Paul Cuffe, a Brief Biography

Paul Cuffe was born on Cuttyhunk Island, at the west end of the Elizabeth Islands chain in Massachusetts, on January 17th 1759. He was the seventh child and fourth son of Cuff Slocum, an emanicipated slave from West Africa, and Ruth Moses, a Native American woman from Cape Cod. The family lived on Cuttyhunk for about 15 years where they interacted with Wampanoag neighbors on the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard and managed the properties of the Slocum families from Dartmouth that were used mainly for grazing sheep in the warmer months. Their ten children all lived well into their adult years, a remarkable record for that time.

Paul’s parents saved enough of their earnings to purchase an existing 120-acre farm in the mainland town of Dartmouth to which the family moved in the spring of 1767 and lived there together until 1772 when Paul’s father died. Cuff Slocum bequeathed this farm to his two younger sons, John and Paul, and it remained in their possession for the next half century. But in 1773 Paul initiated his seafaring life as a 14-year-old crew member on a whaling voyage to the West Indies leaving management of the farm to his older brother.

After crewing on whaling ships in 1775 and 1776 and being taken prisoner by the British Navy on the latter voyage and held in a jail in New York harbor for 3 months, Paul took up the challenge of penetrating the British blockade to deliver needed supplies to the residents of Nantucket throughout the rest of the war years. He lost his small boat and supplies to pirates on at least one occasion, but succeeded on many crossings in the dark of moonless nights and, in the process, built up relationships with leading families of Nantucket Quakers, such as William Rotch, Sr. and Jr., who became important friends and business partners throughout his life.

In 1780, Paul, aged 21, and his brother John, 23, joined four freed African American friends in petitioning the Massachusetts Legislature to grant them the right to vote. The petition was denied by the House of Representatives but was subsequently incorporated into the State’s new constitution that only required property ownership to qualify for voting. That same year, Paul and John were jailed for a few days for not paying town taxes on their property but were rescued by a prominent local citizen, Walter Spooner, who helped negotiate a reasonable settlement.

On February 25th 1783, Paul Cuffe married Alice Abel Pequit, widow of James Pequit and daughter of a prominent Wampanoag family on Martha’s Vineyard. They had seven children, five daughters and two sons, all of whom were born in the Dartmouth/Westport area and lived to maturity. That same year Paul joined forces with his brother-in-law, Michael Wainer, a Wampanoag who had married his older sister, Mary, in 1772. Paul and Michael established a shipping business across the South Coast of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In 1789 Paul acquired a small waterfront property on the west bank of the East Branch of the Acoaxet (Westport) River and he and Michael began building a series of increasingly larger sailing ships that they used to expand their ocean trading business along the East Coast and up into the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and also for fishing voyages to the Grand Banks and whaling voyages throughout the Atlantic Ocean. As Michael and Mary Wainer’s sons matured, they served as mates, captains and masters of those ships.

In the latter half of the 1790s, realizing the benefits of their successful trading business, both Paul Cuffe and Michael Wainer established permanent residences for their families on nearby properties along the East Branch. Paul built a substantial house next to his shipyard, and Michael Wainer acquired a 100-acre property a quarter mile to the south that had been the homestead of the Eddy family.

As Paul Cuffe expanded his commercial dealings around the Atlantic Ocean, he became increasingly engaged with Quaker businessmen and Abolitionist leaders in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and London. The British Abolitionists in particular saw Paul Cuffe, a prominent black entrepreneur and humanitarian, as a potential ally in their efforts to create a successful colony of freed slaves from both America and England in the African territory of Sierra Leone.

This colony was established in 1791 by England to provide a home for slaves who had sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces during the Revolutionary War, then been transplanted in Nova Scotia when the British were defeated, and finally brought to Sierra Leone in the hope of creating a viable permanent settlement. This effort had experienced numerous problems: many had died from tropical illnesses and there had been continuing conflict between the English commercial and military leaders and the ostensibly free citizens. These problems were compounded when another group of former slaves from Jamaica, referred to as “maroons” were brought to Sierra Leone and injected into this unstable situation in 1800, and, further exacerbated after abolition of slave trading by the British in 1807, when any slaves recaptured from illegal British slave trading ships were brought to Sierra Leone for resettlement.

At the urging of Quakers and Abolitionists in England and America, Paul Cuffe sailed to Sierra Leone in 1811 to assess the situation among the various freed-slave communities, the British officials and the local African people and see whether he could help improve their conditions. After several months, he sailed to England to consult with the leaders of The Africa Institution that was committed to promoting commerce and civilization in Africa and providing continuing advice on British colonial policy there.

From England he sailed back to Sierra Leone and set about organizing his Nova Scotian friends into a “Friendly Society” that “would serve as the catalyst for the development of an African People to be counted among the historians’ nations, and it would keep records of its actions to ensure that future historians would be able to reconstruct the story of that nation’s rise and progress.”

When he returned to Westport from Sierra Leone in April 1812, onset of the war between England and the United States rendered the cargo he was carrying from the British colony of Sierra Leone illegal and the Newport customs officials seized his ship. Undaunted, Paul Cuffe rode the stage coach to Washington where, through the intercessions of his Quaker friends, he was received by President James Madison and the Secretaries of State and Treasury (a first for a Black American), who issued orders that his ship and cargo be released. But the war prevented any further involvement with the people of Sierra Leone until after it ended in 1814.

In the meantime, Paul Cuffe had become actively involved with the Quakers in Westport where he was welcomed into membership in the local society in 1808. After returning from his trip to Sierra Leone, which the Westport Friends Meeting had strongly supported, they appointed him to a committee to decide whether a new Meeting House should be constructed and, if so, to oversee and raise the funds for that undertaking. Paul was a leader of that committee and provided half of the costs of the new building. He had previously established, with his own funds, the first integrated school in Westport near his home along the East Branch. At that time he was one of the wealthiest African Americans in the country.

After the war with Britain ended, Paul Cuffe led a third trip to Sierra Leone taking with him 10 families of 38 persons who had agreed to settle there and work with the local people to help them be more productive and engaged in world trade in commodities rather than slaves. Although he had been promised financial support for this venture, that support failed to materialize and he ended up meeting most of the costs himself. Some of his passengers stayed on in Sierra Leone and some later moved on to the new colony of Liberia where they reportedly prospered.

A new American organization called the American Colonization Society was being formed about the same time that Paul Cuffe returned from his third trip to Sierra Leone and its leaders sought his support and endorsement. While its goals of resettling freed slaves in Africa initially seemed consistent with Cuffe’s own, it soon became clear to Paul Cuffe and other African American leaders that the Society was mainly sponsored by slave-owners who were more interested in removing the free black presence from American society than they were in supporting African development, and he did not give it any support.

The following year, 1817, Paul Cuffe had an illness early in the year that eventually led to his death on September 7th. He was buried the next day in the cemetery behind the Westport Friends Meeting House and was honored and memorialized in many halls and sanctuaries around the Atlantic in the following months.