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Paul Cuffe

When Paul Cuffe learned about the movement to settle free African-Americans in West Africa, he decided to go investigate. In 1811, Cuffe, a wealthy sea captain, whaler and ship owner, sailed from Westport, Massachusetts to Africa with his all-African-American crew.


A silhouette of Paul Cuffe, prosperous businessman and sea captain, and his ship docked in Sierra Leone.
A silhouette of Paul Cuffe, prosperous businessman and sea captain, and his ship docked in Sierra Leone. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Impressed with what he found, Cuffe returned to the United States with plans to settle African-Americans in the Sierra Leone colony in West Africa. He envisioned the new arrivals establishing businesses and working with Africans to stop slavery at the source.

Delayed by the War of 1812, Cuffe continued to recruit future settlers among free African-Americans along the mid-Atlantic coast. In 1815, he sailed with 38 settlers to Sierra Leone, where he helped them establish new homes at considerable personal expense.

Born free as Paul Slocum on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, Cuffe was the seventh child of a Native American mother and an African father. When his father died, he and his brother inherited a 116-acre farm in Westport. The farm did not generate enough to sustain their family, so Cuffe, 16, decided to pursue a life at sea and signed on with a whaling ship.

However, the life of a deckhand work was not Cuffe’s ambition – he dreamed of owning boats and operating his own business. Once he discovered that trees from his property could be used to build a boat large enough to haul cargo, Cuffe and his brother started their own shipping company that benefited from the thriving codfish industry in southern New England.


Portrait of a Black Sailor, thought to be Paul Cuffe, circa 1800.
Portrait of a Black Sailor, thought to be Paul Cuffe, circa 1800. (Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Between 1780 and 1806, Cuffe owned and built several ships able to compete in the cargo business along the East Coast. During the height of the American Revolution, the British intercepted his vessel and locked him in prison for three months. After his release, he began buying more boats and amassed a fleet of cargo and whaling ships.

Cuffe sailed with black captains and black crews and his whale hunting ships sailed as far as the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. According to maritime records, He was a successful whaler, returning home with large collections of whalebone, whale teeth and sperm oil. But despite his personal success, Cuffe appreciated the hardships so many black Americans faced in the United States. When he was 21, Cuffee refused to pay taxes because free blacks did not have the right to vote. His political efforts resulted in a 1783 Massachusetts law granting voting rights to all citizens of the state. He established the first school in Westport to be racially integrated.

A devout Quaker, Cuffe was strongly opposed to slavery and he participated with other free African-Americans in abolitionist campaigns. Although colonizing Sierra Leone was difficult and expensive, Cuffee believed it was a viable option for blacks and he threw his support behind the movement until his health failed.

When Cuffe died on September 9, 1817, he and his wife Alice had seven children. His family-run businesses had earned assets worth an estimated $20,000, making him the wealthiest man in Westport – and the wealthiest black man in the United States.

 

 
 
 
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