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Guestwords: The Real Venture Smith

Thu, 02/16/2023 - 09:35

Venture Smith was not his real name — it was Broteer Furro. Born into a royal family in Dukandarra in West Africa around 1730, Broteer was captured as a boy by slave raiders, forcibly marched along with others to the coast, and put aboard a ship bound for Barbados. During the crossing many died of smallpox, and most who survived the ordeal were sold into slavery.

Broteer and a few others were taken to Rhode Island. For four gallons of rum and some calico, a man named Robert Mumford acquired Broteer and dubbed him “Venture.” He would use the boy’s labor in a business scheme.

Venture found himself living on Long Island’s East End — specifically, Fishers Island, the small island east of Orient Point and now part of Southold Town. On land leased by Mumford, Venture likely tended sheep and cows. The days were hard and long, exacerbated by the brutality of Mumford’s son, who beat and tormented Venture.

But the young Venture was industrious, in a manner that makes one think that maintaining good character was a way — the first way — he would resist the cruel and unjust conditions of his life.

Indeed, there were few he could trust in his new home. Once, an Irish indentured servant named Heddy enticed Venture and a few others to escape. They got on a boat and went to Montauk. There the Irishman left them, and it became clear he intended to betray his companions and steal everything they had brought. But Venture and the others caught up with him and turned him in. He was sent to jail, and Venture and the others went back to work.

After many years of servitude on Fishers Island, Venture was sold to Thomas Stanton in Stonington, Conn. Under him conditions were no better, although he allowed Venture to spend time earning money in order to one day buy his freedom.

Venture’s physical stature and strength were an advantage in hiring himself out cording wood and doing other work that required skill and endurance. Yet one day Venture found Stanton’s wife abusing Meg, the woman Venture had married on Fishers Island. With characteristic courage and self-respect, Venture resisted — and stood up to her. In retaliation, Thomas Stanton came at Venture with an oar. Venture managed to overpower him but could not prevent this unscrupulous pair from stealing all the money Venture and Meg had been saving. He argued for its restoration with local authorities, but to no avail.

Venture was next bought by Capt. Oliver Smith, a landowner in Haddam, Conn. Smith also let Venture earn money, and this time, by age 36, he was able to save the exorbitant amount needed to buy his own freedom.

A free man, Venture worked hard in whaling, cutting wood, farming, and fishing, and began to buy land. He prospered and eventually bought Meg, as well as their daughter and two sons. At the time, nearly 20 percent of the population along eastern Long Island Sound were in bondage. The principles of equality and freedom that were pushing the colonies toward independence from Britain didn’t seem to translate to attitudes toward the enslaved.

Venture still faced unfair treatment in his dealings, but his success and integrity made him well known in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and even Long Island.

Venture took the last name Smith in honor of the master who did not betray him. His new name reminds me of the many people in the Bible who receive new names at turning points in their lives, in particular the elderly Abram and Sarai, and the long-lasting consequences of their new lives.

In Genesis, one night when the sky is rife with glittering stars, God visits Abram and calls him out of his tent to look up. He tells Abram, who is childless and assumes the childbearing years are over, that he and Sarai will have descendants: a “multitude of nations.” Despite the obvious barrier, Abram believes God. At that point God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah, and they miraculously conceive a son. Generations later, Jews, Christians, and Muslims consider Abraham and Sarah their spiritual father and mother, and know that in God’s eyes, all human beings belong to one family, equal and beloved.

For Venture, it must have been exhilarating to choose a name after his given name had been taken from him long ago. And it is reassuring to know that at least some slaveholders lived up to their word. But what is remarkable about this act is how it signals Venture’s resilience and integrity, not only resisting oppression at every turn, but extending respect for the honest actions of Smith, someone he naturally could have resented for every other reason.

If anyone lived out the ancient promise of Abraham and Sarah it was Venture, taking his place in the family of God, acting on his essential equality with all other peoples of the world despite the adversity inflicted upon him. And through his life, inspiring others to do the same.

When Venture was 69 he wrote down his story, and a progressive newspaper in New London published it. There was an introduction to the narrative by Elisha Niles, an abolitionist schoolteacher who may have also helped the illiterate Venture get his words on paper. Niles delivered a pointed and poignant message about the great losses Venture endured because of bondage, but also what a great loss to humanity it was to relegate Venture to a life in which his prodigious gifts would be stifled.

Niles wrote that Venture was “a man of character and genius and feeling” who endured terrible deprivations, and that some white people would benefit from following his example. He added that if Venture had had some education, the reader “might be seeing in this biography a Franklin or a Washington.”

Venture Smith died in 1805. In a lasting tribute to his remarkable journey, his headstone is in the churchyard at the First Congregational Church in East Haddam, Conn., not far from where he had acquired over 100 acres of land. He lived there with his family on a homestead, remains of which have recently been unearthed.

The Rev. Candace Whitman is a pastor at large for the Presbytery of Long Island. She lives in East Hampton.

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