A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture. VENTURE SMITH, BROTEER FURRO.
A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture
A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture
A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture

A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture

“[New England slave merchants] rarely consigned whole shipments from Africa to New England but often carried a few slaves home after selling most captives in the plantation colonies. As Rhode Island merchant James Brown instructed his brother Obadiah in 1717: ‘If you cannot sell all your slaves [in the West Indies]… bring some of them home; I believe they will sell well.’ Autobiographer Venture Smith arrived in New England this way. He survived the Middle Passage to Barbados with two hundred fellow Africans and was one of four to remain aboard to continue to New England.”
– Gregory O’Malley, pp. 159–162.; quoting William Dillon Piersen, p. 4.


RARE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN SLAVE NARRATIVE IN EXPANDED EDITION; FAMILY COPY SIGNED BY VENTURE’S DESCENDANT AND FROM THE LIBRARY OF BEST-SELLING AFRICAN-AMERICAN NOVELIST ANN PETRY.

The only slave narrative of the period either written or dictated by a person of color that is not a story of conversion, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture captures the perennially salient experiences of one of the United States’ first freedmen. “The pointedly non-conversion Narrative of Smith may reflect in its form Smith’s disillusion at the end of the century with the failed promises of the ‘first emancipation’ and the bitter irony of his being a subject of the United States of America […] Smith is pointedly only a ‘resident’ of the country, which, as the anonymous voice in the preface to his story reminds us, has denied him the citizenship and thus the opportunities that might have allowed him to rival the achievements of Benjamin Franklin or George Washington.” (Unchained Voices, p. 9).

This copy of Venture was acquired and preserved by Bertha James Lane, a Connecticut native who, as a professional African-American woman in a largely white community, would have been drawn to the life of Venture—by all accounts a respectable, intelligent man who was appreciated by both communities of his free adulthood. Lane was a frequenter of auctions and estates sales and likely unearthed the present copy in or near her home town.

Lane passed the present copy down to her daughter Ann Petry, the author of The Street (1946)—a powerful examination of the life of a single woman raising a boy in Harlem. Petry, politically and aesthetically connected to progressive movements in Harlem in the 1940s, was the first African-American female author to sell over a million copies. The year before its publication she had written about Venture in “New England's John Henry" for the March 1945 edition of Negro Digest. The tagline reads “Legends of Venture Smith’s strength still live in Connecticut River Valley.”

This copy is signed by a descendant of Venture—his great-great grandson Charles—mentioned in the genealogy of Venture's family included in this expanded edition (Venture—Cuff—George—Nelson—Charles): “C. Eugene Smith | River View | Portland, Conn.” Charles has delicately bracketed in pencil the section mentioning his immediate family: "George, the second son of Cuff Smith, married and had several children, one of whom was Nelson of Haddam, the father of Charles, who was born in Haddam in 1847, and married Ascenath Hurd of East Haddam" (p. 38).

This expanded edition (the second edition after the extremely scarce 1798 first printing of Venture’s narrative alone) is virtually unprocurable. It appears to have been a locally printed labor of love likely prepared in a small number. Thirteen copies are recorded by OCLC in institutional hands. We find no copies having ever traded hands at auction.

To find one with this provenance—a family copy, preserved by Bertha James Lane and ending in the library of Ann Petry—is truly astounding.

Provenance: Bertha James Lane, by descent to daughter Ann Petry, by descent to Ann Petry’s daughter Liz Petry.

SMITH, VENTURE; [FURRO, BROTEER]. 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. 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. Middletown, Conn.: J.S. Stewart, Printer and Bookbinder, 1897. Second edition, “revised and republished with traditions by H.M. Selden.” Slim octavo, 41 pp. Stapled wrappers, fragile, browned, lower panel soiled; pages sturdy.

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Contents:

Pages i-ii: Cover and copyright page

Pages iii-iv: Preface

… This narrative exhibits a pattern of honesty, prudence and industry to people of his own color; and perhaps some white people would not find themselves degraded by imitating such an example. The following account is published in compliance with the earnest desire of the subject of it, and likewise a number of respectable persons who are acquainted with him.” (p. iv)

Pages 5–29: Reprint of Venture’s original text, as dictated to Elisha Niles, divided into three chapters:

Chapter 1: Containing an account of his life, from his birth to the time of his leaving his native country. (pp. 5–12)

Still the only known slave narrative recalling details of life in Africa before his enslavement. Venture, a boy of 6, 7 or 8 depending on the source, was the eldest son of the king of a tribe of Guinea. He relates the family structure from his early years, the attack and capture by a neighbouring tribe (as well as the brutal attack on his father), his escape, return, and subsequent capture and sale, ultimately departing his native land as the property of a Rhode Island shipman—who purchased him with rum and calico.

Chapter 2: Containing an account of his life from the time of his leaving Africa to that of his becoming free. (pp. 13–22)

Venture tells of his multiple masters, his relationships with and work for them, and his work to earn money to purchase his freedom. He also discusses his marriage and his growing family.

Chapter 3: Containing an account of his life from the time of his purchasing his freedom to the present day. (pp. 23–29)

Venture presents himself as a strong, able, dogged, and fair man, one who, in the face of unspeakable unfairness and adversity, is able to develop and nurture a family and multiple businesses after securing his freedom and that of his wife and children. He also mentions buying various slaves from their masters, noting, however, that his kindness was often ill-used.

Page 30: Certificate

The story, as printed in this and earlier editions, includes this “certificate authenticating his tale”, signed in print by Nathaniel Minor, Esq., Elijah Palmer, Esq., Capt. Amos Palmer, Acors Sheffield, and Edward Smith.

Pages 31–41: The fruits of Selden’s research, through letter and in-person interview, at times printing quotes from elderly acquaintances of Venture provided by their children:

Here begins the value of this new edition, printed likely in small number, known only through a handful of institutional copies, and unseen in any extant auction records.

Acknowledging that the original edition is out of print, Selden writes that, “to meet the demand for a new edition and to include traditions gathered by correspondence, personal intercourse with the aged and supplemented by some account of his family, is the object of the compiler” (p. 31).

Noting that “traditions vary sometimes” (page 33), he reports on the “truthfulness” of known stories, and provides additional information about Venture’s life and personality. Selden describes Venture’s house and land, his appearance (including girth and foot size), height, weight, and prodigious strength. Of the many stories he relates, the most charming is the lesson Venture shared with his wife on their wedding day: “If we pull in life against each other we shall fail, but if we pull together we shall succeed” (p. 36).

Venture died at the age of 77—far younger than those who would live to pass on their memories of him to their children. When he died, his body was borne to burial “by four strong men fittingly chosen. The two in front were white, proving the respect he had won, while two of his own race assisted in the rear” (p. 36).

Pages 37–38: A genealogy, with purchase prices and occupation details of his children:

This copy is signed by a descendant of Venture mentioned in that genealogy—his great-great grandson Charles (Venture—Cuff—George—Nelson—Charles): “C. Eugene Smith | River View | Portland, Conn.” Charles has delicately bracketed in pencil the section mentioning his immediate family:

"George, the second son of Cuff Smith, married and had several children, one of whom was Nelson of Haddam, the father of Charles, who was born in Haddam in 1847, and married Ascenath Hurd of East Haddam. They have eight children and reside in Cobalt, worthy descendants of Venture" (p. 38).

Pages 38–41: Stories of Venture’s descendants, as well as of those who claim to be his family but whose connection is in doubt.

Venture Day is celebrated annually in East Haddam, CT, with a graveside ceremony including further descendants, visiting scholars, and local dignitaries.

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References:

O’Malley, Gregory E., “Beyond the Middle Passage: Slave Migration from the Caribbean to North America, 1619–1807”, William and Mary Quarterly 66.1 (2009), 125–72

Piersen, William Dillon, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988)

Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

Price: $35,000 .

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