Historian at New London Maritime Society program says former slave produced landmark work
New London - After more than a dozen years of digging through historical maps and documents, traveling as far as to Africa, and analyzing and reanalyzing the words Venture Smith chose carefully for his life story more than 200 years ago, historian Chandler Saint is making a bold pronouncement.
The 32-page autobiography of this wealthy Connecticut tradesman and farmer, first published in New London in 1798, is the first known "pure African-American literary work known to be produced in America," Saint said, supplanting the narratives of Frederick Douglass' and others.
"Once you realize that all these things that people thought were issues in the narrative weren't, you're turning around and able to say, 'this is just a great piece of literature,'" said Saint, who spoke to about 25 people at the New London Maritime Society Sunday in advance of the pending publication of "Venture Smith - Making Freedom," a book he co-authored with George Krimsky.
Saint, who began the Documenting Venture Smith project in 2004 and has been doggedly uncovering and promoting the inspiring story of the former slave-turned-businessman from the halls of Congress to elementary school classrooms, presented new findings of his recent research. The findings, he said, elevate the significance of Smith's narrative by clearing up what scholars believed were discrepancies and factual errors that had cast doubt on the authenticity and historical accuracy of the work.
"It made the narrative a joke" in some circles, Saint said.
Working with other scholars, he said, he has been able to reconstruct a credible timeline of Smith's life from the narrative. This fall, he traveled to Africa with five of Smith's descendents to visit the slave castle in Anomabo, Ghana, where the boy Broteer Furro - Smith's original name - was taken after his capture. By sheer luck, Saint found a historic map in Switzerland that showed the kingdom of Ouangara, the Central African homeland Smith referred to in his book but was obliterated by Islamic invaders.
"It was a lost piece of history in African and Venture has returned that part of Africa's history in his narrative," Saint said.
After establishing the place of his birth and passage, Saint set about to resolve questions raised by the narrative about two parts of his life on Long Island. Smith, who died in 1805 and is buried in East Haddam, spent his first years in this country as a slave on a plantation on Fishers Island, then was bought by a Stonington farmer, Thomas Stanton, and at one time owned his own small farm at Barn Island. After Stanton, Smith went to Capt. Oliver Smith of New London, who allowed Smith to buy his freedom. The two developed a business relationship that lasted 30 years, as Smith prospered and bought the freedom of his wife and four children and eventually settled on a 130-acre farm on the Salmon River in Haddam Neck. A portion of the site is now owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Two parts of his narrative took place on Long Island, and both called the account's credibility into question, Saint said. In one section, Smith recounts an attempt to escape the Fishers Island plantation and taking a route to the Mississippi River, a location that seemed impossible given the times and subsequent events. Saint determined that a typesetter's error changed "Massepe," a river in Long Island, to "Mississippi." Near what is now the Long Island town of Massapequa was a native American village where Smith met the woman who would become his wife, Marget.
"Venture is running away to hide out with a native American tribe on Long Island where he's got a real chance," Saint said.
Long Island reappears again when Saint describes how he "acquired and disposed of" a farm at a place he called Ram Island. Historians could find no place matching the description on Long Island, nor any deed for the land transfer, but Saint said the problem was that no one was reading the narrative correctly.
"Acquired and disposed was not the same as bought and sold," Saint said. Saint found an area owned by the Shinnecock tribe that matches the Ram Island description, where he surmised Smith farmed under "an agreement between honorable people" that was not recorded in the official records.
The linchpin in establishing the narrative as the significant work that it is, Saint said, was in piecing together how Smith learned to read and write, and how the narrative was dictated to his children and grandchildren. He was 69 at the time, and blind.
Instead of being a "black message in a white envelope," as some scholars both black and white have termed it, Saint said, the narrative is told by an African American to other African Americans, who then found a publisher and sold it.
"He's old and he's dying and he wants not to be forgotten, and for his story to live on," Saint said. "Other narratives have sold well. The family is looking to make money."
Smith's former homesite in Haddam Neck, Saint said, "is truly a national landmark, because that's where the narrative was produced. Connecticut can be proud."
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which acquired the site from Connecticut Yankee in 2013, has not yet opened the site to the public.
In addition to the pending publication of the book, the story of Venture Smith is also being furthered through the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is making an educational curriculum based on the story, Saint said.
Two quotes from the Smith's book, originally titled, "A 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," have been made into displays now depicted at the slave castle in Ghana and in a traveling exhibit, Saint said.
One shows a photograph of a wooden rum barrel and a piece of cloth. Next to it are Smith's account of first becoming a captive on the slave ship: "I was brought on board for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico and called Venture. Thus I came by my name."
The other display tells of the deal he made with Oliver Smith to gain his freedom.
"I asked my master one time if he would consent to have me purchase my freedom ... I paid an enormous sum for my freedom, seventy-five pounds two shillings. My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal."
Saint said Smith's story continues to inspire him and those who hear it.
"Venture's is the ultimate act of showing the resilience of a human being to succeed in a world where he was definitely not meant to succeed in," Saint said. "We thank Venture every day."