A Note on the Voyage of Venture Smith

And the Historical Record of Transatlantic Slave Trading

March 14, 2024, 11:22 a.m.

David Eltis

Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus of History

Paul Lachance


Essays – Trans-Atlantic Voyage Stories

This essay was originally published in 2008.

The recent explosion of interest in the stories of individual Africans caught up in the transatlantic slave trade has reached the point where a complete conference was devoted in 2007 to one of the very select group that left a written record of the experience (www.venturesmith.org/events-photos-videos), and now most of them have biographies, in print autobiographies, or extended essays readily available.[1] From the standpoint of modern values, it is entirely predictable that Venture Smith should be accorded the pre-eminence of being the subject of such a conference.[2] He was resourceful, independent, determined, and, above all, never accepted his position as a slave. He bought not only his own freedom, but that of his family, and even several unrelated individuals. He fought for his rights throughout his life, accumulated property in the process, yet was very conscious of having to struggle against white oppression while doing so, both before and after becoming free. Moreover, even though he was very young when torn away from his Bambara community, probably Gangara, in Western Mali, he always maintained a longing for his lost African home.[3] Venture's life thus embodies the virtues of liberal North American society as they later came to be defined. His life can be interpreted as reaching toward pluralism, democracy, and human rights well before these three fused together. With serious doubts cast upon the credibility of Equiano's description of his own experience of the slave trade, it is possible that Venture's story will displace his as the best known personal memoir of the African Diaspora.[4]

In this research note we do not pretend to give Venture Smith the attention his life deserves. Rather we set as our goal to set facts of his life as he described them against the historical record. To this end we examine only the small part of his narrative where he describes his transatlantic voyage.

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 with the sea, called in Africa, Anamaboo. The enemies provisions were then almost spent, as well as their strength. The inhabitants knowing what kind of 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 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. After all the business was ended on the coast of Africa, the ship sailed from thence to Barbadoes. After an ordinary passage, except great mortality from small pox, which broke out on board, we arrived at the island of Barbadoes: but when we reached it, there were found out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, not more than two hundred alive. These were all sold, except for myself and three more, to the planters there. The vessel then sailed for Rhode Island, and arrived there after a comfortable passage. Here my master sent me to live with one of his sisters, until he could carry me to Fisher's Island, the place of his. I had then competed my eighth year. After staying with his sister some time I was taken to my master's place to live.[5]

Unlike the case of Equiano, the details provided by Venture Smith do allow us to engage with eighteenth-century documentation, especially as incorporated into the up-dated version of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database launched in 2008,[6] and updated in 2019. It allows us to not only check facts in a first-person account written in old age, decades after the events it describes and necessarily subject to vicissitudes of memory, but also to assess the plausibility of information which is not directly contained in the database. Plausibility here means comparing the voyage that Smith describes with other slave voyages of the time.

The Narrative provides three separate categories of information that relate to Venture Smith's passage across the Atlantic. First, he mentions by name personnel associated with his slave ship, second, he specifies exactly where he was put on board, and third, he provides details on the voyage itself. By the standards of most surviving first-hand accounts of slave voyages, this is a positive cornucopia of information. We take each of these into consideration in turn.

On the personnel issue, the slave trade database tells us that the “Captain Collingwood” named by Venture Smith was clearly James Collingwood who took a cargo of slaves from Africa to Barbados in 1739 in a Rhode Island vessel called the Charming Susanna (Voyageid = 36067). It is unlikely, though possible, that he is the same James Collingwood who commanded seven other voyages from London, England, between 1719 and 1733. While colonial vessels occasionally set out from English ports, these seven voyages all sailed with an English registration, did not touch on colonial mainland, and probably had no connection with New England.

However, the other officer whom Venture Smith mentions, Thomas Mumford, is likely the same “Captain Mumford” who made at least three other slave voyages from Rhode Island between 1734 and 1737. On the voyage that carried Venture to the Americas, he is described as a mate, but it was not unusual for captains and mates to switch roles on small New England vessels. A less likely possibility is that the steward of the Charming Susanna, also called Mumford, though in this case Robertson Mumford, was the “Captain Mumford” mentioned earlier. It seems much more likely to us that a veteran of three voyages to the coast would act a mate on the Charming Susanna rather than as a steward. Robertson Mumford was in fact allowed to purchase Smith as a personal investment thus giving Venture the beginning of his name change from Broteer Furro, thought to have been his African name.

Second, Venture Smith specifies where he embarked on Collingwood's ship – Anomabu. When the first edition of the database was published in 1999, we knew about the Charming Susanna's voyage, but did not know where the vessel obtained slaves in Africa because we had not at that point read his narrative. Smith's autobiography yielded up this vital new piece of information. Is it plausible? Table 1 gives a clear affirmative answer to this question. All slave ships sailing from the Caribbean tended to focus on just one or two parts of the coast for their slaves, prior at least to the last phase of the North American slave trade when a much more eclectic mix of African origins shows up in the database. The reason for such regional specialization stemmed from the fact such vessels carried overwhelmingly North American produce as a trade good, especially rum. Given the lack of mix in their cargoes they tended to head for parts of the coast where first there was a demand for alcohol, and second where there might be a substantial factory or two at which rum could be exchanged for other goods essential for the African trade.

Table 1 (a) distributes the total number of slaves in the Voyages database carried on vessels setting out from the North American mainland between 1730 and 1759 across known African coastal origins. Of the 16,000 slaves in this subset of the database, no less than 15,000 or 95 percent traded in Upper Guinea and the Gold Coast. Almost two out of every three slaves were obtained on the Gold Coast. These were regions where a “fort trade” absorbed large quantities of rum and where permanent European establishments had inventories of other kinds of trade goods less easily available in North America. Such a profile is quite at odds with almost every other branch of the slave trade. Vessels from colonial North America, including the Caribbean, tended to ignore the major areas of slave trading west and south of the Gold Coast. The Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra and West-Central African regions which supplied three quarters of the slaves to the Americas a whole, supplied only five percent of the trade on British colonial slave ships. Venture Smith thus had a two out three chance of leaving from the Gold Coast. When we turn to particular ports of embarkation, the picture is even more convincing. Unsurprisingly, given the above, table 1 (b) shows that the two major centers delivering slaves to North American vessels at this time were both situated on the Gold Coast. Cape Coast Castle and Anomabu together supplied more than half, and the larger of these two was the very port at which Venture Smith embarked.

Third, Smith's vessel was from Rhode Island and by defining “typical” as any slave vessel leaving the US in the period 1730 to 1759 inclusive we derive a subset of 370 voyages from the slave trade database. As this is the early period of the Rhode Island traffic - by far the largest of the regional trades in continental North American at this time - the number of voyages for particular aspects of the profile is much smaller than 370. Column 1 of table 2 shows that we can derive the length of the complete voyage from home port to port of sale of slaves for only 14 of 370 voyages, shipboard mortality for only 34 voyages, and so on. Nevertheless, the data are adequate to the task of sketching a profile. On average, North American colonial voyages took 308 days to make the trip via Africa to the slave markets in the America, of which sixty days were spent on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. They took on board less than one hundred slaves on the African coast[7] and lost 12.3 percent of their human cargo crossing the Atlantic.

How do these statistics compare, first, with data available for the voyage of the Charming Susanna, and second, with the account of Venture Smith? The last two columns of table 2 provide what information has survived for this particular voyage - the second last column from the slave trade database and the final column from Smith himself. As far as we can tell, it seems that the Charming Susanna did indeed have an “ordinary voyage,” as Smith described it. It disembarked fewer slaves than the average, but not many fewer. Voyage length was not extraordinarily long though we do not know anything about the Middle Passage phase of the voyage. By contrast, the details of Smith's account, as opposed to his general comments, do suggest a voyage that was rather out of the ordinary, at least in comparison to the profile of North American voyages. But there are plausible reasons why this discrepancy might exist, and therefore why such discrepancies do nothing to undermine our confidence in the Smith narrative.

It was in fact extremely unlikely that the vessel that carried Venture Smith across the Atlantic had 260 slaves on board when it left Africa. As table 1 shows we know the number of people on board 72 colonial slave vessels in this era, and only one had as many as 200 on board. Fifty percent of the sample had 80 slaves on board or less at the point of departure, and only seven out of the sample carried total in excess of 150. It is thus obvious that the number of slaves embarked on the Charming Susanna were much closer to the norm than what Venture Smith's decades old memory generated.

A major discrepancy also appears in the mortality rates. However, the number of cases with information on slave deaths in the profile is small, and the standard deviation is relatively large. Moreover, given that we do not know the number of captives embarked by the Charming Susanna (and thus voyage mortality), it is certainly possible that mortality was as high as Venture Smith remembered it to have been. It is worth noting here that the typical pattern of mortality in the slave trade was one in which a few ships experienced very high mortality while a majority of voyages had relatively low numbers of deaths. The epidemiology of this pattern is fairly self-evident. If slaves became infected with small pox or, more commonly, a particularly virulent gastro-intestinal pathogen, then many would die. Catastrophes such as the ship's magazine exploding, perhaps as a result of a slave revolt, or destruction in a storm, further contributed to this pattern. In Venture Smith's case it was small pox. Thus the historical data do not rule out the possibility that Smith was correct. The Charming Susanna may well have been one of those vessels with exceptional mortality.

It would appear that the discrepancies exist largely because of the time lapse between the events described in the voyage and the writing of the narrative – in other words they are more likely a reflection of the author's perfectly understandably inexact memory than indicative of problems in the data. By his own account Venture was around 6 years old when captured, but he says he was 8 when he arrived in RI, and 9 soon afterwards, which fits birth "about" 1729. From details in his narrative, like being forced to carry a 25-pound grinding stone on the march to the sea, it seems probable that he was somewhat older. His gravestone, dated 1805, gives his age as 77, which would mean he was born in 1728 rather than 1729.[8] The name of the captain and the port of embarkation are consistent. The length of the voyage from origin to disembarkation is 322 days which seems quite long for an "ordinary passage," although perhaps not if "origin" means date of departure from Rhode Island. The major discrepancy, as noted, is in the size of the cargo: 74 upon arrival in Barbados, in the transatlantic slave trade database, but 200 according to Venture (as opposed to 260 departures). It seems to us that that the Barbados record (CO28/25) from which the number 74 was derived is to be preferred to the Narrative. The CO28 series overlaps in certain years with the Naval Office returns for Barbados as well as London newspapers and some private records. Generally, it stands up well, and certainly does not provide numbers of slaves that are systematically lower than do these other independent sources.

We conclude that, slave numbers apart, the section of Venture Smith's account dealing with the voyage fits well with the historical record. On this score it compares well with the narrative of Ayuba Suleiman Dialla, known as Job ben Solomon in the eighteenth century, who was also carried as a slave to the colonial North American mainland in the 1730s.[9] It has does not quite match the historical fit of the description provided by Samuel Ajayi Crowther who was put on board a Portuguese slave vessel at Lagos in April, 1822, and subsequently taken to Sierra Leone after his vessel was captured by the British anti-slavery squadron. Crowther's account, written twenty years later, checks out perfectly, but by then he had been interacting with naval officers, including those involved in the capture, for many years.[10] Venture Smith's account is much superior to the often vague narrative of Joseph Wright (African name unknown), captured under similar circumstances, five years after Crowther. It is unlikely that more than a dozen such accounts of a slave voyage written by surviving captives can ever be linked to a specific voyage in the historical record.

The great advantage of Venture Smith's narrative is that it is written with the least mediation of the dominant group in society in which he found himself; indeed, it is written in opposition to that dominant group. The role of Elisha Niles as editor to whom Venture Smith dictated his narrative seven years before his death is not exactly known, but the recent literature on Venture Smith has given Niles' role less prominence.[11] Ayuba Suleiman Dialla returned to Africa and maintained links with the Royal African Company, almost certainly as the slave trader that he had been prior to capture. Crowther and Wright became proselytizers of Christianity. There is little evidence of Christian religion in Venture Smith's writing and nothing but opposition to slavery. Perhaps because of this, his narrative was, or is certainly viewed today as being, the most authentic of them all. Whether it better reflects the era of the slave trade rather than the era of revolution and abolition of that trade is quite another question.

Table 1 - Regions and Ports where British North American Mainland Slave Ventures Obtained Slaves, 1730-1759 (Source: TSDT2)
(A) Regions
  Slaves Carried Off Row percentage
Senegambia 4,209 2.58
Sierra Leone 825  
Windward Coast 327  
Gold Coast 10,192  
Bight of Benin 178  
Bight of Biafra 292  
West-central Africa 295  
Total 16,318  
(B) Ports
Goree 149  
Senegal 549  
Gambia 3,226  
Cacheu 40  
Banana Islands 96  
Sherbro 268  
Sierra Leone 461  
Mano / Manna 48  
Cape Mount 134  
Cape Coast Castle 2,060  
Anomabu 5,006  
Apammin 70  
Whydah 178  
Bonny 292  
Mayumba / Mayomba 149  
Total 12,726  
Table 2 - Venture Smith's Voyage Compared to a Profile of Slave Voyages sent out by British North American Mainland ports, 1730 to 1759
  Colonial North American profile Charming Susanna (Id36067) Venture Smith's account
  # of voyages average    
Number of slaves embarked (tslavesd) 72 94 ? 260
Number of slaves disembarked (slaarriv) 38 92 74 200
Shipboard mortality as % of slaves embarked (vymrtrat) 34   ?  
Length of Middle passage (voyage) 18   ? ?
Length of complete voyage (voy1imp) 14   321 ?

Source: TSDT2 and 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: 1798).

Note: Italicized variable names are those used in the downloadable SPSS version of the dataset.


  • [1] Chandler B. Saint with Robert Pierce Forbes, Venture Smith: ‘My Freedom is a Privilege which nothing else can equal' (Torrington, CT, 2018).
  • [2] 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: 1798).
  • [3] For a fascinating assessment of Venture Smith from the standpoint of migration and collective identities, see Mechal Sobel, “Migration and Collective Identities Among the Enslaved and Free Populations of North America,” in David Eltis (ed.), Coerced and Free Migrations: Global Perspectives (Stanford, 2002), pp. 176-203, but especially pp. 188-89.
  • [4] Vincent Caretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens, GA, 2005).
  • [5] Gutenberg edition – end of first and beginning of second chapter.
  • [6] www.slavevoyages.org.
  • [7] Note that the difference between the average number taken on board and the average number disembarked is only 2, far less than average mortality calculated in row 3. This is explained by the different subsets of data within the pool of 370 vessels used to calculate the three means.
  • [8] Saint, Venture Smith, 123.
  • [9] See Philip D. Curtin (ed.), Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison, Wisc., 1967), pp. 17-59.
  • [10] Ibid, 289-316. For the narrative itself, see Bulletin for African Church History 1968 and Saint, Venture Smith, 151-86.
  • [11] See Robert Desrochers, “"Not fade away": The Narrative of Venture Smith, an African American in the Early Republic,” Journal of American History, 84 (1997): pp. 40-67.