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 Cuffe—like most of his nine siblings, he used his father's African name as a surname—showed 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 efforts—he hoped to bring skilled immigrants for settlement on annual trips to Africa—were 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 Leone—this 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 Society—an organization led by white southerners and widely suspected by abolitionists—after 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.
Harris, Sheldon H. Paul Cuffe, Black America, and the African Return. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Salvador, George. Paul Cuffe, the Black Yankee, 1759–1817. 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)
Cuffe, Paul 1759–1817
Paul Cuffe was a humanitarian, civil rights advocate, Quaker, businessman, sailor, merchant, and colonizer. He was born on the Massachusetts island of Chuttyhunk in 1759, the son of Cuffe Slocum, a former slave of Asante heritage, and a Native American named Ruth Moses. Refusing to use the name of his father’s former owner, a “Mr. Slocum,” young Paul chose the first name of his father as his own surname. Cuffe was the English version of the Asante word kofi, meaning“born on Friday.” the family moved to Westport, Massachusetts, where young Cuffe grew up, and in 1773, at the age of fourteen, he went to sea as a whaler. He was bright and energetic, and the earnings from his maritime merchant activities enabled him to marry Alice Pequitis, a Native American. The couple would have seven children.
In 1797, Cuffe decided to purchase farmland near Westport. The price tag of the farmland was about $3,500.00, a rather large sum in those days. Taxes on this property would lead to his active concern about the citizenship status of Massachusetts’ free blacks. Cuffe’s material status and his interest in the education of his children led him to urge the people of Westport to build a school for the children of the town. He presented his case at a town meeting, but the predominately white group opposed Cuffe’s suggestion for several reasons. While some opposed the idea because they believed that their informal school was more efficient than the suggested one, others opposed it because of its potential expense. Still others disliked Cuffe’s proposal because it was initiated by a member of a race that they consciously or unconsciously viewed as inferior to their own. Finally, Westport’s whites opposed the proposal because they did not want an integrated school in the town.
After his suggestion was rejected, Cuffe used his own money to build a school on his newly acquired farmland. He asked Westport’s whites to attend his school, with a teacher paid by him, a request that was well received. This school, built in 1797, would continue to serve as a school for all of Westport’s children for many years before it was taken over by public officials of the town.
Despite his generosity and upright personal conduct, Cuffe—along with other blacks in Westport and other Massachusetts towns—was continually discriminated against. For example, although he was a man of significant material status and paid his required property taxes, Cuffe was not allowed to vote or hold public office. Indeed, because of their race, no blacks in Massachusetts were allowed these privileges. Against this backdrop, Cuffe and his brother John Slocum, together with other blacks, decided to send a petition to the General Court of Massachusetts, appealing to that body to spare them from paying property taxes and poll dues. The petition was dismissed. As a protest of the dismissal of the petition, Cuffe and his brother chose not to pay their taxes for the years 1778, 1779, and 1780. This action would lead to their arrest and imprisonment in the jail in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Even though they were later freed, Cuffe continued to fight for the civil rights of blacks. This was reinforced reciprocally by the rise of racism in America, on one hand, and his desire to promote commerce, Western civilization, and Christianity in Africa on the other. Like other African Americans, such as Lott Carey, Daniel Coker, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, and John Brown Russwurm, Cuffe supported colonization. The American Colonization Society, which was founded a year prior to Cuffe’s death, promoted Christianity, Western civilization, and commerce through the Liberian colony that the group established on the West African coast in 1822 as a refuge for free American blacks, including former slaves. Cuffe had previously established links, for similar reasons, with Sierra Leone, a colony that had been established by British humanitarians and businessmen in 1787 for their poor blacks and the blacks who sided with the British against the Americans during the American Revolutionary War.
Cuffe’s commercial venture in Sierra Leone, unlike his commercial links with Europe and the West Indies, was not solely determined by his material wants; it was also influenced by his desire to promote Western civilization in Africa. He and other Westernized blacks believed that this would help to redeem the continent from its backwardness. Just before his voyage to Sierra Leone on his own vessel, Traveler, on January 2, 1811, Cuffe maintained that among the goals of his trip was to explore the possibility of having some black Americans of high moral and religious standards settle among the indigenous Africans in Sierra Leone, where they could promote Western values. These values would, in turn, help to spiritually and socially liberate Africa.
Cuffe’s second trip to Sierra Leone, which had been delayed by the War of 1812, began in December 1815, when he and some thirty-eight other black Americans sailed from Boston on board the Traveler for West Africa. Also on the vessel were trade items such as tobacco, soap, candles, flour, and iron.
Although they were welcomed unenthusiastically by British colonial officials—obviously because of racism and what they perceived as Cuffe’s potential threat to their leadership—the thirty-eight expatriates were allowed to stay in the colony to promote the civilization Cuffe envisioned.
Cuffe’s interest in Sierra Leone was reinforced after he returned to America in April 1816. The insults he experienced from whites during his trip from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore played a decisive role in this. That he was refused service in a café in Baltimore because he was black only strengthened his beliefs and goals. He concluded that America was too racist to treat blacks as full Americans. He therefore became a strong advocate of the colonization of black Americans in West Africa just before his death on September 7, 1817.
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Amos J. Beyan
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.
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).
Thomas, Lamont D. (Lamont Dominick), Rise to be a people: a biography of Paul Cuffe, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. □