As we celebrate Black History Month, it only seems appropriate to highlight African-Americans who made meaningful contributions to maritime history.
Most of us are familiar with Marcus Garvey's 'Back to Africa' movement, which took place in the early 20th Century. Garvey led an aggressive effort through his Black Star Line shipping company to forge a robust and enduring economic relationship between the African continent and Black communities in the United States and beyond.
While Garvey's efforts are well-documented, it was not the first attempt by African-Americans to pursue freedom, both physical and economic, through repatriation back to the mother continent. That distinction belongs to Paul Cuffee.
Cuffee, the tenth and youngest child of Kofi Slocum, a freed African slave from the Ashanti region of present-day Ghana, and Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Native American, began his sea career as a whaler. He moved into trading, and ultimately founded his own company, engaging in international commerce with the Caribbean and Europe.
When the U.S. government tried to force Cuffee to pay taxes, he boldly resisted, citing his inability to vote and have an influence on those who sought to tax his enterprise. Although Cuffee was arrested, he ultimately had his tax obligation reduced and was released.
Through his business activities, Cuffee wanted to ensure free Blacks and freed African slaves could both return to Africa to live, as well as engage in trading goods to benefit communities in Africa and Black Americans in the U.S.
Cuffee made history by successfully transporting close to forty African-American passengers--on their own volition--back to the continent of Africa, when they arrived in Sierra Leone aboard his vessel, the Traveller, in 1816.
While Cuffee's large-scale aspirations to repatriate efforts were ultimately tempered by resistance from factions of the free Black community in the United States, his bold vision became the framework for others, including Marcus Garvey, to pursue the goal of economic freedom for ex-slaves and people of African descent around the world.
Paul Cuffee is someone worthy to celebrate, not only for his ingenuity within the maritime industry, but also his passion for advancing the cause of Black economic empowerment.