William Cuffay, pictured in his prison cell image: National Portrait Gallery
Published: 15 November, 2012
by KEITH FLETT
William Cuffay (1788-1870) was a leader of the Chartist movement in London in the 1830s and 1840s. A campaigner for the vote and working people’s rights, he was transported to Tasmania after 1848 for his alleged part in events in that revolutionary year.
Cuffay was a black Chartist leader – not by some way the only black Chartist but one of a handful to achieve national importance.
Cuffay’s father came to Britain as a cook on a British navy ship and moved from a background of slavery in St Kitts to freedom.
His early years were in Chatham and north London historian Martin Hoyles’ book follows his life and political activity chronologically, ending with his exile in Australia in the 1850s and 60s.
Cuffay’s life has long puzzled historians. He left no memoir and no papers have been found. His details can only be reconstructed by painstaking work in archives and through reading reports in newspapers of the day.
He was reviled by The Times who referred to the “black man and his party” in 1848 but after the demise of Chartism his name fell into obscurity until Peter Fryer’s 1984 history of the black presence in Britain, Staying Power.
Since then Cuffay has featured as part of celebrations of Black History Month and there have been programmes on Radio 4 and ABC in Australia.
Some new material, particularly from his period in Australia, has come to light but much remains unknown
Hoyles gathers together what is known about Cuffay’s early years in Chatham – a location shared with his contemporary Charles Dickens.
Cuffay was apprenticed as a tailor and moved to London, where he became an active trade unionist and, in the 1830s, a Chartist. A little more is known about Cuffay’s life from this time largely because of reports in the Chartist paper the Northern Star.
Cuffay became a leader of both the London tailors and London Chartism. There are reports of powerful speeches and of someone involved in organising the detail of the world’s first working-class political party. Cuffay it was who kept an eye on funds to help Chartists imprisoned in fighting for the vote. He also became an auditor of the National Land Company, a Chartist scheme to build affordable housing for the new factory workers of the 1840s.
Hoyles does an excellent job in organising the information that we do know about Cuffay, but also adds some tantalising new detail.
In the 1840s Cuffay lived in central London, at 409 Strand, and it is clear that aside from being a powerful orator, he was also keen on amateur dramatics. Hoyle has found examples of various songs and acting roles that Cuffay had.
Hoyles notes that Cuffay was a Chartist organiser, but it seems likely that he was the organiser of the Chartist protest for the vote held in Kennington Common on April 10, 1848. This explains his frustration when the political leadership failed to follow through with a planned march on Parliament.
Hoyles rightly notes that while April 10 was not a success, Chartism in the capital continued to gain strength until the summer of 1848. It was at this point, as part of an armed conspiracy, that Cuffay was arrested, tried, and sentenced to transportation.
Historians are unsure what precise role Cuffay had in the conspiracy – which had been at least partly provoked by government spies. But if he was the leader of London Chartism it can be seen why he could not avoid being involved.
Hoyles also explores the links with another close contemporary of Cuffay – William Blake. Both were in London in the 1820s though there is no evidence that they met.
Where the book might have said more is on the imperial angle to Cuffay. He came as the son of a slave to be a black political activist challenging the Empire right at its centre in London. He was then transported to another part of the Empire in Tasmania.
Throughout, he continued to be politically active where many might have given up. He is an inspiration to the present day and Martin Hoyles’ book does a very good job in showing why.\
The book is both well written and extensively illustrated. It is an excellent way in to an understanding of the man and political activist that was William Cuffay and to the wider Chartist movement.
. William Cuffay: The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader.
By Martin Hoyles.
Hansib £8.99. Available from the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Road, NW5, 020 7485 7793
. Keith Flett is a trade union activist and convener of the London Socialist Historians Group and author of Chartism After 1848:The Working Class and the Politics of Radical Education (Merlin Press)