The duration of the passage and the dangers associated with it had prepared us for the worst, but the first few days of azure skies and blazing sun dispelled our fears. We sat on deck at sunset to while away the time, hardly ever sleeping for our excitement, and sometimes we sang and evoked life on the plantations until dawn. I would lean against the rail to relish the pleasant sea breeze and to gaze at the gleaming waters stretching endlessly around us. Occasionally, the sound of the waves lashing against the ship would reach me like a song from far across the ocean, soothing my nerves.
Meanwhile the ship edged on, tearing through the churning waters, moving further away from America and heading steadily toward our destination. There were days when I would chose to keep to myself, refusing to join Reverend Barclay and others for prayer.
The Reverend was a remarkable man. He was born a free man and had acquired a sound education and was now on his way to Liberia to set up and lead his own church, ‘to convert the natives,’ he told me. His brother was a prosperous trader in Liberia, exchanging goods with European traders and importing scarce goods from America. Reverend Barclay would come to me on deck and would share his experience and those of his father with me. He told me that his father had bought his freedom before the age of forty and had married a free woman. The reverend was a gifted orator. He was endowed with a booming voice and the ability to hold one in his grip with his portentous and sometimes frightening sermons of things to come.
By now I had acquainted myself with all the passengers on the ship, most of who were surprised that I was a preacher myself. We exchanged stories which were often very much alike, varying only in the length of time spent at the plantations and our struggle for freedom. Some of the passengers had relatives in Liberia, a few were returning after a long visit to America, but the bulk of them had not been to the country. There was an entrepreneur amongst us who had had a thriving business in America but was now transferring it to Liberia. The women were reuniting with their husbands and relatives.
We were on friendly terms with Captain Rupert West and his crewmen. The captain was of my age, forty, or thereabouts, a squat fellow, with bushy beard and fat, seafaring hands. His father, a former planter who owned one of the biggest plantations in the South had manumitted all his slaves and sent them to Liberia in this ship captained by his son. Captain West had journeyed to Liberia several times, transporting goods and people between the two shores, and he knew its short history like its inhabitants.
One quiet afternoon, while on deck, I asked Captain West to tell me about Liberia, but he turned to me and said:
‘Wait until you see it for yourself.’
The first days were uneventful, but one morning we awoke to a violent torrent of storm. The ship lurched sideways, rocking back and forth, a frightful experience that confined me to one place, for I had come to set much store by this life as a free man. Our captain went on giving forlorn orders to his men, as all of them struggled to keep the ship on course. We kept below, gathered at one place, praying fervently to the Lord to make true his words, that he would lead his people to the Promised Land. A whole night and day the storm raged on. On the morning of the next day, five of the passengers, two men and three women, took seasick and before dusk their condition had deteriorated. While the skies still cracked asunder, Reverend Barclay and I kept vigil beside them, praying constantly for their recovery. Our prayers, however, failed to save two of the five sick people, who were women. They expired on the morning of the third day.
The ship mourned their lost. Some of the passengers, distressed by the loss, rushed out to the deck to vent their anger at the storm. They screamed and called it names. The prospect of a better future in Liberia became a remote one. Some even contemplated returning to America on their immediate arrival in Liberia. That side of the black republic about which I knew little was then revealed to me: Liberia, I was told, was a republic founded on uncertainties and with an economy in shambles. Settlers roamed the streets of its capital without a skill of their own, and those with skills could not find work. The whole attempt to set up a colony on a strange and disease-infected continent had been a failure from the onset, an unrealistic dream.
But after some feverish sermons by the ever energetic Reverend Barclay and me, the bedraggled and disheartened passengers kept faith. I attributed the outburst to the death of the two women. Reverend Barclay and I said some prayers, and then performed a sea burial. Crowding around the bodies, we wrapped them in sheets of white cloths and added some heavy objects for weight. One of us offered a bible which was divided into two and wrapped with them. The wind blew hard, whining like lost souls. Then, bearing the bodies toward the windward side of the ship, we committed them to the sea. We watched the bodies being teased by the ravenous waves, nibbling at them once, twice, and then sweeping them away in one violent lurch.
We stared in contemptuous silence at the ocean. As if we had quenched its hunger with that ceremony, the ocean calmed and a bright sunshine broke on us. Life returned again to the ship. Some of us could now dare smile and laugh. By the second and third day after the storm, our confidence was fully restored and we could sing hymns of praise to the Lord. Even the captain and his men joined in the festivities. As the men sang, my mind went to my beloved Charlotte in Liberia, the woman I had not seen for more than twenty years. I remembered our brief but passionate love, a love I had nurtured even during those moments when every hope of ever seeing her had vanished. I was also anxious to meet the natives who featured in my mother’s stories. Not only was my mission to reunite with Charlotte and to propagate the words of God, but if possible to get in touch with the natives and observe their tribal customs, and after I had gained their trust attempt to acquaint them with the message of the most high.
After three weeks of seeing nothing but that endless expanse that was the ocean, the men gave up their songs and nightly revels. We now gazed at the ocean with accusing eyes, anxious to be delivered from the grip of its vastness. Sometimes Reverend Barclay and I would stare ahead of us in silence for a long time, and then we would retire to our sleeping corners. Sometimes, from being pure and clean, the air would change to a pungent smell that assaulted our noses, causing breathing difficulties. As a result, I took seasick for two days, but fortunately recovered to the relief of the entire ship. Now in our fourth week, the excitement of approaching our destination was evident on our faces. We talked about Liberia as though we had already landed on its soil. One afternoon, after more than forty days at sea, we caught sight of the shores of Liberia.
There, before us, was Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, stretching out into the sea like a peninsula. The city was surrounded by an opulence of verdant bush, a beauty in its most exotic form. Palm fronds edging its shores danced to the winds, and birds circled the skies, perched on the fronds and then banged away into flight. Then and there, I knelt before the Lord to express my profound gratitude for leading me safely to these beautiful shores, to Charlotte.
We disembarked. Because of the bustle of activities and the confusion around the ship, I did not have ample time to properly bid farewell to Reverend Barclay and the captain, both of whom had been of tremendous help to me during the passage. On setting foot on the soil of Liberia, Reverend Barclay was swept up in the throng of people who had come to receive him. Shouts of recognition rose every time a passenger saw a relative among the crowd.
Besides our ship there were other vessels docked at the port, probably English or French. The two great powers, Captain West had told me, traded in this part of the country and ruled over lands, north, east and west of Liberia, causing much insecurity to the existence of a tiny country such as Liberia. A large chunk land which Liberia hoped to one day include within its sphere of influence had already been carved out by the French and the British. There was a constant dispute between them and the government as regards trading posts and the payment of custom duties when calling at a port on the Liberian coast.
I searched desperately around, trying to figure my way out of the crowd, and my eyes fell upon a young man with an extraordinary air of haughtiness about him. He was dressed in a long frock coat and a black topper. I walked up to him and asked him about a woman named Charlotte, adding some information about her. On hearing Charlotte’s name, the young man’s face clouded with irritation, he turned away from me and sucked his teeth. His indifference and strange behaviour angered me, and I was about to deliver him a well-deserved slap but restrained myself. There was something about him that suggested that his anger was a shield of sorts to protect his own vulnerability, so I went to an old man to inquire from him.
The old man, a tall and big black man, who reminded me of my stepfather on the plantation, was dressed in the manner of the young man, differing only in the colour of the frock coat, which was grey. His searching eyes seemed to drink in the sight of every passenger. At the mention of Charlotte’s name, a cloud of hesitation passed over his face and he turned to the young man who was still staring at theme, as if I were a source of fascination. He was silent for so long that he began to get on my nerves. ‘Please speak to me,’ I entreated him, now fearing for the worst. Charlotte must have passed on, I thought, but to my relief the man nodded and said that he would lead me to her.
Monrovia astounded me. As we hurried along its dusty streets, I saw homes built of wood, spacious and grandiose and with front gardens, much like the homes in America. Here and there were trading stores with goods imported from America, alongside native goods like camwood, ivory and palm oil which were sold to European traders. The few churches were gracefully built as if the country was founded on a stone-hard faith. Women walked the streets in dresses that were in fashion in America, and as if to compete with them in elegance, the men wore silk black toppers. The people of Monrovia were keen on appearance. We saw the executive mansion, the home of the president, one of the most beautiful buildings of the city.
This was the heart of Liberia, the dream of the freed men. I was certain now, long before reaching my final destination, that I could make this land my home, this America in the heart of this paradise of luscious bushes and forests. Here I could thrive in peace and practice the words of the Lord. Here I could preach with the zeal and passion that I felt must accompany such an endeavour.
The sun, fierce and hard, beat down on us and the air was unusually oppressive, peppered with the fiery and oppressive odours of this place. Drenched in sweat, I followed the guide, hardly keeping pace with him. Perhaps once upon a time in America he had been a hard overseer, a relentless and feared slave trader, or a skilled plantation worker favoured by his master. Now he walked in huge, determined strides that suggested a man of strong will who condoned no foolishness, not even from a severe master. Out of courtesy or the fear of being rebuked, I refrained from asking him any questions.
We had now traversed the main centre of Monrovia and were heading for the outskirts. The grandeur of the houses gradually diminished to be replaced by mud-built thatched huts. Some of the huts were huge and could house ten or more people, but most were small and dingy.
Children in rags and in the poorest of conditions played outside. My guide stopped before one of the huts, the worst in that area, with its door falling apart, its thatched roof riddled with chinks. Hordes of flies buzzed about an uncovered bowl of food, and a stench rose up that compelled me to pinch my nose. Was this Charlotte’s home? My heart skipped a beat when he exchanged a greeting with the occupant. The occupant’s language, which sounded like English, was similar to that of the settlers but slightly different. I would learn later that they were the Congo’s, the recaptives who, after the abolition of slavery, were rescued from slave ships by the British Royal Navy.
Giant trees, with hollows at the root as huge as caves, towered over the earth, and on both sides of the path impenetrable thickets of vegetation sprang up. I had the unusual feeling that we were being followed, but when I turned around saw no one. Strange birdsong rent the air, and I heard the barking of a dog somewhere close by. The fear that my guide was some madman leading me into grave danger now took hold of me, but he led me to a solitary house in the middle of that forest with a garden before it. It was newly built but of clay. Thinking that this was my beloved’s home, I stopped. But the old man moved on. I could bear it no longer and called out to him. He turned to me with a hard gaze intended to put a halt to what he perceived as my childish behaviour.
The path we now walked was merely a narrow strip with intertwining bushes on both sides, which at times hindered our progress. A snake slithered from one side of the path to another. I trembled with fear. There was no sight of a house. Emerging from the thickets, we entered a sugarcane plantation twice the size of the fields of our plantations in America. Voices emerged from it, tired and worn out, fading into the depth of a lush greenness. We saw men harvesting sugarcane, which the women bundled and carried to the mill. The old man exchanged greetings with them and moved on. At a certain point, my mute guide took up a song I had not heard in years. It was a plantation song.
I thought of America with heavy heart.
We took another path. A profound and almost palpable peace reigned over that place. The path led to a wooden house, unlike the houses in the centre of Monrovia, but equally elegant. The old man pointed at the house. I thanked him and handed him a coin, but he sucked his teeth as if I had insulted him by giving him the coin. Then he turned to head back to Monrovia.
I took a step toward the house, toward Charlotte.
This is a novel excerpt by Vamba Sherif.
Photography Credit: From “Liberian Gold” by James Alexander Harding