“Blackman” was how The Times sneeringly referred to him. Others were taken aback by his small stature. William Cuffay was 4ft 11ins and born with a deformed spine and shin bones. He was mild-mannered, already approaching old age when he first drew press attention. Yet the unassuming appearance of this leader of the London Chartists had little bearing on his fierce commitment to working-class rights or indeed his abilities as a rousing orator.
Born in 1788 in Chatham in Kent, Cuffay was the son of a formerly enslaved ship’s cook from St Kitts and a white English woman. He was born at a time when black people in Britain were free but slavery was still an active institution in its colonies, and into a cultural climate in which black people were looked down upon. This was the reality for Cuffay, compounded by the deprivations experienced as a member of the English working class. He trained as a tailor, and developed a love of the trade that mirrored his intense dislike of both the aristocracy and industrialists.
By 1819, Cuffay had established himself in Soho, but in 1834 was unemployed. He had gone on strike with fellow tradesmen, demanding better hours and increased pay.
When the strike collapsed, he was blacklisted for failing to promise not to join a trade union. Cuffay went on to set up the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and joined the London Chartists, a movement committed to establishing political rights for working people. Based on the People’s Charter, it included six demands for reform – principally that every man over 21 should have the vote, at a time when scarcely a tenth had that right (and women were forbidden from voting entirely). By 1848, William was leader of the London branch.
Meanwhile, mounting tensions erupted on 4 November 1839, when thousands of Chartists gathered in Newport. As they asserted their demands, a violent confrontation with the police ensued. Twenty-two people lost their lives and 21 more were charged with high treason. Three prominent leaders were condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Following a national petitioning campaign, to which Cuffay was central, the sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia for life.
The last major Chartist demonstration took place on Kennington Common in 1848, and Cuffay again played a key role. For this, he was arrested for conspiring to “levy war against the queen” and tried at the Old Bailey. The press continued to lampoon him, taking every chance to remind readers that he was a “Negro”. Punch magazine ridiculed “that man of colour” married to a washerwoman, but Cuffay remained a poised and dignified figure.
When he finally spoke he addressed the court with righteous contempt. “You have no right to sentence me,” he said. “Although the trial has lasted a long time, it has not been a fair trial... Everything has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country – and I believe of other countries too – has done all in its power to smother me with ridicule. I ask no pity. I ask no mercy...
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“I always thought it would come to something like this. I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week, I feel that I could bear any punishment proudly, even to the scaffold. This new Act of Parliament is disgraceful, and I am proud to be the first victim of it... Everything that was likely to do any good to the working classes was either thrown out or set aside, but a measure to restrain their liberties could be passed in a few hours. I have nothing more to say.”
Cuffay and two comrades were sentenced to transportation for the “term of [their] natural lives”. Although he received a pardon in 1856, Cuffay chose to stay in Tasma- nia where his wife had joined him. He was unique among exiled veteran Chartists in that he continued his radical agitation, and was active in the successful amendment of the colony’s Masters and Servants Act, which improved the conditions endured by English, Irish and Scottish servants.
Cuffay died a pauper in 1870. His grave was marked “in case friendly sympathisers should hereafter desire to place a memorial stone on the spot”. One-and-a-half centuries later, it is yet to be erected. Indeed, no memorials exist: not in London, Chatham or Tasmania. In the context of current global conversations about black lives, acknowledging the importance of the life of William Cuffay seems more timely now than ever.
Emma Dabiri is an author and broadcaster, and teaching fellow at SOAS University of London. Her most recent book is What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (Penguin, 2021)
This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine