Paul Cuffee: Wikis


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Paul Cuffee in 1812.

Paul Cuffee (January 17, 1759 – September 9, 1817) was a Quaker businessman, patriot, and abolitionist of Aquinnah Wampanoag and African Ashanti descent. Cuffee built a lucrative shipping empire. He established the first school in Westport, Massachusetts to be racially integrated.

A devout Christian, Cuffee often preached and spoke at the Sunday services at the multi-racial Society of Friends meeting house in Westport. In 1813 he donated most of the money to build a new meeting house in 1813. He became involved in the British effort to resettle former slaves in the colony of Sierra Leone. (Many had been transported from the US to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution after gaining freedom with the British.) Cuffee helped to establish The Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, to gather financial support for the colony.


Early life

Paul Cuffee was born free during the French and Indian War, on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts. Paul was the seventh of eleven children. His father, Kofi (also known as Cuffee Slocum), was a member of the Ashanti ethnic group. He had been captured at age ten and brought as a slave to the British colony of Massachusetts. Paul's mother Ruth Moses was Native American, a member of the Wampanoag Nation. Kofi was a skilled carpenter who was self-educated. He worked long hours and earned enough money to buy his own freedom in 1746. He eventually bought a 116-acre (0.47 km2) farm.

During Paul Cuffee's youth, there was no Quaker meeting house on Cuttyhunk Island, so the family held religious services in their kitchen. Kofi preached from the Scriptures. In 1767 when Paul was eight years old, the family moved to Dartmouth, Massachusetts where they had a farm. Kofi died when Paul was thirteen. Paul and his brother John took over operating their farm, and cared for their mother and three younger sisters. Paul persuaded his brothers and sisters to use their father's English first name, "Cuffee", as their family name, to drop the association with their father's former master.

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 shipping. 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. Eventually, he was given a lesson in navigation by one of the sailors. Although initially discouraged by his difficulty in understanding the necessary mathematics, Cuffee studied whenever he could. Finally, at age 16, Paul Cuffee signed onto a whaling ship and, later on, cargo ships, where he learned navigation. During the American Revolution, he was held prisoner by the British for a time.

After his release, Cuffee moved to Westport, Massachusetts. He farmed and studied and saved money from his produce sales. In 1779, he and his brother David built a boat by hand. Although his brother was afraid to sail in dangerous seas, Cuffee went out alone in 1780, to deliver cargo to Connecticut. The boat was lost during a storm. Undaunted, Cuffee built another boat, also by hand. Again he set out to sea alone. During this voyage, his ship and his cargo were seized by pirates. A third time he and David built a boat, and he borrowed money for the cargo. Cuffee set off for Nantucket alone. Chased by pirates chased him and, in his haste to flee them, his ship hit a rock. But he was not captured, and he was, he hit a rock while fleeing them but was able to make it back to Westport. Although Cuffee reached Nantucket, he did not turn a profit on the venture. Finally, he made yet another trip to Nantucket that turned a profit.

Cuffee finally made enough money to purchase another ship and hired crew. He gradually built up capital and expanded ownership to a fleet of ships. He bought a 116-acre (0.47 km2) farm in Westport.

At the age of twenty-one, 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.[1]

At age twenty-four, Cuffee became part owner of a small sailing vessel and married Alice Pequit. Like his mother, Pequit was also Wampanoag. The couple settled in Westport, Massachusetts, where they had and raised their eight children. As Cuffee became more successful, he invested in more ships and made a sizable fortune. In the 1790s, he made money in cod fishing and smuggling goods from Canada. With this money, Cuffee bought a large farm along the Westport River. He also invested in the expansion of his fleet.

Cuffee's investment in Sierra Leone

Paul Cuffee wanted to improve conditions for that many African-Americans lived under in the American colonies. Due to his wealth, Cuffee was able to escape did not live the average life of blacks in America so he sought ways to help others who had not been as fortunate. Unfortunately, most Americans felt that blacks were inferior to Europeans, even in the predominantly Calvinist and Quaker New England. Although slavery continued, some 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. They offered migration there to free African-Americans whom they had resettled in Nova Scotia and London after the American Revolution. Beginning in 1787, 400 people departed from Great Britain for Sierra Leone. The colony was plagued with serious problems in trying to establish a working economy, as well as a government that could survive pressures from other peoples. Its London sponsors hoped to gain a return more quickly than was possible.

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.”

Cuffee was encouraged by people in New York, Baltimore, and Boston, as well as members of the African Institution. Cuffee mulled over the logistics and chances of success for the movement for three years before deciding in 1809 to move ahead with the project. On January 2, 1811 he launched 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 compeition.

Cuffee sailed to Great Britain to seek help from people there. There he met with the heads of the African Institution and was granted permission to continue with his mission in Sierra Leone. Cuffee then left Liverpool and sailed back to Sierra Leone, where he finalized his plans for the colony.

While in Sierra Leone, Cuffee helped to establish the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, a trading organization run by blacks. He believed that the Friendly Society would help to establish a more powerful Sierra Leone economy as well as self-help projects for the residents of the colony. Cuffee’s friends from the African Institution made grants to the Friendly Society money for these goals. Heartened by London’s response, Cuffee believed the trip to Sierra Leone was successful. He worried that when he and other powerful leaders left, some of the colonists might revert to non-Christian religious practices. He tried to encourage them to comply with his guidelines.

After returning to the US in 1812, Cuffee was arrested for bringing British cargo into the United States. His brig, the Traveler, was seized as well. He was summoned to Washington, D.C. for violating trade laws. There he met with 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. Madison questioned Cuffee’s experience and the conditions of Sierra Leone and was eager to learn about Africa and the possibility of further expanding colonization. Madison evaluated Cuffee’s plans carefully, but rejected them, as he believed there would be too many problems in further US attempts to colonize Sierra Leone, a British project. He regarded Cuffee as the authority on Africa in the US.

Cuffee intended to return to Sierra Leone once a year but the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain prevented him from doing so. He visited Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, speaking to groups of free blacks about the colony. He 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 spring of 1813, Cuffee suffered several monetary losses because of some unprofitable ventures of his ships; one ship never returned. After getting his finances in order he prepared to return to Sierra Leone. The war between the U.S. and Britain continued, so Cuffe 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.

He left on December 10, 1815 with thirty-eight Black colonists[2] and arrived in Sierra Leone on February 3, 1816. Cuffee and his emigrants were not greeted as warmly as before. The authorities were already having trouble keeping the general population in order and were not thrilled at the idea that more emigrants were arriving. Although things did not go exactly as planned, Cuffee believed that once continuous trade between America, Britain, and Africa commenced the society would realize his predicted success. Cuffee left Sierra Leone in April filled with optimism for its future.

Cuffee's later years

In 1816, Cuffee’s vision resulted in a mass emigration plan for blacks. Congress rejected his petition for funds to return to Sierra Leone. During this time period many black Americans began to demonstrate interest in emigrating to Africa, and some people believed this was the best solution to problems of racism in the society. Cuffee was persuaded by Reverends Samuel J. Mills and Robert Finley to help them with their colonization plans of the American Colonization Society (ACS). 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. Beginning in September 1824, nearly 6,000 Americans, most of them free blacks, emigrated to Haiti. Because of the nation's poverty and problems, many Americans returned to the US.

In the beginning of 1817, Cuffee’s health deteriorated. He never returned to Africa. He died on September 7, 1817 and left an estate with an estimated value of $20,000[3].

See also


  1. ^ Gross, David (ed.) We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1434898253 pp. 115-117
  2. ^ Greene, Lorenzo Johnston. The Negro in Colonial New England (Studies in American Negro Life, Atheneum, New York, 1942) p. 307
  3. ^ 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
  • “Cuffee, Paul”, Library of Congress, Silhouette. Facts On File, Inc. African-American History Online.
  • “Paul Cuffee”, BLACFAX; Summer-winter 91, Vol.6, Issue 24, Adelphi University.
  • 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.
  • Claus Bernet: Paul Cuffee. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Bd. 31, , Sp. 303–308. (German)

External links



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