Oak Bluffs library remembers Venture Smith

A man who overcame slavery and documented his life in an autobiography.

Descents of Venture Smith on Amaboe Island — Courtesy Venture Smith Project

Broteer Furro was born in 1729 in Guinea, what is now West Africa, and was raised to lead the tribe of Dukandarra. Even at 1 or 2 years old, his father Sanguin, the prince of Dukandarra, and the community schooled Broteer, and he was a highly educated child. Within a few years, he had been captured during a jihad; his father was killed, and his country was wiped out. Captors marched him 1,000 miles to Anomabo on the Gold Coast — modern-day Ghana. Slave traders sold Broteer for four gallons of rum and a piece of cloth, and he was soon on his way to America. He was bought in 1739 as a “venture” by a Rhode Island slave ship’s officer, and thus renamed Venture Smith.

Recently at the Oak Bluffs library, Chandler Saint, the president of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights in Torrington, Conn., spoke about Venture Smith, and why we should all know his story and the stories of other slaves. Mr. Saint co-directs the Documenting Venture Smith Project and he spoke as part of Maritime History month at the library, commemorating the Vineyard’s abiding connection with the sea. Mr. Saint also oversees the Sloop Venture project, which will be a planned re-enactment of life aboard the slave ship which brought Venture Smith to New England; it will tour the Northeast in the coming years.

Mr. Saint was joined by Johanna Odonkor Svanikier, the Ghanaian cultural ambassador, and they announced their efforts to memorialize the 400th anniversary (in 2019) of the first African slave landing. Venture Smith would go on to buy his freedom, and wrote an autobiography that may be the earliest known example of an autobiographical narrative in the voice of an African-American. The book had this unwieldy but descriptive title: “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.”

Venture wrote of his experience:

“The invaders then pinioned the prisoners of all ages and sexes indiscriminately and then moved on their way toward the sea.”

Among the attendees at the library event was Island resident Floyd Henry, a ninth-generation descendant of Venture Smith.

About Anomabo, the port in modern-day Ghana, Mr. Saint said, “Anomabo was built for one purpose — to buy and sell human beings. It operated basically for 100 years, from 1707 to 1807, and during that period, from dawn till dusk every hour of every day for 100 years, an African was stripped of his or her freedom and shipped by the Middle Passage to become the labor force of the West Indies and colonial North America.”

An estimated 450,000 Africans, including Venture Smith, were forced into a life of slavery during this 100-year period; his narrative offers a fascinating glimpse into their lives.

“After an ordinary passage,” he wrote, “except for great mortality by smallpox which broke out onboard, we arrived in Barbadoes.”

“It’s an actual, pure autobiography. There are less than two dozen autobiographical works published in the 17th and 18th century, so it’s an extremely important literary document,” Mr. Saint said. “Some people criticize he was only 11, so he couldn’t have been that well educated. Well, Henry the VIII’s son was 9 or so when he assumed the throne.”

Venture recalls the boat in his narrative — about how all but four of the slaves were sold to planters.

A map of the fort at Anamabo.

But Venture and a handful of others continued sailing to Rhode Island, and were sold to the Mumford residence. Mr. Saint said Venture spent years on Fishers Island, N.Y., and it is a sort of anomaly that one of the most well-documented slaves never left the Northeast.

In his prime, Venture towered over 6 feet tall, and weighed 300 pounds:

“I descended from a very large, tall and stout race,” he reported in his book, “commonly about six feet and every way well proportioned …” 

When freed, he was able to buy two farms, one in Connecticut and one in Southampton, N.Y. He worked extraordinarily hard, and one by one, he was able to free the members of his family.

Canoes similar to those used to shuttle slaves out to slave ships. —Courtesy Venture Smith Project

“The average laborer was getting one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pounds a month,” Mr. Saint said at the library. “And Venture went out and cut wood, traded, did everything under the sun to get the money to free his family. His kids were worth about 150 pounds. And finally, after nine years, Venture freed his family. He went on to free other enslaved people outside his family”

By the time Venture Smith reached his 60s, he saw himself as a Connecticut gentleman and patriarch. He died on Sept. 30, 1805, at the age of 77, and Venture Smith Day is celebrated on that day at the First Church Cemetery in in East Haddam, Conn., where he was laid to rest.

The story of Venture Smith is a singular one in American history — the son of a prince who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, only to claim a position in Connecticut society. “I paid an enormous sum for my freedom,” he wrote. “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal.”

You can find a transcript of Venture Smith’s autobiography, “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,” at bit.ly/venturesmith. A copy of the book and an audiotape version are also available at the Oak Bluffs library.