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News & Views

Celebrating Black Lives: William Cuffay

Updated: Jul 27

As part of Rosslyn Hill's 'Celebrating Black Lives' series, we commemorate William Cuffay, a well-known Black Chartist and advocate for universal male suffrage in 19th century Britain.


Born in 1788 to Chatham Cuffay, a formerly enslaved man from the Caribbean, and Juliana Fox, a local woman of Chatham, William was brought up in Kent.


After apprenticing with a local tailor until the age of 19, William embarked for London to continue his career. Despite having formerly been firmly against trade unions, his decision to join the new tailors' union in a general strike against the poor working conditions and wages of tailors in 1834 resulted in him losing his job and being blacklisted.


Anger over his mistreatment led Cuffay to join the Chartist movement in order to campaign for universal male suffrage. He therefore joined the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association in 1839 and was elected as president of the London Chartists in 1842. Cuffay's prominence in the movement was demonstrated by The Times' dismissal of the London militants as "the black man and his party".


Cuffay was eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to be transported to Tasmania, Australia for 21 years in 1848 under the charge that he intended to "levy war against Her Sovereign Lady the Queen". Although he was pardoned three years later, Cuffay decided to stay in Australia, where he worked as a tailor and continued to participate in local politics. The Chartist movement failed by the early 1850s and William Cuffay died a pauper's death in a Tasmanian workhouse in July 1870. However, the long fight for universal male suffrage was eventually rewarded in 1918, followed by universal female suffrage in 1928. These historic victories were founded on the struggles of the previous century.


Each month we mark the significant life of a person of colour as a positive statement and a contribution to redressing historical imbalances in our society. More profiles.


Illustration: © National Portrait Gallery, London. William Cuffay, after William Paul Dowling, lithograph,1848. 12 1/8 in. x 8 1/2 in. (308 mm x 215 mm) paper size. Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Pilgrim Trust, 1966. NPG D13148.