January 17, 2019 marks the 260th birthday of Paul Cuffe, born on Cuttyhunk Island in 1759. A self-professed “marineer,” he was also an abolitionist, educator, and even helped in the establishment and colonialization of British Sierra Leone by African-American emigrants.
Cuffe was born to a freed slave from Ghana, Kofi Slocum, and a Native American woman named Ruth Moses. “Kofi” is a common Ghanian last name, and Cuffe adapted it as his own family name and persuaded most of his family to do the same. He did not have much of an education past basic reading and writing, but he taught himself about navigation and sailing. As a teenager he worked on whaling and cargo ships and was held prisoner for three months by the British in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War. But the perils Cuffe experienced at sea didn’t stop there: after the Revolutionary War, he was intercepted and robbed by pirates twice during trading voyages. However, his perseverance paid off, and business improved. By 25, he was the master of his own vessel, shipping to Newfoundland, the West Indies, England, and the Baltic. Soon he was building or “caused to be built” several schooners, according to his niece Joan Wainer.
|Portrait of Paul Cuffe by Chester Harding |
courtesy of Wikipedia
But despite his success, he still experienced discrimination due to the color of his skin and the color of his crew. He struggled to do business in Virginia and Maryland, where local people worried he would have an “unfavorable influence” on their slaves. Back home, Cuffe fought against racism with the same principles that inspired the American Revolution: “no taxation without representation.” In 1780, he and his older brother John protested against racial injustice and withheld their poll and property taxes due to the fact that they did not have the right to vote due to their race. They submitted a petition both to the town of Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Legislature that, while not successful, paved the way for the abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts in 1787 and the judicial act granting equal rights and privileges to African-Americans in the commonwealth in 1783.
Paul Cuffe and his family became prominent in Westport, which separated from the town of Dartmouth and was incorporated in 1787. He was a member of the Society of Friends and occasionally preached to a multi-racial collection of other Quakers. “Anxious that his children should have a more favorable opportunity of obtaining education than he had had,” he also built a school house on his own land, the first racially integrated school in Westport (A Man Born on Purpose
). He wrote to a friend, “I am one of those who rejoice to see good institutions established for the instruction and reformation of our fellow creatures. I approve of the plan for education of young men of color. I think such characters would be useful in Africa” (A Man Born on Purpose
Africa was certainly on Paul Cuffe’s mind throughout his life. Like many abolitionists at the time, he believed that African-Americans could resettle somewhere in Africa and aid in social and economic development there. Britain had already began resettling the “Black Poor of London,” many of which were African-Americans freed by the British during the American Revolution, in Sierra Leone. Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia were also eager to resettle elsewhere. Cuffe was interested in this option for himself and fellow African-Americans and believed that a colony there could help stop the continuing slave trade in eastern Africa. Persuaded by members of the newly founded African Institution, he set sail on his first expedition to Sierra Leone in 1810. He traveled throughout the colony and made recommendations to the African Institution as to the professions required to successfully create a colony (agriculture, merchanting, and whaling) and expressed concerns regarding the British willingness to work with Americans and subsequent entrepreneurial competition. However, he was more enthusiastic than ever: he traveled to Britain to seek aid for the settlement and helped found the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone. However, with the War of 1812 brewing, he inadvertently found himself in some trouble upon returning to the United States.
|A brief account of the settlement and present |
situation of the colony of Sierra Leone, in Africa
(1812) by Paul Cuffe. Courtesy of the Special
Collections and University Archives,
UMass Amherst Libraries.
Upon returning to Newport, Rhode Island in 1812, Cuffe’s ship Traveller
was seized by US Customs officials. The United States had established an embargo on British goods at the end of 1811, and the officials would not release his ship or his cargo. As a testament to both Cuffe’s reputation and that of his connections, he was able to appeal this decision directly to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and President James Madison, who ordered his cargo returned to him. Cuffe also shared his plans regarding Sierra Leone and while Madison was initially interested in the new colony, the break out of the War of 1812 dissuaded him on any further support.
After the War of 1812, Cuffe was finally able to put his plans into motion. In December 1815, Cuffe, his family, and other African-American emigrants numbering 38 in total began the voyage to Sierra Leone. He and the new immigrants experienced many difficulties with the British government and establishing trade. Much of the endeavor was financed by Cuffe himself, with no support from the African Institution chapters throughout England or America. He also witnessed the ongoing slave trade and was unsure how the colony at Freetown could intervene. He returned to New York in 1816 to discuss the success of the colony and later petitioned the US Congress to fund a return for African-Americans to Sierra Leone, but was unsuccessful.
Unfortunately no mass emigration of African-Americans was ever realized, and Paul Cuffe never returned to Africa. Many African-Americans were reluctant to return to Africa: “They felt that America was their home. Few actually returned” (Rise to be a People
). Others preferred Haiti, not Sierra Leone, as a potential colony location. Other pro-emigration organizations like the American Colonization Society supported the measure not for the betterment of African-Americans but, in the words of co-founder Henry Clay, in order to “rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of our population… namely free Blacks” (Rise to be a People
) and tried to use Cuffe to promote this racist agenda.
Despite these obstacles, Cuffe continued to work toward the interests of African-Americans until his death in 1817. His activism not only worked toward the abolishment of slavery and the right to vote in Massachusetts, but also contributed to the education and religious organization of his community. Eventually his dream of an African-American settlement would also succeed in the establishment of Liberia. The Paul Cuffe Farm is still standing and welcomes visitors and offers a heritage trail for visitors to learn more
. Both Governor Patrick
and Governor Baker
have honored Cuffe with long-overdue proclamations in recent history, and hopefully the story of Westport’s most famous resident will continue to inspire others.
|Paul Cuffe Farm in Westport, Massachusetts |
courtesy of Wikipedia