#5 Paul Cuffe: Quaker Pragmatist, Faithful Philanthropist

It’s Black History Month. Despite my thought that stories of African Americans who have enriched our lives throughout American history should be shared every day, I’m going to recognize several men and women whose stories are especially important to me. In my Quaker world of the moment, this is especially relevant. The January issue of Friends Journal includes some soul searching articles about the relationship or lack thereof between Quakers and African Americans since the founding of our country. I read it and then spent time reading, reflecting, and bouncing ideas and feelings off a small group of F(f)riends whom I trust. To be honest, I present Paul Cuffe to you readers with a little fear and trembling, lest I not do him justice. Often forgotten, only recently celebrated, Paul Cuffe needs to be known.

In 1759, Paul Cuffe was born on Cuttybunk Island, the southwest Island of the Elizabeth Island archipelago off the coast of Massachusetts near the present city of New Bedford. His father, Kofi, had been brought to America from the Akan tribe in present day Ghana and bought by a Quaker, Ebenezer Slocum, and sold later to his nephew John, who freed him two years later. Kofi married a woman, Ruth Moses, of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and raised ten children with her. Paul was the seventh of these children and learned practical skills of carpentry, farming, and fishing from his father. As a small boy, he spent hours on the rocky shores of the small island, observing the sea – the tides, the currents, and the shoals. He and his younger brother David built small boats and rowed them in and out of the surrounding islands. From both his parents, he learned a spirituality that respected people and the natural world. From them he learned Quaker values of respect for all as children of God, the importance of education, responsibility for family, providing for the less fortunate, speaking the truth, and working hard to develop the gifts given to you. Kofi Slocum’s watchwords were “Give, give, give.” Though his father died when he was about ten, Paul never forgot these lessons.

His father left the 116 acres of farm and time land he had bought near Dartmouth/Westport to Paul and his older brother John, but Paul was pulled to the sea and sailed on his first whaling journey at 16. He learned navigational skills, shipbuilding, and whaling from the sailors and work on the boats. Captured by the British and held in New York as a prisoner for three months during the Revolutionary War, he had time to think about what he was going to do with his future. When he returned home, he used timber from his land and built a small boat to run the British blockade and supply goods to Nantucket and other island towns. He lost a boat and goods on two midnight runs, but was successful on the third and gained a profit. He built a bigger boat, used the business and social skills of the wealthy Quaker trader William Rotch as his model, and set up a hauling, trading, real estate, shipbuilding, and whaling business. He married his Wampanoag wife Anna and had seven children, two sons and five daughters and built a school on his own property to ensure an education for them, their cousins, and any white children who wanted to attend. He partnered with his brother-in-law, Michael Wainer, the Wampanoag husband of his sister Mary, and sailed with his all African American and Native American crews, mostly relatives, north to Newfoundland and south to Philadelphia, Virginia, and South Carolina. Later, he would trade across the Atlantic to England, France, Spain, Portugal, Africa, the West Indies, and the Gulf Coast. Everywhere he went he learned from the people he met and developed a reputation for honesty, intelligence, good common sense, courage and respect for others.

He suffered the insults and prejudices of a black man with humility but no sign of weakness. He encouraged his crew to act with dignity and respect to all. Audacious enough to sail his all black crew into southern ports, he found his presence and that of his crews led to surprise and business acceptance, even kindness on occasion. When he returned from his first trip to the African shores, his ship and cargo were seized in the Newport, RI harbor due to embargoes he was unaware of. He rallied his supporters from the wealthy Quaker shipping trade of New Bedford to Massachusetts politicians to Philadelphia businessmen, both black and white, and went to Washington, DC to see President James Madison. Helped by DC and Baltimore Quakers, he entered the “front” door of the White House, met the president, stated his protest and request, and gained his waiver to recover ship and goods. On a stagecoach to Baltimore, he was verbally attacked by a traveller, who wanted Cuffe’s seat. Cuffe remained silent and seated. When two women entered the coach, he stood and with quiet elegance offered his seat and gestured that his fellow traveller do the same.

As he travelled, Paul Cuffe became more and more concerned about the slave trade, the plight of slaves, and the treatment of free blacks in the North. During his international trading, Paul Cuffe met abolitionists in Great Britain, received a favorable welcome, and saw ways he could build on British efforts in Sierra Leone to stop the slave trade and find a home in Africa where freedmen could not only improve themselves but serve as helpmates and models for the improvement of the African peoples. He hoped to educate Africans for future self-determination and entrance into the nations of the world. Having joined the Westport Friends Meeting in 1808, he prayed for the way to open that he might implement his dream and sought support from his meeting. In 1811 he received a minute of approval to travel to Sierra Leone to explore possibilities. The work of his remaining years was to begin.

Always an organizer and a pragmatist, he set up groups of supporters in the black communities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. He worked to raise money to set up a triangular trade between Sierra Leone, Great Britain, and the United States, buy tools and machinery to develop agriculture and small factories, and even start a whaling industry with African sailors he would train to someday man their own fleet. Having met some American and Jamaican freedman, most from Nova Scotia and England, he helped them form a Friendly Society that would plan and lead the local efforts in Sierra Leone. While this was an altruistic venture to improve the lives of others, Paul Cuffe saw ways he could profit from these endeavors, bringing needed capital to finance his humanitarian work in the US, the welfare of his extended family, and the success of his businesses. He could have settled on the front porch of his comfortable home in Westport, but he was called to his dream and he needed to enlist others to join him.

Unfortunately, the War of 1812, the events of slave rebellions in the U.S. and Haiti, the increasing fears of Southern slaveowners, and the imbedded social culture of racial prejudice were to lead to the lack of fulfillment of his aspirations. Accepted as he was, wealthy as he had become, respected and dignified, Paul Cuffe was not able to realize his humanity as a child of God, irregardless of the color of his skin. His dream was co-opted by the American Colonization Society led by many Southern politicians and slaveowners, misunderstood by black leaders like James Forten and Absalom Jones, and hampered by self-serving chiefs and British merchants of Sierra Leone. Sometimes he was naive and did not read people’s desires and intentions correctly. He knew deep inside that those who are to be helped must have the opportunity to be a part of the planning and the leadership of those plants. He had worked hard, given of himself and his worldly goods, been courageous, honest, and strong, served his family and his community. He became ill, tired, and somewhat despondent. He was not to recover. As friends and family gathered at his sick bed in September, 1817, he asked only, “Let me die quietly.” He was buried next to his wife Anna in the cemetery of the Westport Friends Meeting albeit in a far corner.

Possible activities for classrooms:

  • Younger students might want to study the history of whaling, masted sailing ships, and the ports of call Cuffe visited;
  • Older students might want to write stories, plays, or poems about midnight blockade runs, whaling expeditions, or the encounters Cuffe had with President James Madison, the man in the stagecoach, or those from whom he wanted support or money for his dream;
  • Students of all ages might want to talk together and share how Paul Cuffe did, and they themselves might, express the Quaker values he learned from his parents.

Books for reference:

  • Paul Cuffe and the African Promised Land by Mary Gage Atkin;
  • Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution;
  • Paul Cuffe: America’s First Black Captain by Johanna Johnson;
  • Black Quakers, Brief Biographies by Kenneth Ives;
  • A Black Yankee by George Salvador;
  • Black Navigator: Paul Cuffe’s America and the Atlantic World by Lamont D. Thomas(2019);
  • Paul Cuffe: Yeoman by Jeffrey Fortin(2019)

There is also much information on the websites of the New Bedford Public Library, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and Paul Cuffe.

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