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Cuffe, Paul

Cuffe, Paul

January 17, 1759
September 9, 1817

The merchant and emigrationist Paul Cuffe was born on Cuttyhunk Island in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Cuffe Slocum, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, and Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Native American. Growing up near the busy port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Cuffe shipped out on whaling expeditions while still a teenager. On one voyage, at the beginning of the American Revolution, his ship was seized by the British in the Bay of Mexico and Cuffe was imprisoned in New York City for three months. After returning to Massachusetts in 1776, he resumed self-education and farming before returning to a maritime career.

Early in his life Cuffelike most of his nine siblings, he used his father's African name as a surnameshowed disdain for racial discrimination. In 1780 he and his brother John refused to pay taxes to protest a clause in the state constitution that forbade blacks suffrage. Their petition to the Massachusetts General Court alluded to the injustice of taxation without representation. Although Cuffe was again briefly imprisoned, this time by Massachusetts authorities for civil disobedience, the bold action successfully reduced the family's taxes.

On February 25, 1783, Cuffe married Alice Pequit. They had seven children. Throughout the American Revolution, Cuffe continued his maritime activities, captaining several boats to Nantucket Island past patrolling British privateers. He began family-based businesses, which included farming, fishing, and whaling, as well as coastal and international commerce. He built at least seven vessels at his Westport, Massachusetts, docks, including the schooner Ranger, the bark Hero, the brig Traveler, and the ship Alpha. His own ship's crews were identified by their African ancestry, customarily drawn from extended family members, mainly the offspring of his sister Mary and her Native-American husband, Michael Wainer. Cuffe amassed a fortune in trade, despite ostracism and periodic encounters with arriving slavers. His property in 1806 was valued at approximately $20,000, making him Westport's wealthiest resident.

In 1808 Cuffe was received into the Society of Friends. He became a devout Quaker, contributed over $500 toward the building of meetinghouses, and entered into business ventures with leading Friends such as William Rotch Jr. Religious affiliations also linked Cuffe to the Anglo-American abolitionist movement to end the transatlantic slave trade. Cuffe received requests from members of the Royal African Institution to visit Sierra Leone, England's West African asylum for ex-slaves. The possibility of Cuffe's involvement in resettling American blacks in Africa became the subject of letters between James Pemberton, Benjamin Rush, and James Brain of the Pennsylvania and Delaware Abolition Societies, and William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Zachary Macauley of Britain's abolitionist coalition in Parliament.

Cuffe made two trips to Sierra Leone. The first left Westport on January 1, 1811, with a crew of nine black sailors. Disembarking on the West African coast from his brig Traveler, Cuffe became intrigued with the possibilities of beginning a three-way trade among the United States, England, and Sierra Leone. The trade route, he imagined, would bond together African descendants and their benefactors on three continents. On this trip, Cuffe also sailed to England, where he protested the effects of Britain's trading monopoly upon aspiring black settler merchants. Nevertheless, he was warmly received by English abolitionists and lionized by the British press as the "African Captain."

Cuffe's effortshe hoped to bring skilled immigrants for settlement on annual trips to Africawere inhibited by the War of 1812, during which both the United States and England forbade trade with one another. Cuffe's petitions to allow continuance of his peaceful traffic, which he made both to the United States Congress and to the British Parliament, were refused.

After the war's end, Cuffe sailed again for Sierra Leonethis time leaving on December 10, 1815, with nine families consisting of thirty-eight people. Two of the families were headed by Congolese and Senegalese men returning home. America's urban black elite, particularly Philadelphia's James Forten, Absalom Jones, and Richard Allen, endorsed Cuffe's emigration scheme.

Upon his return to the United States, Cuffe became increasingly convinced of the need for a mass emigration of blacks. He even gave his support to the American Colonization Societyan organization led by white southerners and widely suspected by abolitionistsafter they courted his endorsement. Cuffe's death in 1817 came before he could fulfill his own emigration plan, which he hoped would lessen the plight of black Americans and bring a measure of prosperity to Africa. He is considered by some to be the father of black nationalism.

See also Abolition; Allen, Richard; Forten, James; Jones, Absalom


Diamond, Arthur. Paul Cuffe. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Harris, Sheldon H. Paul Cuffe, Black America, and the African Return. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Salvador, George. Paul Cuffe, the Black Yankee, 17591817. New Bedford, Mass.: Reynolds-DeWalt, 1969.

Thomas, Lamont D. Paul Cuffe, Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

lamont d. thomas (1996)

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Paul Cuffe

Paul Cuffe

The African American ship captain, merchant, and philanthropist Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was active in the campaign for civil rights for blacks and Native Americans in Massachusetts. He is best known for his pioneering efforts to settle free African Americans in West Africa.

Paul Cuffe was born on Jan. 17, 1759, near New Bedford, Mass., of a Native American mother and an African father, Cuffe Slocum, who had purchased his own freedom. Paul was the youngest of 10 children. His father died when Paul was a teenager, leaving the family to find its own means of support. Cuffe's education consisted of basic reading and writing, plus enough mathematics to permit him to navigate a ship. At the age of 16 he began his career as a common seaman on whaling and fishing boats. During the Revolutionary War he was held prisoner by the British for a time but managed afterward to start small-scale coastal trading. Despite attacks by pirates, he eventually prospered. He built larger vessels and successfully traded south as far as Virginia and north to Labrador. In later life he owned several ships which engaged in trading and whaling around the world.

Cuffe was a vigorous, pious, and independent man. He refused to use the name of his father's owner, Slocum, and adopted his father's given name, Cuffe (or Cuffee). In 1780 he and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts government either to give African and Native Americans the right to vote or to stop taxing them. The petition was denied, but the case helped pave the way for the 1783 Massachusetts Constitution, which gave equal rights and privileges to all citizens of the state.

Cuffe was a devout and evangelical Quaker. He married at the age of 25. At his home in Westport, Mass., he donated a town school and helped support the teacher. Later he helped build a new meeting house. Through his connections with Quakers in other cities he became involved in efforts to improve the conditions of African Americans. Strongly opposed to slavery and the slave trade, he joined other free African Americans in the Northern states in their abolitionist campaigns.

When Cuffe learned of the Sierra Leone Colony in West Africa, which had been founded by English philanthropists in 1787, he began corresponding with English Quakers active in the movement to settle African Americans there. In 1811 he sailed with his all-African American crew to investigate the colony. Impressed and eager to start settling African Americans there who could evangelize the Africans, establish business enterprises, and work to stop the slave trade at its source, Cuffe returned to the United States after conferring with his allies in England. He planned to take a ship loaded with settlers and merchandise to Sierra Leone annually, but the War of 1812, between the United States and Britain, delayed him. Mean-while, he petitioned the American government for aid and actively recruited future settlers among the free African Americans of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

In 1815 Cuffe sailed with 38 settlers for Sierra Leone, where he helped them establish new homes with the cooperation of colonial authorities. Enthusiastic over his success, despite the heavy personal expense, he found increased interest in the project among African Americans. Soon, however, the newly formed American Colonization Society, which operated with support of Southern slave owners and advocated settlement of former slaves in Africa, began to frighten free African Americans, who feared forced deportation. Before Cuffe could pursue his own settlement project, his health failed.

On Sept. 9, 1817, Cuffe died, mourned by all who knew him.

Further Reading

One biography of Cuffe is Henry N. Sherwood, Paul Cuffe (1923).Recent scholarship has added little to this fine study. Cuffe is also discussed in Benjamin G. Brawley, Negro Builders and Heroes (1937); Langston Hughes, Famous Negro Heroes of America (1954); William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1968); and William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1968).

Additional Sources

Thomas, Lamont D. (Lamont Dominick), Rise to be a people: a biography of Paul Cuffe, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. □

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"Paul Cuffe." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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