to perceive Africa’s beauty.  At this moment, in my life, the hues and shading of the land, the direction and power of the light, the feeling of the air, and the general indescribable sense of the whole scene were all new.  Every sight and tone, and the very odor of the earth and the breeze, and all the impressions of the landscape of the Monrovia was all so beautiful to me. 


When we first arrived in Monrovia, we left the Hercules and wandered around the small settlement. We would later learn some important facts about this small city. The overall community of Monrovia and surrounding farms contained a population of about 2,000, who lived in their own houses, and on farms which they themselves cultivated, and performed the various duties of an agricultural and commercial people.  The city center of Monrovia contained about 90 houses and stores, three churches, and 700 inhabitants.



As I roamed through the city, I beheld the factories along the shore. I saw ships owned by some affluent Liberians on Cape Montserado. I saw Negro Americans hauling African rice, iron, and gold in sacks, barrels filled with palm oil, piles of ivory.  I saw how these very ships sailed into the depths of the Atlantic, carrying trade to America, and even into Europe.


I would eventually learn that not all Negroes in Monrovia or Liberia were prosperous.


When we had our first lunch on Monrovian soil under a palm tree, I looked around our boxcar table and saw sorrow among other families who managed to get out of their beds in spite of the fever. My wife had tears in her eyes and she put her hands on my left hand and said,


"Peter is ill and Clementine is not well Thomas.  If they die, then what future do we have with this fertile country?"


I lowered my head.      


I gave a confession to the mother of my children.


"If they died, we have nothing."


My wife; Caroline, my mother; Judith, my brother; Gregory, and my sister; Mary, and my children, Peter, Richard, Clementine, and Cuffee looked toward me for guidance.


After standing up underneath that palm tree, I let them know what was going to happen next.


“We will be staying in a place called The Receptacle.”   


When darkness came, we went to the housing named The Receptacle.


The Receptacle was a plain large two-story structure. My mother shared a room with my sisters.  My brother Gregory and my son, Peter also shared a room.  Then my wife and I were housed in a room twelve feet square.


Lingering Illness:


Our doctors called the spread of diseases miasma; a sickness called by bad air.


For weeks, Peter found himself suffering and straining to relieve his bowels. For days, he would scream out as he held his stomach. His head sweated throughout the day and night, dusk and dawn.  My sister Mary often came back and forth hourly to Peter’s room to empty his calabash chamber pot. 


While Peter recovered from his illness, my life in Monrovia took a turn for the worse. My brother Gregory’s heart gave out. One of my sisters, Mary, and my son Richard died of the fever.  My wife remained well, but she often said to me, with rains of tears,


“All our children would still be alive if you had not taken us to this God-forsaken country.”


I often closed my eyes and uttered not a word. My mother retained her health. Clementine recovered from her illness. The rest of our family that did not get ill remained well. Still, I had lost so many of my loved ones.  My heart hardened from losing Gregory, Mary, and Richard.


I often told my wife and mother the same thing throughout the course of our new life in Liberia.


I told them, “I do not believe that I will ever be free from the fever.”


My wife would respond, "Then why do we stay. Thomas, we should return to the country of our birth.  We should return to the United States of America."


My mother would say to my wife. "Caroline, we are like the children of Israel.  The Lord wills us to tame this land and make it a home for those of us with African blood."


I smiled at my wife and said,


"My mother speaks the words of the lord.  We are destined to make a great nation and become a great people. We will not depart like so many others, we shall remain."


Although my wife protested her concerns for remaining in Liberia, the family stayed and fulfilled our destiny in our new homeland.




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