“Human Cargo”

The African sun burns deep into my aching back and limbs; it sears my skin, stretched taut over bones weary from gathering crops six days a week; it dries the sweat which flows from the roots of my hair to the soles of my feet. West Africa is a harsh home. When her people can no longer tolerate the unrelenting assault of the sun, the rains come. Months of deluge leave us praying for the return of its heat, its scorching bright light, and the chance again, to work on the land.

It is 1830, the year of my arrival in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. I have exhausted the monies I brought with me and am forced to work for another as a common field hand. Today, I am but one of a crew of ten free men working to fill the never-ending number of boxes which await the yield of our harvest. I have emptied my collection bag many times, and so far, escaped the wrath of the overseer.

Familiar sounds coming from the jungle roust us from the fields. We hide our pickings under low-growing bushes and steal off to flatten our bodies on the ground behind scattered thickets. The overseer drops his wary watch as he knows we’d choose crop-picking under him over the fate facing the advancing hordes.

The caravan comes into view: men, necks circled by crude wooden yokes which bind one to another, walk in single file. Their captors energize laggards with cutting flicks from flashing whips. Dispirited women and children, strung together with rope, struggle to keep up, knowing the fallen will die. I have seen, firsthand, the cruel life of plantation slave that awaits these people. It was my life in America before my owner set me free.

We hold our silence, aware that if we are seen we will be overwhelmed, captured and added to the human cargo bound for slave ships waiting in the harbor.

As the parade of the vanquished passes and fades in the distance, I remain face down in the dirt. The sun continues to burn deep, but my mind rejoices that my suffering body is free. There is no yoke around my neck; there are no shackles on my ankles.

I stand and extend my arms toward the heavens and chastise not the Lord, but thank him, as the sores on my back have been inflicted by the sun and not the whip. I may be black; I may be poor and burdened; but here in Africa, the home of my ancestors, I am a free man.

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7 Responses to “Human Cargo”

  1. Even freedom has a price to pay. No money. Working like a slave, but the image you describe in the last paragraph of the gratitude this man has for life is well said.

    • vbholmes says:

      Many of the free blacks who emigrated to Liberia in the first half of the 18th century were sponsored by the American Colonization Society. Their passage, original housing and expenses were covered, but harsh conditions, debilitating illness, and long dry, then rainy, seasons hampered their settlement. The industrious ones survived. The story of the early years of the colony is an interesting one. (From what I’ve read, I don’t think I’d add modern-day Liberia to my list of preferred vacation spots–however, not having been there, I could be wrong.) Look forward to reading about your next trip, Lynne.

  2. Meaning portrait of misery.

    • vbholmes says:

      I suspect there’s misery, and then there’s misery, Carl. It’s hard for us to realize that working hard as a free man is a blessing when you’ve been enslaved. It’s hard for us to realize what it would be like to be owned–and I surely hope we never find out!

  3. Eric Alagan says:

    A powerful tale recounted in the first person, which added that extra dose of anxiety and relief.

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