Paul Cuffe sailed the seas, braved piracy and bigotry, entered the inner circles of commerce -- and taught his fellow men to aspire to greatness
By TED LANGSTON CHASE
The Standard Times, New Bedford, MA
Not long ago, I went to the New Bedford Free Public Library to check out the video, "Mutiny on the Bounty" not the Mel Gibson version, but the older version where Marlon Brando plays Fletcher Christian as a foppish, almost effeminate First Officer opposite Trevor Howard's sinister and embittered Capt. Bligh.
As the story opens, we learn that the Bounty is a well-equipped merchant ship commissioned by the British Empire to explore new routes and seize new resources. Serving under Bligh and Christian are devoutly British officers in command of a ragtag group of common seamen. The Bounty's story takes us through unrelenting storms, the harsh precarious life at sea, and the violent mutiny led by the increasingly outraged First Officer.
Thousands of miles from this dramatic story is yet another unfolding drama. It is the same period, the late 1780s, only this story begins off the coastal waters of New Bedford, Mass., and with a far less sinister but nonetheless courageous sea captain, a free African-American sea captain, Paul Cuffe.
Although Cuffe sailed some of the same treacherous seas as the Bounty, Cuffe's story is very different. Keeping in mind uncharted waters, pirates, enemy ships and slavers, Capt. Cuffe's sea adventures had to be an extraordinary challenge. In spite of these conditions, by 1787, Paul Cuffe was on his way to becoming one of New Bedford's most financially successful citizens. Amid the American Revolution, war, economic instability and slavery, Paul Cuffe made a modest fortune from whaling, shipbuilding and cargo hauling.
At 16, he heads to sea
It had not been an easy start for Cuffe. He was born in 1759 on Cuttyhunk Island, and he was the son of an African slave, Coffe Slocum, and Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag woman. The family lived as conspicuous property-owning minorities on land that was difficult to farm. Their lives had all of the predictable obstacles and setbacks of a racial group thought not to be a part of the new nation that would emerge after the American Revolution.
In 1775, at the age of 16, Cuffe took his first job as a common seaman aboard a ship bound for the Gulf of Mexico. During his travels, Cuffe used every opportunity to advance himself with skills and education; but he also faced dangers that were made worse by the American Revolution; in fact, on one trip the British seized Cuffe's ship and he was imprisoned in New York along with other crewmembers.
After being released, he returned to his family's farm in Westport, Mass. Life at sea made Cuffe realize that the trees on the family property could be used as lumber to build a boat large enough to haul cargo. The chance of making a living at sea was good, but so was the chance of running into piracy and thieves. Cuffe and his brother encountered numerous robberies while sailing between Westport, New Bedford and Nantucket. Some of these hold-ups were worse than others, costing Cuffe cargo, money and sometimes the shirt off his back.
Cuffe bounced back from these life-threatening experiences by building an even larger boat. This time he was in the right place at the right time. The booming codfish industry in southern New England not only provided Cuffe with a good living, but it enabled him to expand his cargo business. Between 1780 and 1806, Cuffe owned and built ships ranging from 12 tons to 268 tons, ships that could easily compete in the cargo business along America's East Coast. Cuffe never lost his interest in whaling, but in typical Cuffe fashion, he sailed beyond his early expeditions off Nantucket to better whaling prospects off the coast of Newfoundland. Maritime records suggest that Cuffe did well as a whaler, returning home with large inventories of sperm oil, whalebone and whale teeth.
In circles of commerce
With this success, Cuffe was ready to take a wife and start a family. He married Alice Pequit, a local woman of the same Wampanoag heritage as his mother. In 1799, 63 years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in America, the Cuffes purchased 140 acres of waterfront property for $3,500. Their Westport homestead included a well-appointed farm, a wharf and a storehouse; it was, in fact, a complex that accommodated a cargo business, ship building and a place to bring up a family of eight.
Cuffe was a competitor who was open to the challenges of new experiences and relationships. One lasting relationship he established was with William Rotch, perhaps the most powerful and wealthiest resident in the New Bedford area. In addition to being an astute businessman, Rotch was a devout Quaker whose abolitionist views probably encouraged him to befriend a successful African-American such as Cuffe.
Both men had visions that enabled them to succeed in whaling, shipbuilding and cargo. Considering their mutual interests, their relationship was not out of the ordinary; but what was exceptional was for Rotch to introduce Cuffe to fellow Quakers who happened to be successful businessmen.
Rarely were the most enterprising African-Americans invited into the inner circles of finance and commerce. These contacts expanded Cuffe's business, and made him more financially successful than he had ever anticipated. By 1806, Cuffe's fleet included 10 vessels and a variety of small boats. Cuffe was doing business in the ports of Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Wilmington, Baltimore, Norfolk, Savannah and the West Indies.
Maneuvering around racial barriers
On a personal side, Cuffe's memoirs and letters give us a chance to see who he was and how he coped with everyday circumstances. In order to survive, much less prosper, Cuffe had to maneuver around the racial barriers of post-Colonial Massachusetts. Incidents when the Cuffes entertained William Rotch and British friends in their Westport home but declined to mix the races at their dinner tables were examples of how blacks and whites sometimes related to one another ... in this case, the races sat separately to lessen the slightest chance of offending anyone.
By today's politically correct standards, this odd concession in one's very own home would be considered hopelessly accommodating. Why would a financially successful man such as Cuffe resort to such concessions? After all, Cuffe had the will to maintain a fleet of ships that was almost exclusively crewed and captained by blacks and native Americans.
The fact is there were countless incidents where Cuffe had to deal diplomatically with race. He was rarely confrontational, just diplomatically candid about his natural and civil rights. Remembering that Cuffe was first and foremost an ambitious merchant and sea captain who would think twice before putting a financial opportunity at risk, it is easier to understand his diplomacy.
An adventurer and daredevil
Although Cuffe was a reserved Quaker, his ship logs suggest that he was a bit of an adventurer, perhaps even a daredevil. Minute by minute details of how Cuffe rescued his crew from British gangs after they went ashore in England sheds light on the practice of kidnapping men to serve on British war ships and Cuffe's determination to win back his crew.
A death-defying, two-hour chase with a French ship only to narrowly escape capture after a sudden storm seems more like the tales of a daring swashbuckler than a reserved, African-American Quaker.
There are also times when one feels Cuffe's memoirs are out of a Charles Dickens novel as Cuffe describes traveling between London, Liverpool and Manchester in the comfort of his inside "berth" as opposed to those who rode on the top of the carriage simply to pay half the fare.
Whenever Cuffe was due in a port, it seems people anticipated his arrival. Among other talents, this small island boy learned how to use publicity. He interviewed with journalists, and greeted crowds that gathered at wharves to witness a ship manned by free people of color.
Understanding the value of good publicity, he reprinted and distributed these stories in East Coast cities in America.
A tempered rage against slavery
Yet, Cuffe was more than a businessman seeking new markets and publicity. He had a soul that ached for other African-Americans still caught in slavery. On more than one occasion, Cuffe expresses his frustration when his ship docked in ports where slavery was considered part of the natural order. He also had misgivings about taking on cargo that was obviously the product of slave labor; and his rage is almost tearful when he encounters renegade slave ships waiting for their human cargo off the coast of Africa.
Nevertheless, Cuffe channeled these emotions and experiences into something tangible. Probably out of exasperation, he endorsed a Back to Africa Movement as one way to resolve America's problems with race and slavery. Cuffe became the most significant African-American in the movement. His role was controversial and thought too close to pro-slavery supporters who also endorsed the movement to rid America of trouble-making free blacks, like Cuffe.
In spite of opposition and controversy, Cuffe used his ships to sail blacks to Sierra Leone. He helped with supplies for resettlement, and he negotiated proposals for self-governance.
Two of Cuffe's ships, the Traveller and the Alpha, were comparable in size to the Bounty, but again, Cuffe had a very different agenda than ships like the Bounty. Cuffe's fleet carried no slaves and unlike the Bounty, his fleet was not in search of cheap food stuffs such as breadfruits to be shipped and fed to slaves in Jamaica.
In fact, in addition to helping free blacks resettle in Africa, Cuffe envisioned the possibilities of building a whaling company that would bring trade and commerce to African countries; his vision was to bring these countries into the maritime marketplace, and make them competitive.
A likable, devout man
Although Cuffe's life seems filled with confrontations and challenges, there is a sociable, likable side to Cuffe as well. Ship logs reveal how Capt. Cuffe sometimes used rhymed chants to teach his crew about handling the ship, an unusual method for a sea-hardened captain.
While there is no evidence that Capt. Cuffe was as vindictive as the Bounty's Capt. Bligh, he was a devout Quaker with stern opinions regarding appropriate behavior. Under no uncertain terms, he warned his crew about gambling, womanizing, and liquor (referring to liquor as the "pernicious spirit"). In spite of how notoriously immoral maritime life was rumored to be, such behavior was intolerable on a Cuffe ship and was probably grounds for being punished or even put ashore.
Still, another side of Cuffe is his letters to other free, well-to-do blacks and how at ease he was with greetings for good health, affection and even a New Year's Day wish. These salutations reveal a man who possessed a degree of charm and finesse in spite of his rough beginning.
Cuffe's life is also an opportunity to glimpse at what was going on in black America during the late 1780s. Through Cuffe's correspondence we get a rare glance into the social circles of late 18th-century black America, a glance that confirms that living as a black American was not always limited to destitution and despair. Cuffe frequently corresponded with James Forten, a well-to-do Philadelphian. Forten owned one of the most successful sail-making companies in the city; and like Cuffe, he was an African-American, an abolitionist and a Quaker. Cuffe's friendship with people such as the Fortens sheds light on the inner circles of an elite entrepreneurial class that was anxious to help their own.
As a family man, Cuffe shared parental responsibilities with his wife when he was at home. Cuffe also passed his maritime skills, philosophy of life, and assets to his sons, brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, and nephews. He offered them jobs, an opportunity to command ships in the fleet; and he encouraged financial partnerships in what was clearly a family-run business. His daughters were not left out; while maritime training was not a goal, they were carefully brought up with education, social grace and ample dowries.
His life a lesson to us all
Cuffe died at his Westport residence in 1817. It was a prolonged illness that gave his family false hopes for recovery. As his condition worsened, family members wrote revealing letters to relatives and friends detailing Cuffe's remarkable reconciliation and peace of mind. In his last hours, he refused nourishment and medicine, and quietly slipped away. His immediate family and scores of close friends attended Cuffe's funeral. He was buried on the grounds of Westport's Quaker Meetinghouse.
Cuffe's life story is not well known in American popular culture. While Cuffe had goals and agendas that differed from commissioned ships such as the Bounty, his experiences as a sea captain include the drama of a whale hunt and desperate attempts to fight off sharks from feeding on his catch. He searched for blood-letting leeches as a remedy for infections that swept through his crew,; he alerted his crew to the uncertainties of an approaching ship, and he mediated the daily confrontations that come with commanding a crew … all of which makes for a truly American, seafaring story.
As we constantly search for heroes in the journals of Fletcher Christian or in fictional characters such as Horatio Hornblower, it pays to take a close look at what it really takes to make a hero, especially an American hero. Rising above a humble beginning, empathy for less fortunate brethren and contributing to one's community are traits we Americans have come to associate with heroism. Cuffe did all of this and, more importantly, he left valuable evidence of how to accomplish and aspire.
From the Quaker Meeting House that still stands in Westport to archives from Washington, D.C., to Sierra Leone, Cuffe's contributions, determination, patience and strategic planning are documented for us to learn more about ourselves and what we can do. Paul Cuffe is a remarkable example for all of us. Ted Langston Chase's background is in political science. He worked on Capitol Hill for 17 years, has helmed a variety of non-profit organizations including an historic preservation project that involved Frederick Douglass. He recently moved from Annapolis, Md., to New Bedford.
Alice Pequit Cuffe (1758 - 1819)*
Ruth Cuffee Johnson (1788 - 1853)*
Rhoda Cuffe Taylor (1795 - 1878)*
Plot: On side of day care center
Created by: LCM
Record added: Jun 06, 2004
Find A Grave Memorial# 8880909
Added: Apr. 7, 2013
Rest In Peace.|
Added: Feb. 7, 2007
Thanks to the efforts of Brock Cordeiro (www.brockcordeiro.com), you will always be remembered.|
Added: Aug. 25, 2005