William Cuffay was one of the most prominent leaders of the working class movement in 19th century Britain.
He was central to one of the first workers’ mass movements in history. As an admiring account from 1850 said, he was “loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him not, and had no sympathy with his class, and banished by a government that feared him”.
Cuffay was born on a merchant ship in 1788, the son of a naval cook and former slave from the British colony of St Kitts. His family later settled in Chatham, Kent.
Cuffay moved to London and trained as a tailor. In 1834 he joined a strike demanding a cut in working hours and a pay rise.
The strike failed, and Cuffay was sacked and blacklisted.
Enraged at his treatment, he became involved in the struggle for democratic rights and the Chartist movement.
The Chartists fought for the vote and other democratic rights. From the beginning Cuffay, a disabled black man, became one of their most important activists. A flavour of his politics comes from an article in the Northern Star, the Chartists’ newspaper. It records Cuffay making a speech in 1842.
The paper says that he told the crowd that “as a trade unionist he had exerted himself to the utmost in behalf of his order: but was now convinced that the cause of their distress was higher than the tyranny of their employers—that they must put the axe to the root of the tree”.
He went on to denounce employers who told workers that their real problem was overpopulation and that they must emigrate if they wanted decent wages. “If any must emigrate let it be the aristocracy,” said Cuffay.
The paper said that to great cheering he finished his speech with the words from a poem, “If bugs molest me, as in bed I lie, I’ll not quit my bed for them, not I, But rout the vermin—every bug destroy, New make my bed, and all its sweets enjoy.”
He dedicated his life to squashing the bugs at the top of society.
In 1839 he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and soon moved into a high-profile role.
He was elected to the central executive of the National Charter Association in 1842, and later that year voted president of the London Chartists.
Cuffay’s significance is illustrated by a contemporary report in The Times newspaper. It sneeringly referred to the London Chartists as “the black man and his party”.
Cuffay helped to organise the large Chartist rally on Kennington Common in 1848. But he was dismayed by the hesitancy and cowardice of other leaders who rejected the idea that the rally should be a springboard for direct action.
He turned to the idea of clandestine organisation to set off an uprising. But the “secret” group was infested with state spies.
Cuffay and others were arrested, tried, found guilty of “levying war on the queen” and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania for life.
There, Cuffay campaigned against repressive colonial laws and was active right up until his death in 1870.
He was never forgotten in Britain.
As one Chartist wrote after his trial, “Whatever may be his after fate, whilst integrity in the midst of poverty, whilst honour in the midst of temptation are admired and venerated, so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Afric's oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion.”