William Cuffay might be a name lost to history, but the concessions he won speak volumes. A great social reformer in two countries, he was not bound to the circumstances of his birth.
Last year, I presented ten Australian mavericks; people who had the guts to say ‘no’ when that was required. Most of them paid for that courage, but we as a society are better off because they did what they did. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and that starts by remembering who they are. In the next months, you will meet another ten of those special people. Some are still alive, some have been dead many decades or even centuries, but all of them remain in our national DNA, and that is something to be very pleased about.
The first in our pantheon of heroes, Australian maverick number eleven is William Cuffay. You have probably never heard of him, and in a way that is strange, because Cuffay was a celebrity when he was alive. Partly that was because of his appearance.
William Cuffay was born in 1788 in Chatham, the UK, the son of a white woman and a recently freed slave from the island of St. Kitts. His grandfather had been stolen from Africa and sold to a man called Sir John Hawkins, who lived in England, but owned enormous sugar plantations on St. Kitts. Those plantations were worked by slaves and made Hawkins so much money that he had his family crest changed to reflect the origins of all his wealth. At the time, St. Kitts was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Vast fortunes were made until slavery ended in 1833. Even then, the slave owners were lavishly compensated by the British Parliament, while the slaves were left to fend for themselves.
William’s father was born in St. Kitts but became a cook on a British warship, which is how he ended up in Britain around 1775. History doesn’t tell us how he won his freedom, but it is likely that he bought it, saving up the money he earned on board. He wasn’t the only black sailor in the British port of Chatham. Escaped and former slaves, as well as free black men, congregated in London, where they could find a job as servants or workers at the naval dockyard. They were often highly politicized because of what they had gone through, and from the early 1700s, they were at the forefront of strikes and other attempts to aid the cause of the working class. There were good reasons to protest, because living conditions were horrendous. So horrendous, in fact, that somebody like Charles Dickens, who also grew up in Chatham, had enough material to write a lifetime of books about it.
Cuffay thought it was time to end another kind of slavery, that of working class people, who worked hard, made almost no money, lived in hovels, were at the mercy of the plague and other diseases and, worst of all, had no power to change those circumstances.
In the 1810s and 1820s, William was working as a tailor and losing family members at a great rate of knots. First, his father died, followed by his first wife. A few years later, his second wife passed away and so did his baby daughter. William wasn’t a healthy man himself either. Because he had suffered from rickets when he was a child, he was only 1.5 meters tall, with a deformed spine and shinbones. That made his job as a tailor, which mostly consisted of sitting down for twelve or more hours a day, not easy. But in 1827, William’s life was made a little easier when he married Mary Ann Manvell, a straw-hat maker in London, where they soon moved to. Tailors and hat makers had been working in the capital for many centuries and had managed to organize themselves in unofficial trade unions. They had regular meetings, organised strikes and collected monies for colleagues in trouble. Cuffay took to it like a duck to water. Influenced by his family history of slavery, he was keen to change the circumstances of working class people. In 1834, he was one of 20,000 tailors coming out on strike in protest against a verdict that had seen six farm labourers, now called the Tolpuddle Martyrs, sentenced to transportation to Australia as punishment for setting up a trade union. The government and the employers responded immediately, threatening imprisonment and sacking around 4,000 tailors, Cuffay amongst them.
Four years later, the tailors and other working men decided that something needed to change. What they came up with was a movement called the Chartists. At the centre of it was a document called the People’s Charter, that advocated for manhood suffrage (voting rights), also for men without property, a secret ballot, annual elections and abolition of a property qualification for Members of Parliament, so everybody could be elected. From the first moment, William Cuffay was an enthusiastic member of the Chartists. And people loved him because he was a great orator, who livened up his speeches with songs, poetry and jokes and could make masses of people listen up and take notice. Cuffay was emboldened by the fact that a similar movement had managed to get slavery stopped, at least in the British Empire. Now, he thought, it was time to end another kind of slavery, that of working class people, who worked hard, made almost no money, lived in hovels, were at the mercy of the plague and other diseases and, worst of all, had no power to change those circumstances. Voting rights were the solution, Cuffay and his friends thought, and under the banner of Chartism, they started to press the government.
Because petitions had worked to end slavery, the first Chartist petition was presented to Parliament in 1839. It contained 1,280,959 signatures, was three miles long and weighed a third of a ton. Without a debate, the House of Commons voted against it. When the Chartists took to the street in protest, 25 were killed and the leaders sentenced to transportation to Australia for life. Cuffay decided that it was time to step up and became first a member of the Metropolitan Delegate Council and then the National Executive. A gutsy move, because Chartists everywhere were being sacked, imprisoned and transported. Others fled the country, something Cuffay rejected, urging them ‘not to desert their fatherland, but to stay in it, and make it worthy of them. If any must emigrate let it be the aristocracy’. Instead of leaving, Cuffay and his colleagues organised yet another petition, even bigger than the first. This one had 3,317,752 signatures on it, which meant that around a third of the adult population of the country had signed. But it suffered the same fate as the previous one. Again, there were protests, this time ending in thousands of Chartists in jail and 54 transported to Australia. Because a lot of his friends were now in jail, Cuffay was elected head of one of the largest protest movements Britain has ever known. Quite a feat for the grandson of an African slave.
In 1843, believing that land ownership would be a good start to redistribution of wealth, the Chartists came up with the Co-Operative Land Company. Workers could buy shares, the company would buy land and then cut it up in smaller lots, to be owned and worked by the shareholders. Cuffay was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of that scheme and he and Mary Anne, who was an active Chartist in her own right, helped to collect money to get it off the ground. Then 1848 happened. The year before, potato blight had infected the crops in Ireland, and because the British who governed the country kept exporting food regardless, a famine started that would kill millions of people in the coming years. This did not make the Irish happy, and people started talking about revolution. They were encouraged when a revolution in France saw the king abdicate and flee and uprisings followed in Germany, the Italian states, Denmark, Wallachia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. It was a People’s Spring, with over 50 countries in the grip of revolutionary fervour. That same year, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto, adding a theory to the anger. It seemed like the absolute power of monarchs and nobility were out, and more democracy was in.
It was a People’s Spring, with over 50 countries in the grip of revolutionary fervour. That same year, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto, adding a theory to the anger. It seemed like the absolute power of monarchs and nobility were out, and more democracy was in.
Cuffay and the Chartists upped the ante, organizing enormous marches, culminating in London. The government, in the mean time, was preparing for an insurrection. All that noise abroad had made it nervous and 100,000 soldiers, under the command of the 78-year old Duke of Wellington, were on high alert. William and Mary Anne had by this time been sacked for their political work, and the laws had been changed to allow prisoners to be detained indefinitely without trial. And that became an issue when Cuffay and ten other men were arrested after a tip-off by a government spy. The charge was ‘conspiring to levy war against the Queen’, and the expected punishment was death by hanging. Cuffay, by now 60 years old, was not in the least impressed. At his trial, he said that he felt he had ‘the fortitude to endure any punishment your lordship can inflict upon me. I know my cause is good, and I have a self-approving conscience that will bear me up against anything, even to the scaffold’.
But ‘your lordship’ decided that transportation would be a better idea than execution, which would have turned Cuffay and his friends into martyrs. So the year after, William Cuffay was put on the ship Adelaide in and transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Because he was a Chartist celebrity, all Australian and most other newspapers in the world noted his arrival and the government thought it a good idea to give him a ticket of leave straight away, so he was relatively free to go and practice his trade.
But Cuffay did not settle down quietly in his old age. His first focus was to help end the transportation as a punitive measure. That had already happened in most of the country, but in Tasmania, it needed a big of a push by people like Cuffay. In 1853, the last convict ship arrived, a few months after the Panama had brought Mary Anne to Hobart.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Aussie mavericks: Barbara Holborow – Australia’s “kids’ champion”
- Aussie mavericks: Geoff Mullen – The man who stood against conscription
- Aussie mavericks: Juanita Nielsen – The martyred heiress of justice
- Aussie mavericks: Vida Goldstein – Women and children first
Cuffay’s second political focus was the Master and Servant’s act, which made it possible for employers to have employees imprisoned if they left their job without permission. William and Mary Ann went head-long into the breach, writing articles in the papers, holding protest meetings and pressuring the powers-that-be. They were so active, that when William received a full pardon from the Queen in 1857, he decided to stay in the colony to help his ‘fellow slaves’ win their liberty. To Cuffay, there were few differences between slaves, convicts, and most working class people: none of them had their freedom, or the opportunity to change their circumstances by voting for different representation. Throughout his seventies and even into his eighties, William Cuffay remained politically active, addressing meetings, influencing the younger generations and writing inflammatory articles. In 1869, Mary Anne died, followed the next year by William himself. He was 82, and everywhere newspapers remembered him in obituaries. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser wrote that ‘he always supported the people’s side, and opposed everything that tended to cripple the rights of the people’.
Few people now remember this extraordinary man, who was a social reformer and activist in not one, but two countries. The Chartists were amongst the first mass movements of working people in the world, and most of their aims were realized because of men like Cuffay. Recently, a few Tasmanians have rediscovered Cuffay and are trying to collect money to give him the memorial he deserves. If you want to contribute, you can do that here: Whatever you do, remember William Cuffay, the grandson of a slave who became the leader of a movement.
Hats off, Mr. Cuffay!