Paul Cuffee’s First Venture into Sierra Leone ~ Quaker

Published on February 23, 2011 by John

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Most Englishmen and Anglo-Americans in his day felt that people of African descent were inferior to Europeans, even in the predominantly Calvinist and Quaker New England. Although slavery continued, prominent men like Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the emigration of Blacks to colonies outside the United States was the easiest and most realistic solution to the race problem in America.

Attempts by Europeans and Americans to colonize Blacks in other parts of the world had failed, including the British attempt to colonize Sierra Leone. Beginning in 1787, the Sierra Leone Company sponsored 400 people, departing from Great Britain for Sierra Leone. The colony was plagued with serious problems in trying to establish a working economy, as well as problems developing a government that could survive pressures from other peoples. Following the Sierra Leone Company collapse, the newly-founded African Institution offered migration there to freed slaves whom they had earlier resettled in Nova Scotia and London after the American Revolution. Its London sponsors hoped to gain an economic return while foster the ‘civilizing’ trades of educated Blacks.

Although colonizing Sierra Leone was difficult, Cuffee believed it was a viable option for Blacks and threw his support behind the movement. Paul Cuffee wrote,

    “I have for these many years past felt a lively interest in their behalf, wishing that the inhabitants of the colony might become established in truth, and thereby be instrumental in its promotion amongst our African brethren.”

From March of 1807 on, Cuffee was encouraged by members of the African Institution in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York to be involved in helping out the fledgling efforts to improve Sierra Leone. Cuffee mulled over the logistics and chances of success for the movement before deciding in 1809 to join the project. On December 27, 1810 he left Philadelphia harbor and launched his first expedition to Sierra Leone.

Cuffee reached Freetown, Sierra Leone on March 1, 1811. He traveled the area investigating the social and economic conditions of the region. He met with some of the colony’s officials, who opposed Cuffee’s idea for colonization of Blacks from the United States for fear of competition from American merchants. Furthermore, his attempts to sell goods yielded poor results because of tariff charges resulting from the British mercantile system. On Sunday, April 7, 1811 Cuffe met with the foremost black entrepreneurs of the colony. They penned a petition for the African Institution delineating that the colony’s greatest needs were for settlers to work in agriculture, merchanting and the whaling industry, that these three areas would facilitate growth for the colony best. (Upon receiving this petition, the members of the Institution agreed with their findings) He and these merchants together founded the Friendly Society of Sierra Leone as a mutual-aid merchant group dedicated to furthering prosperity and industry among the free peoples in the colony and loosening the stranglehold that the English merchants held on trade.

Cuffee sailed to Great Britain to secure further aid for the colony, arriving in Liverpool in July of 1811. He met with the heads of the African Institution in London who raised some money for the Friendly Society and was granted governmental permission and license to continue his mission in Sierra Leone. Encouraged by this support, Cuffee then left Liverpool and sailed back to Sierra Leone, where he and local merchants solidified the role of the Friendly Society and refined plans for the colony to grow by building a grist mill, saw mill, rice-processing factory and salt works.

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