Rock, alias Venture, Jamaica, 1791
Many enslaved people resisted enslavement by escaping from slave owners and living in Maroon communities or hiding in small groups nearby plantations. One way we know about them is through the advertisements placed by slaveholders in newspapers, offering rewards to others if they captured the runaways. One such advertisement, for two men including ‘Rock, alias Venture’ appeared in both the Royal Gazette and Daily Advertiser in 1791. The advertisement ran as follows:
Williamsfield in Portland, Jan 1, 1791.
Twenty Dollars Reward.
ABSCONDED from the above Plantation, the property of the Rev. Mr. Henry Williams, … some time ago, an elderly negro man of the Papaw country, named ROCK, alias VENTURE, marked as above, stout made and corpulent, passes amongst the negroes for a great obeah man, and is supposed to be harboured in the neighbourhood of Kildare estate in St. George’s, having some time ago been taken up there, by a negro belonging to the Hon. Henry Shirley, Esq. and made his escape from Spring-Garden stocks. A reward of Ten Dollars each will be given for securing said negroes, on applying to Mess. John & William Bridgman, merchants, in Kingston; or in Portland, to the subscriber.
This is one of only a small number of sources that identify individuals as obeah men or obeah women in the eighteenth century. Russell, the estate manager, states that Venture ‘passes amongst the negroes for a great obeah man’, suggesting that to be an ‘obeah man’ was thought of positively by enslaved people at that time.
Venture, described as ‘elderly’, was relatively unusual as a runaway. Those who escaped from slavery were more commonly young men.
The ‘Papaw country’, Venture’s place of origin, refers to the region near the ports of Little Popo and Great Popo’ near the modern border between Togo and Benin. Captives from this area generally spoke Fon and were often sent into the Atlantic slave trade as part of the expansion of the Dahomey Empire. Venture’s obeah would have drawn on practices learned in his youth in the Dahomey area, although this source doesn’t give us any details. Scholars who discuss obeah have often seen it as derived from the practices of Akan-speaking people from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), or those of Igbo speakers from today’s southern Nigeria, and there is lots of evidence for those origins. But the description of Venture as a ‘great obeah man’ suggests the diversity of origins of the practices that came to be known as obeah.
Like many of those who ran away from slavery, Venture had support from other enslaved people. Rusell believed that Venture was ‘harboured’ at another estate, Kildare in the neighbouring parish of St George, about twenty miles away. Details of the ownership and location of both Williamsfield and Kildare are available at Legacies of British Slave-ownership.
The advertisement for Russell incidentally reveals a particularly brutal aspect of slave society. Venture is described as ‘marked as above’. This refers to the advertisement immediately before this one, which was for another man, York, who is described as ‘marked WW’. Both Venture and York had been branded with hot metal with the letters WW to mark their ownership by the Williamsfield estate. This procedure, inflicting great pain on its victims, was common in many slaveholding societies.
We don’t know if Venture was captured, or managed to maintain his freedom.
Rock alias Venture at Caribbean Religious Trials.
Royal Gazette (Jamaica), 22 January 1791
The Daily Advertiser (Jamaica), 13 January 1791