“All of us were then put into the castle, and kept for market. On a certain time I and other prisoners were put on board a canoe, under our master, and rowed away to a vessel belonging to Rhode-Island.”
Born in West Africa and sold into North American slavery, Venture Smith became an unusual African American success story as an adult by buying his freedom, earning a great deal of money, and establishing himself as a respected member of his Connecticut community. Before these adult accomplishments, however, came the dramatic events of Smith’s childhood that led to his enslavement and transport across the Atlantic Ocean. His early years as the eldest son of an African tribal leader were interrupted by the invasion of a competing tribe. This conflict led to the death of Smith’s father and the transport of the young boy several hundred miles to a slave trade hub on the Atlantic coast. During his journey, Smith was captured with the rest of his party on two separate occasions. Despite the change of captors, his ultimate destination remained the same: sale to white slave traders. The details of Smith’s early life and capture are recounted in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa.
The slave trade had been a part of the Americas almost from the time of European arrival in the early 1500s. Spanish plantation owners had first enslaved indigenous peoples to work on the large sugar plantations that sprang up around the Caribbean. As bondage and disease decimated native populations, Europeans turned to West Africa as a source of bonded labor. West Africans had a tradition of enslaving captives from rival ethnic groups, although African slavery was not as brutal an institution as American slavery became; slave traders there expanded their operations to service European demand, and the trans-Atlantic journey known as the Middle Passage was born.
The process of enslaving Africans was a simple yet devastating one. European or American slave traders docked a ship near one of the slave trading centers along the West African coast. Several weeks or even months generally passed as the crew purchased captive Africans from local traders who delivered these charges to the slave ship. Enslaved captives were held in prisons known as slave castles along the coast, or, if they had been sold to a crew, onboard ship while awaiting their dispatch to the New World. Once a ship’s cargo hold was packed with men, women, and children, the voyage began. Prisoners were usually chained together and held in miserable circumstances. Forbidden to walk above deck and thrust into highly unsanitary holds, many enslaved Africans died before even reaching their destination, which during this time period was usually the British-held island of Barbados. There, surviving slaves were auctioned off. Many joined the ranks of Caribbean sugar laborers, hard labor that gave arriving slaves a life expectancy as short as seven years. Unsold slaves were transported north for possible sale to North American colonies.
Although slavery was concentrated in the Caribbean and South American coast during the sixteenth century, it spread northward to British North America as settlers established new colonies there. At first, colonists preferred the usage of indentured servants—white Europeans who agreed to serve a term of labor in exchange for passage to the New World—but over time the demand for cheap labor outstripped the supply of indentured servants. By the time of Smith’s arrival in the Americas in the 1730s, enslaved African labor had become vital to the agricultural economies of colonies such as Virginia and South Carolina. Slavery was practiced throughout the colonies, including the northeastern region where Smith was taken by Rhode Island–based slave traders. This increased demand eventually led slave traders to bypass the Caribbean altogether and deliver enslaved Africans directly to North America.
Born in West Africa in about 1729, the African American businessman Venture Smith began life as Broteer Furro. Smith was the eldest son of a tribal leader and spent his early years somewhere in inland West Africa; historians continue to debate the precise location and nature of Smith’s ethnic group. During the mid-1730s, however, what was most likely interethnic conflict led to the murder of Smith’s father and the capture of most of his people for sale as slaves. Smith was sold to an American slave trade crew and taken to British North America.
Renamed Venture by his American owner, the young Smith spent several years working on the estate of Robertson (sometimes called Robinson) Mumford in coastal New York. Enslaved workers in the northern colonies engaged in a greater variety of tasks than their southern counterparts, who performed agricultural labor more or less exclusively. Smith thus developed diverse skills that would serve him well in adulthood. In his early twenties, Smith married a fellow slave, Meg, and began a family. This family was split up, however, after Smith was sold to Stonington, Connecticut, estate owner Thomas Stanton in late 1754. Not long after, Stanton purchased Smith’s family and brought them to Connecticut as well. After a dispute with Stanton in the late 1750s, Smith was again sold, this time to Hempstead Miner. By this time, Smith was determined to earn enough money to purchase his freedom—although Stanton had destroyed a promissory note for a substantial sum belonging to him. Smith changed hands again soon after, joining the household of Colonel Oliver Smith. Under this master, Smith undertook massive efforts to earn enough money to secure his freedom. He cut hundreds of cords of wood, fished, farmed, and employed his considerable brawn to the cause of liberty. In 1765, he successfully purchased his own freedom.
After purchasing his freedom, Smith continued to work and save. Over the next several years, he bought the liberty of his family and some other, unrelated enslaved Africans in Connecticut. He also built up a successful maritime trading business, and later, purchased a large tract of land in East Haddam, Connecticut. His personal strength garnered Smith a great deal of regional renown, which was only reinforced by the 1798 publication of his memoirs. Smith died in 1805, but his memory endured in Connecticut thanks to local folk tales of a man whom historians later dubbed a black Paul Bunyan.
Published in installments in a newspaper in New London, Connecticut, in 1798, Venture Smith’s A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa was one of the earliest slave narratives published in the young United States. The illiterate Smith orally recounted his autobiography to a white transcriber, Connecticut schoolteacher and abolitionist Elisha Niles, when the former slave was approaching the end of what had been a full life—one that took him from a boyhood in Africa to a young adulthood enslaved in British North America and, finally, to middle and later years as a prosperous African American entrepreneur in the United States. The opening chapters of Smith’s Narrative discuss his experiences as a relatively privileged boy in West Africa who was captured and sold into slavery by fellow Africans, a common method by which free Africans were transformed into enslaved New World laborers.
Set within the greater historical context of the West African world, Smith’s personal journey from freedom to bondage exemplifies the experiences of the estimated ten to twelve million Africans who were sold into slavery between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like the vast majority of other enslaved Africans, Smith was kidnapped by local slave traders who sent him on a forced march covering hundreds of miles. He traveled from his inland home to the coastal region where European slave traders had established commercial forts or docked cargo ships offshore, at which they exchanged European and American manufactured goods for live human beings. Unlike most other enslaved Africans, Smith was later able to attain liberty and personal success. Yet the beginnings of his journey were not uncommon.
Life in West Africa
Smith recounts that he was born at a place called Dukandarra in the West African region of Guinea in about 1729. Guinea was a large and somewhat undefined area that contained several smaller kingdoms and a number of diverse ethnic groups. It spanned roughly the peninsular area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Sahara Desert in the north, and the Gulf of Guinea in the south. Because of the size of this region and the absence of further specific details from Smith, modern scholars are uncertain of the precise location of Dukandarra; some have suggested that Dukandarra might have been one of the Mossi states of what is now Burkina Faso and Ghana.
The narrator does, however, provide ethnographic details of his Dukandarra tribe. The people were, like the adult Smith, of large stature and “commonly considerable above six feet in height.” His father, Saungm Furro, was a leader of the people, and Smith unapologetically notes that he had three wives. “Polygamy was not uncommon in that country” among the wealthy and powerful, Smith explains. Although the practice was widely condemned by white European colonists as proof of African moral turpitude, Smith’s brief description of the practice does not support that contention. In contrast, Smith’s unnamed mother seems to have expected a fair amount of say in the management of the household, as Smith observes that she became very angry when his father took a third wife—not because he did so, but because he did not first consult her over the matter.
This dispute led to a rift between Smith’s parents that, although not reprinted in this excerpt, directly affected later events. Angry with her husband, Smith’s mother took him and his two younger siblings far distant from their home. Smith recalls that the party left essentially unprepared, and that his mother foraged for food as they spent some five days traveling over barren desert to reach lands suitable for sustaining human life. Smith describes the land as “flat and level,” and fertile despite the overall lack of rainfall thanks to nightly dewfall and annual flooding from a nearby river. There, Smith’s mother left the boy with an unnamed wealthy farmer. This farmer put the young Smith to work tending his livestock, but the narrator remembers that he was “kindly used” and treated by his guardian as a son. The practice of sending young tribal nobles to other African elders for work and training in preparation for later leadership was a common one; scholars have suggested that this was Smith’s mother’s goal in leaving the boy with this guardian. Smith also gained valuable lessons in how to tend animals, a job which he would undertake as a slave in later life. After about a year, Smith’s father sent someone with a horse to collect the boy and return him to his homeland.
Back at home, Smith recalls that he was delighted to discover that his parents had reconciled in his absence, for both “received . . . [him] with great joy and affection.” Smith estimates his age at six years old at this time. Modern historians, however, question the narrator’s recollection of his age, given the clarity of his memory of the land and the events that occurred at that time. Historical documents that support Smith’s remembrances of his later voyage into slavery suggest that he was at least two years older.
Soon after his return, Smith’s life was caught in the upheaval of the slave trade. News reached his father that the region where Smith had been apprenticed had been invaded by a group of Africans who “were instigated by some white nation who equipped and sent them to subdue and possess the country,” presumably to capture individuals to force into bonded labor. Having enjoyed a long period of peace and thus being completely unprepared for war, these peoples sought refuge with Smith’s tribe, who agreed to host them. Smith’s father worked to protect the displaced peoples, but news that the invaders had followed them forced the initial group to again flee south.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the location of Dukandarra, historians have been unable to agree on the identity of the force that captured and enslaved Smith’s people. Some historians have pointed to the ongoing intertribal Akyem warfare that was rooted in the struggle for power between the Dutch and the Danish. Others have associated the attacks with the efforts of the Bambara kingdom of Segu to take over the Gangara region under the auspices of the French. Nevertheless, Smith was doubly a victim of European influence in Africa—first as a captive of ethnic conflict spurred by European involvement, and again as a victim of the slave trade.
When the invading force arrived in Dukandarra, they demanded a huge quantity of money and livestock in exchange for allowing Smith’s tribe to remain at liberty. Smith’s father paid the ransom “rather than that his subjects should be deprived of their rights and privileges,” being aware that any captives would be sold into slavery. Despite accepting the bribe, the invaders planned to attack anyway—an action that Smith found particularly dishonest and detestable.
Smith’s father gathered his people and fled. Luck was not on their side, however, and the smoke from their cooking fire alerted the invaders of their location. Smith’s father fought back against the enemy party, but could not hold them off and was forced to surrender. The enemy party then captured the remainder of the group and took them to their own camp. There, the invaders tortured Smith’s father to find out where the tribe had concealed its riches. He refused to reveal the location and died as a result. The young Smith witnessed the scene and was so struck by that it was “to this day fresh in my mind, and I have often been overcome while thinking on it.”
Capture and Enslavement
With his father murdered and his home in shambles, Smith was held captive by an army of men he estimated to be six thousand strong. With this group, the women and children were forced to march across inland West Africa toward the ocean, where they would be sold to European and American slavers. Smith himself was charged with waiting on his captors and forced to cart supplies for the traveling party. His burdens were food and cooking implements, including a twenty-five-pound grinding stone, which he carried on his head. The sheer size and weight of these tools again suggests that Smith underestimated his age on the journey, as a six year old—even one unusually tall and large for his size—seems unlikely to have been physically able to manage such a large load.
Smith also recalls the devastation that the party inflicted upon the countryside that they passed through. The party stole and slaughtered livestock to feed themselves, destroyed villages and captured their people, and generally “laid . . . waste” to the region. Thus, the tolls of slavery on Africa were greater than depopulation and personal suffering. They also included the devastation of the actual land itself, making it more difficult for those who escaped the net of the slave trade to thrive in the damaged countryside. The capture of Malagasco—another exact location that Smith mentions, lost to time and translation—exemplifies the damage wrought by the invaders. The villagers had hidden in dugouts near water sources, from which the enemy party smoked them out. Even though the villagers fought back with poisoned arrows, the invaders eventually forced the people from their secure dens and took them captive.
With this new group added, Smith’s party continued en route to the coast. Their captors, Smith recalls, treated them well because of “their being submissive and humble”—most likely following orders and not attempting escape—even as the captors continued to raid tribes on the way to the Atlantic coast. Consequently, the prisoners’ numbers had further swelled by the time they reached the district of Anamaboo, a center of the slave trade. Their arrival there was not without drama. Smith reports that the people of the region, “knowing what conduct [his captors] had pursued” and realizing that captors and captives were at the nadir of their strength after the long journey, attacked and captured the entire party. Scholars have suggested that this attack was one typical of a West African practice known as panyarring, in which one party could attack and seize the goods of another as compensation for an unpaid debt. In this way, Smith was transferred among Africans for a final time before being held in a slave castle somewhere in the Anamaboo region.
From this fort, Smith and some of his companions were rowed out to a slave trade vessel docked nearby. Although the early slave trade had been dominated by Dutch middlemen, by the 1730s England and American slave ships had become a growing force in the market. The ship to which Smith was taken was based in the American colony of Rhode Island. Historical evidence suggests that the ship was the Charming Susanna, a Rhode Island vessel that arrived in West African waters to conduct the slave trade during May or June of 1739. This documentary evidence contradicts some of Smith’s recollections. He places his age at this time at about eight, although his estimated birth year of 1729 would have made him ten. Records also indicate that the ship carried a human cargo of about ninety as opposed to the 260 that Smith asserts.
On board the vessel, Smith was sold to the ship’s steward, Robertson—called Robinson in other historical records—Mumford for a bargain price of “four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico.” A fully grown male slave, in contrast, was typically valued at the price of one hundred gallons of rum. Smith’s new owner renamed the former Broteer Furro “Venture” in recognition of his status as a private business endeavor. Renaming enslaved Africans was standard practice among European slave owners. Regardless of the new first name chosen, slaves almost never received or retained a surname, in a move meant to break them from their heritage and deny them full adult status. After leaving Africa, Smith himself did not carry a surname again until his mid-thirties, when the owner who freed him allowed Smith to take his own name.
The remaining two-thirds of Smith’s Narrative discusses his life after leaving Africa. He crossed the notorious Middle Passage but was, unlike the wide majority of his shipmates, spared the Caribbean sugar plantations to instead become one of the just 233 slaves imported into New York from Africa during the 1730s. There, he took part in the mixed economy typical of the region, using the herding skills that he had garnered during his boyhood to tend livestock and relying on his size and strength to develop a near-legendary working prowess. In time, Smith successfully saved enough money earned from labors outside of his regular duties to purchase his freedom and become a successful entrepreneur in the late colonial and early republican era.
Smith did not forget his African heritage, however; his two sons, for example, bore names that reflected African tradition. Smith was silent on the nature of his religious beliefs and practices, making it possible that he continued to follow traditional African spiritual practices throughout his life rather than converting, as many enslaved Africans did, to Christianity after arrival in the Americas. Smith’s ties to the Africa of his early years therefore seem to have remained a part of his identity throughout his adult life. In this way, Smith represents a true African American—a man of Africa who came, through his economic successes, to exemplify the American rags to riches story and display the ideals of personal liberty that informed the early American psyche.
At the time of the publication of the Smith’s autobiography in 1798, the United States had already begun dealing with the question of slavery that would drag the nation into civil war less than sixty-five years later. The protection of slavery had been a source of significant debate during the writing of the United States Constitution some ten years previously. Some political and social leaders questioned whether a nation founded on the ideals of universal liberty could justify its stance when many of its residents existed in a state incompatible with those principles. In northern states where slavery was not viewed as an economic necessity—including Smith’s own adopted home of Connecticut—plans were already underway at the time of the Narrative’s publication to enact emancipation.
The respect afforded to Smith’s moral character and business savvy made him a natural voice to promote the growing emancipation movement, and his memoirs served as fuel both for his own personal legacy and for the larger anti-slavery movement. Narratives such as Smith’s, along with changing social ideas about the institution of slavery both in the United States and abroad, helped bring about a United States ban on the overseas slave trade in 1807, less than a decade after the publication of Smith’s autobiography. The short-term effect of slave narratives in persuading Americans that those of African descent were not inherently inferior is thus apparent.
Smith’s autobiography has also had enduring historical value as not only an autobiography of an unusually successive African American man of the era, but also as a record of the process of enslavement as it took place within West Africa. Although some of the narrative’s details are unclear, such as Smith’s precise place of origin and what tribe captured him, the information relating to his purchase, transport, and freedom has been corroborated by independent historical evidence. This measure of support gives credence to Smith’s overall narrative, and the truthfulness of his story remains generally unquestioned.
Thus the Narrative stands as an important primary source on the situations that led to Africans being drawn into slavery, as Smith was. It is not clear whether Olaudah Equiano, the author of the leading contemporary slave narrative, was actually a native of Africa or, as some records seem to indicate, the American colonies. Later slave narratives, such as that of Frederick Douglass, cannot address this issue as their authors were typically born in America. Historians have continued to study Smith’s life and times, with excavations of his Connecticut property helping to fill in some of the details lacking in the author’s own memoirs.
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