“I had already been sold three different times, made considerable money with seemingly nothing to derive it from, been cheated out of a large sum of money, lost much by misfortunes, and paid an enormous sum for my freedom.”
Published in Connecticut in 1798, Venture Smith’s autobiographical narrative recounts his life as a free African, enslaved African American, and “redeemed” African American during the colonial and early republican periods of the United States. The portions of Smith’s narrative reprinted here focus largely on the economic aspects of his voyage through slavery and into freedom—an effort that required years of labor above and beyond Smith’s regular duties as an enslaved person and saw him overcome considerable setbacks. During this period, Smith also underwent separation from his wife and children, a situation not uncommon for enslaved African Americans, and faced unfair treatment from his various masters. Yet his story is ultimately one of overcoming the odds. After purchasing his own freedom while in his mid-thirties, Smith became a respected member of his Connecticut community, able to garner printed attestations to his character and to the veracity of his tale from white citizens.
In the post-revolutionary United States, slavery was an institution that generated complex and often contradictory ideas and feelings among white citizens. The ideals of political freedom and universal liberty had inspired the Patriots to mount an armed rebellion against their imperial British government; at the same time, however, many of those same Patriots were slave owners who benefitted from the economic and cultural system that supported racial bondage. Bolstered by the desire to resolve this paradox, a burgeoning emancipation movement arose in the northern United States during the late eighteenth century. Vermont became the first state to ban slavery in its 1777 constitution, written in the midst of the fight for American independence. Over the next several years, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Smith’s home of Connecticut followed. These efforts generally relied on gradual emancipation to prevent what early leaders believed would be certain chaos if all slaves were freed at the same time. Yet the US Constitution, written during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, protected slavery at the federal level by creating compromises between states with slavery and states without; the Constitution included slaves in the tallies that calculated state-level representation to the federal government. The same convention barred further talk of the issue of slavery for twenty years’ time.
It was into this atmosphere of growing divisions over slavery that Venture Smith’s narrative appeared. Dictated to a white editor, the volume was published in Connecticut in 1798, fourteen years after the state had approved a plan for gradual emancipation—slaves born in or after March 1784 were free at age twenty-five. In 1797, the age was reduced to twenty-one. In its entirety, Smith’s autobiography traces his life from his early days as the son of an African tribal leader through his enslavement and forced passage to the Americas; his years of bondage; his successful efforts to buy his own freedom; and his later establishment as a prominent Connecticut landowner and maritime trader, capable of purchasing the freedom of his wife and children shortly before the American Revolution. Smith’s successes as a self-made man and pride in his freedom reflect early American values the same as the writings of white republican leaders. Thus, his Narrative lent credence to the argument of abolitionists that Africans did not inherently lack intellectual or moral capabilities on par with their white counterparts, a belief held by many slaveholders and leaders of the early American republic. Smith’s narrative also provides modern historians with a reputable primary source account of enslaved and free African American life in the northern United States during the colonial and early republican periods.
A native of West Africa, presumably in or near present-day Ghana, Venture Smith was born Broteer Furro in about 1729. His father was a prince of the Dukandarra tribe, from whom he was taken into slavery in the mid-to-late 1730s. Packed onto a Rhode Island-based slaving ship with some 260 fellow enslaved Africans, Smith made the infamous Middle Passage to Barbados and onward to the British colonies of North America. Along the way, he was renamed “Venture”—the surname “Smith” was added after much later in life and taken from his third owner—and became one of the thousands of forced immigrants to the New World.
Over the next several years, the young Smith labored in bondage on the farms of New England. His experiences were typical for an enslaved person. Even as a child, Smith was expected to perform agricultural duties and received abuse at the hands of his master’s family. He grew into a massive man who stood over six feet tall, with a large, powerful frame that carried an estimated three hundred pounds; combined with his later efforts to work toward freedom, this stature earned Smith comparisons to John Henry and Paul Bunyan. In his early twenties, Smith took part in a failed escape attempt and was soon after sold away from his wife, Meg, and the couple’s children. Yet Smith continued to work toward liberty—this time literally, by employing his considerable personal strength and ingenuity towards earning money through independent labor. He engaged in a wide variety of tasks, from cleaning shoes, to farming crops, to night fishing and hunting local animals. Smith managed to save up money, but not enough to purchase his freedom before he was again sold. His third master allowed him to travel to Long Island for a period, where he again undertook seemingly Herculean amounts of work in order to raise money toward his own purchase price. He finally bought his freedom in 1765.
Smith continued to toil, earning enough money to liberate his pregnant wife and three children at about the time of the American Revolution. He founded and ran a successful maritime shipping enterprise and soon after moved permanently to Connecticut, where he purchased farmland. By the time of the publication of his Narrative in 1798, Smith had become a respected landowner and entrepreneur whose labors inspired lasting regional reverence. He died in Connecticut in 1805, but his memory survived. For example, during the nineteenth century, Smith’s autobiography was twice reprinted in Connecticut, and he was featured in a brief folk history entitled Traditions of Venture! (1897).
Dictated to a white editor in 1798 when its author was in his late sixties, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa remains a telling primary source on the nature and economics of slavery and freedom during the colonial and early republican periods, as well as a truly American tale of overcoming the odds to become a self-made man. Beginning with the author’s life and capture in Africa, the autobiography presents Smith’s recollections of his time in bondage in colonial New England and his semi-legendary efforts to acquire the capital needed to purchase his own freedom and that of his family—an achievement completed in the years directly preceding the American Revolution. Smith’s Narrative exemplifies the early republican thrust toward individual liberty while also focusing greatly on the practical economic measures that enslaved African Americans faced in attempting to buy themselves out of the institution. That Smith succeeded and became a suitably well-respected member of his Connecticut community to be considered worthy of a published autobiography speaks to his personal fortitude and savvy. The narrative’s language also reveals the effects of decades of treatment as an economic commodity on the human outlook, as Smith continually values his own labor and even the freedom of others in strictly monetary terms.
Smith’s Narrative opens with his recollections of his childhood in Africa, during which he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Although the author is inexact about many details of his childhood, the information he does provide has allowed scholars to make educated guesses about the missing sections of his life. Historians have suggested that Smith lived in the interior regions of what Europeans called the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, from which he may have been captured by Akyem invaders or members of the Segu Bambara and sold into slavery.
Along the way from his homeland to the Atlantic coast—a journey that Smith estimates at some four hundred miles—the captives were attacked by yet another group of rival tribesmen. This latter group successfully took control of the enslaved prisoners, which Smith recounts were “pinioned . . . of all ages and sexes indiscriminately,” and continued the prisoners’ forced march to the Atlantic. Along the way, this new group of captors also seized prisoners, livestock, and goods from the next tribe they encountered. This ongoing violence and kidnapping was likely to have been the result of interethnic conflict and the drive for the wealth that could be generated through the sale of slaves.
The practice of Africans kidnapping other Africans to sell to European and colonial American slave traders was by this time well-established, and Smith’s experiences were in no way unusual in this respect. West African society had a tradition of enslavement and a population with the agricultural skills needed by European plantation owners in the Caribbean and the southern American colonies. This made it a natural recruiting site for bonded laborers, as the members of one ethnic group willingly captured and sold into slavery the members of other ethnic groups in the region. Unusually, Smith’s arrival in the region surrounding the town of Anamaboo involved yet another changing of hands. His captors’ “provisions were then almost spent, as well as their strength.” An unidentified number of local Anamaboo residents attacked the marching groups and managed to claim them from their present captors, perhaps as part of an accepted African practice of seizing valuable commodities, including enslaved prisoners, as compensation for an unpaid debt.
Smith’s was held for a time in one of the slave castles built for this purpose along the Anamaboo coastline, and then sold with his fellow captives to a Rhode Island slaver. The slaves were ordered to “appear to the best possible advantage” so as to generate the maximum profit for their captors when sold to the American crew. Smith was purchased by the ship’s steward, Robertson (or Robinson) Mumford, for a bargain price of “four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico”; during this period, adult male slaves routinely fetched as much as one hundred gallons of rum or more. This first white owner renamed the young African, originally called Broteer, “Venture” in reference to his use of the boy as a speculative business venture.
Not excerpted here is Smith’s discussion of the Middle Passage and his earliest years as a slave. The young captive was transported through Barbados, the hub of the Caribbean slave trade, and taken on to New England with his owner. He spent time in Rhode Island before moving to the main Mumford estate on Fisher’s Island, just south of the Connecticut coastline. There, Smith grew up working the land and tending livestock. His original owner died, leaving him in the charge of his first master’s father, George, and his brother, James; this latter owner is later referenced in the closing certificate asserting the truthfulness of the narrative. The mixed New England economy introduced Smith to a variety of chores. While slaves in the southern American colonies worked nearly exclusively raising and harvesting cash crops such as tobacco or rice, northern slaves developed a variety of skills relating to the running of a farm, from tending animals to polishing shoes and chopping wood. All of the skills later served Smith in his quest for freedom. Smith also developed a reputation for honesty and dedication.
The young man’s loyalty came into question, however, after he joined an escape attempt engineered by one of the Mumfords’ indentured servants in 1754. The attempt failed; although Smith was not punished for his involvement, he was sold to a Thomas Stanton not long after. Following a quarrel with the Stanton family, Smith was again sold, this time to a Hampstead Miner in Stonington, Connecticut. The arrangement proved a short-lived one. Miner had not fully paid Smith’s purchase price, and intended to resell him promptly. An initial deal fell through when Smith refused to move away from his family to New York. Although legally the slave had no say in his placement, his great size and strength sufficiently intimidated the prospective buyer into acceding to Smith’s wishes.
Instead, Smith next worked through an arrangement for a Hartford, Connecticut, man, Daniel Edwards. The relationship was a good one, and Edwards—impressed with Smith’s honesty in dealing with his wine cellar and other valuable goods—wished for him to join the household permanently. Unusually, this exchange, as recounted by Smith, bore remarkable resemblance to an offer of employment to a free man: Edwards declared that he wanted Smith to come to work for him, and guaranteed him that he would not again be sold away. However, he made this offer conditional on whether it “was not unreasonable and inconvenient for [Smith] to be parted from [his] wife and children,” then residing at the Stanton estate in Stonington. Despite Smith’s evident desire to assert that he was a good worker of moral fortitude who had been given to Edwards only because Miner wished to make money on the deal, he took advantage of Edwards’s remarkable offer to give him a horse with which to return to Stonington to be nearer his family.
At Stonington, Smith found that Miner had sold him to a new master, Colonel Oliver Smith. Smith again had the unusual opportunity to express his desires to the white men in charge of his life, declaring that he would prefer to work for Col. Smith than for Stanton, who still had a claim to him. The colonel bought out Stanton’s claim and the exchange was complete. By now, however, Smith had a new goal: liberty. Miner, he states, had “promised to give [him] a chance” at purchasing his freedom, but he had remained in his service for too short a time to make good on that promise. Smith made the proposition to his new master and was pleased when he accepted, quickly fetching some money that he had saved and buried by a nearby road. He had a local free African American man take a promissory note from his master for him, and began serious efforts to earn the money to buy his freedom.
Over the next five years, Smith undertook the great labors that have earned him recognition as a “New England John Henry who swung his ax to break his chains” (Kaplan and Kaplan 255). While working for his master, Smith earned money by fishing and by working on some land near the Stanton estate; his original deposit with Smith also earned interest. Two years later, Smith had garnered a reasonable sum and felt hopeful for his prospects. He received permission from his master to leave the estate and work independently in exchange for a portion of his earnings, all of which Smith paid to his master at the end of the agreed-upon period—some as compensation for the time off to work, but the majority toward his own purchase price. Smith tried to strike a similar deal with his master again a few months later, but was rejected as his labor was needed on the farm during the summer. Again, Smith successfully reached an unusually equitable and business-like deal with his owner, arranging to essentially pay rent to his master in return for the right to complete independent work during the winter months. That Smith was able to reach such agreements and that his master trusted him not to take advantage of them by running away indicates the respect and trust that the pair must have had for each other.
Particularly striking in Smith’s discussion of his work toward freedom is his valuation of that work in exclusively monetary terms. During the process of gaining his liberty, Smith was closely focused on the precise amount of money he had earned at any given point; even at the time of the dictation of the autobiography more than thirty years later, he was able to recall such precise figures as “thirteen pounds six shillings” and “fifty-one pounds two shillings.” Thus, as Smith describes his work toward freedom, it reads much like an accounting ledger. During the six months he spent on Long Island, for example, Smith specifies that he had completed a massive amount of physical labor—cutting and bundling some “four hundred cords of wood, besides threshing out seventy-five bushels of grain”—but he makes no comment on the strength or stamina required to complete these tasks. Equally, Smith is uncomplaining about the period he spent sleeping on the floor “with one coverlet over me and another under me.”
Instead, the described successes and costs of this time are exclusively monetary. Smith gives the precise details as to how he paid down his purchase price over time as a result of his labor; that his master granted him his freedom is mentioned almost as an aside, less important than the fact that his master had done so while Smith still owed him the sum of “thirteen pounds eighteen shillings.” He also notes that, for his freedom, he had paid an “unreasonable price” of “seventy-one pounds two” shillings to Oliver Smith, who asked for that money “in case [he] should ever come to want”—in other words, as security if Smith was unable to support himself and returned to work for his former master. At the end of his period of bondage, Smith reckons his life not by the family he had sired, the work he had completed, or the personal achievements of strength that he had made. Instead, he sees his life as a purely economic endeavor: “I had already been sold three different times, made considerable money with seemingly nothing to derive from it, been cheated out of large sum of money, lost much by misfortune, and paid an enormous sum for my freedom.” Smith had previously entrusted a sum of twenty-one pounds to the brother of his former master Stanton, but the promissory note for this cash was destroyed by Stanton during a quarrel between him and Smith; the event, unsurprisingly, irked the author greatly. To others, Smith had been an economic commodity, and this status influenced how the author saw himself.
This focus on the precise details of money recurs throughout much of the complete Narrative; in discussing the deaths of his children, for example, Smith mentions the sum of seventy-five pounds he lost a result of his son’s death from scurvy while at sea and the price of forty pounds he paid to the doctor who attended to his daughter on her deathbed. Even in the most harrowing of personal tragedies, Smith—who had measured his own value in financial terms for much of his life—rues the loss of considerable sums of cash.
After this excerpted passage, the autobiography continues with a description of Smith’s life as a free man in the pre-revolutionary and early republican era. Here again, Smith’s strength served him well financially. He spent four more years chopping and cording wood, earning enough money to purchase the freedom of two sons along with some other, unrelated enslaved Africans. Smith then began working in the maritime lumber trade and in fishing, saving up to purchase the freedom of his wife and daughter. In his late forties, Smith moved his family to East Haddam, Connecticut, where he bought land and constructed a house. But financial misfortune also struck the entrepreneur. In one instance, a cargo boat was stolen and its goods sold out from under him. In another, he was falsely accused of being responsible for the loss of a quantity of molasses and forced to pay ten pounds for it, largely because he was black and the man suing for the money was wealthy and white.
Although these events clearly galled the author, the overall accord granted him by his community was not diminished by them. Smith’s publishers closed his memoir with a printed statement certifying that Smith’s account is believed to be true, and that the author himself is a “temperate, honest and industrious man” in the eyes of his white Connecticut neighbors, all qualities held in great esteem during the early republican era. Among those certifying Smith’s tale is Edward Smith, the son of the author’s previous owner, Colonel Oliver Smith. This certificate briefly sums up the overall thrust of Smith’s account—his ownership by three separate masters, his efforts to obtain his own freedom through work and financial savings, his purchase of liberty for himself and his family members, and his later establishment of himself as a landowner in East Haddam.
More importantly, the certificate’s presence attests to the respect that Smith had gained among his fellow residents, a particularly remarkable feat considering the generally low regard that early republican white society had for African Americans, enslaved and free. This reputation may stem in part from the personal qualities mentioned by the signatories of the narrative’s closing certificate. It also, however, rests on the great financial success that Smith was able to achieve as a free man. In the roughly three decades between the purchase of his liberty and the dictation of his autobiography to schoolteacher and abolitionist Elisha Niles, Smith had managed to overcome continued efforts by unethical white and African American traders to take advantage of his trust and apparent lack of mathematical skills in the hopes of cheating him out of his earnings. He had built a successful maritime trading business and, later, bought and developed a great deal of land in the inland community of East Haddam. By 1798, he was the owner of more than 130 acres, three houses, at least twenty boats or other water vessels, and a collection of storage buildings. Although the certificate does not mention it, Smith was unquestionably a man of great wealth—a fitting comeback, perhaps, for a person who spent much of his life being held as a measure of wealth by others.
Throughout his Narrative, Smith’s tale is a remarkably economic one. In recounting the various working efforts that he undertook to buy his freedom, the author provides considerable detail about the sheer quantity of labor required to achieve such a feat. Throughout his story, Smith specifies the sums required to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife, even going so far as to comment that he was pleased to have been able to buy his spouse while she was still pregnant so as to be spared paying for the liberty of yet another child. Smith also criticizes the white society of his day for what he perceived as clearly unethical practices that took advantage of black Americans. This intense focus on money, labor, and financial trickery asserts the transformation of enslaved African from human beings to economic commodities during this time period.
Smith had a considerable legacy as a Connecticut folk hero, celebrated especially for his immense strength. As his autobiography recounts, Smith was capable of completing great amounts of work thanks to his physical capabilities. This prowess became the stuff of local legend; well after his death, regional stories told of his great strength as a wrestler and his ability to lift the front portion of a horse by placing his hands around the animal’s forelegs. Despite the toll of age, Smith was in later life believed to be able to estimate the weight of an ox by partially lifting it and to have personally freed a beached ship using his bare hands. Thus, his memoir helped make Smith a legendary figure in the years well beyond his death.
Smith’s Narrative has also had enduring value for historians simply as an attested document of the colonial-era slave trade and African American life during the colonial and early republican eras. Unlike other popular slave narratives of the era, particularly Olaudah Equiano’s better-known autobiography, Smith’s memoir contains enough internal consistency and external confirmation to go essentially unchallenged as truth. Despite the absence of some specific details about Smith’s African childhood, the narrative correlates with what scholars know of the West Africa–America trading system. In contrast, Equiano’s contemporary narrative may well have drawn on hearsay rather than personal experience to recreate some of these details. Smith, therefore, stands as a particularly reliable voice of the eighteenth-century enslaved and free African American experience. He also remains a strongly African one; despite spending the majority of his life on American shores, Smith conveys the ethics and pride of his African heritage in his autobiography, a concept that fell out of favor in US slave narratives as their authors became more removed from that continent and more connected to the struggle for African American emancipation and citizenship at home.
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