Letter From Cuttyhunk: Captain Paul Cuffee — Cuttyhunk’s remarkable son

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Captain Paul Cuffee, born on Cuttyhunk Island in 1759.

A cold nose nuzzled imploringly against his bare leg, interrupting his intense concentration on the approaching ship. Try as he might, young Paul could not identify which New Bedford whaling sloop it was, the Nancy, the Polly, the Greyhound, or the Hannah, until it sailed closer to Cuttyhunk. Oh, how he loved the sights and sounds of the sea, and the anticipation of seeing these beautiful appearances on the horizon. It always helped to break up his boredom while tending to the bleating sheep on the Slocum island farm. He was born here, and knew how important the flock was to his caretaker parents, father Kofi Slocum, a former slave from Ghana, and mother Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag woman from Martha’s Vineyard. He had heard his six older siblings discuss the substantial income the fine wool and meat would bring in, and how they might soon be able to afford their own farm. He knew his father was a smart man, a peaceful Quaker who had taught himself how to read and write, and who made extra money for his family building boats and running a ferry to neighbor islands. Finally, in 1766, almost a century before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, their dream had come true when the family purchased their own 116-acre farm and house in Dartmouth on the shore of Buzzards Bay. His family of now 12 members worked the land together.

Life changed drastically for Paul when at 14 his beloved father died, leaving the farm to him and his brother John. After dropping Slocum and adapting his father’s Ashanti first name as his last name, Paul Cuffee followed his heart — leaving the farm and shipping aboard a New Bedford whaler owned by the prominent New Bedford Rotch family. He was excited by his seafaring life with all of its challenges. During only his second voyage, the British captured his ship, and he was imprisoned in New York for three months, luckily escaping from the overcrowded holding cell.

Nantucket and the Vineyard had been cut off by the British, and Paul and his brother saw a chance to help the people of the islands. They built a boat and sailed as blockade runners by night to evade capture. This time it was pirates who captured them, and they lost everything, but fortunately escaped again. Paul was unfazed by his harrowing adventure, and built yet another boat to continue trading with the islands by himself.

By 1777, Paul was back on the family farm more often, where he became politically active, and took on a six-year challenge of getting landowning African Americans and Native Americans the right to vote in Massachusetts. This right was finally granted by a state judicial act in 1783. At the age of 25, Paul celebrated this important voting victory, his country’s new independence from England, and his new bride, Alice Pequit, a Wampanoag girl from his mother’s homeland, Martha’s Vineyard. Together they raised seven children. He went back to the sea shortly after the Revolutionary War, and became captain of his own vessel. He was an expert navigator with great knowledge of currents, shoals, and area weather variations. Trade was booming, so fishing and business profits allowed him to buy his own house and farm in 1797 for $3,500 on the East River in Westport, a Quaker enclave. With the guidance of wealthy businessman William Rotch and the knowledge acquired from his father on Cuttyhunk, Paul prospered. Over the years, he built a shipping and mercantile empire and opened a store in New Bedford to sell his imported goods. He built and sailed increasingly larger ships, fishing and trading up and down the coast, ranging from Newfoundland to the Caribbean and Europe. Cuffee was the only African American and Native American captain with an African American and Native American crew in the world. He became not only a wealthy businessman and ship captain, but also a well-respected humanitarian. As a philanthropist, he built a school on his own property, and hired a teacher to teach both black and white neighboring students. This may have been the first integrated school in the country. Always a devout Quaker, he also contributed to the building of a new Friends’ Meeting House in Westport.

He became interested in the free African colony of Sierra Leone, which was supported by British Quakers, and sailed his ship Traveller there in 1810 to explore the country. He thought that other free blacks would want to relocate there to start farms and work to abolish slavery, but cost and local opposition were drawbacks. Many blacks in America disapproved of the whole idea, and only a small number of people ended up emigrating. Cuffee’s 38 passengers who did move became the first African Americans who willingly returned to Africa from America through their own initiative. The new war, the War of 1812, was heating up, and became the focus for the country. Upon his return from a voyage to Sierra Leone, his ship was impounded by U.S. Customs for violating a new trade embargo. He immediately traveled to the White House to meet with President James Madison, and his ship was promptly returned to him. He was the first free African American to have an audience with a sitting president. In 1816, Cuffee’s efforts in Africa were eclipsed by a larger group, the American Colonization Society, which eventually created the colony of Liberia.

After a long, rough voyage, he developed health problems and died in September of 1817, admired and respected by many. He is buried in the Friends’ cemetery in Westport. The monument over his grave reads: “In memory of Captain Paul Cuffee — A Self-Made Man — Patriot, Navigator, Educator, Philanthropist, Friend — A Noble Character.” With his extraordinary lifetime of accomplishments, Cuttyhunk’s remarkable son Paul Cuffee makes us all proud.

For Cuttyhunkers Only:

It’s been a busy summer, but things are starting to wind down on the island, as the sun sets earlier and kids of all ages get ready to return to school.

Condolences to Bill and Judith Archer on the recent loss of Bill’s mother. Arrangements are in progress.

Cuttyhunk Museum: Monday, Sept. 7, is the last day. Hours: 10 am to 12 noon. cuttyhunkhistoricalsociety.org.

Ferry schedule: Additional trips Labor Day weekend, Monday, Sept. 7, at 2 pm, depart New Bedford, and Monday, Sept. 7, at 12 noon, depart Cuttyhunk.

Early fall schedule is in effect beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8. Please check ferry website for more information, as departure times will change: cuttyhunkferryco.com.

Thank you to Paul and Sara Lehner for hosting the Cuttyhunk Yacht Club party and to the rain for holding off. Congratulations to all of the members who improved their sailing skills this summer!

School News

The first day of school is Sept. 8.

New staff appointments for the 2015–16 school year:
Ms. Margaret “Midge” Frieswyk, superintendent
Ms. Michelle Carvalho, teacher/principal

Artist’s Retreat at the Avalon Inn, Sept. 11–16th is sold out; cuttyhunkinn.com.

Thank you to Postmaster Rick for all of his service at the Cuttyhunk post office this summer!