Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Keith Flett on William Cuffay and the Medway By-Election

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)

 In October 2011 I spoke to an audience of around 100 people in Medway on a labour history related topic. Considering that getting into double rather than treble figures for any meeting touching on working class history can be an achievement, the turnout was excellent. I doubt it was my oratorical skills, such as they are, that packed them in, however.

Rather it was because the talk was about the black Chartist William Cuffay a local Medway radical in whom there is a lot of interest. The biography of Cuffay makes interesting reading given that on 20 November 2014 in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the UKIP candidate took the seat [which until then he held as a Tory].

  The life of William Cuffay is now quite well known. Indeed his Wikipedia entry is tolerably accurate. He was born in Chatham. His father was from St Kitts and a cook on a British navy ship. He was apprenticed as a tailor, moved to London around 1819 and by the 1830s he was an active trade unionist and Chartist.

 Cuffay became a leading figure in London Chartism in the 1840s. He was tried and convicted for his part in a revolutionary conspiracy in August 1848. Transported to Australia, Cuffay remained politically active until his death in 1870, aged 82.

 Cuffay left no papers and wrote no autobiography so what we can recover of his life comes from newspaper reports and a few official records. Mark Gregory has done excellent work, reported in a Morning Star article, about Cuffay’s activities in Tasmania and there is a new biography by Martin Hoyles that provides some interesting new perspectives, for example Cuffay’s theatrical talents.

How we can make sense of Cuffay’s life? There are two key issues. Firstly to see Cuffay in the context of the ‘Black Atlantic’ a concept developed by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book The Many Headed Hydra. The point is that there is an imperial link between the Americas, the Caribbean and the UK in the nineteenth century. That link is slavery, slave ships and the British navy, which in the 1790s was around one quarter black. Cuffay, the son of a black sailor on a British ship, was born in one of the central points of the British naval empire — Chatham.

He found his way to the very centre of that empire in London, where he organised as a Chartist to try and bring it down. Frustrated by the state in that endeavour, he found himself shipped to another part of the Empire — Tasmania, where he continued to be active.

These are uncomfortable points indeed for a party like UKIP and not something Tories are likely to be much keener on.

 The second point, something pointed out to me by Lord Bill Morris, is that Cuffay was the organiser of London Chartism, the man behind the great demonstration of 10 April 1848. Perhaps Cuffay’s imperial background uniquely fitted him for that role. It may explain why he continued to be active into old age when others did not.

 With the Medway by-election focussed on immigration it is worth remembering William Cuffay, a notable figure in British history, the son of a slave, born in Chatham, because of the importance of British imperial power but someone who fought all his life for the rights of ordinary working people. Empire and imperialism provide some of the framework for Medway today but not in the way UKIP would have it. 

This piece originally appeared in the Morning Star - see here: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-fffb-Son-of-Medways-lessons-for-Ukip

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