PAUL CUFFE: Black America and the African Return by Harris. Sheldon H.

PAUL CUFFE: Black America and the African Return

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Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was ""America's first wealthy Negro,"" a part-Indian merchant and sea captain, a leading Massachusetts citizen, and a friend and business associate of such eminences as the Browns of Providence. The first part provides an effusive biographical sketch, emphasizing Cuffe's hopes of introducing black American settlers and trade into the small British-run settlement at Sierra Leone. Harris maintains that economic motives were unimportant in this venture, but his own account and the documentary exhibits suggest that philanthropy and self-interest were neatly coincident. Interestingly, Cuffe first saw the plan as, in part, a Westernizing, Christianizing mission, the opposite of later back-to-Africa motivations. As Harris points out, he -- like most advocates of colonization -- was quick to rationalize away the problem of Southern slavery. Toward the end of his life Cuffe, a Quaker, was drawn into the basically anti-black American Colonization Society. His brief journal and letters, which compose the second half of the book, make good reading. Harris, who unfairly calls Cuffe ""barely literate,"" adds otiose interpolations throughout the journal (""This morning [the weather is] rather cool"") but helpfully identifies various associates. The most memorable parts of both sections deal with Cuffe's first trip to Sierra Leone and his successful appeal to President Madison not to penalize him for breaking the War of 1812 embargo. In his journal Cuffe is engagingly Franklinesque, a real Protestant capitalist stressing temperance and frugality and a straightforward, modest but self-assured feeling of individual worth in the face of racial slights. It is quite meaningless to dub him ""the father of black nationalism""; in point of fact, he was an anomaly of no great historical importance but indubitable interest.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1972
Publisher: Simon & Schuster