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Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom

Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom

EDITED BY James Brewer Stewart
Foreword by James O. Horton
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom
    Book Description:

    This book originated in the summer of 2006, in the burial ground of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, of East Haddam, Connecticut, where a team of forensic scientists began excavating the graves of two emancipated slaves, Venture Smith (d. 1805) and his wife, Marget (d. 1809). Those requesting this remarkable investigation were the Smiths’ direct descendants, members of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh generations, who were determined to honor the bicentennial of their founding ancestor’s death by discovering everything possible about his life. Opening burial plots in the hope of recovering DNA for genealogical tracing proved a compelling first step. But what began as a scientific inquiry into African origins rapidly evolved into an unparalleled interdisciplinary collaboration between historians, literary analysts, geographers, genealogists, anthropologists, political philosophers, genomic biologists, and, perhaps most revealingly, a poet. Their common goal has been to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary African American and to assay its implications for the sprawling, troubled eighteenthcentury world of racial exploitation over which he triumphed. This volume displays the rich results of that collaboration. A highly intelligent, deeply selfmotivated and immensely energetic slave transported from Africa, Venture Smith transformed himself through unstinting labor into a respectable Connecticut citizen, a successful entrepreneur, and the liberator of other enslaved African Americans. As James O. Horton emphasizes in his foreword to this volume, “Venture Smith’s saga is a gift to all who seek to understand the complex racial beginnings of America. It helps to connect the broad American story with the stories of many Americans whose lives illustrate the national struggle to live out the national ideals.” In addition to Horton and volume editor James Brewer Stewart, contributors include Cameron Blevins, Vincent Carretta, Anna Mae Duane, Robert P. Forbes, Anne L. Hiskes, Paul Lovejoy, Marilyn Nelson, David Richardson, Chandler B. Saint, Linda Strausbaugh, Kevin Tulimieri, and John Wood Sweet.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-048-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    James O. Horton

    The story of Venture Smith is an important part of American history. In many ways, it is an American story of the struggle for freedom. Yet Venture struggled against a powerful American institution, the institution of slavery. The capture and enslavement of this one African in eighteenth-century America before the North American British colonies began their own freedom struggle, which led ultimately to national independence, illustrate the young nation’s most fundamental contradiction. American patriots explained their revolution against the British monarchy as a natural result of their dedication to human rights and human liberty. But by holding tens of thousands...

  4. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    James Brewer Stewart
  5. “How I Came By My Name”
    (pp. xix-xxi)
    Marilyn Nelson
  6. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of VENTURE, . . .
    (pp. 1-32)
    Venture Smith
  7. Part I: History

    • 1 The African Background of Venture Smith
      (pp. 35-55)
      Paul E. Lovejoy

      ANARRATIVE of the Life and Adventures of Venture. . . chronicles the story of a remarkable man, born in the interior of West Africa around 1727 and buried in the cemetery of the Congregational Church in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1805. Like many others, he was sent as a slave across the Atlantic, leaving Anomabu on the Gold Coast in 1739, taken to Rhode Island, and spending his period of slavery on Long Island and in Connecticut. His account of transatlantic migration is one of the few that has survived for enslaved Africans in the eighteenth century,¹ and...

    • 2 Trust and Violence in Atlantic History: The Economic Worlds of Venture Smith
      (pp. 56-82)
      Robert P. Forbes, David Richardson and Chandler B. Saint

      Venture smith has been celebrated as an individual whose life provides a human face for the millions of enslaved Africans caught in the vortex of the Atlantic slave trade.¹ Venture’s life was hardly representative, but examined closely through his own narrative it may be seen as representative of many aspects of the relationship between transatlantic slavery and Atlantic history from slavery’s heyday to the beginnings of its final stages in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine another figure whose experiences both as an enslaved person and as a free American incorporated so many of the historical...

    • 3 Venture Smith and the Law of Slavery
      (pp. 83-128)
      John Wood Sweet

      When, as an aging man, Venture Smith recalled his life as a slave in colonial New York and Connecticut, he still bore the scars—both physical and emotional—of an incident that unfolded around 1759, when he was about thirty years old and had been in America some twenty years. His account of the incident is a vivid example of what is so powerful and unusual about the autobiographicalNarrativehe published in 1798: it offers a rare, eyewitness view into the experience of enslavement and the personal struggles at its heart. Smith’s account also raises broader questions about how...

    • 4 “Owned by Negro Venture”: Land and Liberty in the Life of Venture Smith
      (pp. 129-160)
      Cameron B. Blevins

      In 1798 an ailing Venture Smith reflected as an elderly man on his life’s achievements: “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal. . . . I am now possessed of more than one hundred acres of land, and three habitable dwelling houses.”¹ Smith’s careful listing of his property alongside the “privilege” of his freedom conveyed the immense value he placed on his hard-earned land. The former slave had spent the previous three decades buying, selling, mortgaging, and leasing various tracts of real estate in the Connecticut town of Haddam in order to navigate a world fraught with...

  8. Part II: Memory

    • 5 Venture Smith, One of a Kind
      (pp. 163-183)
      Vincent Carretta

      The publication of a collection of archeological, critical, and historical essays on Venture Smith’sNarrativeacknowledges the place that the story of Smith’s life holds in the African American literary canon. Few would now dispute its current canonized status as a work considered worthy of study on its own literary merits.¹

      But far more difficult to answer is the question of the historical place and role of Smith’sNarrativein the evolving tradition of the genre of the African American slave narrative, in which authors or their editors, or both, were aware of the form, content, and significance of the...

    • 6 Keeping His Word: Money, Love, and Privacy in the Narrative of Venture Smith
      (pp. 184-204)
      Anna Mae Duane

      In 1844 Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote that he was shocked at how little he felt at the loss of his young son Waldo: “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity:...

  9. Part III: Legacy

    • 7 The Genomics Perspective on Venture Smith: Genetics, Ancestry, and the Meaning of Family
      (pp. 207-230)
      Linda Strausbaugh, Joshua Suhl, Craig O’Connor and Heather Nelson

      It seems that hardly a week passes without some reminder that genomic analysis can reveal, often in dramatic fashion, otherwise unknown aspects of human history. Whether through television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet, we are constantly learning about the potential applications of genetic studies. The determination of ancestry based on information derived from an individual’s DNA has become a high-profile cause, especially for the descendents of enslaved Africans, where there is often little in the way of records about the specific lands and peoples of their origins. In this environment, it was natural to ask if a genetics perepective...

    • 8 Venture Smith and Philosophical Theories of Human Rights
      (pp. 231-251)
      Anne L. Hiskes

      Who, if anyone, has the moral right to speak for Venture Smith in giving consent to exhume his grave for DNA? Does this right reside with the family group whose cultural and biological identities merge with Venture’s, or is this exhumation an affront in some way to Venture’s human dignity by turning him into a mere means to someone else’s ends? Furthermore, why is Venture’s story important for us today? Answers to these questions can only be obtained by examining Venture’s story for clues to the nature of his human identity and his core values.

      The story of Broteer Furro,...

    • 9 Venture Smith’s Gravestone: Its Maker and His Message
      (pp. 252-256)
      Kevin J. Tulimieri

      Venture smith died in 1805, at some time in his mid-seventies, and was honored with a large funeral at the East Haddam First Congregational Church. He was buried in the First Church Cemetery and his grave marked with a richly carved gravestone (fig. 9.1). At a glance, the large brownstone marker appears to be typical of many made in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for East Haddam’s prominent citizens. But a closer inspection reveals that the details of Venture Smith’s gravestone are as unique as was Venture himself.

      In a remarkable act of artistic license rarely seen on...

  10. The Freedom Business (ca. 1790)
    (pp. 257-258)
    Marilyn Nelson
  11. Documenting Venture Smith Project TIME LINE The Life of Venture Smith
    (pp. 259-262)
  12. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 263-266)
  13. Index
    (pp. 267-279)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 280-281)