Paul Cuffe was born a free child in 1759, on Chuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, the son of a Native American mother and African father. His father, Kofi, was a member of the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, who was captured and brought to America as a slave at the age of ten. A skilled carpenter, Kofi (Cuffe) earned his freedom, and educated himself. Paul refused to use the name of his father's owner, Slocum, and adopted his father's given name, Cuffe (or Cuffee).
At the age of 16, following his father's death, Paul Cuffe began his career as a common seaman on whaling and fishing boats. During the Revolutionary War he was held prisoner by the British for a time but managed afterward to start small-scale coastal trading. Despite attacks by pirates, he eventually prospered. He built larger vessels and successfully traded south as far as Virginia and north to Labrador. In later life he owned several ships which engaged in trading and whaling around the world.
Cuffe was a devout and evangelical Quaker. At his home in Westport, Massachusetts, he donated a town school and helped support the teacher. It was quite possibly the first integrated school in the young republic. Later he helped build a new meeting house. Through his connections with Quakers in other cities he became involved in efforts to improve the conditions of African Americans. Strongly opposed to slavery and the slave trade, he joined other free African Americans in the Northern states in their abolitionist campaigns.
In 1780 he and his brother John petitioned the Massachusetts government either to give African and Native Americans the right to vote or to stop taxing them. The petition was denied, but the case helped pave the way for the 1783 Massachusetts Constitution, which gave equal rights and privileges to all (male) citizens of the state. This is a transcript of the petition submitted to the Masschusetts legislature.
To the Honorable Council and House of Representatives, in General Court assembled, for the State of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England:
The petition of several poor negroes and mulattoes, who are inhabitants of the town of Dartmouth, humbly showeth,—
That we being chiefly of the African extract, and by reason of long bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not long enjoyed our own freedom; yet of late, contrary to the invariable custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, through much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain ourselves and families withall. We apprehend it, therefore, to be hard usage, and will doubtless (if continued) reduce us to a state of beggary, whereby we shall become a burthen to others, if not timely prevented by the interposition of your justice and your power.
Your petitioners further show, that we apprehend ourselves to be aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of freemen of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those that tax us, yet many of our colour (as is well known) have cheerfully entered the field of battle in the defence of the common cause, and that (as we conceive) against a similar exertion of power (in regard to taxation), too well known to need a recital in this place.
We most humbly request, therefore, that you would take our unhappy case into your serious consideration, and, in your wisdom and power, grant us relief from taxation, while under our present depressed circumstances; and your poor petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray, &c.
Samuel Gray, X his mark.
Pero Howland, X his mark.
Pero Russell, X his mark.
Dated at Dartmouth, the 10th of February, 1780.