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 17, 1759. He was the seventh child and fourth son of Cuff Slocum, an emancipated 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 116-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 again 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 free 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 men to vote. 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 25, 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 older 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 and already contained a sizeable house.
Paul Cuffe became one of the wealthiest persons of color in the United States and he used his wealth to support local activities such as a smallpox hospital, an integrated school and many people in difficulty no matter what their ethnic or racial background. His landholdings and shipbuilding in Westport were extensive and he partnered with the white community as well as with persons of color in Westport and elsewhere.
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 for the freed slaves from both America and England who had already been transported to the African territory of Sierra Leone.
This colony had been 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. They had been transplanted first to Nova Scotia when the British were defeated, and subsequently to Sierra Leone in the hope of creating a viable permanent settlement there. This effort had experienced numerous problems. Many settlers 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” was brought to Sierra Leone and injected into this unstable situation in 1800. This was 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 Government officials and private traders, and the local African people and see whether he could help improve their conditions. After several months of exploring conditions in Sierra Leone, 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.
Paul Cuffe received a remarkably warm reception from both the Quaker community and the leaders of the African Institution in England. He sailed into Liverpool choosing that as his commercial base and made two trips to London to pursue various aspects of his Sierra Leone initiatives. He spoke to the members of the African Institution about the potentials he saw for raising export crops, setting up factories and shipyards similar to those he was familiar with at home that could process goods for export and also build ships for transporting such cargos. He was always basing his recommendations on helping Africans, both the returned freed slaves and the local population, to carry on these activities.
On the other hand, he also discovered in England that some of the English merchants in Sierra Leone saw Cuffe’s plans as a threat to their protected monopoly positions. These merchants took measures to undermine his efforts. One of the merchants sent a letter to the African Institution warning them that Paul Cuffe “was an unscrupulous businessman and not to be trusted.” They also conspired to have a young man from Sierra Leone, Aaron Rogers, impressed off Cuffe’s ship in Liverpool and kept captive first in Liverpool and then in Portsmouth. Rogers was serving as an apprentice to learn navigation from Paul Cuffe with hope he might become a skilled mariner and even a future captain of ships sailing out of Sierra Leone. Paul Cuffe first sought to have Aaron Rogers released in Liverpool. When that failed, he went to London and enlisted the support of influential Quakers and leaders of the African Institution, who in turn interceded with the British Admiralty and arranged for Rogers’ release.
From England Cuffe and his crew 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 Cuffe returned to Westport from Sierra Leone in April 1812, the 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 (a first for a Black American) and the Secretaries of State and Treasury who issued orders that his ship and cargo be released. But the war prevented any further involvement with Sierra Leone until after it ended in 1814.
In 1808 Cuffe had been welcomed into membership in the local Meeting of the Quakers in Westport and they had strongly supported his Sierra Leone mission. Upon returning home from Sierra Leone and thwarted by the war from maritime activity, he became more actively involved with the local Meeting. He was appointed to a committee to decide whether a new Meetinghouse building should be constructed and, if so, to oversee and raise the funds for that undertaking. Paul became a leader of that committee and contributed half of the cost of the new building.
After the war with Britain ended, Paul Cuffe led a third trip to Sierra Leone. He transported 10 families of 38 persons on his ship the Traveler. The agreement with these new settlers was that they would work to assist the local people to become more productive and able to engage in world trade with local commodities, rather than exporting slaves. He had been promised financial support for this venture from the African Institution in London, but 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 him and other African American leaders that the Society was mainly sponsored by slaveowners who were more interested in removing the free black presence from American society than they were in supporting African development. Cuffe did not give it his support.
Early in the following year, 1817, Paul Cuffe came down with an illness 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.
One of the most eloquent and authoritative of these tributes was by the Reverend Peter Williams Jr., Minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City, who had been a close friend of Paul Cuffe for many years. The following excerpts from his discourse give hIs assessment of Paul Cuffe:
“In his person, Captain Cuffee was large and well proportioned. His countenance was serious, but mild. His speech and habit, plain and unostentatious. His deportment, dignified and prepossessing; blending gravity with modesty and sweetness; firmness with gentleness and humility. His whole exterior indicated a man of respectability and piety.
He was so conscientious that he would sooner sacrifice his private interests than engage in any enterprise, however lawful or profitable, that might have a tendency, either directly or indirectly, to injure his fellow men. For instance, he would not deal in ardent spirits, nor in slaves, though he might have done either without violating the laws of his country, and with great prospects of pecuniary gain.
In 1797, Captain Cuffee, lamenting that the place in which he lived, was destitute of a school for the instruction of youth; and anxious that his children should have a more favorable opportunity of obtaining education than he had had, proposed to his neighbours to unite with him in erecting a school-house. This, though the utility of the object was undeniable, was made the cause of so much contention, probably on account of his colour, the he resolved at length to build a school-house on his own land, and at his own expense. He did so, and when finished, gave them the use of it gratis, satisfying himself with seeing it occupied for the purposes contemplated.
As a private man, he was just and upright in all his dealings, an affectionate husband, a kind father, a good neighbor and a faithful friend. Pious without ostentation, and warmly attached to the principles of Quakerism, he manifested, in all his deportment, that he was a true disciple of Jesus; and cherished a charitable disposition to professors of every denomination, who walked according to the leading principles of the gospel.
Captain Cuffee was a judicious and a good man. His thoughts ran deep, and his motives were pure. Such was his reputation for wisdom and integrity, that his neighbours always consulted him in all their important concerns, and, oh! what honor to the son of an African slave, the most respectable men in Great Britain and America were not ashamed to seek to him for counsel and advice!”