We hope you will join us for our next webinar on Thursday April 22 at our usual time of 4pm (BST). The speaker will be Dr Laura Sandy, Senior Lecturer in the History of Slavery and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the University of Liverpool. Dr Sandy studies the history of North America, the Atlantic World and slavery, and has undertaken archival research in every former slave state in the southern United States. She has looked at plantation management, resistance, free people of colour, voluntary enslavement, the theft of enslaved people and the laws of slavery. Her most recent work investigates the illegal trafficking of the enslaved in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this will be the subject of her talk.
The practice of slave stealing spans the history of American slavery. The theft of human property was clearly a complicated crime and those involved in this ‘underground slave trade’ came from a variety of backgrounds and had an array of motives. By uncovering these histories and integrating them into the broader narrative of slavery, Dr Sandy will provide fascinating new insights into the ‘peculiar institution’ and its evolution over time and space. More broadly, this research enhances our understanding of the multifaceted, internal and external challenges to slavery in the nineteenth century and leading up to the Civil War. Indeed, it argues that slave stealers shaped antebellum southern political thought and made a significant contribution to the rising sense of insecurity over the future of the institution, which led to the growth of sectionalism and the outbreak of war.
To sign up for this free event please click on the link below:
CALL FOR PAPERS: Wilberforce Institute Workshop, October 11, 2021.
Slavery is often considered to be a problem of the past, while climate change is seen as a threat to our future. Yet the two issues present a real threat in the here and now, and often interact with exploitative and dangerous consequences.
Climate change poses an immediate and existential threat to many of the most marginalised communities on the planet. All over the world, the impacts of this global emergency are being felt right now in the form of both sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset events. When combined with ongoing deforestation, pollution and resource scarcity, the impacts of these occurrences, which are making livelihoods ever more precarious for millions of people in the poorest countries, lead to increased levels of migration and displacement.
This situation has clear implications for development and human rights. In the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, climate change is ‘likely to challenge or undermine the enjoyment of almost every human right in the international bill of rights’. Among the human rights issues that emerge most strongly are those linked to exploitation such as forced and unfree labour, human trafficking and slavery.
Meanwhile, research demonstrates that slavery in industries such as mining, fishing, brick-making and timber production can raise greenhouse gas emissions and drive other forms of environmental degradation. It has even been suggested that the climate crisis could be averted completely by putting an end to contemporary slavery.
Yet to date, the relationship between climate change and contemporary slavery has received relatively little attention in the policy, advocacy and academic fields. Furthermore, mainstream approaches to both issues have traditionally favoured technocratic or legalistic approaches that place these issues within ‘siloes’, disconnected from their political, social and economic contexts.
On Monday 11 October 2021, the Wilberforce Institute with support from Anti-Slavery International will host a one-day inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral workshop to break down these siloes and explore the relationship between these twin ills. Submissions are welcome from all sectors, including academics, activists, NGO practitioners, policy makers, journalists, PhD students, and others.
We welcome proposals relating to all aspects of these complex and wide-ranging issues, including intersecting or intervening themes such as: migration and displacement; conflict and insecurity; land, livelihoods and natural resources; ethnicity, gender and race; colonial and neo-colonial legacies.
We are interested in submissions that contribute to breaking new conceptual, methodological, and empirical ground in this topic area, and in particular those that advance novel recommendations for tackling these issues at the levels of policy and practice.
Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.
We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals.
In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process.
My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to regain their rights and dignity.
My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.
Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.
As an academic, it’s always good to be invited to give a talk. Thanks to Shebanee Devadasan, President of Durham Justice Society, I was asked to join the Modern Slavery panel as part of their annual Human Rights Conference for this year. I was in excellent company as my fellow panellists were Gary Craig, Parosha Chandran and Meena Varma. My contribution was to provide some historical perspective on the role of debt as a method of labour coercion, as this is often a key mechanism through which modern forms of slavery operate.
Over the last decade I have been thinking hard about the relationship between debt and slavery in historical and contemporary societies. Exploring the transatlantic slave trade, I found that in the colonial records of the Portuguese government in Angola, discussions about debt slavery were an important part of the contested framework of enslavement between those areas under Portuguese law and those under African rule. As I discussed in my talk, European societies by the early modern period did not generally allow citizens to recover their outstanding debts through the enslavement of debtors. This had been a common route to enslavement in antiquity, and documentary evidence of such activity survives in the ancient Near East, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the third millennium to the middle of the first millennium BCE. Under the influence of Roman and biblical law, medieval societies in western Christendom increasingly rejected such practices. By the sixteenth century, debts were recovered on goods, livestock or lands, or through imprisonment until the debt had been repaid. The practice of debt bondage, in which the debtor agreed to work for the creditor until the debt had been repaid (also of ancient origin), was retained, however, and was used by early modern migrants from western Europe to the Americas who signed up to an agreed term of labour as a way to repay the cost of their passage. A very similar system remains in operation today. Siddharth Kara’s work on contemporary migrants shows how a formal debt agreement, which covers costs associated with travel and arranging work, has to be paid off on arrival through labour. But what Kara’s work also shows is that additional debts are imposed on migrants after travel and costs manipulated to keep them in debt and under control.
Debt slavery has been prohibited by international convention since 1926, and in 1956 a supplementary convention added debt bondage to the list as an institution or practice similar to slavery. Debt bondage as defined in this latter treaty refers to agreements in which the value of the labour that is performed is either not applied towards reducing the debt or has no defined time limit. A classic example is hereditary collateral debt bondage in South Asia, in which the debt rolls over to the next generation. Yet examples of debt bondage, also referred to as bonded labour and debt servitude, continue to exist around the world. There are good reasons for this, and working off your debt is not in itself against the law. The idea of being able to repay a loan through your labour offers those in need of resources, who have no other way of repaying their debt, a valuable as well as pragmatic solution. However, because this is often the only way funds can be raised it can encourage creditors to exploit their debtors and extend the labour-debt relationship indefinitely.
In my studies of the connection between debt and slavery I argue that the idea of debt is one of the most powerful sources of social coercion we know, and one of the earliest. There is a longstanding myth, as Graeber’s book articulated, that all debts have to be repaid, even though we recognise that this is not always the case. The idea of debt provides the glue that creates the social relationships that allow us as individuals to work with others for the benefit of us all. This cooperative strategy is not fool-proof, however, because not everyone obeys the rules. Debt as a social construct can also be weaponised as a way to force some to accede to the demands of others, and when debt can be recovered by using the human body, the impact can be devastating. During the transatlantic slave trade debt was used as a pretext for ensnaring its victims: if you could create a debt, no matter how small, you could call it in and claim a slave.
Today it is through the binding of labour rather than sale into slavery that debtors become trapped. Kevin Bales’ work on brick kiln workers in Pakistan revealed how dishonest managers could exploit the illiteracy of their labourers to ensure that the number of bricks they made did not cover the debts they had accrued. As a result the family had to return to work in the kilns the following year. The idea of debt may have most traction where labourers are involved in illegitimate activities. The extortionate interest rates that workers are charged in illegal gold mines in southern Ghana means they are quickly trapped into long hours of work as they try to repay their debt. They work because they are desperate and because they believe they must honour their borrowing agreements – their debts have to be repaid.
The Wilberforce Institute is taking to crowdfunding in support of an exciting new initiative – ACTion to End Modern Slavery. This project aims to fund a Justice Hub at the Institute through which we can inform and educate professionals about how to use the Modern Slavery Act (2015) in criminal prosecutions.
While the Act has impact, modern slavery and people trafficking is big business in the UK and is growing fast. People can be trafficked and exploited in many ways, including being forced into work, begging, crime or sexual exploitation.
Getting to grips with this complex legislation is challenging and needs access to additional expertise within the justice system, as well as offering insight and support for those working to de-criminalise victims.
According to the UN, while European countries record higher conviction rates than in other parts of the world, this number has been stagnating or decreasing over the last few years.
Our goal is to share our expertise with those who apply and work with the law, so that they can use it to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of modern slavery and protect those who are vulnerable to it.
We need £45,000 to create a website and run the project for a full year. Nearly £14, 000 has been pledged so far but we need a little more to get this Justice Hub into action.
If you would like to know more or make a donation please visit:
This is not to say that Australians at the time had previously been oblivious to indigenous issues. Just one month prior to the Freedom Ride, an article in the Canberra Times explored a recent survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald that found that tens of thousands of indigenous Australians were suffering from poverty, wage discrimination and limited access to education. Racism, both institutional and societal, was stated to be the cause, with the article citing substandard legislation as well as social indifference towards these problems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not yet recognised as Australian citizens and they had therefore been consistently ignored by governments at all levels.
Equally, aboriginal groups had been active in Australia for many decades prior to the Freedom Ride and had taken inspiration from campaigns in other parts of the world. For example, aboriginal dockworkers in Sydney campaigned throughout the early-twentieth century against racial discrimination, low wages and dangerous working conditions. Their occupation required them to travel across the Pacific Ocean which meant that many workers also witnessed first-hand several African anti-imperialist and social justice campaigns. As Alyssa L. Trometter has explained, indigenous labourers understood their struggle to be global and ideas pertaining to the attainment of racial equality were frequently exchanged between both continents. The Australian Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s built upon these earlier exchanges while utilising many of the same methods used in American campaigns for racial equality, including the Freedom Rides.
It is however important to remember that First Nation Australians have played an active role in advocating for civil rights and legal equality. The Freedom Ride began as a local movement but gained national support and succeeded in creating meaningful legal change for the country’s minority groups. It must be remembered not only as a pivotal moment for the country’s treatment of its indigenous peoples but also for the global campaign for human rights. The influence of this event can still be felt today and underlines the significant contribution that indigenous Australians have made to the country’s history, a contribution that for far too long has been all but disregarded.
Wilberforce Institute Webinar, Thursday 18 March2021, 4pm GMT
Grants Manager for Trust for London.
We hope you will join us for our next webinar on Thursday March 18 at our usual time of 4pm (GMT). The speaker will be Klara Skrivankova, now working as Grants Manager for Trust for London. Before joining the Trust, Klara worked for Anti-Slavery International and acted as an expert advisor to the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She has also served on the boards of two United Nations Trust Funds and advised international bodies, including the Council of Europe. She currently serves on the boards of PIN UK, Hibiscus Initiatives and the Association of Charitable Foundations, and is involved with initiatives around international anti-trafficking and business and human rights. Recognised as an expert on human trafficking and forced labour in the UK and internationally, Klara has been working in the field since 2000.
Klara had planned to come up to the Wilberforce Institute last year, but her talk had to be put on hold because of the Covid-19 epidemic. We are delighted she has been able to reschedule.
Klara’s talk, entitled, ‘On the road to eradication: Reflections on a decade of anti-slavery efforts in the UK’,will consider how the UK’s response to modern slavery has changed over the past ten years, both from a broader international perspective and from the perspective of people’s everyday lives in communities around the country. She will discuss the impact of UK specific issues such Brexit, changes in immigration regulations and the economic impact of Covid-19, and place them alongside international developments in law and policy and the broader global problems of Covid-19 and climate change.
To sign up for this free event please click on the link below:
Since 2018, members of the Wilberforce Institute have been leading the work on a Horizon 2020 research project named ECHOES: European Colonial Heritage Modalities in Entangled Cities. The consortium is made up of a number of European institutions (Aarhus University, University of Amsterdam, University of Warsaw, University of Coimbra, University of Rennes 2), partners from outside Europe (UNIRIO (Brasil), University of Cape Town (South Africa), Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology, Fudan University (China)), as well as a set of non-academic partners. By embracing a decolonial approach, the researchers on the ECHOES project hope to address the lacunae in the interpretation and representation of our colonial heritage, both inside and outside Europe.
As part of the ECHOES project, researchers at the Wilberforce Institute have produced a series of deliverables, including materials for non-academic audiences. The last of these outputs is a policy brief for European policy makers interested in heritage diplomacy and international cultural relations. The point of departure for the brief was the realisation that 2020, with its intense challenges provided by the experience of living through a pandemic and the tragic death of African American George Floyd in May 2020, has exposed pervasive racist patterns and helped communities across the world problematise colonial legacies in a new way.
We were also mindful, when writing this brief, of how the social and economic inequalities that were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as unequal access to healthcare, for instance (discussed here also), have exposed old colonial (Eurocentric) approaches to international relations that continue to disempower the Global South.
Moreover, the tragic and important moment of George Floyd’s death has brought a renewed urgency to the Black Lives Matter debate and provided the impetus for countries across Europe to reconsider the representation of colonial memory in public spaces. A wave of protests and debates focused on monuments, especially those of historic figures connected to slavery and colonialism (such as the much-discussed case of Bristol’s Edward Colston), have subsequently enveloped Europe, creating in their wake contentious culture wars.
These major events we have related to one of our long-standing concern within ECHOES, namely the production, representation and circulation of knowledge. The policy brief thus argues for a wider recognition of different types of knowledges in international projects, including what we define as ‘community knowledge’; the type of knowledge that cannot be classified based on a neat westernised scientific approach, e.g. folklore, storytelling, myths and narratives – some of them traumatic — transmitted orally across generations.
We are mindful that across Europe there is a severe deficit in engaging with colonialism that is not present in the case of other major historic events, such as the Holocaust or the memories of the two world wars. At this time of reflection, it is important to continue the work to identify power imbalances in institutions of different types and reconsider the ways in which we interact with marginalised groups.
Although models for international cultural relations or heritage diplomacy are commonly represented by interactions between states (and state agents), we argue that there is a need for a more complex approach that includes a wider range of actors, including non-state ones. As research in ECHOES has shown, actors working on the ground (e.g. museum curators, artists and citizen groups) often create projects and develop activities that involve a deeper engagement with colonial legacies in their communities. There is a great opportunity to further this agenda, we believe, by supporting and encouraging the work of such grassroots actors.
We also highlight in this document the importance of meaningful inter-cultural dialogue unhindered by unequal power relations in such activities. Accordingly, we argue for the importance of adequate training of EU officials and other actors involved in international projects to ensure they approach cultural differences with sensitivity. We believe that such intercultural encounters are key to continuing to generate new interpretations of shared experiences of colonialism across Europe and address the deficit mentioned at the beginning of this blog.
Our key recommendations can be summarised as follows:
There is an urgent need for EU policymakers at all levels to confront the legacies of colonialism.
While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative on our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies in different narratives of shared heritages across Europe.
While top-down approaches have their merits, grassroots movements and independent cultural actors (including museum curators and artists) are vitally important in advancing our understanding of colonial legacies and in addressing these legacies sensitively.
Such independent cultural actors bring with them a wealth of local knowledge, sometimes indigenous knowledge, that needs to be incorporated into heritage diplomacy efforts on equal grounds with other forms of knowledge (e.g. scientific knowledge).
Active listening and the ability to foster genuine intercultural dialogue are skills that policymakers and EU professionals at all levels need to exercise routinely. This includes an openness towards integrating a wider range of actors in diplomatic activities and involving them in policy development processes.
European institutions, representatives and policymakers should go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations. This includes addressing inconsistencies in the treatment of heritage across different areas of policy interventions (e.g. integration, development, etc).
Whether labelled as heritage diplomacy or ICR, international collaboration projects and initiatives that address the colonial past need to be based on a foundation of trust and mitigate against unequal power relations between partners. This should include actions or any reparations needed to account for the past.
Rather than being ignored, or addressed solely by grassroots efforts, colonial heritage needs to be mainstreamed at European level and should be included as a fundamental topic in existing heritage and arts and cultures initiatives.
What are the harms inherent in human migration? Who are the victims and who is responsible? Does it make a difference whether somebody is fleeing environmental catastrophe rather than persecution or conflict? These are some of the questions I am grappling with in my PhD research, which seeks to understand the difficulties faced by migrants, particularly children, in the context of climate change.
My approach is somewhat unorthodox. I am trying to answer these questions by looking to the past, using case studies that are not directly connected to changes in the Earth’s climate. The first case study concerns the ‘boat people’ migration from post-war Vietnam (c.1975-1992), which is generally ascribed to political causes but also had environmental roots. The second is that of Montserrat, specifically the evacuation of more than half the island’s population following a series of catastrophic volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 1998. In what sense can these histories be considered ‘useable’, and provide an insight into future climate migration? For me, the answer lies in a perspective called eco-global criminology (EGC).
Like all branches of criminology, EGC is concerned with harms, victims and perpetrators. It seeks to predict future risks (to the environment, humans and animals) and develop solutions to prevent the worst environmental crimes occurring. Unlike many other branches of criminology, however, it is not limited to harms which are illegal. It also scans the global horizon for acts which are ‘lawful but awful’, which hurt the environment and by extension humanity, but are not strictly criminal. An important aspect of EGC is the transnational nature of these harms, and climate change is a truly transnational problem.
The two case studies, Vietnam and Montserrat, represent geographical regions with a history of major human migration and environmental degradation. In both cases, the people who fled their homes in the twentieth century, including large numbers of children, experienced human rights violations at the hands of the state and other actors.
Many of the children who fled volcanic eruptions in Montserrat came to the UK. Their arrival here often occurred after multiple relocations on their home island and in the Caribbean region. On arrival in the UK, some spent months, even years, in insecure and poor quality accommodation. The policies designed to prevent them leaving Montserrat in the first place, and later to protect them on their migratory journey, often failed to uphold their human rights. As a result, many of the children faced issues including poverty, insecurity, racism, trauma, family separation and a lack of educational attainment.
For all its failures, the evacuation of people from Montserrat was, to some extent, an example of planned and assisted relocation. For the boat people on the other hand, grave uncertainties, including a high chance of death, attended their irregular departure from Vietnam. Thousands were turned away by neighbouring states, resulting in many migrants perishing at sea. Others faced serious human rights abuses in camps and holding centres as they awaited resettlement.
By understanding the patterns of risk and harm that affected these migrants, EGC can help us to predict the risks that displaced persons may face in the future. Importantly, it also gives us the opportunity to prevent harm, by putting in place policies and programmes today that allow people to adapt to their changing environment, and/or protect them if they are forced to move. Vietnam and Montserrat are already experiencing climate change-related degradation and are forecast to experience worsening impacts in the coming decades. It is therefore possible that both countries will see a significant uprooting of their populations in the near future.
Today, Montserrat faces an increasing risk of strong hurricanes and, thanks to the destabilising effects of heavy rainfall, further volcanic activity. EGC can use the lessons of the past to plan for the future; to propose better policies to help Montserrat’s current generation of children remain in their homes, or in the worst case, to migrate safely and with dignity. Similar comparisons and lessons can be drawn from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where wartime environmental destruction led to massive food insecurity and was one push-factor in the boat people migration. Today, as flooding, drought and salinisation sweep through the Delta, similar issues threaten to uproot and scatter the rural poor. These examples of the ‘useable past’ provide the benefit of hindsight, and EGC compels us to anticipate and mitigate future harms to prevent another human tragedy.
In 1959, the environmentalist Peter Farb suggested that ‘life is like a delicate fabric’, presenting a romanticised vision of the interdependencies of the human and natural worlds. But his ultimate conclusion had a more ominous overtone:
The wonder is not that so many threads are necessary in the fabric, but rather than the fabric manages to exist at all. (P. Farb, Living Earth, 1960: 164)
When environmental harms pull at these threads, there is a grave risk that the structure will ultimately disintegrate. Both Vietnam and Montserrat have faced historical periods when the fabric of life certainly appeared to be falling apart, with both the natural world and human society hurtling towards a dangerous threshold. Climate change represents a similar existential threat today. Using an EGC approach may help prevent repetition of some of humanity’s past mistakes, as a small contribution to our collective battle against the gravest risk we face.
Africans have been part of US history since they first landed in the colony of Virginia twelve years after Jamestown was founded in 1607. Their numbers grew, first by import and then by natural reproduction, to around 4 million (or one in nine) of the US population by 1865, the vast majority enslaved, enriching with little or no personal gain their masters and the communities for which they were forced to toil. Simultaneously, the new nation that emerged in 1776-1783 emphasized its attachment to personal freedom, encouraging white migration by those facing persecution and poverty in Europe in search of an American dream of self-realization and prosperity linked to natural ability and to bountiful natural resources. Some arrived in forms of time-limited bondage, but no Europeans experienced life-long or heritable slavery. If Africans preceded the arrival of Dutch, Irish, German, and other settlers in the Americas, racial slavery denied them access to the American dream that the others were offered. Despite emancipation in 1863, the legacies of such slavery continue to blight the lives of most African Americans today. It does not need to be so. Indeed, by recognizing Africans’ long history in America and their historic contribution to its fortunes, social justice demands it should not be so. Realizing the American dream demands freedom for all, not just some.
The Narrative by Venture Smith (aka Broteer Furor), published in 1798, opens a window on how, even while debate over the future of slavery in the new nation was alive, Africans as free people would contribute to the national wellbeing. Several editions of Smith’s Narrative have appeared, the one that this blog highlights being the first to be published in Fante, the last language that Smith probably heard as he was forced to leave the land of his birth for America in 1739 (Facsimile editions of the narrative, produced by the Documenting Venture Smith Project, and including an introduction and a timeline, are available from Chandler Saint, at cost and with postage in the UK, at £5.50).
Enslaved in his youth, Smith prized the very freedoms upon which the idea of the American dream was based. He worked tirelessly over twenty-six years to liberate himself from slavery, achieving his goal in 1765. Freedom was not something he learned about in his acquired New England home; he brought the concept with him from Africa. It was part of his African heritage. Once free again, he established himself as a family farmer and built a successful business, in part by supporting the cause of those who fought to free the thirteen colonies from the alleged tyranny of George III’s government. He established a family dynasty and a reputation for integrity and honesty in his dealings with others. He helped others to acquire freedom from slavery. And, unlike so many enslaved Africans, whose final resting places are unknown, Venture Smith was buried in 1805 in a marked grave in the Congregational churchyard of East Haddam, Connecticut. Smith’s life and his gravestone revealed a belief in the American dream that few other of his contemporaries were allowed to demonstrate. They showed what was possible if only the American claim of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to all Americans regardless of race or other forms of social difference.
The tragedy for Venture Smith and for the millions of those who came to or were born in America as slaves is that notwithstanding gaining personal freedom in law, race would disqualify them from fully realizing the American dream. To be African was a barrier to becoming an American. Venture Smith knew it. Despite 60 years residence in his adopted homeland, despite his economic success, despite his reputation for truth and integrity, despite even his reconciliation with his former owner Oliver Smith from whom he took his surname, Venture Smith’s last years were blighted by what he saw as racial prejudice. He fought it, as many others subsequently would, through the courts. He doubtless saw it too in the gradualism of slave emancipation that Connecticut enshrined in law in 1784. It was written large in the constitutional settlement of the new nation in 1789. And he almost certainly knew on his deathbed in 1805 that it would blight the lives of those of African descent who followed him.
The Narrative published by Venture Smith in 1798 is an inspirational story. It deserves to be better known, not only by those living in the continent where he was born (hence its translation into native African languages) but also by all Americans who are descended from those who, because of persecution, poverty, or enslavement, left the Old World for the so-called New. It reminds us in sober but uplifting ways how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things even in the most unpromising circumstances. It speaks directly to its readers in uncomplicated language. It narrates a story of hope and, in the context of US history, one that imagines Africans as well as those of European descent sharing in the new nation’s dreams. But it was a story, too, tinged with profound sadness, even bitterness; one that foretold how racial prejudice identified with slavery would prevent so many of African descent from realizing their ambitions. Such prejudice would, Venture Smith knew, deny the nation he helped to found in his lifetime the full fruits of Africans’ inherent talents and values. The flame of hope that Smith identified in 1798 still remains alight today among at least some of his descendants, but two hundred years on continuing racial prejudice and social injustice prevent it from burning as brightly as it should for so many Americans of African descent. The human and social costs of such discrimination remain profound for the whole nation not just those directly subject to it. It is surely time to recognize that truth for the benefit of all who look, as Venture Smith did in 1798, to the United States as their place of residence or their home.