William Cuffay was born in 1788 either on board a ship or possibly in Chatham, Kent. His father was a former slave from St Kitts, while little is known of his mother. The family settled in the dockyard town of Chatham, Kent, his father now working as cook in the Royal Navy. It has been suggested that his surname is an Anglicisation of Kofi, a name given to male children born on Friday.
He became a journeyman tailor but lost his post in 1834 after a tailors strike. In 1839 he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association and soon became an important figure in the Chartist movement in London. William was elected to the Executive of the National Charter Association in 1842 and later that year was voted president of the London Chartists. His significance in the movement is illustrated by a contemporary report in The Times which referred to "the black man and his party".
During 1848 William was one of three London delegates at the National Chartists Convention and was considered one of its most militant leaders. The main task of the convention was to organise a march to present a Chartists' petition to the House of Commons. He was disgusted when the march was called off at the last minute, but remained involved.
He was arrested at home on 18 August 1848 for treason and felony and after a trial, whose outcome was never in doubt, was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life.
After the verdict of his trial, he made a lengthy speech, part of which is reproduced here.
"My lords, I say that you ought not to sentence me, first, because although this has been an important and long trial, it has not been a fair trial, and my request was not complied with to have a jury of my equals. But the jury as it is I have no faults to find with; I daresay that they have acted conscientiously.
The next reason that I ought not to be sentenced is on account of the great prejudice that has been raised against me in particular, for months past. Everyone that hears me is convinced that almost the whole press of this country, and even other countries, has been raising a prejudice against me. I have been taunted by the press, and it has tried to smother me with ridicule, and it has done everything in its power to crush me. I crave no pity. I ask no mercy...
...The press has strongly excited the middle class against me; therefore I did not expect anything else except the verdict of guilty, right or wrong; and instead of my being pitied I pity the Attorney General and the government that they could descend to such means to raise a conspiracy against me by infamous and base characters.
I should have said "The Spymaster General" for that is the fact. The present government is now supported by a regular organised system of espionage, which is a disgrace to this great and boasted free country. The locality to which I belong never approved of any violence of this sort and never sent any delegates to any such meetings, and that you will find proved in the trials of my fellow prisoners who have not yet been tried. They sent no delegates, and consequently there were no luminaries nor fire-brands sent to Orange Street from that locality. That is another reason why I should not be sentenced: that will be hereafter proved.
Then I have to complain of the Whig manoeuvres of keeping the spy Davis; back to the last moment after he had had an opportunity of reading the evidence in the newspaper and seeing what was deposed to, and then coming here with a statement written out by the inspectors of police against me and filling up all the discrepancies in the evidence of the principal spy, that miscreant with so many aliases, Powell being his proper name it seems. He had never proved I was a delegate. He had never proved that I was elected on to the Ulterior Committee, and he did not state that I went out on Tuesday evening with the Ulterior Committee and proposed the place and scheme of the intended outbreak.
But then comes Davis, after he had had an opportunity of reading in the papers the evidence that Powell had given, to say the time I was elected, as he states, secretary. He states I went out with the Ulterior Committee and returned with them. All this I deny. It is most gross, perilous and degrading to any Governmnet to resort to such means, and if my letters had been read, it would have provded that my life has been threatened many months ago and that would easily account for my having a small pocket-pistol at home loaded..."
He was sent to Tasmania. In 1853 his wife Mary joined him, her passage paid for by Chartist subscriptions. After he was granted parole he took up employment as a tailor once more. In 1856 political prisoners were pardoned by the government but the Cuffays decided to stay where they were. William played a role in local politics in Tasmania and died in 1870
Sources about William Cuffay and Chartism in our collection
The library has unique primary resources on Chartism and also many secondary sources. These can be searched using the catalogue. The following concern William Cuffay.
Chartism: A New History by Malcolm Chase (2007). This has a chapter on William Cuffay
The Story of Willam Cuffay, Past Tense pamphlet (2005)
Reports of State Trials, volume VII, 1848 to 1850, edited by John Wallis (1896)