Saturday, 22 January 2011

Work in Progress: In Search of William Cuffay

In search of William Cuffay
From the LSHG Newsletter, #41 (Spring 2011)

We may owe it to Staying Power, the definitive history of black people in the UK by the late Peter Fryer, that William Cuffay is recalled by history at all.

Details of Cuffay’s life (1788-1870) are not well recorded by history. Or at least this is what appears to be currently the situation. The reality is that more research and different research questions and angles can often uncover new nuggets of detail and ways of understanding figures like Cuffay.

William Cuffay, a diminutive black tailor, was held to be the leader of London Chartism in 1848, and in particular the insurrectionary events that took place in the August of that year.

For his supposed or actual part in these events he was transported to Tasmania. He was also ridiculed in the press, in journals like Punch, as a black Chartist.

In the summer of 2010 I was one of those who made a Radio 4 programme with the former union leader Lord Bill Morris about Cuffay. Other Chartist historians involved included Malcolm Chase and Stephen Roberts. The BBC producer Philip Sellars did an excellent job in both making the programme and getting it broadcast in a primetime slot. I dealt specifically with the London aspect of Cuffay’s activity.

I met Bill Morris on Kennington Common where we talked about − for the programme − events that took place there on Monday April 10 1848. Morris had the kind of view you might have expected at that time of a former union leader. He said he could understand why Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor decided not to march on Parliament that day. Yet at the same time Morris clearly admired the spirit of Cuffay.

He also had an interesting and as far as I know new ‘take’ on Cuffay’s role. He noted that Cuffay was the organiser of that Chartist demonstration, a mammoth task involving co-ordinating several feeder marches and a number of speakers’ platforms [pre-PA systems] on the Common.

Cuffay was unusual amongst London Chartists in 1848 in that he was by no means young, and his role on that Monday suggests, though this is not yet historically proven, that his experience as a Chartist activist may well have been extensive.

So while the general feeling of historians has been that Cuffay may not have been the actual leader of London Chartism in 1848, having been singled out by the State either due to his age or his colour and perhaps both, it seems possible that he was, if not the figurehead, certainly the organiser.

Work remains to be done in uncovering this story, and it has become possible with the Chartist paper the Northern Star now digitally available on-line and searchable. It will be interesting to see what work uncovers regarding Cuffay’s activities that would have previously been very difficult to retrieve.

When Cuffay arrived in Tasmania, unlike many, he did not give up political activity. In fact, he continued to work in his trade and to be an active trade unionist. Australian historians had already been researching Cuffay, but the Radio 4 programme sparked more interest.

Just before Christmas I made a programme with the Australian public service
broadcaster ABC about Cuffay and his significance as an historical figure. This is very much historical work in progress, motored by fresh ways of looking at our history and with new technology offering us new possibilities of researching those angles.

In a related development, Red Saunders’ photo-composition of William Cuffay collecting signatures for a Chartist petition is currently on exhibition in the foyer of the Museum of London at the Barbican. The exhibition is free and will run into 2011. It has the added bonus that I also appear in the picture in period fustian costume, smoking a clay pipe and wearing a long false beard. That incidental detail aside, all in all quite a positive labour history story for a change...

Keith Flett

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