Paul Cuffe (January 17, 1759 – September 9, 1817) was a Quaker businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist. He was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and West African Ashanti descent and helped colonize Sierra Leone. Cuffe built a lucrative shipping empire and established the first racially integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts.
A devout Christian, Cuffe often preached and spoke at the Sunday services at the multi-racial Society of Friends meeting house in Westport, Massachusetts. In 1813, he donated most of the money to build a new meeting house. He became involved in the British effort to resettle freed slaves, many of whom had moved from the US to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, to the fledgling colony of Sierra Leone. Cuffe helped establish The Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, which provided financial support for the colony.
Paul Cuffe was born on January 17, 1759, during the French and Indian War, on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts. He was the youngest son of Kofi or Cuffee Slocum and Ruth Moses. Paul's father, Kofi, was a member of the Ashanti ethnic group, probably from Ghana, Africa. Kofi had been captured at age ten and brought as a slave to the British colony of Massachusetts. His owner, John Slocum, could not reconcile slave ownership with his own Quaker values and gave Kofi his freedom in the mid-1740s. Kofi took the name Cuffee Slocum and, in 1746, he married Ruth Moses. Ruth was a Native American member of the Wampanoag Nation on Martha's Vinyard. Cuffee Slocum worked as a skilled carpenter, farmer and fisherman and taught himself to read and write. He worked diligently to earn enough money to buy a home and in 1766 bought a 116-acre (0.47 km2) farm in nearby Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The couple would raise ten children together, of which Paul was the seventh in line.
During Paul Cuffee's infancy there was no Quaker meeting house on Cuttyhunk Island, so Kofi taught himself the Scriptures. In 1766, when Paul was eight years old, the family moved to a farm in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Cuffee Slocum died in 1772, when Paul was 13. As Paul's two eldest brothers had families of their own elsewhere, he and his brother John took over their father's farm operations and cared for their mother and three younger sisters. Around 1778 Paul persuaded his brothers and sisters to use their father's English first name, Cuffee, as their family name, and all but the youngest did. His mother, Ruth Moses, died on January 6, 1787.
Paul Cuffee: marineer
At the time of his father's death, young Cuffee knew little more than the alphabet but dreamed of gaining an education and being involved in the shipping industry. The closest mainland port to Cuttyhunk was New Bedford, Massachusetts—the center of the American whaling industry. Cuffee used his limited free time to learn more about ships and sailing from sailors he encountered. Finally, at the age of 16, Paul Cuffee signed onto a whaling ship and, later on, cargo ships, where he learned navigation. In his journal, he now referred to himself as a marineer. In 1776 during the American Revolution he was captured and held prisoner by the British for three months in New York.
After his release, Paul, who was still living with his siblings in Massachusetts, farmed and studied. In 1779, he and his brother David built a small boat to ply the nearby coast and islands. Although his brother was afraid to sail in dangerous seas, Cuffee went out alone in 1779 to deliver cargo to Nantucket. He was waylaid by pirates on this and several subsequent voyages. Finally, he made yet another trip to Nantucket that turned a profit.
At the age of 21, Cuffee refused to pay taxes because free blacks did not have the right to vote. In 1780, he petitioned the council of Bristol County, Massachusetts to end such taxation without representation. The petition was denied, but his suit was one of the influences that led the Legislature in 1783 to grant voting rights to all free male citizens of the state.
Cuffee finally made enough money to purchase another ship and hired crew. He gradually built up capital and expanded his ownership to a fleet of ships. After using open boats, he commissioned the 14- or 15-ton closed-deck boat Box Iron, then an 18- to 20-ton schooner. Cuffee married Alice Pequit on February 25, 1783. Like Cuffee's mother, Pequit was also Wampanoag. The couple settled in Westport, Massachusetts, where they raised their seven children: Naomi (born 1783), Mary (born 1785), Ruth (1788), Alice (1790), Paul Jr. (1792), Rhoda 1795), and William (1799).
In the late 1780s Cuffee's flagship was the 25-ton schooner Sun Fish, then the 40-ton schooner Mary. In 1795, the Mary and Sunfish were sold to finance the construction of the Ranger - a 69-ton schooner launched in 1796 from Cuffee's shipyard in Westport. By this time he could afford to buy a large homestead and in February 1799 he paid $3,500 for 140 acres (0.57 km2) of waterfront property in Westport. By 1800 he had enough capital to purchase a half-interest in the 162-ton barque Hero. By the first years of the nineteenth century Paul Cuffee was one of the most wealthy - if not the most wealthy - African American and Native American in the United States. His largest ship, the 268-ton Alpha, was built in 1806, along with his favorite ship of all, the 109-ton brig Traveller.
First venture into Sierra Leone
Most Englishmen and Anglo-Americans in his day felt that people of African descent were inferior to Europeans, even in the predominantly Calvinist and Quaker New England. Although slavery continued, prominent men like Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the emigration of Blacks to colonies outside the United States was the easiest and most realistic solution to the race problem in America.
Attempts by Europeans and Americans to colonize Blacks in other parts of the world had failed, including the British attempt to colonize Sierra Leone. Beginning in 1787, the Sierra Leone Company sponsored 400 people who departed from Great Britain for Sierra Leone. The colony struggled to establish a working economy and develop a government that could survive against outside pressures. After the financial collapse of the Sierra Leone Company, a second group, the newly created African Institution offered migration to freed slaves who had previously settled in Nova Scotia and London after the American Revolution. The African Institution's London sponsors hoped to gain an economic return while foster the "civilizing" trades of educated Blacks.
Although colonizing Sierra Leone was difficult, Cuffee believed it was a viable option for Blacks and threw his support behind the movement. Paul Cuffee wrote,
“I have for these many years past felt a lively interest in their behalf, wishing that the inhabitants of the colony might become established in truth, and thereby be instrumental in its promotion amongst our African brethren.”
From March 1807 on, Cuffee was encouraged by members of the African Institution in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York to be involved in helping out the fledgling efforts to improve Sierra Leone. Cuffee mulled over the logistics and chances of success for the movement before deciding in 1809 to join the project. On December 27, 1810, he left Philadelphia on his first expedition to Sierra Leone.
Cuffee reached Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 1, 1811. He traveled the area investigating the social and economic conditions of the region. He met with some of the colony’s officials, who opposed Cuffee’s idea for colonization of Blacks from the United States for fear of competition from American merchants. Furthermore, his attempts to sell goods yielded poor results because of tariff charges resulting from the British mercantile system. On Sunday, April 7, 1811 Cuffee met with the foremost Black entrepreneurs of the colony. They penned a petition for the African Institution, stating that the colony's greatest needs were for settlers to work in agriculture, merchanting and the whaling industry, that these three areas would best facilitate growth for the colony. Upon receiving this petition, the members of the institution agreed with their findings. Cuffee and the black entrepreneurs together founded the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone as a mutual-aid merchant group dedicated to furthering prosperity and industry among the free peoples in the colony and loosening the stranglehold that the English merchants held on trade.
Cuffee sailed to Great Britain to secure further aid for the colony, arriving in Liverpool in July 1811. He met with the heads of the African Institution in London who raised some money for the Friendly Society and was granted governmental permission and license to continue his mission in Sierra Leone. Encouraged by this support, Cuffee then left Liverpool and sailed back to Sierra Leone, where he and local merchants solidified the role of the Friendly Society and refined plans for the colony to grow by building a grist mill, saw mill, rice-processing factory and salt works.
The Embargo, The President and The War of 1812
Relations between the United States and Great Britain were strained and, by the end of 1811, the U.S. had established an embargo on British goods. When Cuffee reached Newport in April 1812 his ship the Traveller was seized by U.S. customs agents along with all its goods. Officials would not release his cargo, so Cuffee went to Washington, D.C. to appeal his case. There he met with Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and President James Madison. He was warmly welcomed into the White House by Madison. Madison later decided that Cuffee was not aware of and did not intentionally violate the national trading policy, and so ordered his cargo returned to him. Madison questioned Cuffee about his experience and about the conditions of Sierra Leone. He was eager to learn about Africa and interested in the possibility of expanding colonization. However, Madison eventually rejected Cuffee's plans as he believed there would be too many problems in further U.S. attempts to colonize Sierra Leone as it was a British project. Despite this, Madison regarded Cuffee as the authority on Africa in the US.
Cuffee intended to return to Great Britain's colony of Sierra Leone regularly but the War of 1812, which broke out in June, preventing him from doing so. As a pacifist Quaker, he opposed the war on spiritual grounds, but also despaired of the interruption of trade and the corresponding halting of attempts to improve Sierra Leone. The war between the U.S. and Britain continued, so Cuffee decided he would have to convince both countries to ease their restrictions on trading. He was unsuccessful and was forced to wait until the war ended.
Meanwhile, he visited Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, speaking to groups of free Blacks about the colony. Cuffee also urged Blacks to form organizations in these cities, to communicate with each other, and to correspond with the African Institution and with the Friendly Society at Sierra Leone. He printed a pamphlet about Sierra Leone to inform the general public of his ideas. In the summer of 1813 he contributed the most to the rebuilding of the Westport Friends' Meeting House.
Cuffee suffered several monetary losses because of some unprofitable ventures of his ships. The Hero was declared unseaworthy while in Chile and never returned, and his partner in the Alpha, John James of Philadelphia, ran that ship unprofitably. Fortunately the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent at the end of 1814. After getting his finances in order, Paul prepared to return to Sierra Leone.
After the War
Paul Cuffee sailed out of Westport on December 10, 1815, with 38 Black colonists (18 adults and 20 children ranging in age from eight months to 60 years.) The group included William Gwinn and his family from Boston, Massachusetts.
The expedition cost Cuffee more than $4000. Passengers paying their own fares plus a donation by William Rotch of New Bedford, Massachusetts accounted for the remaining $1000 in expenses. The colonists arrived in Sierra Leone on February 3, 1816, along with axes, hoes, a plow, wagon and parts to make a saw mill. Cuffee and his immigrants were not greeted as warmly as before. Governor MacCarthy was already having trouble keeping the general population in order and was not excited at the idea of more immigrants. In addition, the Militia Act, which had been imposed upon the colony, required all adult males to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Many local people refused to do so for fear of being drafted into military service. Although things did not go exactly as planned economically - his cargo sold at heavily undervalued prices - the new colonists were finally all settled in Freetown. Cuffee believed that once continuous trade between America, Britain, and Africa commenced, the society would realize his predicted success. For Cuffee, though, the expedition was costly. Each colonist needed their first year's provisions, which he fronted for them. Governor MacCarthy was sure that the African Institution would reimburse Cuffee, but that and the heavy tariff duties left more than $8,000 of deficit for the captain. The African Institution in England never contributed to the mission at all, and Cuffee had to deal with hard economic consequences. Cuffee needed reliable backing before he could afford another such expedition.
On his return to New York in 1816, Cuffee exhibited to the New York chapter of the African Institution the certificates of the landing of those colonists at Sierra Leone. "He has also received from Gov. M'Carthy a certificate of the steady and sober conduct of the settlers since their arrival, and an acknowledgment of $439.62, humanely advanced to them since they landed, to promote their comfort and advantage."
In 1816, Cuffee envisioned a mass emigration plan for African Americans, both to Sierra Leone and possibly to newly freed Haiti. Congress rejected his petition to fund a return to Sierra Leone. During this time period, many African Americans began to demonstrate interest in emigrating to Africa, and some people believed this was the best solution to problems of racial tensions in American society. Cuffee was persuaded by Reverends Samuel J. Mills and Robert Finley to help them with the African colonization plans of the American Colonization Society (ACS), but Cuffee was alarmed at the overt racism of many members of the ACS. ACS co-founders, particularly Henry Clay, advocated exporting freed Negroes as a way of ridding the South of potentially "troublesome" agitators who might threaten the plantation system of slavery. Other Americans also became active, but found there was more reason to encourage emigration to Haiti, where American immigrants were welcomed by the government of President Boyer.
In the beginning of 1817, Cuffee’s health deteriorated. He never returned to Africa. He died on September 7, 1817. His final words were "Let me pass quietly away." Cuffee left an estate with an estimated value of almost $20,000.
- Wiggins, Rosalind Cobb ed. Captain Paul Cuffe’s Logs and Letters. Washington: Howard University Press, 1996. p.xi
- Abigail Mott, Biographical sketches and interesting anecdotes of persons of colour (printed and sold by W. Alexander & Son; sold also by Harvey and Darton, W. Phillips, E. Fry, and W. Darton, London; R. Peart, Birmingham; D. F. Gardiner, Dublin, 1826), pp. 31–43 (accessed on Google Books).
- Wiggins, p. 45.
- Thomas, Lamont D. Paul Cuffee: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp 4-5.
- Wiggins, pp. 47-8.
- Thomas, p. 5.
- Sherwood, Henry Noble, The Journal of Negro History, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1923), p. 155.
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- Thomas, p. 9.
- Gross, David (ed.), We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader, pp. 115-117, ISBN 1-4348-9825-3.
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- "A Gastronomic Tour through Black History/BHM 2012", February 26, 2012.
- Thomas, p. 49.
- Thomas, p. 137, note 16, points out letters from Governor Columbine, and p. 58 further speaks to the tight hold the British merchant company Macauley & Babington held over the Sierra Leone trade to the detriment of native black merchants.
- Thomas, p. 80.
- Thomas, pp. 53-54, and Harris p. 55.
- Thomas, pp. 57-64.
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- Thomas, p. 100.
- James Oliver Horton; Lois E. Horton (5 December 1996). In Hope of Liberty:Culture, Community and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. Oxford University Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-19-988079-9. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
- Sherwood, Henry Noble. “Paul Cuffe”, The Journal of Negro History, VIII, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1923), p. 198-9
- Thomas, p. 68.
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- Thomas, p. 102.
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- Providence Gazette, June 22, 1816.
- Thomas, p. 110.
- Thomas, p. 111.
- Channing, George A. Early Recollections of Newport, Rhode Island from the year 1793 to 1811, Boston: A. J. Ward and Charles E. Hammett, Jr., 1898. p. 170, Greene, p. 307, and Thomas, p. 118.
- Harris, Sheldon H. Paul Cuffee: Black America and the African Return. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
- The American Promise: A History of the United States, 1998 (p. 286).
- Thomas, Lamont D. Rise to Be A People, University of Illinois Press, 1986, republished in 1988 as Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist
- Wiggins, Rosalind Cobb ed. Captain Paul Cuffe’s Logs and Letters. Washington: Howard University Press, 1996.
- Claus Bernet (2010). "Paul Cuffee". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 31. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 303–308. ISBN 978-3-88309-544-8.
- Cordeiro, Brock N. Paul Cuffe: A Study of His Life and the Status of His Legacy in Old Dartmouth. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, 2004. “Paul Cuffe: A Study of His Life and the Status of His Legacy in Old Dartmouth”.
- Paul Cuffee School in Providence, RI