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William Cuffay: The Chartists’ Black Leader

The son of a freed slave, William Cuffay played a key role in the struggle for democracy in Britain. A country which respected its history would honour him rather than the men who sold his ancestors.

Of the six statues of prime ministers in Parliament Square only one – Churchill – served after the implementation of universal suffrage in 1928. The only concession to the tradition of dissent and mass-organising that secured these universal political rights is the statue of the suffragette Millicant Fawcett, erected a mere two years ago. Amid this celebration of the aristocracy there remains no acknowledgement of the long and ongoing working-class struggle for democracy, and in particular of the Chartist movement, which seriously threatened the mid-19th century British elite with its demands for universal suffrage.

There can only be one candidate for a memorial to Chartism’s leaders: William Cuffay. Born in Chatham in 1788, Cuffay trained as a tailor and lived most of his life in Westminster. By the 1840s he became the chief leader of the Chartists in London and nationally. He was black, the son of a freed slave from St. Kitts, himself the son of a man kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. A celebration of Cuffay’s life in Parliament Square would not only challenge the implication that democracy was a gift from the elite, but also confront Parliament directly with the reality of slavery. With that it would also demolish two of the right’s core myths: that the black British population has no long-term history, and that black people did not fight for their own liberation – and with that the liberation of all.

Cuffay’s early life encompassed a period of mass-migration by black people into Britain, fuelled chiefly by the recruitment or impressment of black men into the armed forces to feed Britain’s almost ceaseless global warfare between 1775 and 1815; Cuffay’s father, Chatham Cuffay, was a cook aboard a British warship. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the black British population ran into the tens of thousands, many of whom had, like Cuffay, been born in Britain. Marginalised by racism and poverty, opportunities for the black population were largely concentrated to sailing or domestic service. Owing to a shortened spine and legs at birth Cuffay possessed even fewer options, but being apprenticed as a tailor provided a degree of independence. By 1819 he had moved to London, settling in Westminster.

After being twice-widowed in the 1820s Cuffay married his third wife Mary Ann at St. James’s Piccadilly in 1827, and the pair would become life-long companions and comrades. In the following years he was drawn, after some initial antipathy, into labour organisation, as increasing competition and a large labour surplus led to low-paid and sweated conditions for tailors. Cuffay came out with his workmates during the Tailors’ Strike of 1834, a vast but ultimately unsuccessful effort to end the proletarianisation of their trade. In the aftermath of the strike he was blacklisted, and would never find regular employment again.

By 1838 working-class radicals had split from the emerging Liberal Party to form the Chartist movement, and by October 1839 Cuffay was one of the organisers of the Metropolitan Tailors Chartist Association. In 1840 the National Charter Association (NCA) was formed as the party of the Chartists, and Cuffay would become their premier and most trusted organiser, both in London and nationally. In 1841 he was elected by Westminster’s Chartists to the Metropolitan Delegate’s Council, beginning a long period as one of London Chartism’s chief leaders. Intimidated by this sign of assertiveness from the capital’s large black population, Cuffay became the target of racist derision from the elite, with The Times referring to the London Chartists as ‘the Black man and his Party’. In response, he came to carry a loaded pistol with him at all times. 

The beginning of Cuffay’s political career coincided with a shift away from such anti-black racism within the British labour movement. Evidence of this is the fact that in 1842 Cuffay was elected onto the NCA’s National Executive – meaning that within two years of its founding, the world’s first proletarian party had a black leader. He became particularly renowned as a trusted treasurer, and a former co-worker would later recall, ‘I have known some thousands in the trade, and I never knew a man I would sooner confide in: and I believe this to be the feeling of thousands’. After a brutal period of repression of the movement between 1839 and 1842, Cuffay became a key organiser of the NCA’s trial and prisoner support. In this he worked closely with Mary Ann, herself also a hard-working and popular Chartist.

As well as a talented administrator Cuffay was one of the NCA’s leaders most intractably opposed to any compromise with either the middle class or aristocracy, arguing that the worker’s movement should ‘never be deluded from standing by the rights of their order, either by the middle men, or by the aristocracy.’ This was likely because of his blacklisting, which had persuaded him that workplace agitation was not enough. But he also had a reputation as an intellectual, and was probably also influenced by the older republican, internationalist strand of British radicalism that fed into Chartism, including the publications of another black British radical of his generation, the Jamaican-born Jacobin socialist and abolitionist Robert Wedderburn.

This is particularly clearly indicated by Cuffay closing off one of his speeches by quoting from a poem by Clio Rickman, the friend and biographer of Thomas Paine: 

The sneaking courtier, and corruption’s tool,
Thou speak the language of both knave and fool,
“Let those who do not like the country, leave it,”
My answer is, (in metaphor receive it)
If bugs molest me, as in bed I lie,
I’ll not quit my bed for them, not I’
But rout the vermin – every bug destroy,
New make my bed, and all its sweets enjoy.

Cuffay’s use of Rickman’s argument that radicals should not flee the country but instead crush the aristocracy like bugs is an indication of the revolutionary edge to Chartism, ostensibly a movement for the reform of the British constitution. But it seems likely that, along with his pistol, it was also part of Cuffay’s armoury for countering racism: this was his country as much as anyone else’s, and he was determined to fight to improve it. 

The ability to quote Rickman from memory suggests he had also read his 1804 long poem An ode, in celebration of the emancipation of the blacks of Saint Domingo, a celebration of the Haitian revolution. Cuffay was proud of his African descent, refusing to abandon his surname, an anglicisation of the Akan name Kofi. He was also explicit that internationalism and anti-slavery were integral to his understanding of Chartism. In March 1846 he was elected to a committee formed from London Chartists and revolutionary European exiles to support the Polish Revolution, and at a meeting of this group Cuffay clearly stated these links: ‘as a descendant of a West India slave, it would become [me] to be the friend of all who were struggling for freedom’. Along with a number of African-American refugees from slavery resident in Britain from the mid-1840s onwards, Cuffay was part of a broader wave of black political activism that emphasised the need for racial solidarity and the integration of abolition with all other struggles for liberty.

Cuffay’s arrest and transportation during the revolutionary wave of 1848 was particularly devastating for Chartism. In spring 1848 the NCA mobilised a monster petition of over 3 million signatures demanding the implementation of the Charter. April 10th was chosen as the day for a procession from Kennington Common to present the petition to Parliament, but the speeches ended with an abrupt announcement that the march had been cancelled. Despite having organised the procession Cuffay was not informed of this decision, perhaps because of his reputation for militancy. Shocked and outraged, he was part of a crowd that rushed the stage, after which he gave a short but furious speech denouncing the national leadership.

In the following months Cuffay was drawn into a spy-infested London-wide insurrectionary conspiracy. Although he apparently found the plans unworkable, he appears to have remained part of the conspiracy out of a sense of responsibility towards his younger comrades, even to the point of refusing to flee arrest. At his trial he denounced the racist abuse he had received over the years, stating that everything ‘has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country…have done all in their power to smother me with ridicule.’ Yet he remained defiant: ‘I ask no pity – I ask no mercy’.

Found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life, he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) the following year. Mary Ann was not permitted to be reunited with him until April 1853, after four long years apart. William was pardoned in May 1856, at which point he threw himself into the Australian labour movement until his death in the Brickfield’s Invalids Depot in 1870, aged 82. 

The only artefact he left, now held by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, was a copy of the complete works of Byron presented to him by his comrades before his transportation in 1849, inscribed:

‘Presented to William Cuffay, by the Members of the Westminster Branch of the National Charter Association, of Great Britain, as a token of their sincere Regard & Affection, for his Genuine Patriotism & Moral worth’

In honour of that moral worth, and of the sacrifices he gave for the radical cause of democracy and equality in Britain and abroad, it’s time to erect a statue of William Cuffay in Westminster.