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

What is freedom to you?

Wilberforce Institute Webinar, Tuesday 22 September 2020

On Tuesday 22 September between 16:00 and 18:00 BST, Cristina Talens, Head of Business Risk Assessment Services in the Wilberforce Institute, will be leading a major discussion on the nature of freedom today: ‘What is Freedom to You?’

This is not a discussion between academics. Instead it involves individuals who work at the forefront of identifying exploitative practices on the ground today – you will find their details below. Cristina Talens has assembled a stellar panel of experts from a diverse range of backgrounds in the areas of ethical trade and supply chains.  Our speakers will be talking about what freedom means to them, and about the one thing they believe would have the greatest impact in ensuring that people can be free from exploitation. If you would like to join us, please click on the link at the bottom of the page.

Cristina Talens – Head of Business Risk Assessment Service at the Wilberforce Institute. Cristina Talens has more than 20 years’ experience in ethical trading, sustainability and supply chains. She has worked with migrant workers on modern slavery issues in the UK, France and Italy. In 2000, she joined the United Nations (UN) Global Programme Against Trafficking and Smuggling of Human Beings, and today she regularly conducts social audit assignments and risk assessments on behalf of major UK supermarkets.

Alfonso Herias Garcia  – an Ethics and Human Rights specialist currently heading the Ethics team at G´s Fresh, one of Europe’s leading fresh produce companies. He has over 10 years’ experience in the fields of social sustainability, and is responsible for the strategic direction and delivery of G´s Fresh Human Rights Programme, covering over 10, 000 direct workers in places such as the UK, Spain, Eastern Europe, Senegal, and the United States. Alfonso has been an active member of the Food Network for Ethical Trade and the Spanish Ethical Trade Forums. He holds a degree in Political Science and a Masters in International Relations.

Sam Ludlow Taylor– Ethical Trade Manager at the John Lewis Partnership with a focus on the Waitrose brand, a role she has held for 2 years. Sam began her career working as a merchandiser at Homebase and then joined Debenhams where she moved into ethical trade and human rights about 12 years ago. Sam also spent time working for a UK based clothing agent and a soft drinks brand, looking at Tier 1 factories, raw material and commodities sourcing.

Rosey Hurst – founded Impactt in 1997 to make what works for workers work for business. She founded Sedex and launched the Benefits for Business and Workers Programme which links improving productivity with a better deal for workers. She is passionate about re-humanising the workplace, serves on the Ecovadis Technical Committee and is a member of the Responsible Investment Advisory Council at BMO Global Asset Management. 

David Camp – Founder and Chief Executive of allianceHR, a not for profit/profit with purpose consultancy. He delivers collaborative programmes to drive systemic human rights improvements in global supply chains. This includes Stronger Together, a multi-stakeholder collaborative initiative supporting organisations to tackle modern slavery; Fast Forward, a next generation supply chains labour standards audit and improvement programme; and the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit, a one-stop capacity-building online toolkit to support supply chains to embed responsible recruitment management systems. David is the Chief Executive of the Association of Labour Providers and received the 2018 Marsh Award for Outstanding Contribution to the fight against Modern Slavery.

Nick Kightley  – Strategic Lead for Food, Farming and Fisheries at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). His overseas working experience includes 13 years in the rural Southern Philippines supporting small farmers and their communities and setting up his own rural enterprise there. He worked for 12 years at Traidcraft Exchange as Asia Programme Manager, promoting fair trade businesses, and for 8 years with the Waste and Resources Action Programme, working with SMEs and community based environmental sustainability enterprises. In his ETI role, Nick is able to influence the way business is done and industry functions on a global scale.

Steve Gibbons – Co-founder of Ergon with over 25 years’ experience in labour and human rights issues. He has provided consultancy for the International Labour Organisation, the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Commission, London 2012, the ETI, the UK Department for International Development and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Steve has particular expertise in facilitating stakeholder dialogue and in devising and managing grievance and dispute resolution mechanisms in line with the UN Guiding Principles. He is an expert member of the Independent Complaints Mechanism of the sustainable investment company DEG, and FMO, the Dutch development bank. He is a UK-qualified lawyer, a regular conference speaker and the founder of the UK’s leading online training company for lawyers, CPDCast®.

Hannah Davis  – more than 15 years’ experience managing international development programmes, with a focus on sustainable and ethical supply chains and the empowerment of smallholder farmers. She has worked with cocoa, coffee, sugar and nut producer organisations across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to support improvements in agricultural practice, product quality, market access, governance and women’s participation. Since 2018, Hannah has worked for UK charity the Lorna Young Foundation, developing and promoting its Farmers’ Voice Radio initiative. This brings together smallholder farmers, agricultural experts and supply chain partners to share their knowledge, experience and expertise.

Pins Brown – Head of Ethical and Sustainable Sourcing at The Body Shop. Her working life has involved both suits and muddy boots and has focussed on improving labour conditions in supply chains especially for the least powerful. This has seen her involved in a wide variety of ventures from Mali to Kazakhstan, from agriculture to oil and gas and ASOS to Oxfam, working with large and small businesses, NGOs, trade unions and international organisations. She has also served on advisory panels on UK prison labour and for the Better Cotton Initiative. 

Register here for the webinar

Cristina Talens in the field

What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240871183?accountid=11528 (accessed July 25, 2020).