Lahina, Hawaii: 1845. Envelope or Cover. This three-page stampless folded letter is dated March 5th, 1845. It was sent by Francis “Frank” Lawton from Lahina, Hawaii to his father Cuffe “Cuff” New Bedford by a private vessel. It bears a red “SHIP” handstamp and a manuscript “6” cent rate marking. It appears the rate was undercharged by two cents even if the letter was taken by the ship to the port of New Bedford. At the time the postage fee for addresses within 30 miles was six cents. Since this cover was received from a ship, there should have been an additional two-cent ship fee for a total of eight cents. The letter is in nice shape. Transcript included. The early 19th century whaling industry was one of the few, and possibly the first venue where men of color employment parity with whites. Although few blacks served as officers or shipmasters, and races were segregated on some ships, often white and non-white sailors were intermingled on board “checkerboard style.”. .. Cuffe Lawton, a free black man, was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1789 and moved to New Bedford by 1826. In Newport Lawton had been a student at the African Free School, a member of that town’s Free African Union Society, and clerk of its African Benevolent Society. In New Bedford he worked mostly as a laborer for whaling merchants, both on their vessels and around their homes. For whaling merchant Charles W. Morgan, he helped fit whaling ships, cleaned yards, and once sawed “old wood at Candleworks” from Morgan’s ship Francis Henrietta. The Lawton house is still standing at 62 Bedford Street in New Bedford. (See Malloy’s African Americans in the Maritime Trade, U.S. Census Records and the online National Park Service brochure and essay, Behind the Mansions (New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park). Cuffee Lawton’s son, Frank, became a whaleman and eventually rose to the rank of mate. In this literate and humorous letter, Frank candidly expresses his feelings about his ship’s captain and crew, Hawaiians, and missionaries: “I presume that you are well aware that I sailed in what was called a Bethel Ship for we had seven that were called professors of Religion but if his Satanic Majesty had picked them out himself he could not have been more pleased. As for our Capt. He is actually the worst man I ever saw there is scarcely a single crime that he is not guilty of and we have a very good reason for saying that. He has sailed in a certain class of vessels (probably slavers) which shall now be nameless. By his own confessions he says that if the English were to catch him . . . his time would be short.” And he has little regard for Hawaiians and missioaries: “I suppose that you have heard a great deal about the Sandwich Isles about their learning enterprise talents and happiness why one to read their papers would think that he was reading the description of some Fairyland but I must say that they are the most miserable set of Islanders that I ever saw. When Cook discovered them the population was estimated to be about 800,000 now they scarcely number 160,000 and of that number about 300 are white and 4 or 500 half breeds. Now I should think that was a great decrease in the short space of 67 years perhaps you will inquire the reason for this decrease. . .. I ask them and they will tell you it is the white man’s curse it is the Rum and fire arms and Poison and a hundred of loathsome diseases that Christian nations bring among them. But it is the same wherever the white man goes there is a curse follows him where the print of his cursed footsteps are seen there you will see nations dying off by hundreds and thousands. We were at the island of Nooheva about 18 months ago and there it was the same they were dying off there some 20 and 30 in a day they mostly young persons. When Cook first discovered these Islands the (S.I.) he speaks in the highest terms of their hospitality go in any of their houses from the chief to his meanest follower and you had everything that the Island afforded. Go now and you can scarcely get a drink of water and in many places you cannot unless you pay for it. Ask them about it and they will say that they are poor and I think they speak the truth for all kinds of provisions are very dear. The principal food of the natives is Poe and fish the Poe is a kind of paste made of taro but the living of the chiefs and whites is vastly different go into their houses and you will see. . .. “ As for the missionaries I hardly know what to say of them. Were I to tell you the truth you would not believe me. There fore I shall merely say that they have not done so much good as what they might. It is true most of the natives can read and write but for their morals I cannot say much in favor of them in one word they have learnt all the vices without the virtues of civilized nations. “. Very good. Item #009416
Although African-American whalemen were not uncommon, few rose to become mates or masters, and letters from them are rare. As of 2019, the Rare Book Hub shows only one auction record for an African-American whaling letter in the past 70 years. Although OCLC shows African-American whaling letters in institutional collections, the New Bedford Whaling Museum holds the family papers of Captain Paul Cuffee (no apparent relation), probably the wealthiest and most influential African-American of the early 1800s.