Portrait of Paul Cuffee by Chester Harding
January 17, 1759|
Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||September 7, 1817
Westport, Massachusetts, U.S.
Not to be confused with the Reverend Paul Cuffee (1754-1812), who is honored on the liturgical Calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA).
Paul Cuffee or Paul Cuffe (January 17, 1759 – September 7, 1817) was a Quaker businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist. He was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and 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, Cuffee 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.
The future mariner Paul Cuffee 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 from Ashanti. 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 Vineyard. 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 Cuffe'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. Paul, though, signed his name by spelling it 'Cuffe' with one 'e'. His mother, Ruth Moses, died on January 6, 1787.
Paul Cuffee: marineer
At the time of his father's death, young Paul 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. Cuffe used his limited free time to learn more about ships and sailing from sailors he encountered. Finally, at the age of 16, Paul Cuffe 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, Cuffe 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, Cuffe 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.
Cuffe 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. Cuffe married Alice Pequit on February 25, 1783. Like Cuffe'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 Cuffe'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 Cuffe'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 Cuffe 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. In 1811 when Cuffe brought the Traveller into Liverpool, it was noted that her mate and entire crew were either African or of direct African descent.
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, Cuffe believed it was a viable option for Blacks and threw his support behind the movement. Paul Cuffe 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, Cuffe was encouraged by members of the African Institution in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City to be involved in helping out the fledgling efforts to improve Sierra Leone. Cuffe 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.
Cuffe 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 his 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 Cuffe 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. Cuffe 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.
Cuffe 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, Cuffe 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, as 1811 ended, the U.S. established an embargo on British goods. When Cuffe reached Newport, Rhode Island 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 Cuffe went to Washington, D.C. to appeal. There he met with Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and President James Madison. Madison warmly welcomed Cuffe into the White House. Deciding that Cuffe was unaware of and did not intentionally violate the embargo, Madison ordered his cargo returned to him. Madison also questioned Cuffe about his experience of and conditions in Sierra Leone. Eager to learn about Africa, Madison was interested in the possibility of expanding recolonization. However, Madison eventually rejected Cuffe's plans, since Sierra Leone was a British colony, and the strained diplomatic situation with Britain would soon lead to war. Despite this, Madison regarded Cuffe as the authority on Africa in the U.S.
Cuffe intended to return to Sierra Leone regularly, but in June the War of 1812 broke out. As a pacifist Quaker, Cuffee opposed the war on spiritual grounds, and also despaired of the trade interruption and attempts to improve Sierra Leone. As the war between the U.S. and Britain continued, Cuffe tried to convince both countries to ease their restrictions on trading, but was unsuccessful and forced to wait until the war ended.
Meanwhile, Cuffe visited Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, speaking to groups of free Blacks about the colony. Cuffe also urged Blacks to form organizations in these cities, communicate with each other, and 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 Cuffee became the largest contributor to rebuilding the Westport Friends' Meeting House.
However, the war meant Cuffe lost ships and suffered financially. 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 Cuffe sailed out of Westport on December 10, 1815, with 38 African-American 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 Cuffe 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. Cuffe 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. Cuffe believed that once continuous trade between America, Britain, and Africa commenced, the society would realize his predicted success. For Cuffe, 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 Cuffe, 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 Cuffe 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, Cuffe 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, Cuffe 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. Cuffe 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 Cuffe 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.
Death and legacy
As 1817 began, Paul Cuffe’s health deteriorated. He never returned to Africa. He died on September 7, 1817. His final words were "Let me pass quietly away." Cuffe left an estate with an estimated value of almost $20,000. His will provided for his widow, siblings, children, grandchildren and the Friends Meeting House in Westport. He is buried in the graveyard of the Westport Friends Meetinghouse.
On January 16, 2009, Congressman Barney Frank inserted extended remarks titled "Paul Cuffe: Voting Rights Pioneer" into the Congressional Record.  Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts issued a proclamation honoring the 200th birthday of Paul Cuffe. On January 17, 2009, the 258th anniversary of Cuffe's birth, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts issued a proclamation honoring the 200th anniversary of Paul Cuffe's death (September 7, 2017).
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- In the possession of Brock N. Cordeiro of Dartmouth, MA
- In the possession of Brock N. Cordeiro of Dartmouth, MA
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