by Richard Gifford and Tony Connors
The best-known citizen of Westport is Paul Cuffe, a master mariner with African and Indian roots who rose to prominence as a captain, ship-builder, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and advocate for civil rights and school integration. Less well known is Pardon Cook, also an accomplished master mariner from Westport, who commanded more whaling voyages than any other person of color in the nineteenth century, and whose life intersected with that of Paul Cuffe through maritime ventures and marriages.
Pardon Cook’s heritage begins in slavery. His ancestors were slaves of the Almy and Cook families of Tiverton, Rhode Island—some of whom were not only slave owners but also engaged in the slave trade in Newport. Many of the slaves and free blacks of this area intermarried with Wampanoag Indians. Both groups were socially and economically marginalized and found refuge and community with each other.
Pardon’s father, Benjamin Cook, was born in Little Compton. Benjamin’s father, Abraham Cook, was most likely born in Africa, and his mother, Mary Robbins, was Wampanoag. In 1790 Benjamin married Catherine Almy, daughter of Ned Almy, a freed African slave, and Mary Nunksue, a Wampanoag. Benjamin was a farmer and a mariner. He owned 20 acres of land bordering the Allen’s Neck Meeting House in Dartmouth. He died in 1812 in a fall from the mast of a ship – probably a Paul Cuffe-owned vessel. After his death, Cuffe loaned money to the estate to pay off creditors and keep the farm intact for Benjamin’s widow.
Thus Pardon Cook was a product of the African slave trade and a blend of Indian and African cultures – much like Paul Cuffe and Charlotte White, along with many others in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was born in 1795. Little is known about his childhood until he became a mariner.
Many jobs were unavailable to people of color, but going to sea—particularly whaling—was a good option for Indians and African-Americans. Indians had been whaling long before Europeans came to the region and they had a reputation as formidable harpooners. Black mariners tended to be relegated to roles as cooks or stewards, but they were generally paid on the same scale as whites. In the dangerous business of whaling, a captain was more interested in the skill of a crew member than in his skin color. And in small but significant numbers, black mariners worked their way up to the highest positions on whaling and merchant vessels.
We don’t know when Pardon Cook began his whaling career, but his first recorded voyage was on Paul Cuffe’s brig Traveller in 1816. He must have had some maritime experience before this, because instead of signing on as an ordinary seaman, he was second mate, one of the officers. He held the same rank on the Westport-based brig Industry when it sailed to the Cape Verde Islands in 1819. Two years later he was on the Industry again, this time as first mate. He was first mate on two more Westport voyages – the Almy in 1822 and the Traveller in 1826. There were two more voyages out of New Bedford in which his rank was unknown (but not captain): in 1831 the Two Brothers brought back over 2,000 barrels of whale oil; and in 1836 the Delight was lucky to return after the ship lost both masts and whaling boats in a severe gale.
Around the time that he attained the rank of first mate, in February 1821, Pardon married Alice Cuffe, one of Paul’s daughters. They built a house on property purchased by Paul Cuffe near the Cuffe and Wainer homesteads, on Drift Road south of Hix Bridge.
In 1839 Cook took the first of his four commands as captain of Westport whaling vessels. All had mixed black and white crews. On the Elizabeth (1839) his first mate was Rodney Wainer, and Samuel Cuffe was a black crew member. He took the Elizabeth out again the following year with Asa and Rodney Wainer as first and second mates. He had the same officers on the Elizabeth in 1841. For this voyage Cook and Asa Wainer held part ownership of the vessel. Unfortunately the voyage was only marginally successful, and the small brig was broken up in 1842. In 1843 he took the brig Juno to the Indian Ocean, with four black crew members (although the officers were white).
That was Pardon Cook’s last known whaling voyage. On October 8, 1849, he died of typhoid fever, three days after his son Pardon had succumbed to the same disease. He was 53 years old. Another son, Lysander, also died in 1849, most likely from typhoid fever as well.
Pardon had participated in at least eleven whaling voyages, almost all as officer or captain—possibly more voyages as captain than any other man of color in the first half of the nineteenth century. His legacy includes significant connections to Paul Cuffe and Absalom Boston (another black whaling captain, from Nantucket) through marriage and whaling, and he was a major figure in the extended Afro-Indian community that supported each other to succeed in a society and economy that marginalized them.
Pardon’s sister Mary married Paul Cuffe, Jr. His sister Deborah married Nathaniel A. Borden of New Bedford, who ran for state representative in 1839, probably the first African-American to do so. He lost, but it was a bold attempt at political representation. His son Benjamin P. Cook married Chloe Wainer, and lived at the Paul Cuffe homestead. Their daughter Catherine was the last Cuffe descendant to own the family property.
Outside of his own tight-knit community, Pardon Cook was not well known. But in August 1843 he was featured in an article in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. The writer, identified only as E. Smith, wrote: “Whilst in Westport I also had a pleasant interview with Capt. Pardon Cook, who married a daughter of Paul Cuffe. Capt. Cook is the only colored man, so far as we know, who enjoys the distinction of commanding a whaleman. Capt. C. is not obnoxious to the charge of being indebted for his abilities to any white blood that he possesses, for few are darker than he. He has performed three voyages from Westport, as master, and in every instance succeeded in making a good voyage. . . . He has invariably given satisfaction to owners and crew – has never been troubled with mutiny or other serious disorder among his men, and has always returned with the same crew with whom he sailed – a circumstance of which few whalemen can boast. On the 22nd of June, Capt. C. sailed on his fourth voyage, in the brig Juno, of Westport, having one of his white neighbors as his mate. Hitherto, his voyages have all been made in brigs. We presume a few more trials will so far convince the public of his ability and trustworthiness, that he will be thought capable of managing a three-masted vessel. . . .”
The article was not entirely accurate. Cook was not the only black mariner to command a whaleship: his brother-in-law Absalom Boston was captain of the whaler Industry out of Nantucket in 1822. And while he had no deserters on his first three commands, the voyage of the Juno would be plagued by numerous desertions. Minor errors aside, this is a fine tribute to a little-known but remarkable mariner from Westport.