Who was Captain Paul Cuffe
Shattering stereotypes, Captain Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) rose to prominence and became one of the wealthiest men of color in the nation. His petition to the state of Massachusetts regarding taxation and citizenship was instrumental in African Americans gaining full citizenship in the state, and he was honored by being one of the first men of color to have a formal meeting with a sitting U.S. President.
Maritime New England produced some remarkable figures. There were innovative ship builders, whalers, pioneering voyagers, sea-captains-turned-authors, and shrewd businessmen who sought trading opportunities everywhere from the East Indies to the Caribbean.
At least for the first eight years of his life, Paul Cuffe was of the class of persons that in Moby-Dick Herman Melville termed “isolatos,” that is, islanders “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.” Cuffe was born on the island of Cuttyhunk, the westernmost of the Elizabeth Island archipelago that extends southwest from Cape Cod. His mother, Ruth Moses, was a Wampanoag Native American and his father, Kofi Slocum, was a freed slave of African Ashanti origin (modern-day Ghana). Paul was one of ten children and when his father died, leaving a mainland estate of 116 acres in Westport, Massachusetts, Paul “conceived that commerce furnished to industry more ample rewards that agriculture,” and took to the sea.1 As a teenager, he went whaling in the Gulf of Mexico and made two trading voyages to the West Indies. By that time, America was at war with Great Britain, and in 1776, Paul Cuffe was taken captive by the British and held in New York for three months.
As a young man, Paul Cuffe, who described himself in his autobiographical memoir as “a man of colour,” encountered race-based inequities in the system of taxation in Massachusetts. By the age of twenty, Paul, and his older brother John, having been subjected to taxation without the benefits of free citizenship, petitioned the state legislature, arguing that “by the laws of the constitution of Massachusetts, taxation and the whole rights of citizenship were united.”2 Through their efforts, Massachusetts then passed a law allowing people of color to be taxed as free citizens, equally to whites.
Cuffe went on to become a successful ship builder and merchant. He met with President James Madison over questions arising from a seized cargo as one of his ships entered port in Newport, RI during the Jeffersonian Embargo and the War of 1812. Later in life, he continued to fight for equal rights for people of color. He often assisted widows and family members and built an integrated school in his community so all children could receive an education. As a maritime merchant he was well-respected nationally and internationally, but “his heart grieved for the degraded state of his race.”3 He used his influence, his own money and his own ship, the brig Traveller, to enable free American blacks to re-settle in Sierra Leone, Africa, and in 1815 transported thirty-eight black Americans back to Africa. This was so important to Cuffe that when he was unable to find financial backers to support the families that relocated to Sierra Leone, he took on the expense himself.
Paul Cuffe’s life and letters mark an important chapter in American history. African Americans have lived in this community since its earliest days, attracted in part by tolerant Quaker tenets and their general abhorrence of slavery. Paul Cuffe himself was a Quaker and helped build the Meeting House in Westport, MA. The Quaker majority welcomed runaway and freed slaves to the area as early as 1716. Free men from continental Africa and Cabo Verde (then a Portuguese colony) became part of the African American heritage of New Bedford, giving whaling the distinction of being the first meritocracy in the Colonies.
1 Cuffe, Paul. Memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee, a Man of Colour: To which is subjoined the Epistle of the Society of Sierra Leone, in Africa, &c. York: C. Peacock and W. Alexander, 1811.
2 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
3 Chambers’ Pocket Miscellany. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854, p. 91
February 22, 2018 eSketch: Paul Cuffe: An Early Example of African American and Native American Diasporism and Cosmopolitanism (pdf)