Born in 1788 in Chatham, Kent, William Cuffay was the son of an English woman, Juliana Fox, and a father of African descent who was a former slave, Chatham Cuffay. William was a traveling tailor who stood at 4 feet 11 inches. However, in that small body was a powerful activist.
William held a steady position as a traveling tailor. However, the course of his life changed in 1834 when he lost his job for going on strike over low pay and long work days. He rejected the owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (owenite being founded on utopian socialist ideology).
For protesting, William fell victim to a practice called blacklisting. He found it difficult to get any work, because he had been put on a list that circulated amongst employers hiring tailors. When he could not find work, William decided to enter the political arena.
William aided in forming the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association. He became an important figure in what became known as the Chartist movement, being elected in 1841 to the Chartist Metropolitan Delegate Council. In 1842, he was elected as a National Executive to the National Charter Association and later that same year as president. William fought for electoral reform, representation in Parliament for the working classes, and universal male suffrage—which was the vote for all men, regardless of property.
While his protests were originally peaceful, he was later accused of organizing more militant protests. In 1848, William attended the National Chartists Convention as one of three London delegates, where a Chartist rally took place in Kensington Commons. While an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 protestors showed up, the convention’s planned march to Westminster to present a petition was canceled at the last minute, infuriating William.
The march might have been canceled due to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert evacuating to the Isle of Wight, due to fears stirred by the February Revolution of 1848 in France. Troops had been stationed on London’s bridges. If the march had taken place, there might have been violent and deadly clashes between the Chartists and the British army.
The summer of the same year, William allegedly became involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the British government. Evidence given by a British spy indicated that William was tasked with setting buildings on fire to signal the beginning of the uprising. Even though he only played a small part–—if he had played a part at all in the uprising—William was sentenced to transportation in Tasmania for 21 years. A fundraiser was run for William so that he had money when he landed in the colony.
Three years later, all Tasmanian prisoners were forgiven. However, William remained in the colony, working as a tailor and advocating for his left-wing political philosophies. He is credited with being one of the leaders in the revisions to the Master and Servant Laws in the colony.
At one of his last public lectures, he referred to the crowd as his “fellow slaves,” considering they were all of the working classes, meaning poor and overworked. He said, “I’m old, I’m out of work, and I’m in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.” He died in poverty, as so many great men and activists, in 1870.
Black Radical Hero: William Cuffay by Catherine O’Donnell, People’s History Museum (PHM)
Deportation of Chartist William Cuffay 1849 on the British Library
Five Black British figures history forgets by Habiba Katsha, Al Jazeera
Portrait of William Cuffay on Age of Revolution
Poster advertising the Chartists’ Demonstration on Kennington Common, 1848 on Age of Revolution
The Story of William Cuffay, Black Chartist on LibCom.org
‘We mustn’t forget our black labour movement heroes’ on The Voice
William Cuffay on National Portrait Gallery
William Cuffay on Spartacus Educational
William Cuffay (1788 – 1870) on BBC
WILLIAM CUFFAY AND THE STORY OF THE BLACK CHARTISTS by SHAHEEN SUTTON, Wales Arts Review