According to the narrative, Broteer, was born in “Dukandarra” in “Guinea,” a generic term often used to describe the homeland of enslaved West Africans. Scholars believe it most likely that Dukandarra is in present-day Ghana, but its precise location is unknown, and it is also not known to which ethnic group his family belonged. Historian Paul Lovejoy has speculated that references to cattle and livestock in the Narrative indicate that Broteer probably came from the interior savanna region rather than the forests closer to the coast.
Broteer’s father was Saungm Furro, a West African prince of Dukandarra who had three wives. Broteer was the eldest son of the first wife. The Narrative relates that in 1735, when he was six years old (Lovejoy suggests that the boy was more likely twelve), an “army supplied by whites” captured him and marched him to the coast, most likely to the slave-trading center of Anomabo in Southern Ghana (Smith, 544). During the capture Broteer had seen his father tortured and killed, a haunting memory that stayed with him for the rest of his life. After being imprisoned for two years Broteer relates that he was sold into slavery to a Rhode Island steward on board the ship named Robinson (or Roberston) Mumford, who purchased Broteer for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico cloth. Since Broteer also writes that the owner of the slave ship was “Captain Collingwood,” it is most likely that the vessel he sailed on was the Charming Susannah, according to the Slave Voyages database: https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/36067/variables That ship left Newport, Rhode Island, in October 1738 and arrived on the Gold Coast (Ghana) in early 1739. It was Mumford who gave Broteer his American name, Venture, a result, as Broteer recalled in his memoir, of his master “having purchased me with his own private venture” (Smith, 545).
With new captives in tow, Mumford's first stop was Barbados. En route, however, a quarter of his “cargo” died, having been afflicted with smallpox during the Middle Passage. The remaining enslaved were sold to planters there, except for Venture and three others who continued on to Rhode Island. During his time in bondage he lived with various slaveowners along the Atlantic seaboard. He spent a dozen years with Mumford in Rhode Island and on Fischer's Island near Long Island, New York, and at least a dozen more with another master, Thomas Stanton of Stonington Point, Connecticut. His third and final master was Colonel Oliver Smith of Long Island, New York, whose surname he kept after his emancipation. Smith spent his adolescent years working as both a household servant and field hand. In his teenage years he began to resent those who exerted control over him, particularly his master's son James Mumford, who, on one occasion, charged Smith with a pitchfork only to be sent home in tears after Smith got the best of him. As punishment for this act of self-defense Smith was beaten, whipped, and hung on a butcher's gallows for an hour.
Smith survived the gallows and went on to make a life for himself in slavery. He married and had a family. He also saved a considerable sum of money, hiring out his labor as a fisherman, woodsman, and farmer. Because of his work ethic he acquired the reputation as a tireless laborer who could paddle a canoe several miles across the river and back and then cut nine cords of wood—all in a single day. Known also for his size, Smith weighed over three hundred pounds, stood just over six feet tall, and measured six feet around the waist. In his memoir he reported that he “was pretty large and stout,” which played to his advantage against his whip-cracking masters (Smith, 544). Once he snatched a whip away from his master and on another occasion he beat his master and his master's brother after they viciously attacked him.
Nearly three decades after his capture in Africa, Smith had saved enough money to buy his freedom. In 1765, at age thirty-six, he paid his enslaver Colonel Oliver Smith seventy-one pounds and two shillings, a sum roughly the cost of four thousand acres of land. At last a free man again he supported himself by whaling, fishing, chopping wood, and hunting. With the money from his labors he saved enough to buy his family's freedom as well. He also purchased three other slaves from their masters and freed them. In 1776 Smith moved his family to East Haddam, Connecticut, where he built a home and employed two black indentured servants. Soon thereafter he acquired more than a hundred acres of land and bought three homes. He supported these endeavors by buying and selling land, running a shipping business, and acting as a creditor by loaning money to both blacks and whites. Of this last pursuit he once complained that he had “been cheated out of considerable money by people” who took “advantage of my ignorance of numbers” (Smith, 556).
In 1798, in his sixty-ninth year, Smith published his memoir, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, a twenty-page account that was republished at least four times in the two centuries after his death. The Narrative begins with a preface by the Connecticut schoolteacher and antislavery activist Elisha Niles, the man to whom Smith dictated the memoir and who encouraged Smith to write the account. Accompanying the publication of Smith's memoir was a December advertisement in the New London Bee describing Smith as “a negro remarkable for size, strength, industry, fidelity, and well known in the state of Rhode Island, Long Island, and in Stonington, East Haddam, and several other parts” of Connecticut. Among the earliest examples of its kind in the Americas Smith's memoir offers a clear and concise account of his rise from slavery to that of a self-made man. It spans the years just prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution and concludes in 1798. The memoir was, in Niles's words, “a pattern of honesty, prudence and industry to people of his own color”—a true rages-to-riches story that could inspire slaves to revolt (Smith, 539).
Smith died in East Haddam, Connecticut, at the age of seventy-seven. His tombstone reads: “Sacred to the Memory of Venture Smith, African. Though the son of a King, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave, but by his industry he acquired money to purchase his freedom.”
A version of this article by Matthew L. Harris originally appeared in African American National Biography.
Online ResourcesA 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. Full text in Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library) https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/venture/menu.html
Documenting Venture Smith Project, www.venturesmith.org
John Wood Stewart, “Venture Smith: from Slavery to Freedom,” Connecticut History website, https://connecticuthistory.org/venture-smith-from-slavery-to-freedom/
Broteer’s gravesite is featured on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. http://www.ctfreedomtrail.org/trail/concept-of-freedom/sites/#!/venture-smith-gravesite
Smith, Venture. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa. Reprinted in Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837, ed. Dorothy Porter (1798; repr. 1971).
Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (1986).
Caretta, Vincent, and Phillip Gould. Genius and Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic (2001).
Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800 (1973).
Saint, Chandler B. with Robert P. Forbes, Venture Smith: My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal (2018).
Stewart, James Brewer. ed. Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom. (2010).
Steven J. Niven
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.