4.5 Venture Smith describes his enslavement
Venture Smith, 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, Connecticut: C. Holt, 1798).
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I was born at Dukandarra, in Guinea, about the year 1729. My father’s name was Saungm Furro, Prince of the Tribe of Dukandarra. My father had three wives. Polygamy was not uncommon in that country, especially among the rich, as every man was allowed to keep as many wives as he could maintain. By his first wife he had three children. The eldest of them was myself, named by my father, Broteer. The other two were named Cundazo and Soozaduka. My father had two children by his second wife, and one by his third. I descended from a very large, tall and stout race of beings, much larger than the generality of people in other parts of the globe, being commonly considerable above six feet in height, and every way well proportioned.
[When I was about six years old] a message was brought by an inhabitant of the place where I lived the preceding year to my father, that that place had been invaded by a numerous army, from a nation not far distant, furnished with musical instruments, and all kinds of arms then in use; that they were instigated by some white nation who equipped and sent them to subdue and possess the country; that his nation had made no preparation for war, having been for a long time in profound peace that they could not defend themselves against such a formidable train of invaders, and must therefore necessarily evacuate their lands to the fierce enemy, and fly to the protection of some chief; and that if he would permit them they should come under his rule and protection when they had to retreat from their own possessions. He was a kind and merciful prince, and therefore consented to these proposals.
He had scarcely returned to his nation with the message, before the whole of his people were obliged to retreat from their country, and come to my father’s dominions.
He gave them every privilege and all the protection his government could afford. But they had not been there longer than four days before news came to them that the invaders had laid waste their country, and were coming speedily to destroy them in my father’s territories. This affrighted them, and therefore they immediately pushed off to the southward, into the unknown countries there, and were never more heard of.
Two days after their retreat, the report turned out to be but too true. A detachment from the enemy came to my father and informed him, that the whole army was encamped not far out of his dominions, and would invade the territory and deprive his people of their liberties and rights, if he did not comply with the following terms. These were to pay them a large sum of money, three hundred fat cattle, and a great number of goats, sheep, asses, &c.
My father told the messenger he would comply rather than that his subjects should be deprived of their rights and privileges, which he was not then in circumstances to defend from so sudden an invasion. Upon turning out those articles, the enemy pledged their faith and honor that they would not attack him. On these he relied and therefore thought it unnecessary to be on his guard against the enemy. But their pledges of faith and honor proved no better than those of other unprincipled hostile nations; for a few days after a certain relation of the king came and informed him, that the enemy who sent terms of accommodation to him and received tribute to their satisfaction, yet meditated an attack upon his subjects by surprise, and that probably they would commence their attack in less than one day, and concluded with advising him, as he was not prepared for war, to order a speedy retreat of his family and subjects. He complied with this advice.
The same night which was fixed upon to retreat, my father and his family set off about break of day. The king and his two younger wives went in one company, and my mother and her children in another. We left our dwellings in succession, and my father’s company went on first. We directed our course for a large shrub plain, some distance off, where we intended to conceal ourselves from the approaching enemy, until we could refresh and rest ourselves a little. But we presently found that our retreat was not secure. For having struck up a little fire for the purpose of cooking victuals, the enemy who happened to be encamped a little distance off, had sent out a scouting party who discovered us by the smoke of the fire, just as we were extinguishing it, and about to eat. As soon as we had finished eating, my father discovered the party, and immediately began to discharge arrows at them. This was what I first saw, and it alarmed both me and the women, who being unable to make any resistance, immediately betook ourselves to the tall thick reeds not far off, and left the old king to fight alone. For some time I beheld him from the reeds defending himself with great courage and firmness, till at last he was obliged to surrender himself into their hands.
They then came to us in the reeds, and the very first salute I had from them was a violent blow on the head with the fore part of a gun, and at the same time a grasp round the neck. I then had a rope put about my neck, as had all the women in the thicket with me, and were immediately led to my father, who was likewise pinioned and haltered for leading. In this condition we were all led to the camp. The women and myself being pretty submissive, had tolerable treatment from the enemy, while my father was closely interrogated respecting his money which they knew he must have. But as he gave them no account of it, he was instantly cut and pounded on his body with great inhumanity, that he might be induced by the torture he suffered to make the discovery. All this availed not in the least to make him give up his money, but he despised all the tortures which they inflicted, until the continued exercise and increase of torment, obliged him to sink and expire.
He thus died without informing his enemies of the place where his money lay. I saw him while he was thus tortured to death. The shocking scene is to this day fresh in my mind, and I have often been overcome while thinking on it. He was a man of remarkable stature. I should judge as much as six feet and six or seven inches high, two feet across his shoulders, and every way well proportioned. He was a man of remarkable strength and resolution, affable, kind and gentle, ruling with equity and moderation.
The army of the enemy was large, I should suppose consisting of about six thousand men. Their leader was called Baukurre. After destroying the old prince, they decamped and immediately marched towards the sea, lying to the west, taking with them myself and the women prisoners. In the march a scouting party was detached from the main army. To the leader of this party I was made waiter, having to carry his gun, &c. —As we were a scouting we came across a herd of fat cattle, consisting of about thirty in number. These we set upon, and immediately wrested from their keepers, and afterwards converted them into food for the army. The enemy had remarkable success in destroying the country wherever they went. For as far as they had penetrated, they laid the habitations waste and captured the people. The distance they had now brought me was about four hundred miles. All the march I had very hard tasks imposed on me, which I must perform on pain of punishment. I was obliged to carry on my head a large flat stone used for grinding our corn, weighing as I should suppose, as much as 25 pounds; besides victuals, mat and cooking utensils. Though I was pretty large and stout of my age, yet these burthens were very grievous to me, being only about six years and an half old.
We were then come to a place called Malagasco. —When we entered the place we could not see the least appearance of either houses or inhabitants, but upon stricter search found, that instead of houses above ground they had dens in the sides of hillocks, contiguous to ponds and streams of water. In these we perceived they had all hid themselves, as I suppose they usually did upon such occasions. In order to compel them to surrender, the enemy contrived to smoke them out with faggots. These they put to the entrance of the caves and set them on fire. While they were engaged in this business, to their great surprise some of them were desperately wounded with arrows which fell from above on them. This mystery they soon found out. They perceived that the enemy discharged these arrows through holes on the top of the dens directly into the air.--Their weight brought them back, point downwards on their enemies heads, whilst they were smoking the inhabitants out. The points of their arrows were poisoned, but their enemy had an antidote for it, which they instantly applied to the wounded part. The smoke at last obliged the people to give themselves up. They came out of their caves, first spatting the palms of their hands together, and immediately after extended their arms, crossed at their wrists, ready to be bound and pinioned. I should judge that the dens above mentioned were extended about eight feet horizontally into the earth, six feet in height and as many wide. They were arched over head and lined with earth, which was of the clay kind, and made the surface of their walls firm and smooth.
The invaders then pinioned the prisoners of all ages and sexes indiscriminately, took their flocks and all their effects, and moved on their way towards the sea. On the march the prisoners were treated with clemency, on account of their being submissive and humble. Having come to the next tribe, the enemy laid siege and immediately took men, women, children, flocks, and all their valuable effects. They then went on to the next district which was contiguous to the sea, called in Africa, Anamaboo. The enemies provisions were then almost spent, as well as their strength. The inhabitants knowing what conduct they had pursued, and what were their present intentions, improved the favorable opportunity, attacked them, and took enemy, prisoners; flocks and all their effects. I was then taken a second time. All of us were then put into the castle, and kept for market. On a certain time I and other prisoners were put on board a canoe, under our master, and rowed away to a vessel belonging to Rhode-Island, commanded by capt. Collingwood, and the mate Thomas Mumford. While we were going to the vessel, our master told us all to appear to the best possible advantage for sale. I was bought on board by one Robertson Mumford, steward of said vessel, for four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico, and called Venture, on account of his having purchased me with his own private venture. Thus I came by my name. All the slaves that were bought for that vessel’s cargo, were two hundred and sixty.
- Dukandarra, in Guinea
Smith says that he was a member of the Dukandarra tribe of the nation of Dukandarray. Although the nation of Guinea has existed for some time on the west coast of Africa, there is no town or territory of Dukandarra today. This is understandable when you consider Venture Smith’s story about the fate of his people.
Polygamy in West Africa is a system of marriage in which a man is permitted to take more than one wife based on his ability to provide for each wife and her children.
- much larger than the generality of people in other parts of the globe
The average height of European men in the eighteenth century was five feet seven inches. The additional height of West Africans (and the strength and endurance they were believed to have) made them attractive as laborers as slave merchants.
- they were instigated by some white nation who equipped and sent them to subdue and possess the country
European slave traders did not march into the interior of West Africa to capture slaves. They worked out of established trading posts on the coasts. Slave traders made contact with coastal kingdoms and offered weapons, ammunition, and other valuable trade items in exchange for slaves. Kingdoms that chose to trade with Europeans were relatively safe from slavery. Their leaders amassed large armies to march through the countryside collecting slaves and ransoms.
- These were to pay them a large sum of money, three hundred fat cattle, and a great number of goats, sheep, asses, &c.
Many agricultural societies associate wealth with numbers of livestock. The more cattle a person owned, the wealthier and more powerful he is. When debts — or extortion — must be paid, livestock is often used as currency.
(The word blackmail comes from the borderlands between England and Scotland in the sixteenth century, when bandits took livestock as payment in exchange for “protecting” farmers. Mail was a word for rent or taxes, and so “black mail” was black-market taxes, or illegally collected taxes.)
- unprincipled hostile nations
Smith may be referring to European slave traders, but it is more likely that he is talking about other West African nations. Rivalry for land and cultural conflict affected West Africa for centuries. Feuds between villages and civil wars at the national level have been common in West African history. Smith may be referring to these types of conflicts.
- The king
At the beginning of the narrative, Smith refers to his father as a prince. In this sentence he suggests that “the king” was his father. The change in reference is probably an error of the man who wrote down Smith’s story.
- We left our dwellings in succession, and my father's company went on first.
This statement indicates either that the Dukandarra was a small nation or that they did not have a large enough army to contend against the invaders. It also shows that they left in a hurry. In an organized migration, everyone would have left in a large group. The Dukandarra evacuated their territory in small teams so that they could hide from the invaders as they fled.
- For some time I beheld him from the reeds defending himself with great courage and firmness
Smith’s father fought for two reasons. First, he was protecting his family and helping them to escape. Second, it was his duty as king to fight off any attackers. He could not show fear without damaging his credibility as leader of his people.
- I then had a rope put about my neck, as had all the women in the thicket with me
It was typical for slave captives to be bound and secured with ropes or vines for transport. By linking the captives in groups, captors needed to lead only the first captive in line. This practice sets an easier marching pace and prevents runaways.
- he was instantly cut and pounded on his body with great inhumanity
Torturing of captives to gain information is certainly not limited to African societies. In the eighteenth century, most societies around the world used torture as a means of punishment and questioning.
- he despised all the tortures which they inflicted
It is very important in some cultures to show courage under torture. The Iroquois of northern New York were notorious for torturing captives. If their victims did not cry out, they could be adopted into Iroquois society. The same kind of extreme courage is shown in this passage, although Smith’s father likely knew that he would be tortured to death.
- He was a man of remarkable stature.
Smith mentioned earlier in the narrative that the Dukandarra averaged about six feet tall. Here he describes his father as six feet six inches tall and “two foot across the shoulder.” He is describing his father as a strong and noble leader to make his death seem all the more tragic to the reader.
- I should suppose consisting of about six thousand men
It is unlikely that, at the age of six, Smith could accurately estimate the size of a large army. The fact that he told the story more than sixty years later makes the number 6,000 even less likely to be accurate.
- Their leader was called Baukurre.
Baukarre is probably Bakari, the son of Biton Kaulibali, the king of the Segu kingdom in present-day Mali. Bakari was the warrior son and successor to his father’s title around 1755.
- The enemy had remarkable success in destroying the country wherever they went.
The total destruction of villages and the enslavement of the citizens accounts for the fact that Dukandarra does not exist on modern maps of Guinea.
- All the march I had very hard tasks imposed on me
With a large number of prisoners, it is likely that they began using the children as laborers in order to wear them out and keep them too tired to disobey orders during the march. It also kept the army from becoming tired carrying their supplies.
Burthens is an old spelling of burdens, meaning a load that someone carries.
- We were then come to a place called Malagasco.
Malagasco, like Dukandarra, can be found only in connection with Venture Smith’s narrative. As with Dukandarra, its destruction would account for its disappearance from the historical record.
Anamaboo was a West African trading town connected to a European port trafficking in slaves.
- attacked them, and took enemy, prisoners; flocks and all their effects
If the inhabitants of Anamaboo attacked Smith’s captors and took everything he suggests, it is reasonable to assume that they would have enslaved the army, as well. It is also likely that Smith misunderstood the transaction taking place. the captured items were trade goods, and it is possible that they were being given over in exchange for some unseen payment.
Baukurre, the leader of the army that had captured Smith, was supposed to have 6,000 men and should have known that Anamaboo was a slave-trading station. He may well have escaped capture and led a smaller fighting force that turned over many slaves whom he had used as soldiers.
- All of us were then put into the castle, and kept for market.
European slave traders constructed castle forts on the coast and on nearby islands. Slaves brought in for sale were stored in the castles or in pens near the beaches in terrible conditions. When, after weeks or months, the slave ships arrived, slaves were lined up and inspected for health and strength. Deformed slaves were rejected. Those that were accepted were branded and chained before being stored in cargo holds for transport.