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Paul Cuffee - Historic Economic Hero

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Our economic crisis is turning into an opportunity for powerful growth. Green jobs, more people getting on computers and starting their own businesses are clues that we are just in time for the future.

As we solve our economic problems, it's good to look to the past too for lessons regarding financial empowerment. 

The story of Paul Cuffee is one of a man who worked with his people to create a financial empire strong enough to stand up to the American slave based governent of his day.

From the book BLACK PEOPLE AND THEIR PLACE IN WORLD HISTORY by Dr. Leroy Vaughn, MD, MBA, Historian, here's a chapter on the great American Paul Cuffee and how he was able to overcome impossible circumstances to empower himself and his people.


America’s Richest African American

By Dr. Leroy Vaughn, MD, MBA, Historian

Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) was the richest African American in the United States during the early 1800’s, but never stopped championing the cause of better conditions for his people.  At the age of 19, he sued the Massachusetts courts for the right to vote stating that taxation without representation should be illegal.  He built on his own farm, New Bedford’s only school for the children of “free Negroes” and personally sponsored their teachers.  He authored the first document of its kind addressed to the New Jersey Legislature asking that body “to petition the Congress of the United States that every slave be freed and that every Colored man that so desired be allowed to leave America.”  By 1811, Paul Cuffee finally concluded that if the richest Black person in America was considered a second class citizen, then emigration back to Africa was the only answer for Black social, economic, and political self-determination.  On December 12, 1815 Cuffee personally sponsored and transported nine families (38 people) back to Africa in what he hoped would be the first of many such voyages.

Paul Cuffee was one of ten children born to a slave father, Saiz Kufu (later, Cuffee) and an Indian mother.  The father was freed by his Quaker master in 1745, and earned enough money working for ship owners to buy a 116-acre farm in Dartmouth, Mass. in 1766.  Paul left the farming to his siblings and chose a maritime life and by age 14 was working full time on whaling ships.  By age 18, he had become so thoroughly self-taught in mathematics, navigation, and other seafaring skills that he decided to built his own boat for self-employment.  During the Revolutionary War, he made enough money smuggling goods pass British blockade patrol ships that he was able to purchase a shipyard and construct three small whaling boats between 1787 and 1795.  During one season alone, Cuffee and his crew captured six whales and Cuffee proved his courage and commitment by asking his crew to lower him to the side of the boat where he personally harpooned two whales.

Paul Cuffee’s early activity was fraught with danger as he purchased and delivered freight along the Atlantic seaboard.  Pirates were a constant threat and on more than one occasion his ship was captured and all of his merchandise stolen, but he never stopped pursuing his dream.  The Fugitive Slave Act was also a constant threat, especially since Cuffee exclusively staffed his businesses and ships with Blacks to demonstrate their equality and to reinforce their self-confidence and sense of racial pride.  The Fugitive Slave Act legalized the seizure of any Black person suspected of escape from slavery by any White person.  Since African Americans could not testify in court, “the Black accused would have to find and persuade a White person to appear at his trial and convince the authorities that the accused was free” or risk being resold into slavery. Moreover, Paul Cuffee was once arrested for several days and his boat seized during a delivery to Vienna, Maryland by Federal Collector of Customs, James Frazier.  In 1796, Maryland had passed a law “requiring any ‘suspicious’ free Black to six months of servitude.”  Since a vessel owned and operated by Blacks was unprecedented, it was certainly “suspicious”.  Whites were also concerned about what this demonstration of Black achievement might have on otherwise obedient slaves.  However, Cuffee had “impeccable mercantile credentials, proof of registry at Bedford, Massachusetts, and receipts from such reliable merchant houses as William Rotch and Sons.”

As the Cuffee commercial enterprises continued to prosper, he expanded by purchasing a 200-acre farm, a gristmill, and by building ships large enough to enable him to purchase and deliver freight internationally.  In 1800 Cuffee built the 162-ton “Hero” which sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope eight times while delivering merchandise from Portuguese East Africa to Europe.  Paul Cuffee’s largest ship was the 268-ton “Alpha” which Cuffee and nine Black crewmembers sailed from Savannah, Georgia to Gothenburg, Sweden with a large cargo in 1806.

Despite the fact that Paul Cuffee was the richest Black man and largest Black employer in America, he was convinced that no amount of wealth would make a Black man socially acceptable in America and that Blacks would always be “resident aliens.”  He felt the only answer was to develop a strong Black African nation.  Cuffee declared: “Blacks would be better off in Africa, where we could rise to be a people.”  When William Rotch told him of a British program to repatriate unwanted Blacks living in London to Sierra Leone, he immediately sailed to England for more information.

Cuffee hoped that a strong Black nation could trade with Great Britain and the United States and that educated “free Negroes” from America could provide the much needed technology.  American technology was needed because a British law (1731) forbid any White person from teaching any Black person a trade, thus reducing London’s “Black Poor” to unemployable beggars whom the government wanted sent to Africa.

While traveling to England and Sierra Leone, Paul Cuffee used an introductory letter from President Thomas Jefferson to help him gather data on manufacturing, operating costs, threatening colonial practices, and available trade opportunities.  Cuffee found the residents of Sierra Leone very receptive to his prescription for reviving Black industry.  They also hoped that a strong economic and social return of Africa to its past glory would help dissuade the slave trade.  A large percentage of the population of Freetown were former American slaves who had fought with the British during the Revolutionary War and then were evacuated to Nova Scotia, Canada with the White British Loyalists.  Both severe racism and severe climate encouraged the Black Nova Scotians to leave en-mass for Sierra Leone in November 1792.  Paul Cuffee hired Aaron Richards, a Black settler in Freetown as the captain’s apprentice “to prepare the road to progress,” and before leaving, Cuffee founded the “Friendly Society for the Emigration of Free Negroes from America”.  After his return to America, “Cuffee began a speaking tour to introduce free Blacks to the notion of nation building in Africa.”

The War of 1812 interrupted Cuffee’s trade and emigration plans until 1815, at which time he paid $4,000 from personal funds to transport 38 African Americans to Sierra Leone, and he successfully secured homesteads for all of his Black American brethren at his expense.  Failing health prevented any future trips and Cuffee died on September 9, 1817.  Paul Cuffee’s legacy is not as a wealthy Black man but as a wealthy Black man who fought for the betterment of his people and was always willing to back his convictions with self-sacrifice, discipline, determination, and financial resources.


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