Portrait of Chartist leader William Cuffay Portrait of Chartist leader William Cuffay. Source: William Paul Dowling - National Portrait Gallery / Wikicommons / the image is now in public domain

As a contribution to Black History Month, Dominic Alexander casts a light upon the remarkable, if little-known, life of the black Chartist revolutionary, William Cuffay

The working class in Britain has been multi-racial ever since the industrial revolution, but this fact has been made almost invisible in the usual portrayal of history. There are many stories that should be much better known than they are. One of those is that of William Cuffay, a trade unionist and a leader of the Chartists, the first working-class movement for democracy.

In later life, Cuffay said he was born in Kent in 1788, the son of an ex-slave from St Kitts, but another version has him born on the ship to England. His surname may have come from the Ghanaian Twi name Kofi. Very little is known of his earlier life until he became involved in politics.

In 1839, he organised the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association to mobilise those workers in London around the Chartist campaign. The Charter had been launched by a mixed group of middle-class and working-class radicals in 1838, with six demands including universal male suffrage, the secret ballot, and equal representation of industrial areas. This group envisaged a ‘respectable’ campaign of ‘moral suasion’ to gain support for reform. However, enthusiasm for the Charter quickly broke such bounds to become a mass movement of industrial workers and impoverished artisans across Britain.

The account of Chartism taught in schools, if it is at all, tells of the movement divided between the moderate side of prosperous London artisans, and the ‘physical-force’ party of workers in the North and Midlands. William Cuffay upsets the logic of this sanitised characterisation, and reveals its revolutionary character. At its high points, what made Chartism powerful was the involvement of organised labour, and Cuffay’s London tailors were a leading example of politicised trade unionism.

Political trade unionism

From the fragments of evidence that we have about Cuffay, he emerges as a serious thinker about the best ways for the working class to organise, and was committed to linking the political and the economic. This might explain his disagreement with the non-political syndicalism of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which for a brief few years from 1834 attempted to create a single union for all workers in the country. He joined the tailor’s union affiliated with the GNCTU nonetheless and lost his job as a result of strike action.

From this point onwards, he was consistently active in Chartism as a leader of the London tailors. He was the representative on the metropolitan district council of the National Charter Association for Westminster, worked with the ultra-radical MP and Chartist supporter Thomas Duncombe, and fulfilled a range of other political and trade-union roles. He was clearly a highly competent and trusted organiser. This was underlined in 1842 when most of the executive of the National Charter Association had been arrested, he was elected as president to save it from collapse.

That year was the true high point of Chartism when parliament’s rejection of the second petition of 3.3 million signatures was followed by the first general strike in British history, derisively referred to as the ‘plug riots’ in most accounts. Although the strike was defeated, it had demonstrated the potential power of an organised working class. This was a period in which modern working-class politics was taking shape, and Cuffay was firmly on the side of the revolutionary tendency in this movement. In 1842, he declared at a tailors’ meeting supporting the Charter, that as a trade unionist he had come to understand the cause of workers’ distress to be ‘higher than the tyranny of their employers – that they must put an axe to the root of the tree’, by which he clearly meant the state.

After the great year of 1842, Cuffay remained at the forefront of Chartist politics and trade-union campaigning. He was increasingly the subject of vicious and disgusting racist attacks in the ‘respectable’ press, one milder example of which was The Times’s dismissal of Chartists in London as ‘the Black man and his party’, referring to Cuffay. Racism could be found among individual Chartists too, but its dominant political discourse had roots in the anti-slavery tradition, and a hatred of oppression generally.

Cuffay showed his own developed understanding of the role of imperialism and racism in a speech to the Chartist National Convention of 1848. Here, he declared the willingness of London Chartists to march alongside Irish revolutionaries ‘under the green flag of Erin’, to cheers from the assembly. Cuffay also had no time for the occasional outbreak of symbolic monarchism from some Chartists.

The petition of 1848

This convention of 1848 was the last high point of Chartism, with the third petition being the largest yet. In the discussions of how to win the Charter this time, Cuffay took a militant but clear-headed position. He opposed the suggestion that the convention itself should declare the Charter to be the law of the land, noting that he had only been elected by two thousand Londoners. Instead, he called for the creation of a greater national assembly, which would have a wider legitimacy to mount such a declaration. This was a plan for revolution based on mass, democratic mobilisation.

In the event, the national Chartist leadership fudged the issue of how to mount a forceful campaign to gain the Charter. The demonstration at Kennington Common in March was blocked from marching on parliament as planned, but a section, exasperated with the situation, called upon Cuffay to lead them, such was his credibility as a trustworthy and determined figure. There was little to be done at that moment, however, Cuffay was certainly concerned to organise further, more effective protests.

The authorities were clearly aware of Cuffay’s potential as a leader of a more concerted Chartist campaign in London. In August 1848, on the evidence of police spies, he was arrested for being part of a conspiracy to set fires as a signal for insurrection. This was said to be in the process of being organised by an ‘Ulterior Committee’, in which he had, probably reluctantly, accepted the position of secretary days before the arrests. This plan for an insurrection harks back to various conspiratorial forms of revolutionary action from the early decades of the nineteenth century. The last such attempt had been the Cato Street Conspiracy, which had been intended as revenge against the government for the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. As a form of revolutionary organisation, the conspiracy had been entirely superseded by the democratic mass movement seen in Chartism.

Considering Cuffay’s commitment to securing the widest possible mass support, shown in his interventions only months earlier at the Convention, it seems highly implausible that he would suddenly support such foolhardy adventurism. It would be more likely that he agreed to join this ‘ulterior committee’ in order to block ill-considered actions rather than to plot them. The fact that one of the two police spies who were witnesses at Cuffay’s trial was known as ‘Lying Tom’ underlines how untrustworthy any of the evidence about this conspiracy actually is. The state’s use of paid spies as provocateurs was also something that had been deployed time and again against radical groups since their origins in the 1790s. This was in evidence here again, as the other spy confessed to trying to teach the Chartists how to make a grenade.

Cuffay was certainly innocent of the charges against him, and argued his case cogently in court, but was found guilty in any case. He had in fact objected to being tried by a middle-class jury, insisting: ‘I demand a fair trial by my peers according to the principles of Magna Charta’. His inevitable sentence was to be transported to Australia for life. After some obstruction by the authorities, his wife was able to join him there, her passage paid by a Chartist subscription. There was a general pardon of Chartists in 1856, but William and Mary chose to stay in Tasmania. There, Cuffay continued to lead struggles for workers’ rights. He died, destitute, in 1870.

Excoriated, and then ignored, by the ‘respectable’ and establishment commentariat, he has gradually gained wider recognition by writers on the left. However, at the time of his trial, one radical paper, Reynold’s News, hit back that he was ‘loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues’, and hoped that ‘the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Africa’s oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion’. It is up to socialists today to counter his erasure from standard historical memory.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).