February 26, 2012


Sierra Leone, in West Africa, emerged from a decade of civil war in 2002, with the help of Great Britain, its former colonial power, as well as a large United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission. In September 2010, the UN Security Council lifted the last remaining sanctions against Sierra Leone, saying the government had fully re-established control over its territory, and former rebel fighters had been disarmed and demobilized.

UN-backed war crimes court was set up to try those, from both sides, who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed during the civil war. Its final case, the Hague trial of Charles Taylor, who was accused of being one of the most influential leaders of the civil war – primarily financing it with ‘blood diamonds' – ended in September 2011; and Mr. Taylor awaits his verdict. Was he a warlord or a peacemaker? The judges will decide.

Charles Taylor
Sierra Leone has miles of beautiful beaches and an emerging group of ambitious entrepreneurs. 

Freetown, Sierra Leone

It hopes to draw a tourist trade, similar to that of its neighbour, The Gambia, where I have visited and found to be quite wonderful. 

The Gambia - My Visit in 2009
While there has been substantial, economic growth in recent years, Sierra Leone remains at the bottom of UN's League Table for Human Development (#180 out of 187 countries).

So what were Sierre Leone’s beginnings? Archaeological finds show that Sierra Leone has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years, populated by successive movements from other parts of Africa. In 1462, Portuguese explorer, Pedro da Cintra, mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming shaped formation Serra de Leão (Portuguese for Lion Mountains). The Italian rendering of this geographic formation is Sierra Leone, which became the country's name. Soon after, Portuguese traders arrived at Freetown Harbour; and by 1495, a fort that acted as a trading post had been built. 

Freetown Harbour
The Portuguese were joined by the Dutch and French; all of them using Sierra Leone as a trading point for slaves. In 1562, the English joined the trade in human beings when Sir John Hawkins shipped 300 enslaved people, acquired 'by the sword and partly by other means', to the new colonies in America – thus becoming the first, English slave trader. Sir John was completely unashamed of the source of his wealth and adopted a crest of a bound slave, as a symbol of pride.

Sir John Hawkins
The Hawkins Crest
Sierra Leone eventually became a colonized by the Sierra Leone Company from March 11, 1792 until it became a British colony in 1808.  One of the principal players in this colonization was Paul Cuffee.

Paul Cuffee was born in January 1759, during the French and Indian War, on Cuttyhunk IslandMassachusetts. He was the seventh of ten children, and youngest son, of Kofi or Cuffee Slocum and Ruth Moses. Paul's father, Kofi, was a member of the Ashanti tribe, from GhanaAfrica. Kofi had been captured at age ten and brought, as a slave to the British colony of Massachusetts. His owner, John Slocum, could not reconcile slave ownership with his Quaker values and gave Kofi his freedom in the mid-1740s. Kofi took the name Cuffee Slocum; and, in 1746, he married Ruth Moses. Ruth was a Native-American – a member of the Wampanoag Nation on Martha's Vineyard. Cuffee Slocum worked as a skilled carpenter, farmer and fisherman and had taught himself to read and write by reading Bible Scriptures. He worked hard and was able to earn enough money to buy a home. When Paul was 8-years-old, his father purchased a 116-acre farm in what is now WestportMassachusetts. They were ‘free people of color’ over 100 years before Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves.

Cuttyhunk Island
When Paul was 13-years-old, his father died – leaving Paul and some of his younger brothers to take over the running of the farm and to take care of his mother and sisters.   Paul barely knew his alphabet, but he longed for a proper education and to work at something other than agriculture. Since his father’s death, Paul had acquired an affinity for boat building, navigation and trade, using his limited free time to learn more about ships and sailing from sailors he encountered at the docks. He felt that he was born to be at sea. Finally, at the age of 16, Paul signed onto a whaling ship and, later on, cargo ships, where he learned more about navigation. In his journal, he began to refer to himself as a marineer.  His first voyage was to Mexico; and his second, to the West Indies.

In 1776, Paul joined The Revolutionary War and embarked upon his third voyage. Shortly after setting sail, the ship was captured by a British ship, and he spent three months in a New York prison. Following his release, he returned to Westport, where he was forced to return to agriculture, with his brothers, for about two years. Paul also continued to study and became a Quaker. The local, influential and wealthy Rotch family – Quaker merchants and whalers in New Bedford – encouraged Paul to pursue is maritime merchant ambitions and supported him to build a small boat.

William Rotch

His brother, David, was afraid of the dangerous seas, so, in 1779, Paul set out on his first solo voyage, with cargo to nearby Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, he was attacked by pirates, as he was for several, subsequent voyages. However, finally, he was able to reach Nantucket, with cargo intact, and turn a profit.

All the while, Paul’s last name was Slocum, because his father’s name was Slocum, taking his master’s name, as per custom. Paul was a very independent man, and decided that he did not want to bear the name of his father’s slave master. So he convinced most of his siblings to take their father’s first name, Cuffee, as their last name.

At the age of twenty-one, Paul and another brother, John, were visited by the Tax Collector, for their agricultural and maritime income they had been earning. However, they refused to pay the taxes because free Black men did not have the right to vote. In 1780, he petitioned the State government to end such ‘taxation without representation’ for Black people and Native-Americans. The petition was denied, but his suit was one of the influences that led the Legislature in 1783 to grant voting rights to all free male citizens of the State.

No Taxation Document Signed by John Hancock, et al

Despite his color and his all-Black crew, Paul was able to successfully trade in seaports in Southern States. He eventually began sailing on both sides of The Atlantic Ocean and owned a small fleet of ships usually skippered by his relatives.

At the age of twenty-five, Paul married Alice Pequit, who, like his mother, was from the Native-American, Wampanoag tribe. The couple settled in WestportMassachusetts, where they raised their seven children. Paul’s mother, Ruth, died a few years later, in 1787.

In 1797, when his children were prevented from attending their local school because of their mixed race, he decided to start a new school for children of all ethnicities. He donated land on the family farm and paid for a White teacher to run the school.  The first integrated school in America was started by a man of color.

By this time, business was quite good, so Paul was able to afford to buy a large homestead. In February 1799, he paid $3,500 for 140 acres of waterfront property in Westport. He was soon able purchase interests in huge ships, including the Hero, the Alpha, and his favorite, the 109-ton, Traveller

By the early years of the 19th Century, Paul was one of – if not the – wealthiest African-American and Native-American in the United States.  A man of commanding presence, charm and integrity, Paul was admired by Blacks, Whites and Native Americans, alike. A devout Christian, Paul often preached and spoke at the Sunday services at the multi-racial Society of Friends meeting house in Westport.

Two decades earlier, 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.

James Madison

Attempts by Europeans and Americans to colonize Black people 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, who departed from Great Britain, for Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Company Ad

The Colony struggled to establish a working economy and develop a government that could survive against outside pressures. After the Sierra Leone Company collapsed, the newly-created, African Institution, offered migration to freed slaves who had previously settled in Nova Scotia and London after the American Revolution. The African Institution's London sponsors hoped to gain an economic return, while fostering the 'civilizing' trades of educated Black people.

From March 1807 onwards, Paul was encouraged by members of the African Institution in Philadelphia, Baltimoreand New York to be involved in aiding the fledgling efforts to improve Sierra Leone. He could have sat enjoying his wealth, but he felt he had a duty to God and to his people – feeling that Sierra Leone offered a land of opportunity for them. Although colonizing Sierra Leone was difficult, Paul believed it was a viable option for Black people and threw his support behind the movement. He 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.” Paul pondered the logistics and chances of success for the movement before deciding in 1809 to join the project. On December 27, 1810 he left Philadelphia on his first expedition to Sierra Leone.

Paul and his crew reached FreetownSierra Leone on March 1, 1811. He traveled the area investigating the social and economic conditions of the region and met with some of the colony’s officials, who opposed his idea for colonization of African-Americans, for fear of competition from American merchants. While there, Paul also tried to persuade people to stop selling each other as slaves.

Unfortunately, his attempts to sell goods yielded poor results because of tariff charges resulting from the British mercantile system. A month after his arrival, Paul met with the foremost Black entrepreneurs of the Colony. They penned a petition to the African Institution, stating that the Colony's greatest needs were for settlers to work in agriculture, merchanting and the whaling industry, that these three areas would best facilitate growth for the Colony. Upon receiving this petition, the members of the Institution agreed with their findings. Paul and the Black entrepreneurs 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.

Paul sailed to Great Britain to secure further aid for the colony, arriving in Liverpool in July 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

Soon after arriving in Liverpool, he penned this memoir in his journal, which was later published in The Liverpool Mercury:

“On the first of the present month of August, 1811, a vessel arrived at Liverpool, with a cargo from Sierra Leone, the owner, master, mate, and whole crew of which are free Negroes. The master, who is also owner, is the son of an American Slave, and is said to be very well skilled both in trade and navigation, as well as to be of a very pious and moral character. It must have been a strange and animating spectacle to see this free and enlightened African entering, as an independent trader, with his black crew, into that port which was so lately the nidus of the Slave Trade."

Liverpool Memoir
Encouraged by this support, Paul 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.  

Upon his return to the U.S. and, and unaware that his country was at war with Britain (The War of 1812), his ship was impounded by U.S. Customs. Paul decided to appeal to the highest authority and gained fame by his rapid, six-day trip to Washington D.C. to see President Madison, a slave owner, who ironically greeted Paul with warmth, and quickly organized for his ship to be returned to him.

Although Paul tried to ease tensions between the United States and Great Britain, so as to loosen trade restrictions, he was unsuccessful and forced to wait until the war had ended.

Meanwhile, he visited BaltimorePhiladelphia and New York, speaking to groups of free Black people about the Colony. Paul also urged Blacks to form organizations in these cities, to communicate with each other, and to correspond with the African Institution and with the Friendly Society at Sierra Leone. He printed a pamphlet about Sierra Leone to inform the general public of his ideas. 

Paul's 1812 Pamphlet on Sierra Leone

In the Summer of 1813, he contributed the most of the funds needed to rebuild the Society of Friends’ Meeting House in Westport.

Also during that time, Paul suffered some financial setbacks with other people poorly running his shipping interests. However, by 1814, the war had ended, and Paul was able to recoup his finances. He then prepared to return to Sierra Leone.

1814 Bill Authorizing Paul to Take Cargo to Sierra Leone

Paul sailed out of Westport in December 1815, with thirty-eight Black colonists (18 adults and 20 children) ranging in age from 8 months to sixty years. The expedition cost Paul more than $4,000. Passengers paying their own fares plus a donation by Paul’s friend and early benefactor,  William Rotch, accounted for the remaining $1000 in expenses. Each colonist needed their first year's provisions, which Paul fronted for them, with the understanding that he would be reimbursed by The African Institution. The colonists arrived in Sierra Leone in February 1816, along with farming equipment and parts to make a saw mill; but Paul and his settlers were not greeted as warmly as before. There was already a volatile situation brewing because of British rule; and the Government was concerned that more immigrants would exacerbate the situation. Finally, everyone calmed down and got settled. However, Paul was never reimbursed for his initial outlay, and ended up with an $8,000 deficit.

On his return to New York in 1816, Paul envisioned a mass emigration plan for African Americans, both to Sierra Leone and possibly to newly-freed, Haiti.  Congress rejected his petition to fund a return to Sierra Leone. During this time period, many African-Americans began to demonstrate interest in emigrating to Africa, and some people believed this was the best solution to problems of racial tensions in American society. Paul was persuaded to assist with the African colonization plans of the American Colonization Society (ACS), but Paul was alarmed at the overt racism of many members of the ACSACS co-founders, particularly Henry Clay, advocated exporting freed Negroes as a way of ridding the South of potentially 'troublesome' agitators who might threaten the plantation system of slavery. 

Henry Clay
ACS Membership Certificate

In the beginning of 1817, Paul’s health deteriorated. He never returned to Africa, and died on September 7, 1817. His final words to his family were, "Let me pass quietly away." Paul left an estate with an estimated value of almost $20,000, which is equivalent to at least $350,000, today.

Paul Cuffee's Grave

This was only one of the many bold actions Paul took during his lifetime to improve civil rights in this country. He was a visionary, who managed to combine philanthropy and amass wealth – very much like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, today.

Paul Cuffee left behind an amazing legacy, for which African-Americans, Native Americans, Whites and Sierra Leoneans should be grateful. Sierra Leone appears to be on its way back to a great place to live, work and play – hopefully, but it has a long way to go;

Sierra Leoneon Schoolchildren

And in ProvidenceRhode IslandThe Paul Cuffee School was established in his honor. It is a maritime charter school for local, public schoolchildren currently serving 625 multi-cultural students from kindergarten through tenth grade. It provides rigorous academics, individualized teaching and hands-on learning within a school culture of mutual respect and personal responsibility. Paul would have been proud.

Paul Cuffee School - Design Day

West Africa is known for its delectable stews and rice dishes. Try this easy and gorgeous Red Palm Stew from A West African Cookbook to warm you on a winter’s night. Enjoy!

Red Palm Stew
from A West African Cookbook by Ellen Gibson Wilson
Serves 8

  • 3 Pounds Chicken – skinless, boneless, cubed
  • 1 Pound Beef -- cubed
  • 1/2 Cup Peanut Oil
  • 1 Tablespoon Paprika
  • 2 Medium Onions -- finely chopped
  • 4 Medium Chilies -- finely chopped
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • ½ Teaspoon Pepper
  • ½ Teaspoon Mint
  • ½ Teaspoon Thyme
  • 1 Can Tomato Paste
  • 1 Cup Beef Stock
  • 1 ½ Cups Rice – cooked

Mix oil and paprika, brown meats in this oil, in a large skillet.
Lower heat and allow to simmer 10 minutes.
Add peppers and onions to this, sauté 5 mintues.
Add remaining ingredients.
Cover, simmer 30 minutes.
Serve over rice.

Sources: Wikipedia, Paul Cuffee SchoolBBC, PBS, World Hearth Recipe Collection, Answers.com, Google, Bing

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