Paul Cuffee – a summary

The story of how Paul Cuffee made his way from farmer’s son to wealthy ship owner might not sound unique unless you consider that he was African American.  In his lifetime, free African Americans were not entitled to vote in most states and slavery was still a common practice.

Cuffee’s father, Kofi, was born in Africa, a member of the Ashanti tribe, and was transported to the colonies as a slave.  His owner, a Quaker, felt that slave ownership and his religion were in conflict, and so, freed Kofi who, having gained his freedom, worked to support his family, eventually acquiring a 116-acre Massachusetts farm which Cuffee and his siblings inherited. Cuffee’s mother, Ruth Moses, was a Native America of the Wampanoag tribe.

Cuffee the shipbulider

Born 17 January 1759, Paul Cuffee was one of ten children. As a youngster, Cuffee worked on whaling ships and learnt the art of navigation sailing out from the ports of Massachusetts. Spurred on, he built his own ship which he used to trade locally before venturing out to Nantucket. Soon he made enough of a profit to purchase another ship, eventually owning a whole fleet and, in the process, becoming one of the richest African Americans in the US.

No tax without representation

In 1780, Cuffee, as a taxpayer, petitioned the state of Massachusetts for the right to vote claiming the injustice of taxation without representation for blacks. The action failed but just three years later, legislation was passed, granting voting rights to all free male citizens of the state.

Cuffee married a woman who, like his mother, was from the Wampanoag tribe. They had seven children. In 1797, when his children were prevented from attending their local school because of their color, Cuffee established a new school for children of all races.

Colonization for African Americans

Cuffee believed in colonization for African Americans, but not for the same reasons as white supporters of the concept.  A Quaker, Cuffee saw the return of free African Americans to Africa as an opportunity for commerce and the spread of Christianity.  In 1810, Cuffee threw his weight behind the project to colonize Sierra Leone, negotiating with British merchants and abolitionists, and formulating plans to help the colony grow economically. He founded the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone to aid the emigration of free blacks from America.

In 1812, returning from Sierra Leone, and unaware that the US was at war with Britain, his ship was impounded by US customs. Unable to have his ship released, Cuffee journeyed to Washington to see President James Madison in person. The president, a slave owner, was impressed by Cuffee and immediately ordered the return of his ship.

In 1816, Cuffee arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone with thirty-eight colonists, aged from infant to 60, having financed a large portion of the expenses himself. Cuffee continued to attempt to help relocate African Americans to Africa and, later, to Haiti.  But this trip to Sierra Leone was his last.  He health deteriorated and Cuffee died, aged 58, on 9 September 1817. His final words were “Let me pass quietly away”.

Kat Smutz

See American Slavery: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also John Casor – the first slave