Musée No:656.003Regular price £25.00
Portrait of a Sailor (Paul Cuffee)
Date: ca. 1800
Paul Cuffee, (1759 –1817) was an incredibly important man. An American businessman, whaler and abolitionist. Born free into a multiracial family on Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, Cuffe became a successful merchant and sea captain. He was the first free African American to visit the White House and have an audience with a sitting president and was perhaps the wealthiest black American of his time. He was the person who headed the first, black initiated ‘back to Africa’ effort in American history.
His mother, Ruth Moses, was a Wampanoag from Cape Cod and his father an Ashanti captured as a child in Ghana, West Africa and sold into slavery in Newport about 1720. In the mid-1740s, his father was freed by his Quaker owner, John Slocum. His parents married in 1747 in Dartmouth.
He was 13 when his father died, and he and his older brother, John, inherited the family farm (their mother had life rights). Paul changed his surname from Slocum to Cuffee, and began what would prove to be an extraordinarily successful life at sea at the age of about 14. Cuffee signed on to the first of three whaling voyages to the West Indies. During the Revolutionary War, He delivered goods to Nantucket by slipping through a British blockade on a small sailboat.
Starting as a whaler, then moving into maritime trading, he eventually bought and built ships in a boatyard on the Westport River, developing his own maritime enterprise that involved trading the length of the U.S. Atlantic coast, with trips to the Caribbean and Europe. But he was also politically engaged: In 1780, he, his brother and five black men filed a petition protesting their “having No vote on Influence in the Election with those that tax us,” because they were “Chiefly of the African Extraction,” as his biographer, Lamont Thomas, reports. He was jailed, but got his taxes reduced.
In Westport, Massachusetts, he founded the first racially integrated school in the United States.
His dream was that free African Americans and freed slaves “could establish a prosperous colony in Africa,” one based on emigration and trade. As his biographer Wright put it, “Cuffee hoped to send at least one vessel each year to Sierra Leone, transporting African-American settlers and goods to the colony and returning with marketable African products.” In 1812, U.S. Customs seized Cuffee’s ship and its cargo upon its return from Sierra Leone. When customs refused to release his property, he contacted the President, James Madison. Madison ordered that his goods be returned then he queried Cuffee about his recent visits to Sierra Leone, and his ideas about African-American colonization of the new British colony.
The British had founded a settlement there called the Province of Freedom in 1787. They had transported more than 1,000 freed slaves originally from America. Freetown was founded as a settlement for freed slaves in 1792, the year when the black Loyalists (including George Washington’s former slave, Harry Washington) arrived from Nova Scotia. In 1808, Sierra Leone became a colony.
In 1815, Cuffee made history by transporting 38 African Americans (including 20 children) from the America to Sierra Leone on his brig, the Traveller, at a cost of $5,000. When they arrived on Feb. 3, 1816, Cuffee’s passengers became the first African Americans who willingly returned to Africa through an African-American initiative.
Cuffee’s dream of a wholesale African-American return to the continent, however, soon lost support from the free African-American community, many of whom had initially expressed support for it. James Forten reported in a letter to Cuffee dated Jan 1817, that following a large meeting where “Three thousand at least attended, and there was not one soul that was in favor of going to Africa. They think that the slaveholders want to get rid of them so as to make their property more secure.” In August, Forten declared that “The plan of colonizing is not asked for by us. We renounce and disclaim any connection with it.”
When Paul Cuffee died just a month later, on Sept. 7, 1817, the dream of a black-led emigration movement ended with him.