Paul Cuffe Jr. and Ethnicity

dancing_people“After loading our brig with shingles and herring, we again stood out for sea, and made for St. Domingo, an Island of the West Indies, peopled by free blacks, having a republican form of government.

During this passage we encountered heavy gales of wind, and came very near being shipwrecked, but we were all preserved, and in 16 days from the time we set sail, we made Port Au Prince. This is a large sea port town, situated between two high mountains. This place is the residence of the chief magistrate of the nation. Robert Boyer was then clothed with the presidential power. This personage was of commanding aspect, and appeared to be a mulatto. He used every day to call out his body guard, who were a fine looking set of fellows as I had ever seen. They appeared to understand military tactics to perfection. They were elegantly dressed in red frocks and trowsers, faced with blue and green. On the whole, they might be called first rate soldiers. Boyer was most superbly dressed and equipped, and on horseback made an elegant appearance.” (Paul Cuffe, 1838)

(Read more. – Go to Chapter 6. Port Au Prince)

“From this place we sailed for the Cape De Verds, on the coast of Africa. We were forty-two days in sailing from the former to the latter island. We touched at the island of Buenavista, one of this group, where we took in thirty-two hogs, for which we paid corn, meal and bread. These people are of a very dark hue, and speak the Portuguese language. Here we stopped but four days, when we set all sails and steered away a southwest course, for the Brazil Banks, where we arrived, after a sail of forty-two days.” (Paul Cuffe, 1838)

(Read more. – Go to Chapter 8. Brazil and the Portuguese Islands)

Transcriber’s Commentary

When his narrative was published in 1839, Cuffee’s life experiences were quite exceptional, being a man of African and Native American descent who had the opportunity to travel around the world, while many blacks were still enslaved. Although he never reflects on his situation as a free person of color in his narrative, Paul Cuffe, Jr. was still very observant of the ethnicity of the people he encountered during his travels at sea. At Port Au Prince, he takes the time to describe Robert Boyer,”the chief magistrate of the nation” in detail, noting the “presidential power” displayed by a someone who appeared to be a “mulatto.” Upon landing on the island of Buenavista, he notes the economic motivations  for arriving there: they exchange corn, meal, and bread for thirty-two hogs. Yet his narrative goes beyond documenting changes in inventory. He goes on to describe the Cape Verdean people, noting their “very dark hue…[and use of] the Portuguese language.” These observations of others’ appearance fail to lead to introspective reflections by Cuffe himself on his own identity. Still, he takes the time to recognize the people of color he met, exposing American readers at home to the diversity of the African diaspora, perhaps suggesting the potential of emancipation at home by highlighting the reality of “free blacks, having a republican form of government” in Haiti. 

-Matt Randolph, Amherst College ’16


Excerpt from Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927


In the excerpt  below, Jace Weaver discusses Paul Cuffe Jr.’s ethnicity and identity:

In 1839, at age forty- two, the son authored an autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Paul Cuff e, a Pequot Indian: During Thirty Years Spent at Sea, and in Travelling in Foreign Lands. The text, penned by the subject himself and told in the first person, could not be more markedly different from the “memoir” of his father authored by Armistead. First, it announces Paul Jr. as Native immediately in its title. On the first page of the narrative, Cuff e amplifies this, calling himself “a descendant of an Indian family, which formerly resided in the eastern part of Connecticut and constituted a part of that fierce and warlike tribe of Indians called Pequots, of whose exploits in the early Wars of New England, the reader may become acquainted by perusing ‘Trumball’s History of the Indian Wars.’…

…A clue to the answer of this mystery may perhaps be found, however,
in that single first sentence of the autobiography. Campisi, based solely
on Armistead and Lamont Thomas (according to his footnotes), writes,
“By contrast [to Paul Jr.], his father identifi ed more strongly with his
African ancestry.” The anthropologist calls Paul the younger’s identification as Pequot a simple mistake. I think, however, we must be careful
before we call it a mere error that a son misidentifies the tribe of his father,
mother, and grandmother. Instead, I believe the misidentification
may have been deliberate and strategic.

There is nothing in the memoir to indicate that Paul Cuffe Jr. ever
made landfall in Africa, though he reports visiting the Cape Verde Islands
off the west coast of Africa, as well as Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Brazil
(three New World locales with significant African- descended populations).
There is also nothing to suggest that the author identified at
all with his African ancestry, instead strongly preferring the Native. It
is possible, of course, that these choices may have been the product of
editorial interference. Assuming, though, that they reflect the author’s
attitudes (as I believe they do), the clue may be found in that first sentence
and the reference to the Pequot as “fierce and warlike.” Jack Forbes,
in his brief discussion of Paul Cuffe Sr., writes, “Cuffe was interested in
the idea of colonizing free people of color in Africa. Subsequently, the
colonization of persons of part- African or African descent occurred in
Sierra Leone and Liberia. Some of these persons could, of course, have
been part- American in ancestry (since the white racism of the period did
not always distinguish between a Red- Black mixed- blood and a ‘pure’
African).” The Pequot had been dominant in southern New England;
that is precisely why they were targeted by the English colonists in the
Pequot War. Having identified with his Native side, Paul Jr. decided to
align himself with the biggest, baddest, meanest junkyard dog on the
block. He was definitely and definitively Pequot.”

(Jace Weaver, The Red Atlantic, 2014)