Venture Smith’s American Dream: A Parable for Today?

Professor David Richardson

Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

p.d.richardson@hull.ac.uk

Chandler B. Saint

President, Beecher House Center for Equal Rights

Co-director, Documenting Venture Smith Project

chandlersaint@gmail.com

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.

The cover of the Fante edition of Venture Smith’s narrative

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Today Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of his recent publications.

Britain in the Wider World, 1603-1800 (London: Routledge, 2020)

2020, it now seems clear, is a decisive year in British history, however it ends. It is a year that has seen the disaster of a major pandemic, will probably see Britain’s withdrawal from Europe and possibly even herald the breakdown of the United Kingdom itself. Just potentially, 2020 will see the final end of a process that began as long ago as 1603, when England/Wales and Scotland were joined together through a common monarch, coming together properly in 1707 and being enlarged by the addition of the kingdom/colony of Ireland into a new polity in 1801 called the United Kingdom. 1603 preceded by a couple of years the founding of the East India Company, giving England and then Britain a toehold in India, which became much bigger after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War in 1763. It was followed by the tentative start of a British Empire in the Americas, begun in a chaotic and disastrous fashion in England’s first settlement in North America, in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By 1800, that empire, despite the political loss of the 13 colonies and the creation of the USA, was extremely large and world-spanning. My book on how England and then Britain went through this dramatic transformation between 1603 and 1800, one that might be on the verge of finally collapsing, is a British history as written by an historian of the Atlantic world. It explores how the British nation was made in this period and how England/Wales moved from being the pariah of Europe – insular nations devoted to Protestantism and the killing of monarchs – to near global dominance, with a powerful empire and an even more flourishing economy. Britain by 1800 had become a mighty world power and through the Industrial Revolution the richest country in the world, overturning in a few decades China’s millennium-long presence at the top of wealthy nations. I pay particular attention in my book to three things: imperialism, economic growth and changes in gender relations.

Within these three topics, slavery is important, though it is only one of many themes that I cover in this survey of a lengthy period in British history. I deal with slavery here less than I do in other works but I take for consideration Barbara Solow’s famous statement that `it was slavery that made the empty lands of the western hemisphere valuable … [and] what moved in the Atlantic … was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies and the goods and services purchased with the earnings of slave products.’ America was valuable to Britain because it had plantations and it had plantations due to the work of enslaved Africans. Britain became the most important slavery nation in the eighteenth century. That this was the case makes us pause when thinking about imperialism and the development of settler societies in North America and Australasia. Britain’s movement into the wider world was immensely successful for Britain itself, not least for its poorest inhabitants, who got goods that they wanted from the colonies and could improve their standard of living by moving out of Britain. It came, however, at great cost, including the immiseration of thousands of enslaved people, living miserable lives as coerced workers. The gap between British prosperity and the misery Britain caused its non-white imperial subjects was something that increasingly bothered thinking Britons, not least of whom was a young Hull-born politician and evangelical, William Wilberforce. Born in the triumphal year of 1759, when Britain acquired Canada, Senegal and Bengal, he lived his life in a time when Britain and its empire were important in the world in ways never seen before.

***

‘Terror, Horror and the British Atlantic Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ in Robert Anthony, Stuart Carroll and Caroline Dodds Pennock, eds, The Cambridge World History of Violence vol. III 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 17-35

The Cambridge World History of Violence is a path-breaking four volume series, edited by Australian scholars Joy Damousi and Philip Dwyer, which argues that violence was a key driver of history from ancient to modern times. My chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade is in the early modern volume, running from 1500 to 1850. It contributes to an intensive, profoundly meaningful and often disturbing conversation about how violence speaks to critical issues such as the problem of civility in society, the nature of political sovereignty and the state, the legitimacy of conquest and subjugation, the possibilities of popular resistance, and the manifestations of ethnic and racial unrest. I start with J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece, Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying and connect to a notorious incident in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, from 1781. That incident was the murder of 122 African captives on the Zong, becalmed off south-west Jamaica, in order to make an insurance claim. I use this and other cases of violence in the Atlantic slave trade to argue that one of the effects of that slave trade was the evocation in slaves of the emotion of terror – the apprehension of worse things happening if one did not obey commands. To show how this worked, I analyze James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage to explore the workings of terror and horror (a related but different emotion to terror) through violence as it operated in the Atlantic slave trade. I conclude with a consideration of how the terror that was involved in the British Atlantic slave trade inspired abolitionists, not least William Wilberforce, though I concentrate in this chapter on Thomas Clarkson and John Newton, to protest against the slave ship as a place of radical disorder, an essentially lawless place presided over by cruel tyrants. Without the revulsion that was aroused in metropolitan Europeans and Americans about the terror that resulted from the multiple acts of violence that characterized the Atlantic slave trade, abolitionism and humanitarianism would have taken a different shape – and possible been less immediately successful.

Summary of author’s recent publications

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Today Professor John Oldfield provides a summary of his new book on transatlantic abolitionism.

The Ties that Bind: Transatlantic Abolitionism in the Age of Reform, c. 1820-1865 (Liverpool University Press, September 2020).

My new book, The Ties that Bind, explores two inter-related themes that are at the heart of my ongoing interest in anti-slavery. The first of these is opinion building; that is, the means whereby activists created a constituency for ‘abolition’. The second is international anti-slavery, or, for these purposes, the Anglo-American origins and complexion of a lot of abolitionist activity. 

             During the 1820s and 1830s, the abolitionist movement entered a new phase, as ‘second-wave’ reformers switched their attention from the slave trade to the institution of slavery itself. While it is tempting to see the drive towards the abolition of slavery (‘emancipation’) as part of specific national histories (1833 in the case of Britain; 1865 in the case of the USA), anti-slavery also rested on dense international networks that transcended national or state boundaries. American activists, to take an obvious example, were greatly encouraged by passage of the UK’s Slavery Emancipation Act of 1833. As I make clear, these ‘Atlantic affinities’ ran deep, evident in the deference that American activists, black and white, paid towards figures such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, as well as the elevation of 1 August 1834, the anniversary of emancipation in the British Caribbean, to a central place in the American abolitionist calendar. In these different ways, American activists drew inspiration from Britain’s example, just as in a lot of their public discourse they created a continuous link between the British past and the American present, a way of looking at anti-slavery that underscored its distinctive origins and history.

              In the same way, American activists adapted many British strategies, particularly when it came to opinion building. On both sides of the Atlantic, anti-slavery rested on organizational structures that stressed the importance of grass-roots activism. The circulation of books and tracts, anti-slavery images and artefacts were all part of ongoing efforts to create unity and purpose, even in the face of determined opposition. So, too, was the employment of itinerant anti-slavery ‘agents’ or lecturers. First pioneered in the UK, the agency system reached its apogee in the USA. These men and women were lightning rods whose job it was to keep the anti-slavery flame alive. As figures such as William Lloyd Garrison, Abby Kelley and Frederick Douglass demonstrated, an eloquent agent could electrify audiences, seemingly bending them to their will. The proliferation of anti-slavery agents, particularly during the 1830s and 1840s, speaks volumes about the organizational skills of American activists, as well as the ongoing relevance of Britain’s influence and example.

              Then there was the question of politics. From its early origins, abolitionism had always been conceived of as a political movement, hence the emphasis on petitions and petitioning. During the nineteenth century, however, activists on both sides of the Atlantic stepped up their pressure on elected representatives through the ‘pledging’ of prospective MPs, or what in the USA was called the ‘interrogatory system’. First developed during the 1820s, these tactics challenged the independence of representatives, at the same time forging a new kind of popular politics that was at once loud and insistent. Above all, this was a transatlantic dialogue. While it is true that there were important differences at play here, not least the importance that some American activists placed on third-party politics, political abolitionists increasingly spoke a common language that set a premium on a style of confrontational politics that proved difficult to silence or ignore.

              However, American anti-slavery was always more than a pale imitation of British anti-slavery. As I reveal, American activists developed their own distinctive (anti-slavery) culture, revealing a willingness to innovate that sometimes set them at odds with their British counterparts. Nineteenth-century debates over the reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), for instance, reveal a growing sense that American abolitionism posed a challenge to British norms and values, as well as to the ability of British activists to control a message that they were sometimes inclined to regard as peculiarly their own. Nevertheless, interventions of this kind undoubtedly helped to re-energize British anti-slavery, particularly during the 1840s and 1850s. The same thing was true of anti-slavery songs (another American innovation), sensational slave narratives and lectures tours undertaken by prominent African-American abolitionists, chief among them Frederick Douglass, who delivered no fewer than 300 lectures during his nineteen-month tour of Britain in 1845-6. These black visitors brought immediacy and authenticity to the anti-slavery movement. Yet, at the same time, the spontaneity of their performances, as well as their willingness to take risks, could sometimes blur the distinction between ‘instruction’ and ‘entertainment’, making for experiences that challenged many British expectations.

              Anti-slavery was one of the most successful reform movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Part of that success was down to inspirational leadership and, among rank-and-file members, a passionate dedication to the cause. But, as I argue, organizational skills played a part, too. Turning ideas and sentiments into deliberate action is a complex, multi-faceted process, demanding a ready appreciation of market dynamics, as well as an awareness of social, political and cultural trends, especially when it comes to understanding how people access information. Historians are understandably wary about drawing lessons from the past. Nevertheless, there is something highly instructive about the opinion-building techniques developed by nineteenth-century abolitionists; their engagement with the electoral process; their attention to grass-roots activism; and, above all, the emphasis they placed on international co-operation.