Friday, 30 July 2010

Remembering William Cuffay, Black Chartist Leader

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,
Now make my bed, and all the sweets enjoy

So said William Cuffay, Britain's black Chartist revolutionary leader, in a speech attacking the aristocracy illustrating his ability to inject humour into his speeches.

While this was not used in it, congratulations to Bill Morris and the producer for an excellent programme about Cuffay broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28 July. Also to the contributions of leading Chartist historian Malcolm Chase, Jan Morris of National Portrait Gallery and Keith Flett, a leading member of the London Socialist Historians Group.

Cuffay was mentioned in the Jeremy Irons' Who Do You Think You Are? TV programme, which Malcolm took part in. Iron's ancestor Thomas and Cuffay's portraits were sketched by fellow Chartist prisoner William Dowling while they were in Newgate; the Irons one still in the family's possession, Cuffay's at the National Portrait Gallery.

Cuffay was the subject of a play by the Irish playwright Sam Dowling performed at the Space Art Centre in London ending on 31 October last year.

Bruce Aubrey's pamphlet William Cuffay: Medway’s Black Chartist, 22 pages £3, including p&p, is still available from Brian Joyce:

The reprint of Peter Fryer's text about him in his book Staying Power can be seen on

On 31 October last year I spoke about Cuffay on behalf of Black & Asian Studies Association (BASA) at the Feargus O'Connor Memorial event at Kensal Green Cemetery. The text can be seen on the BASA website: I suggested that there were three things of particular contemporary significance about the Charter, O'Connor and Cuffay.

Firstly, the authorities were prepared to attack their own citizens if the Kennington Common demonstrators had attempted to cross the Thames. That is precisely what the police and the army did on Bloody Sunday in 1887. The policing of the G20 demonstration the previous April showed that the need for vigilance to protect our democratic right to demonstrate is on-going.

Secondly, sometime ago I suggested that we had entered into a period of New Corruption with some features similar to the Old Corruption of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. The demands of the Charter that have been implemented have clearly not been sufficient to prevent the new corrupt abuses, of which the MPs expenses scandal was a visible manifestation. As a columnist had argued in The Guardian it is time to revive the debate about the last of the Chartist demands - annual Parliaments to ensure accountability.

Thirdly, as a figure at the centre of the fight for British democracy, Cuffay is a reminder of how wrong the BNP is.


  1. Great Post Sean! Time for Cuffay to be memorialized with a plaque methinks.

  2. Hi Sean, I can't find your article on the BASA website. I'm writing a play about Cuffay and would love to see it!