Storied narrative’s translation prompts a fresh look at the slave trade
Why We Wrote This
The translation of Venture Smith’s narrative into Fante, a widely spoken dialect in Ghana, invites a renewed reckoning with the transatlantic slave trade and a reappraisal of American and Ghanaian history.
Heritage tourism draws visitors to sites in Ghana like the one where Venture Smith was sold into slavery. Here, U.S. resident Cheryl Hardin, from Houston, poses outside Cape Coast Castle, Britain’s West Africa headquarters for the transatlantic slave trade, in Cape Coast, Ghana, July 7, 2009.
December 1, 2020
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By Lindsey McGinnis
Walter Houston Robinson
“A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture” is, at once, a slave narrative and a rags-to-riches tale. This 30-page memoir explains how Venture Smith fell victim to the transatlantic slave trade, survived the Middle Passage, overcame bondage, and became a widely respected businessman, freeing his entire family and acquiring more than 130 acres in Haddam Neck, Connecticut, by the end of his life.
Long available in English, Smith’s story has just been translated into Fante, an Akan dialect spoken by roughly 2.7 million people in Ghana’s coastal regions, where, centuries ago, Smith – known then as Broteer Furro – was sold into slavery.
Along with this expanded access to Smith’s story comes a renewed reckoning with the impact of slavery on Ghana and New England – and with the role that narrative perspective plays in shaping history.
“Today, the greatest challenge we face is not simply racism; it’s invisibility,” says Keith W. Stokes, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group in Newport, Rhode Island. “We’re still telling the story from an owner-class or white perspective.”
Interrupting that perspective, Smith’s story leads to a more balanced understanding not only of slavery but of American and Ghanaian history in general.
In 1739, everything changed for Broteer Furro. The son of a wealthy chieftain in West Africa had just returned home from an apprenticeship when a raiding army attacked their village. According to historians’ estimates, Broteer was only 9 or 10 years old when he watched the raiders kill his father. Like more than a million others during the transatlantic slave trade, he was soon marched to the coast of present-day Ghana and sold to American slavers. Standing aboard the Charming Susanna, Broteer received a new name: Venture. As in, purchased as another man’s personal business venture.
That September, Venture set foot in the New World, and although it would be years before he was able to reclaim his freedom, he never forgot his roots. When he was in his 20s, a particularly violent master threatened to banish Venture if he and his wife, Meg, resisted the family’s abuse.
“I crossed the waters to come here,” Venture replied, “and I am willing to cross them to return.”
In “A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture,” a 30-page memoir considered one of the greatest slave narratives in American history, Venture explains how he overcame bondage and became a widely respected businessman, freeing his entire family and acquiring more than 130 acres in Haddam Neck, Connecticut, by the end of his life. (After purchasing his freedom, Venture adopted his final slave master’s surname, Smith, because of the man’s fairness.)
Venture Smith never returned to Africa, but now his story will.
Frank Warmsley Sr. (center) watches as archaeologists dig at the gravesite of Venture Smith and his family in East Haddam, Connecticut, July 26, 2006. The dig was blessed by Mr. Warmsley and more than a dozen other descendants of Smith who believe science can lend credence to tales of his prodigious strength as a lumberjack, which helped him win his freedom.
The Documenting Venture Smith Project, based in Torrington, Connecticut, in collaboration with scholars from England and Ghana, has translated Smith’s 1798 narrative into Fante, an Akan dialect spoken by roughly 2.7 million people in Ghana’s coastal regions.
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Along with expanded access to Smith’s story comes a reckoning. Of the more than 900 slave voyages sponsored by Rhode Island merchants in the 17th and early 18th centuries, many of those ships, including the Charming Susanna, traded with forts along the Gold Coast. Smith’s narrative reveals not only how the institution of slavery shaped places such as Ghana and New England – pushing back on local beliefs that slavery was not important to these regions’ histories – but also how Middle Passage survivors demonstrated strength and resilience in the worst possible circumstances.
“Slavery is not black history,” says Keith W. Stokes, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group in Newport, Rhode Island. “Black history is how our ancestors survived and thrived despite slavery. And that’s exactly what the Venture Smith story provides – a first-person narrative of how an African boy was able to survive the Middle Passage, survive enslavement, and raise a family.”
Chandler Saint, president and co-director of the Documenting Venture Smith Project, led the translation effort. “We don’t know what language was spoken where Venture was born,” he says. “But what we do know is the last language Venture would have heard as he was being taken out by a canoe to the Charming Susanna would have been the Ghana canoe men speaking Fante.”
Rebecca Shumway, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of “The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” says the slave trade brought hundreds of years of violence to the region – warfare between states, banditry, kidnapping – as well as commerce and, for some, new power. During this time, Fante spread from a relatively small area to being the main language spoken from Accra to the Ivory Coast.
“The Fante became sort of the ruling elite during the period of the slave trade. … And so their language became the lingua franca of trade for the African population,” she says.
When Dr. Shumway lived in Ghana in the 1990s, she noticed there was very little interest in the slave forts scattered along the coast or other relics of the trade. People were more interested in the legacy of British colonialism, which had only ended in 1957 and felt like slavery to many who remembered it. But since then, there’s been a growing reverence for these sites, due in part to the rise of heritage tourism and unprecedented access to historical data that reveals how different countries, states, and colonies participated in the transatlantic slave trade.
“It became possible to actually count the number of voyages and, in most cases, the number of captives aboard those voyages,” says Dr. Shumway. “Before that, everybody was just guessing.”
Smith’s narrative brings those numbers to life.
“In Africa, we like telling stories a lot,” says Gertrude Afiba Torto, an education lecturer at University of Cape Coast. And if those stories come in one of Ghana’s 11 official languages, even better.
“The children, especially those at the lower primary level, will appreciate the lesson in their local language better because they can identify with it,” says Dr. Torto.
Tim Martin/The Day/AP/File
Nancy Byrne (front right) of Chester, Connecticut, points out initials inscribed in the rock of a stone wall during a walking tour of 26 acres of land owned by Venture Smith in Stonington, Connecticut, now part of the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, Dec. 13, 2009.
An expanded history for New Englanders
Back across the Atlantic, experts agree that reconstructing the lives and stories of individuals who experienced slavery is crucial.
“We developed more information on Venture than exists probably on any other survivor of the Middle Passage,” says Robert Pierce Forbes, principal historian of the Documenting Venture Smith Project. “And that’s in large part Venture’s doing.”
Firmly planted in the Northeast, Smith never traveled below Long Island. So his narrative reinforces what Dr. Forbes describes as a growing recognition of the role slavery played in America’s northern colonies. Whether it’s Brown University joining other colleges in acknowledging its ties to 18th-century slavers or white families confronting their own history, new research is helping to chip away at the notion that slavery was only a Southern phenomenon.
In the United States, as in Ghana, Smith’s narrative could serve as an invaluable educational tool, expanding the traditional view of early American history – slavery, revolution, and all.
“A useful comparative written in the same time period as ‘Venture’ is [Benjamin] Franklin’s autobiography,” says Joanne Pope Melish, author of “Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780–1860” and a visiting scholar in American studies at Brown University. “Franklin also starts out ‘unfree’ and runs away. But as a white man, he is able to end up a famous patriot and Founding Father.” Smith begins his life in the New World with no autonomy, and by his self-initiated heroic struggles ends up a successful property owner, fulfilling his American dream.
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Yet despite efforts by the Documenting Venture Smith Project, more people know the names Brown and Franklin than Venture Smith, says Mr. Stokes.
“Today, the greatest challenge we face is not simply racism; it’s invisibility,” he says. “We’re still telling the story from an owner-class or white perspective. And before we have reconciliation with white organizations, you start with recognition. … We have to start with the people, which is Venture Smith and all the African men and women who survived like him.”