Reflections on the free black seamen of Martha’s Vineyard


I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Carnegie exhibit on whaling and Vineyard history during my annual visit. I applaud the effort of the Vineyard Trust in Edgartown to create a new and valuable asset for understanding regional history — it is with this thought in mind that I write.

The exhibit provides an introduction to the story of local whaling and Vineyard development, but it is a constrained narrative in the understanding of history today. It could bear improvement as a teaching resource, with the inclusion of more diverse stories — in particular, the role of Afro-Americans in the whaling industry of the Vineyard, Islands, and Buzzards Bay region between 1700 and 1860.

The role of free blacks working in the industry was chronicled by historians James and Lois Horton in the work, “In Hope of Liberty.” They describe the occupations of blacks as seamen and dockworkers in seacoast communities. The work was noted for its low pay, low skill, and exposure to dangers. Dock work, for example, was often short-term, day labor jobs helping to load supplies or unload cargo on whaling ships. 

Seafaring was an important source of employment for free blacks. Many people worked as deck hands (climbing up rigging, repairing sails), and on harbor boats that guided ships to the docks. The whaling ships of Massachusetts employed black seamen as well — to the extent that the writer Herman Melville made note of it in the 1851 novel, “Moby-Dick.” As the crew gathered to depart from New Bedford, for example, the novel introduced the character of Daggoo, the mighty 6-foot, 5-inch, African harpoonist, and Pip, the tiny cabin boy from Connecticut who played tambourine to entertain deckhands.

As it concerns the industry on the Vineyard, there was the family of Cuffe Slocum and Ruth Moses. Cuffe — derived from the Ashanti word for Friday, “Kofi” — was enslaved as a child in the early 1700s. Bought by the Quaker merchant Ebenezer Slocum of Dartmouth — current-day New Bedford and Westport — he was freed in the mid-1740s. He later married Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Indian woman from the settlement of Chilmark. Cuffe became involved in whaling through the tribal industry.

The couple had 10 children, including a son named Paul Cuffe. In the 1770s, he worked as a seaman on whaling ships from the Vineyard and Dartmouth. The ships sailed as far as the Bay of Mexico and West Indies. During the Revolutionary War, Cuffe captained his own ship, and established a trade between New Bedford, the Vineyard, and Nantucket. He married Alice Pequit of the Pequot Indian community of southern New England. 

In the 1780s, Cuffe acquired several schooners and started a whaling company. He did business with M.V., Nantucket, New Bedford, Maryland, and other regions. Moreover, he was part of the campaigns for black civil rights in the state, and in an emigration venture to transport free blacks to a colony in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

Cuffe was not the only black sea captain in Massachusetts. There was Absalom F. Boston as well. Born free in 1785, he worked as a seamen and laborer. By 1822, he captained a whaling ship out of Nantucket named The Industry. He led an all-black crew on a whaling expedition to the Bay of Mexico. 

In closing, there is a rich history of black participation in the whaling industry and development of the region. The Edgartown exhibit makes a fine start, but the inclusion of such stories can provide a more diverse understanding of the Vineyard experience. 


Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published, a multimedia library resource on African-American history and culture. He is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”