Honor William Cuffay: The Chartists’ Forgotten Black Leader

The son of a freed slave, William Cuffay played a key role in the struggle for democracy in Britain and abroad. It’s time to honor his sacrifices for the radical cause of justice and equality.

William Cuffay was part of a broader wave of black political activism that emphasized the need for racial solidarity and the integration of abolition with all other struggles for liberty.

Of the six statues of prime ministers in Parliament Square, only one — Winston Churchill — served after the implementation of universal suffrage in 1928. The only concession to the tradition of dissent and mass organizing that secured these universal political rights is the statue of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, erected a mere two years ago. Amid this celebration of the aristocracy, there remains no acknowledgment of the long and ongoing working-class struggle for democracy, and in particular of the Chartist movement, which seriously threatened the mid-nineteenth-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 Saint 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, fueled 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. Marginalized 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 him 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 Church, Piccadilly, in 1827, and the pair would become lifelong companions and comrades. In the following years, he was drawn, after some initial antipathy, into labor organization, as increasing competition and a large labor surplus led to low-paid and sweated conditions for tailors. Cuffay came out with his workmates during the London Tailors’ Strike of 1834, a vast but ultimately unsuccessful effort to end the proletarianization of their trade. In the aftermath of the strike, he was blacklisted, and he 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 organizers of the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter 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 organizer, 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, the elite began to target Cuffay with racist derision, 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 labor movement. Evidence of this is the fact that in 1842, Cuffay was elected onto the NCA’s National Executive Council — 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 coworker 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 organizer 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 the aristocracy, arguing that the workers’ 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 he was probably 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 armory 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 anglicization 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 onward, Cuffay was part of a broader wave of black political activism that emphasized 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 mobilized a monster petition of more than 3 million signatures demanding the implementation of the Charter. April 10 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 canceled. Despite having organized 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 toward 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 (banishment to the British colonies), 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 labor movement until his death in the Brickfields Invalid Depot in 1870, aged eighty-two.

The only artifact he left, now held by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, was a copy of the complete works of Lord 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.