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Paul Cuffe and the Back-to-Africa Movement

The Back-to-Africa movement began with a wealthy mixed-race Quaker named Paul Cuffe, who brought African-American Bostonians to a Sierra Leone colony in 1815, two years before the American Colonization Society was founded.

Portrait of a Black Sailor (possibly Paul Cuffe)

Portrait of a Black Sailor (possibly Paul Cuffe)

Paul Cuffe led an extraordinary life. He was born on Jan. 17, 1759, on Cuttyhunk Island off the Massachusetts coast, the seventh of 10 children. His mother, Ruth Moses, was an Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian. His father, Kofi Slocum, was a black freedman who at age 10 was kidnapped from his Ashanti tribe in west Africa. Slavers took him to Newport in the colony of Rhode Island, and from there he was enslaved by a Quaker who lived in Dartmouth, Mass. His name, Kofi, was corrupted to Cuffe.


In 1733, the Nantucket Quakers denounced slavery, the first Society of Friends in the American colonies to do so. They were close to the Dartmouth Quakers, and as a result Paul’s father was freed. Paul’s mother and father raised their 10 children in the Quaker religion.

Paul’s father was a farmer, fisherman and carpenter who taught himself to read and write. He owned his own home and a 116-acre farm. When Paul was 13, his father died, and Paul and his brother David took over the farm and support for the family. It was then that Paul changed his last name from Slocum to Cuffe, and all but one of his brothers and sisters did.

Paul knew little more than the alphabet but wanted to be educated and to go to sea. Living near New Bedford, the center of the whaling industry, made that possible. The ocean held the promise of economic opportunity for African-Americans, but also the danger they would be kidnapped and sold in to slavery.

At 16, Paul Cuffe signed onto a whaling ship, beginning an extremely successful life at sea. He moved onto cargo ships, where he learned navigation. In 1776, he was taken prisoner by the British – at age 17 -- and held for three months.

Studying and Saving

Paul Cuffe returned to his family farm when the British released him, and resumed studying and saving. In 1779, he and his brother built a small boat with which they traded among the Elizabeth Islands. He was waylaid by pirates who stole his cargo on a trip to Nantucket. It wouldn’t be the last time.

At 21, Paul Cuffe refused to pay taxes because he didn’t have the right to vote. In 1780, Paul Cuffe, his brother and five African-Americans asked the county to end such taxation without representation. In the end he got his taxes reduced.

Paul’s trading began to make him money, and he expanded his shipbuilding business. He bought another ship and hired a crew, while building larger ships. At 24, he married Alice Pequit, who, like his mother, was an Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian. They settled in Westport, Mass., and had seven children.

Eventually he owned a fleet of ships, including the 268-ton Alpha and the 109-ton brig Traveller.  He traded up and down the Atlantic Coast, in the Caribbean and Europe.

Paul Cuffe's home in Westport, Mass.

Paul Cuffe's home in Westport, Mass.

In 1799 Paul Cuffe bought a 140-acre waterfront property in Westport and built a house. He was by then the richest African-American and Native-American in the country. He was also the country’s largest employer of African-Americans. A devout Quaker, he would later make a substantial contribution to rebuilding the Westport Friends’ Meeting House.

By then he had also decided that Americans of color would never achieve equality with white Americans. He decided their best hope was to return to Africa, and he embraced the nascent movement to colonize Africa with American blacks.

White House Visit

Paul Cuffe became the first free African-American to visit the White House after
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  1. Annette Harpole

    Thank you for posting this story about Paul Cuffe. Happy Kwanzaa too!

  2. Sacha Rockwell Sullivan

    Paul Cuffe from Westport Massachusetts, where else!

  3. Steve Prentice

    We have a place in Westport. Never knew of that history. Thanks!

  4. The origins of the back to Africa movement that was led by free Africans from Newport, RI had its start in 1780. Please visit http://www.colonialcemetery.com/african-names/ for additional information.

  5. A report in ‘The Times’ (London), 2 August 1811, p.3, describes Cuffe as aged about 56, ” of an agreeable countenance, and his physiognomy truly interesting…tall and stout, speaks English well, dresses in the Quaker style, in a drab-coloured suit, and wears a large, flapped white hat.”

    The robustly-built man in the portrait partly answers this description, but are his clothes ‘in the Quaker style’? The same article mentions that the entire crew of Cuffe’s brig ‘Traveller’, including her mate, were African or of direct African descent: so no shortage of black sailors apparently, although not all would have the means or inclination to have their portraits painted.

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