Business and Commerce


Who mastered his own ship?

In 1783 Paul Cuffee (1759–1817) was the first black to sail as master of his own ship. His father was an Ashanti slave who was brought from Africa. His father’s second owner was a Quaker, who freed the senior Cuffee three years after purchasing him. The freedman married a Native American woman, and Paul Cuffee was thus born free. He went to sea at age fourteen, working as a sailor. By 1777 he was involved with maritime trade as a blockade-runner. During the Revolutionary War, he was plagued by issues of taxation and was once imprisoned by the British for three months after they seized an American vessel. When the war ended, Cuffee broadened his seafaring activities and bought property from which he operated his business. By 1800 his investment in ships, a waterfront farm, and a windmill resulted in assets of nearly $10,000, which may have made him the wealthiest African American in the U.S. at the time. Cuffee launched his ship Alpha in 1806 and served as its captain. An American-imposed embargo on international trade with Europe led to his interest in Africa and abolition of the slave trade. His Quaker heritage facilitated this interest as he worked with white Quaker abolitionist James Pemberton. Cuffee later developed trade with Sierra Leone, where he encouraged missionary work and colonization. His plans included carrying emigrants to Sierra Leone, and he launched the first black-led return to Africa in 1815. Although the voyage was successful, financial problems doomed his hope of making a yearly voyage. He tried to work with the newly formed white American Colonization Society. The organization seemed to attract persons who supported colonization for racist reasons and was condemned by black leaders in 1817, a few months before Cuffee’s death. His name is sometimes given as Cuffe.


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