Venture Smith, a six-year-old African prince, was captured by an invading tribe around 1735 and sold as a slave to a Rhode Island ship steward.
During the 60 years he lived in the United States he worked hard and bought his freedom. He bought his family’s freedom. And he bought the freedom of several other slaves.
Venture Smith eventually prospered fishing, whaling, farming and trading on the Salmon River near his home in East Haddam, Conn.
In 1798, he dictated the story of his life and had it printed by The Bee, in New London, Conn.
So-called slave narratives developed into a popular literary genre in the 19th century, with an estimated 6,000 published. Venture Smith was probably the first person to record the experience of being captured as a slave in Africa.
Before Venture Smith
He had a different name then: Broteer Furro. He was born around 1729, the first son of the first wife of Saungmu Furro, who ruled as a tribal king in West Africa. One day, when the boy had reached his sixth year, they learned of an impending attack by an invading army.
Venture Smith wrote that they decided to retreat. His father and his other two wives went in one company, Venture Smith with his mother and siblings in another.
We left our dwellings in succession, and my father’s company went on first. We directed our course for a large shrub plain, some distance off, where we intended to conceal ourselves from the approaching enemy, until we could refresh ourselves a little.
But then a scouting party discovered them after they built a little fire to cook victuals. Just as the family extinguished it,
…the enemy, who happened to be encamped a little distance off, had sent out a scouting party who discovered us by the smoke of the fire.
As soon as we had finished eating, my father discovered the party and immediately began to discharge arrows at them. This was what I first saw, and it alarmed both me and the women, who, being unable to make any resistance, immediately betook ourselves to the tall, thick reeds not far off, and left the old king to fight alone. For some time I beheld him from the reeds defending himself with great courage and firmness, till at last he was obliged to surrender himself into their hands.
Torture and Death
The enemy came to them in the reeds, and one of them clubbed Venture Smith with a gun while grabbing him around the neck.
I then had a rope put about my neck, as had all the women in the thicket with me, and were immediately led to my father, who was likewise pinioned and haltered for leading. In this condition we were all led to the camp. The women and myself, being submissive, had tolerable treatment from the enemy, while my father was closely interrogated respecting his money, which they knew he must have.
But as he gave them no account of it, he was instantly cut and pounded on his body with great inhumanity, that he might be induced by the torture he suffered to make the discovery. All this availed not in the least to make him give up his money, but he despised all the tortures which they inflicted, until the continued exercise and increase of torment obliged him to sink and expire. He thus died without informing his enemies where his money lay.
Venture Smith watched as the enemy tortured his father to death.
The shocking scene is to this day fresh in my memory, and I have often been overcome while thinking on it. He was a man of remarkable stature. I should judge as much as six feet and six or seven inches high, two feet across the shoulders, and every way well proportioned. He was a man of remarkable strength and resolution, affable, kind and gentle, ruling with equity and moderation.
Venture Smith, Captured
Venture Smith wrote that the enemy had a large army of about 6,000 men under the leadership of Baukurre. After killing his father, they decamped and marched to the sea, taking him and the women prisoners. During the march, the leader of a scouting party made the boy his waiter, carrying his gun and other things.
As we were a scouting, we came across a herd of fat cattle consisting of about thirty in number.
These we set upon and immediately wrested from their keepers, and afterwards converted them into food for the army. The enemy had remarkable success in destroying the country wherever they went. For as far as they had penetrated they laid the habitations waste and captured the people. The distance they had now brought me was about four hundred miles. All the march I had very hard tasks imposed on me, which I must perform on pain of punishment.
He had to carry on his head a large flat stone for grinding corn, which weighed as much as 25 pounds. He also had to carry “victuals, mat and cooking utensils.”
Though I was pretty large and stout of my age, yet these burdens were very grievous to me, being only six years and a half old.
The invaders then attacked the village of Malagasco and took more prisoners. They marched on to the coastal village of Anamaboo, where the inhabitants attacked the invaders and, in turn, took their prisoners.
I was then taken a second time. All of us were then put into the castle and kept for market.
The British had built the castle, Fort William, in 1753, and later used it as the center of their slave trading ventures.
Four Gallons of Rum
The boy’s captors put him and other prisoners on board a canoe under their master, and rowed to a vessel. It belonged to a Rhode Island captain named Collingwood and the mate, Thomas Mumford. As they approached the vessel, he wrote, “our master told us to appear to the best possible advantage for sale.”
The steward, Robertson Mumford, bought him onboard that vessel for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico. He called him VENTURE because he had purchased him “with his own private venture.” Thus he came by his name.
Venture Smith noted that buyers bought 260 slaves on that ship alone.
East Haddam holds an annual Venture Smith Day in September. Some of his descendants still live in Connecticut.
This story was updated in 2022.
With thanks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which holds the digitized version of A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture Smith, a Native of Africa, but Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America. Related by Himself. New London: Printed in 1798. Reprinted A. D. 1835, and Published by a Descendant of Venture. Revised and Republished with Traditions by H. M. Selden, Haddam, Conn., 1896.
Images: Fort William By The National Archives UK – Flickr account – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record CO1069. For high quality reproductions of any item from The National Archives collection please contact the image library., OGL v1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19121188.