The African American ship captain, merchant, and philanthropist Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was active in the campaign for civil rights for blacks and Native Americans in Massachusetts. He is best known for his pioneering efforts to settle free African Americans in West Africa.
Paul Cuffe was born on Jan. 17, 1759, near New Bedford, Mass., of a Native American mother and an African father, Cuffe Slocum, who had purchased his own freedom. Paul was the youngest of 10 children. His father died when Paul was a teenager, leaving the family to find its own means of support. Cuffe’s education consisted of basic reading and writing, plus enough mathematics to permit him to navigate a ship. At the age of 16, he began his career as a common seaman on whaling and fishing boats. During the Revolutionary War, he was held prisoner by the British for a time but managed afterward to start small-scale coastal trading. Despite attacks by pirates, he eventually prospered. He built larger vessels and successfully traded south as far as Virginia and north to Labrador. In later life, he owned several ships which engaged in trading and whaling around the world.
Cuffe was a vigorous, pious, and independent man. He refused to use the name of his father’s owner, Slocum and adopted his father’s given name, Cuffe (or Cuffee). In 1780 he and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts government either to give African and Native Americans the right to vote or to stop taxing them. The petition was denied, but the case helped pave the way for the 1783 Massachusetts Constitution, which gave equal rights and privileges to all citizens of the state.
Cuffe was a devout and evangelical Quaker. He married at the age of 25. At his home in Westport, Mass., he donated a town school and helped support the teacher. Later he helped build a new meeting house. Through his connections with Quakers in other cities, he became involved in efforts to improve the conditions of African Americans. Strongly opposed to slavery and the slave trade, he joined other free African Americans in the Northern states in their abolitionist campaigns.
When Cuffe learned of the Sierra Leone Colony in West Africa, which had been founded by English philanthropists in 1787, he began corresponding with English Quakers active in the movement to settle African Americans there. In 1811 he sailed with his all-African American crew to investigate the colony. Impressed and eager to start settling African Americans there who could evangelize the Africans, establish business enterprises, and work to stop the slave trade at its source, Cuffe returned to the United States after conferring with his allies in England. He planned to take a ship loaded with settlers and merchandise to Sierra Leone annually, but the War of 1812, between the United States and Britain, delayed him. Meanwhile, he petitioned the American government for aid and actively recruited future settlers among the free African Americans of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
In 1815 Cuffe sailed with 38 settlers for Sierra Leone, where he helped them establish new homes with the cooperation of colonial authorities. Enthusiastic over his success, despite the heavy personal expense, he found increased interest in the project among African Americans. Soon, however, the newly formed American Colonization Society, which operated with the support of Southern slave owners and advocated settlement of former slaves in Africa, began to frighten free African Americans, who feared forced deportation. Before Cuffe could pursue his own settlement project, his health failed.