Overview of the Transatlantic Slave Trade


When Venture Smith’s autobiography was published in 1798, he had lived sixty years in southern New England–including twenty-eight as a slave and another ten working to purchase the freedom of his wife and children. But Venture had been born in Africa, where he was called Broteer, and he had seen his home swept up in the innumerable wars and raiding parties that scoured the land and supplied the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

After his father was killed and his family scattered and made captive, Broteer was delivered to one of the many slaving ports that in those days crowded the coast of western Africa and brought aboard a Rhode Island slaving ship. There he caught the attention of the ship’s steward, who purchased the boy for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico and named him Venture, “on account of his having purchased me with his own private venture.”

The slave ship was bound for Barbados with a cargo of two hundred and sixty slaves. Venture recalls that of the two hundred slaves who survived the brutal middle passage, all but four were sold in Barbados. Venture accompanied his new master to New England, where he was quickly put to work.

Despite his attempts to be a hardworking and trustworthy servant, Venture endured a regimen of brutality, including physical threats, beatings, and whippings. As he grew older he fought back, participating in an abortive runaway attempt, on several instances physically resisting, and bravely claiming what rights he could to anyone who might listen. With a wife and young children, Venture and his family led a precarious existence, where at any time, he noted, a master might “convert me into cash and speculate with me as with any other commodity.”

Venture Smith’s autobiography is one of only a few existing first-hand accounts of the transatlantic slave trade told from the perspective of the captive. Yet in its particulars it tells a remarkably common story that helps us understand New England’s place within an international system of slavery and commerce.  next >>