by Crystal Harpstreit
In 1736, an eight year old boy is captured in Africa along with hundreds of others and sent across the Atlantic in a terrifying journey to America to be sold as a slave. Venture Smith, then known as Broteer Furro, moved from the shadows of obscurity to being an integral link between the history of slavery in western Africa and New England. His life is the best documented out of the countless individuals who were forced to cross the Atlantic and into a life of slavery.
It is known that he was from western Africa, probably somewhere in Ghana, Togo or Benin. After his capture by an unnamed enemy army, Venture was sent to the famous slave castles in Ghana. Later, he was put on a Rhode Island slave ship and sent across the Atlantic with 260 others, many of whom did not survive the journey.
“After an ordinary passage, except great mortality by the small pox, which broke out on board, we arrived at the island of Barbadoes, but when we reached it, there were found out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, not more than two hundred alive,” states Venture in “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself.”
After Barbados, Venture landed in New York, and then moved on to finally settle in Connecticut. Researchers, including Chandler Saint, president, The Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, hope to make a place in history for the Venture Smith sites in the Stonington area and in Haddam Neck where Venture had a farm with his family after he was freed.
“There is an application pending to make the Venture Smith sites world heritage sites,” stated Chandler. This will create a tangible link between Ghana, where the slave castles remain; these are already recognized by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as world heritage sites. Archeological research will begin this summer in the Stonington area where Venture once lived.
Always determined and a hard worker, Venture took on odd jobs in the years that he was owned by Oliver Smith, eventually earning enough money to buy his and his family’s freedom. Although historians are unsure whether Venture could read and write, the narrative of his life may indicate that he could. Chandler believes that his narrative was probably written by Venture himself, saying, “These are his words,” and that he was, “Clearly a very bright guy.”
Venture was capable of complex real estate deals and getting the most for himself.
The book was written right before Venture died at the age of 69 at his home in Connecticut. The fact that Venture describes real places in his narrative makes him one of the best documented former slaves.
In “A Narrative,” Venture recounts a trek across an unnamed desert region in Africa after his mother became enraged when his father took on a third wife without her permission. She brought the children, including Venture across unnamed countries, finally stopping at a rich farmer’s house where she left the young Venture. He stayed there for about a year until his mother returned and took him home.
After six months of living with his parents, an enemy Tribe invaded and took Venture prisoner along with hundreds of others. The enemy Tribe took them on a long march to the sea. Another Tribe attacked and captured Venture and the others a second time, destined to be sold into slavery.
Venture also tells how he was originally bought and got his English name, “I was bought on board by one Robertson Mumford, steward of said vessel, for four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico, and called Venture on account of his having purchased me with his own private venture.”
Venture is described as an extremely intelligent and strong man. In fact, he was known in town for his strength and height, Chandler mentioned, “He was a bit of a legend around town.” For the time, Venture was very tall, measuring 6 feet 1½ inches tall, at this time in history an average white male stood around 5 feet 8 inches tall and African slaves were around 2 inches shorter than that.
His noted strength and size could be one of the main reasons why Oliver Smith decided to buy him. At the time of the sale, Oliver was building a home for his wife and their first child and needed as much help as he could get. By having a slave do the job instead of hiring free workers, Oliver would be able to save money on the project. Chandler noted that, “Oliver was his own general contractor.”
It seems that Oliver Smith was not viewed as the worst of owners and it can be noted that some third generation ancestors of Venture’s even named one of their sons Oliver Smith. “There was probably some kind of agreement between the two,” says Chandler, where Oliver allowed Venture to work and save money when he was not needed on Oliver’s property.
Some may wonder why Venture Smith decided to keep the name that he was given upon being sold into slavery. Once Venture was free he could have gone back to the name that he was given by his parents. Though the answer will never be clear, Chandler says that it can be noted that Venture, “Reinvented himself,” with this name.
Venture had an extensive knowledge of boat building and had worked on a whaling vessel, so it is highly probable that he could have built his own boat and sailed back to Africa with his family, had he wanted to. However, Chandler says that, “Venture was one of the first to identify himself as an African-American and could have changed his name back, but did not.”