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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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: