Paul Cuffe: Not just old history

The Whaling Museum recently held a Paul Cuffe symposium, celebrating his life and his legacy.  Read this SouthCoast Today article, to find out how Cuffe’s story is one that is quite pertinent to today.

GUEST VIEW: Paul Cuffe: Not just old history

By David C. Cole  October 03, 2009 at

A symposium celebrating the life of Paul Cuffe is to be held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum today, Oct. 3. This symposium is, on one level, a commemoration of a very remarkable local citizen who achieved great success and recognition despite the fact that he had no formal education, was of mixed African and Native American heritage, and lived a life rooted in a coastal country village.

But on another level, his experiences two centuries ago shed light on the enormity of those combined tragedies — slavery, colonialism, suppression of Native Americans and pervasive racial discrimination — that plagued our civilization for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Silhouette of Captain Paul Cuffe, by Thomas Pole circa 1820 (1904.43)

Silhouette of Captain Paul Cuffe, by Thomas Pole circa 1820 (1904.43)

Paul Cuffe strove for equal rights — to vote, to trade, to be educated, to own property, to occupy an open seat in a stage coach, to appeal to the president of the United States for redress of grievances, to appeal to British officials for release of an impressed crew member, and finally for his friends in Sierra Leone, who had escaped from slavery in America and discrimination in Nova Scotia, to have an equal voice in their own polity in Freetown.

His causes, reflecting those “self-evident” rights promised in the American Revolution, were to seek those same rights for all people, not just for the white, Anglo-European dominant class. In his time, Paul Cuffe was exceptional, but not unique. There were other free blacks in northern cities, such as James Forten and Richard Allen, as well as in Europe, who were respected leaders in the community.

But the continuing struggles in America over slavery and reconstruction, and the spread of European colonialism across Africa, halted the potential emergence of those black leaders and perpetuated their repression. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that African countries were able to throw off the colonial yoke, and blacks in America were able to vote freely and gain access to better education.

If Paul Cuffe had had his way, if he had succeeded in leading blacks in Africa, and in America, to, as he said, “rise to be a people” with equal rights and opportunities, what a difference it would have made in the world’s history.

How many Barack and Michele Obamas, Nelson Mandelas and others might have risen up during that long bleak period to advance the well-being of mankind?

There is a direct link between the causes pursued by Paul Cuffe and their ultimate realization in the election of Barack Obama. By gaining a better understanding of our Paul Cuffe, we can not only appreciate what an outstanding man he was in his time, but also be challenged to think how different our history might have been if his visions had prevailed from his time forward.

To read the article in its original context, visit

One response to “Paul Cuffe: Not just old history

  1. Valuable thoughts and advices. I read your topic with great interest.

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