Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Chatham Cuffay (1755-1815)

Chatham Cuffay (1755-1815) - Black dockyard worker in C18 Kent 

The life of William Cuffay (1788-1870) the black leader of London Chartism in 1848 is becoming better known but there is now some detail on his father. Chatham Cuffay (not his original first name which appears to be as yet undiscovered) came from a slave background and travelled to England on a navy ship possibly as a chef. He became one of a significant number of black workers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. 

Many arrived as Cuffay had done and probably the largest cohort remained dock and ship related workers but over time they may well have had an increased presence in the wider working population. William Cuffay, a tailor, is one example of this. His father has until now remained very largely hidden from history. See 


“Chatham Cuffay, believed to have originally been from St Kitts and Nevis. His parents were possibly former slaves who had been freed but their son Chatham Cuffay was never enslaved. In 1772, he emigrated with his mother to Medway on board a naval ship under Captain Charles Proby. A young man of about 17, he was baptised in the same year in Gillingham and given his first name after the port at which he had landed. Probably later became Resident Commissioner at Chatham and it is his influence which was likely to have helped Cuffay find employment in the Dockyard as an Able Seaman and Cook. In 1780 he gained a position on the Chatham Yacht –the Commissioner’s official vessel. The plaque has been positioned where it is as this is the location the Chatham Yacht would have been moored and subsequently where Chatham, worked and boarded the ship from. Chatham appears in pay books across several years at Chatham Dockyard, the last entry being March 1803 where he is recorded as a Storehouse Labourer. Chatham is by no means the first Black worker at the Dockyard but he is the first named. He represents an unknown number of slaves that, by free will or force, boarded Naval Ships in the Caribbean and established themselves in England.”


[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 74 (Autumn 2021)]

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