Friday, 22 February 2013

William Cuffay - the life and times of a Chartist leader

There can be few working men who died in the Victorian workhouse, thousands of miles from the country of their birth, yet who merited newspaper obituaries. One such was William Cuffay, the descendent of slaves, working tailor, Chartist orator and victim of repressive laws which saw him imprisoned and transported at the age of 60 half way round the world.

More than 20 years passed between Cuffay’s arrest and incarceration in the wake of the Orange Tree conspiracy of 1848, in which he was implicated, and his death in Tasmania. But even in his 80s he had been politically active, and his obituary in the local press recorded the “Death of a Chartist celebrity”. The news was even picked up and reported in the provincial press back in England.

But Cuffay had been one of the more radical – if also articulate and often humorous – voices of Chartism, and the early historians of the movement had little time for such men, whose politics did not fit their early Fabian ideas of how radical change might be achieved in this country. After his death, Cuffay was swiftly forgotten.

Thanks to the more recent and coincidentally simultaneous growth of interest in black history and Chartism, the name of William Cuffay has become far more familiar in recent years than it was for more than a century after his death. His name is now regularly cited, both for his involvement in the Orange Tree plot and more iconically as a prominent black activist in an era of UK history generally if wrongly presumed to be exclusively white; but the full story of his life is rather less well known.

In his new book William Cuffay - The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader, Martin Hoyles has dug deep into the available records to tell us more about what sort of man Cuffay was and added to our understanding of his significance within the Chartist movement at the time.

My own great-great-great grandfather, James Grasby (also Grassby), was also an active London Chartist and must have known and worked with Cuffay over a number of years. I had known for some time that my ancestor was appointed by the Chartist executive in 1849 to raise money for Cuffay so that on his arrival in Tasmania he would not be destitute. I had not realised before reading this book that this was at Cuffay’s specific request as someone who “will do all he can for me” – which makes me rather proud.

Cuffay may not have changed the world, but his contribution to changing it certainly merits his promotion from a walk-on part in either Chartist or black history books to a starring role in this, the first full-length biography of the man.

Buy William Cuffay – The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader (Hansib, £9.99) from the History Bookstore.

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