Venture Smith

(c. 1729—1805)

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(c. 1729–1805), autobiographer.

Venture Smith, known as the black Bunyan because of his reputed feats of great strength, was born in Dukandarra, Guinea, West Africa. By Venture's own testimony his father named him Broteer. He was brought to America at the approximate age of eight, having been already sold to an American slaver before he arrived on the shore of Rhode Island. His life for the next twenty-eight years was devoted almost exclusively to his quest for freedom. Sold from master to master until 1760, Smith achieved what he called his “redemption” by buying his freedom on a five-year instalment plan. Most of the remainder of his life was devoted to earning the money, through years of prodigious labor, to free his wife Meg, his sons Solomon and Cuff, his daughter Hannah, and three other black men.

Smith dictated his 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 to an amanuensis, who has been identified as the Connecticut schoolmaster Elisha Niles, in 1798. Calling Smith “destitute of all education but what he received in common with other domesticated animals” such that he could hardly “suppose himself superior to the beasts, his fellow servants,” Smith's recorder refuses to refer to him as a freed African American but rather chooses to label him “an untutored African slave.” Yet no reader of Smith's narrative can escape this man's bitterness at having not realized “in a Christian land” the promise of reward available to white folks of industry. According to Smith's own testimony, no one could have worked harder to achieve the American dream, undeniable according to St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (in Letters from an American Farmer) to whoever would “be just, grateful and industrious.”

Even though by his alleged sixty-ninth year Smith had acquired one hundred acres of land, some twenty “boats, canoes, and sail vessels,” and three habitable dwelling houses in the Connecticut village of Haddam, Smith found that in the American courts he was unable to exact justice for a white man's crime against him. In his native Africa, Smith protests, this crime would “have been branded … highway robbery.” But his adversary “was a white gentleman, and I a poor African, therefore it was all right, and good enough for the black dog [sic].” Despite all his bitterness, Smith still avows, “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal.”

Smith's Narrative is composed of three chapters: the first tracing what he chooses to remember for his largely white audience of his African homeland, the second accounting for his quest to free himself from slavery, and the third revealing his herculean efforts to free his family and others, to participate in the American dream, and to realize for himself and his family a fair share of human dignity. In contrast to the Boston poet Phillis Wheatley, who recalled little of her African homeland to her white captors, Smith presents substantial and fascinating details of his experiences in West Africa. Venture Smith died on 19 September 1805, and his grave in East Haddam is marked by this fitting inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Venture Smith, African though son of a king he was kidnapped and sold as a slave, but by his industry he acquired enough money to purchase his freedom.”


Subjects: Literature.

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