For Black History Month, we have a featured biography of Paul Cuffe — the Massachusetts mariner who was the richest African American of his time.
Who? Exactly. Paul Cuffe — or Cuffee — led a remarkable life. But his success was in shipping and real estate, not politics or literature, so he didn’t make it into as many history books as he might have. Oh, and he was born to an African father and a Native American mother in 1759, so there’s another reason he didn’t make it into the history books.
Until the 1960s, that is, when scholars began to discover details of his life. Born on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, Cuffe was the youngest of ten kids. Both parents stressed education, and where he grew up, in Westport, the Quakers helped out.
As a teenager, Cuffe started working on whaling ships. It didn’t take him long to build his own boat, and he started making runs between Westport and Nantucket in 1779. Cuffe had the savvy to take his profits and get bigger and better boats, and he had plenty of relatives to help him out.
He was also savvy about the real estate market around Westport. And according to contemporaries, Cuffe had the bearing of a gentleman and an uncanny ability to use his associations with important people to further his business. Call it networking or schmoozing, he was apparently good at it.
After he’d made his fortune, Cuffe got involved in the back-to-Africa movement. His abolitionist friends thought emancipated slaves could re-settle in Africa, and he took a two-year trip to Sierra Leone to investigate the possibilities. There he founded a Friends (Quaker) Society and established a trade agreement — with the go-ahead from the British.
The War of 1812 wasn’t so good for business, and Cuffe got caught up in the various conflicts between the British, French and Americans. But he recovered and continued to pursue his dream of a settlement in Sierra Leone.
By the time of his second voyage there in 1815, he was a little older and still having legal troubles with trade restrictions imposed by the British and American authorities. Still, he took 38 African Americans back to Sierra Leone — a financial loss of some significance — and kept trying to fulfill his dream.
It didn’t work out, but he left behind a thriving business and a considerable estate. Read more about him in the Who2 biography of Paul Cuffe, and follow the links for more details.
To find other important figures from African American history, see this list of Movers and Shakers.