Paul Cuffee or Paul Cuffe (January 17, 1759 – September 9, 1817) was a Quaker businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist. He was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and West African Ashanti descent and helped colonize Sierra Leone. Cuffe built a lucrative shipping empire and established the first racially integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts.
A devout Christian, Cuffee often preached and spoke at the Sunday services at the multi-racial Society of Friends meeting house in Westport, Massachusetts. In 1813, he donated most of the money to build a new meeting house. He became involved in the British effort to resettle freed slaves, many of whom had moved from the US to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, to the fledgling colony of Sierra Leone. Cuffe helped establish The Friendly Society of Sierra Leone, which provided financial support for the colony.
The future mariner Paul Cuffee was born on January 17, 1759, during the French and Indian War, on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts. He was the youngest son of Kofi Slocum and Ruth Moses. Paul’s father, Kofi, was a member of the Akan ethnic group’s Ashanti tribe, from Ghana, Africa. Kofi had been captured at age ten and brought as a slave to the British colony of Massachusetts. His owner, John Slocum, could not reconcile slave ownership with his own Quaker values and gave Kofi his freedom in the mid-1740s. Kofi took the name Cuffee Slocum and, in 1746, he married Ruth Moses. Ruth was a Native American member of the Wampanoag Nation on Martha’s Vineyard.
At the age of 21, Cuffe refused to pay taxes because free blacks did not have the right to vote. In 1780, he petitioned the council of Bristol County, Massachusetts to end such taxation without representation. The petition was denied, but his suit was one of the influences that led the Legislature in 1783 to grant voting rights to all free male citizens of the state. Cuffe finally made enough money to purchase another ship and hired crew. He gradually built up capital and expanded his ownership to a fleet of ships. After using open boats, he commissioned the 14- or 15-ton closed-deck boat Box Iron, then an 18- to 20-ton schooner. Cuffe married Alice Pequit on February 25, 1783. Like Cuffe’s mother, Pequit was also Wampanoag. The couple settled in Westport, Massachusetts, where they raised their seven children.
In February 1799 he paid $3,500 for 140 acres (0.57 km2) of waterfront property in Westport. By 1800 he had enough capital to purchase a half-interest in the 162-ton barque Hero. By the first years of the nineteenth century Paul Cuffe was one of the most wealthy – if not the most wealthy – African American and Native American in the United States. His largest ship, the 268-ton Alpha, was built in 1806, along with his favorite ship of all, the 109-ton brig Traveller. Most Englishmen and Anglo-Americans in his day felt that people of African descent were inferior to Europeans, even in the predominantly Calvinist and Quaker New England. Although slavery continued, prominent men like Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the emigration of Blacks to colonies outside the United States was the easiest and most realistic solution to the race problem in America.
1732 map of Sierra Leone and the coast of Guinea
Attempts by Europeans and Americans to colonize Blacks in other parts of the world had failed, including the British attempt to colonize Sierra Leone. Beginning in 1787, the Sierra Leone Company sponsored 400 people who departed from Great Britain for Sierra Leone. The colony struggled to establish a working economy and develop a government that could survive against outside pressures. After the financial collapse of the Sierra Leone Company, a second group, the newly created African Institution offered migration to freed slaves who had previously settled in Nova Scotia and London after the American Revolution. The African Institution’s London sponsors hoped to gain an economic return while foster the “civilizing” trades of educated Blacks.
Although colonizing Sierra Leone was difficult, Cuffe believed it was a viable option for Blacks and threw his support behind the movement. Paul Cuffe wrote,
“I have for these many years past felt a lively interest in their behalf, wishing that the inhabitants of the colony might become established in truth, and thereby be instrumental in its promotion amongst our African brethren.”
From March 1807 on, Cuffe was encouraged by members of the African Institution in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York to be involved in helping out the fledgling efforts to improve Sierra Leone. Cuffe mulled over the logistics and chances of success for the movement before deciding in 1809 to join the project. On December 27, 1810, he left Philadelphia on his first expedition to Sierra Leone. In 1816, Cuffe envisioned a mass emigration plan for African Americans, both to Sierra Leone and possibly to newly freed Haiti. As 1817 began, Paul Cuffe’s health deteriorated. He never returned to Africa. He died on September 7, 1817. His final words were “Let me pass quietly away.” Cuffe left an estate with an estimated value of almost $20,000. He is buried in the graveyard of the Westport Friends Meetinghouse.