Paul Cuffe (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 Cuffe 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 Cuffe personally sponsored and transported nine families (38 people) back to Africa in what he hoped would be the first of many such voyages.
Paul Cuffe was one of ten children born to a slave father, Saiz Kufu (later, Cuffe) 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.
Paul Cuffe’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 Cuffe exclusively staffed his businesses and ships with Blacks to demonstrate their equally 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.
As the Cuffe 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 Cuffe 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 Cuffe’s largest ship was the 268-ton “Alpha” which Cuffe and nine Black crewmembers sailed from Savannah, Georgia to Gothenburg, Sweden with a large cargo in 1806.
Despite the fact that Paul Cuffe 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. Paul Cuffe’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.
"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins