Silhouette portrait of Paul Cuffe and his brig, the Traveler
Every piece in the Library has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to look at a few of the thousands of materials and hear their tales through the Museum’s From the Vault, a rotating digital exhibit featuring a different treasure from the Library.
The papers of Paul Cuffe, 1759-1817, Mss Collection #10 in the Museum’s Archives, consist of rich materials spanning the period 1811-1828. Cuffe, one of the most influential African-Americans of his time, enjoyed a successful career as a merchant, whaleman, and sea captain. In addition to his mercantile accomplishments, Cuffe also joined the Society of Friends and established the first racially integrated school in the town of Westport, Massachusetts. Born the son of a freed slave in 1759, he was well aware of the poor social conditions African-Americans faced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This concern motivated his first voyage to Western Africa in 1811 to assess the British colony of Sierra Leone as a potential area for freed slaves to resettle. Cuffe returned to Sierra Leone five years later, bringing 38 African-Americans to the colony.
The bulk of the items in this collection consist of Cuffe’s correspondence, illuminating his life and career during the years 1812-1816. This period in Cuffe’s life marked a momentous occasion in African-American history, as he arranged the transportation of freed slaves and their families to Sierra Leone. As a result, this collection contains various letters from African-Americans writing to Cuffe inquiring about passage to Africa.
This message, written by Stephen Wamsley of Providence Rhode Island, is one of several letters in this collection from African-Americans regarding passage to Africa.
In December 1815, Paul Cuffe left for Sierra Leone with 18 adults and 20 children aboard his brig that he commanded himself. Fifty-five days later, on February 3, 1816, they sailed into the port of Freetown on Africa’s west coast. Shortly after arrival, Cuffe delivered an address to the settlers of the colony, referring to hope as the “anchor to the soul” and urging all colonists to arrange monthly meetings in order to “walk in the light of the Lord.” This piece in the collection highlights Cuffe’s Quaker beliefs and ideals in addition to demonstrating his strong humanitarian spirit.
History tells us that Cuffe’s second voyage to Sierra Leone marked his final trip to Western Africa, but this historic achievement resonated throughout the entire African-American community. Even though Cuffe never returned, several colonists remained in contact with him and wrote letters describing their new home. Additionally, the collection also contains correspondence from other African-Americans inquiring about Sierra Leone, with many expressing a strong desire to travel with Cuffe in the event of a third voyage to the colony.
This excerpt is from a letter by John James, a Quaker merchant in Philadelphia, writing to Cuffe in June of 1816. James highlights the positive feelings African-Americans held regarding Sierra Leone following Cuffe’s second voyage.
Paul Cuffe’s prosperous life ended in 1817 before he could make a third voyage to Sierra Leone. The monument placed above his final resting place in Westport eloquently reads:
IN MEMORY OF
CAPT. PAUL CUFFEE
PATRIOT, NAVIGATOR, EDUCATOR,
A NOBLE CHARACTER
This text encapsulates all that Cuffe represented during his life, and although his time has passed, his spirit lives on through his manuscript collection in the Whaling Museum’s Research Library. If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this manuscript collection, please call Mark Procknik at the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment
If you would like to learn more about Paul Cuffe, visit the Museum’s Cuffe Kitchen, a permanent multi-media exhibit dedicated to the life, career, and accomplishments of one of history’s most influential African-Americans.
Last modified: May 31, 2016