By His Own Industry

By Ana Daniel
Chandler B. Saint Dorothea DiCecco

“Venture Smith”
Chandler B. Saint with 
Robert Pierce Forbes 
Beecher House Center for the 
Study of Equal Rights, $9.95

We in the North like to think of the sin of slavery as belonging to the South, in fact enslavement of Native Americans and Africans was also common practice from colonial times in New York and New England. Venture Smith was one such, whose gravestone in East Haddam, Conn., describes him (by his own order) as “an African tho the son of a King he was kidnapped & sold as a slave but by his industry he acquired Money to purchase his Freedom, who Died Sep 19, 1805 in the 77th Year of his Age.”

The extensively illustrated volume in question combines a historical biography of Venture Smith, which includes much information on Northern slavery in the colonial period and early years of the Republic, and a facsimile of Smith’s own account of his life published in New London in 1798.­

Opening with the biography section, written by Chandler B. Saint, the life of Venture Smith is set in the context of the time — that is, the 18th century — and New Englanders’ involvement in the slave trade and the treatment of slaves in their possession. Historically, this is an important contribution to our understanding of slavery in North America, and perhaps an eye-opener to some readers.

The story begins with Venture’s capture in the interior of West Africa along with some women of his tribe by a rival tribe that had probably been converted to Islam. This was not unusual since, according to the BBC, “The Muslim slave trade from Africa seems to have enslaved roughly similar numbers (estimates vary between 11 and 14 million Africans) to the Atlantic slave trade.” Along the thousand-mile trek to the coast, the tribal slavers captured more people and turned them over to the British Middle Passage traders for shipment to America. 

The point here is that it was other Africans who brought slaves to the coastal trading ports, where Europeans bought them for transport to markets in the Western Hemisphere. Of these, close to half a million were taken to the North American mainland (and this, according to an exhibition at Ellis Island, was a small fraction of the total Atlantic slave trade, of which 50 percent went to the Caribbean and 33 percent to Brazil).  

Venture, whose original name was Broteer Furro, was perhaps fortunate that he was immediately purchased by Robertson Mumford, a Rhode Islander and a steward of the slaver vessel Charming Susanna, for his personal use, thus sparing Venture from possible sale at their first stop in Barbados, where the terrible conditions shortened the lives of slaves, requiring them to be frequently replenished. Ironically, Mumford named Broteer “Venture” because he purchased him with his own earnings from the slave-trading venture.  

We learn from Mr. Saint’s account that “between 1720 and 1750, the slave population of Rhode Island multiplied more than sixfold.” Venture was captured in 1739 at the age of 12. He was taken by Mumford to Fishers Island (then still part of Connecticut), where he joined 16 other slaves raising provisions for the triangular trade that linked New England shippers to their customers in the Caribbean who needed food and livestock, and then to Africa, where they bought new slaves to resupply the Caribbean.

This provisioning activity was an important business for the colonials who inhabited the Narragansett area and the Manor Islands of Long Island Sound. These so-called Manor plantations were grants from the British crown, of which there were 13 on Long Island, including Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island and Gardiner’s Island. They all used slave labor. In 1774, Connecticut ended all forms of slave trade, but there still remained about 6,400 slaves in the colony.

Turning now to Venture Smith’s own narrative, we find that from the first he contemplated obtaining his freedom, working odd jobs to earn small sums, which he saved. Along the way to achieving his goal, he was bought and sold three times, mistreated by some of his masters but encouraged by others to work independently in his spare time. In 1765, he bought his freedom from his last master, one Colonel Smith, and took his name. Eventually, he would buy the freedom of his wife and their three surviving children.

At several points he worked on Long Island, notably buying a farm on Ram Island in Southampton in 1770. According to the Mr. Saint, by then 10 percent of Long Island’s population was black, some slaves and some freemen. Venture himself bought several black men, some of whom ran away (to Venture’s dismay) and some of whom he freed. His attitude toward them seems from his account more akin to that of his masters’ than our present sympathies might expect. But apart from one or two white men in the story, he was often cheated by colonials with whom he came in contact and in later years did business.

The end of Venture Smith’s account is bittersweet: “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal. Notwithstanding all the losses I have suffered by fire, by the injustice of knaves, by the cruelty and oppression of false hearted friends, and the perfidy of my own countrymen whom I have assisted and redeemed from bondage, I am now possessed of more than one hundred acres of land [in East Haddam, Conn.] and three habitable dwelling houses.” 

Throughout his own account, Venture Smith emerges as a very proud and money-conscious man, a son of a king who worked very, very hard to earn the wherewithal that purchased his freedom from slavery. It is a sad and ennobling tale.

Before concluding, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to Mac Griswold’s book “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is a masterful account that parallels the book under review.  


Ana Daniel is the special projects editor for The Southampton Review. She lives in Bridgehampton.

Chandler B. Saint is co-director of the Documenting Venture Smith Project and the president of the Beecher House Center for the Study of Equal Rights, in Connecticut. He will speak at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. More information about the book is available by emailing info@venturesmith.org.

A late-18th-century illustration of African slavers with captives
A map detail of eastern Long Island showing Southampton’s Ram Island, where Venture Smith said he “fished with set-nets and pots for eels and lobsters.” Documenting Venture Smith Project