Many Indigenous and Black bodies have been led to believe that the act of discovery and exploration is only for the privileged. Our youth are often taught that Black and Indigenous voyagers were unsuccessful, defeated, ill-equipped, and ignorant in their tactics. However, sharing the historical accounts of prominent explorers of color is extremely necessary in modern times, because it easily debunks the myth that those of a darker hue could only ever be discovered. The legacy of Captain Paul Cuffe offers a counter to the status quo narrative which eludes that the Anglo should be praised for finding the Indigenous. Captain Cuffe’s life also helps to bring light to the truth that people of color have always equally and ethically been able to freely discover, dream, and contribute to the progression of our world.
Captain Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) rose to prominence and became one of the wealthiest men of color in the nation and one of the first educators in the United States to charter an integrated school. Cuffe was born a free man 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 than 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.
On February 25, 1783, Paul Cuffe married Alice Abel Pequit, widow of James Pequit and daughter of a prominent Wampanoag family on Martha’s Vineyard. They had seven children, five daughters and two sons, all of whom were born in the Dartmouth/Westport area and lived to maturity. That same year Paul joined forces with his older brother-in-law, Michael Wainer, a Wampanoag who had married his older sister, Mary, in 1772. Paul and Michael established a shipping business across the South Coast of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
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.
On January 16, 1817, he wrote that in Sierra Leone, “These few Europeans hath pretty much Control of the Colony Yet the people of Colour Are entitled to every privilege of a free born Subject…. Yet It cannot be said that They Are Equal for the prejudice of tradition is perceptible but I believe much Lieth At their Doors.”
Soul of Nations Foundation, Inc.
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.