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A tradition of struggle in Britain

AFRICANS were present in Britain before the ancestors of the English, but this fact is probably only mentioned during Black History Month, and sometimes not even then. African and Caribbean people seldom feature in the versions of British history that most are familiar with. For example, while many know something of the life and work of Florence Nightingale far fewer know of the work of her Jamaican contemporary Mary Seacole (c.1805-81). This "ethnic cleansing" of British history, as it is sometimes described, clearly contributes to the confusion over what it means to be British as well as providing a justification for the continuing marginalisation of the African and Caribbean communities.

Reclaiming our history

Therefore reclaiming this history, in order to combat the distortions and omissions of the past, and in order to understand present realities should be of concern to all. The fact is that African and Caribbean people have played a significant role in Britain's history for centuries, and as we celebrate Black History Month it is timely to reflect on what lessons can be learned from this long history. Perhaps one fact of history that should not be forgotten is that African and Caribbean people have been at the forefront of many of the major political struggles in Britain during the last three centuries.

Britain's colonial past provides the major explanation for the presence of African and Caribbean communities in Britain since the late sixteenth century.

Sons of Africa

In the eighteenth century, as Britain emerged as the world's leading slave trading power, thousands of African and Caribbean people were brought to Britain, many of them as slaves. However, those slaves soon found ways to liberate themselves, often with the assistance of their supporters amongst the working people of Britain. These acts of self-liberation certainly contributed to the growing abolitionist movement, which was to become one of the largest movements in Britain's history, involving millions of people. In order to play their own role in this important movement, Africans in London in the eighteen century formed their own abolitionist organisation - known as the Sons of Africa.

The most farsighted, such as the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, also joined the revolutionary organisations of the workers, recognising that in order to guarantee their own rights they must all defend the rights of all.

The centuries since Equiano's day have witnessed many other struggles for rights in Britain, in which people of African and Caribbean origin have played a leading role. On many occasions those from the African and Caribbean communities have formed their own organisations, to fight against colonialism and racism for example, as those who developed the Pan-African movement did in the twentieth century. Yet here too the tradition was developed not just of fighting for the rights of the individual communities but fighting for the rights of all both here in Britain and internationally.

Others recognised the need to be at the forefront of the major struggles for the rights of the majority in Britain and joined the fighting organisations of the workers. In this edition of Progress we would like to present some information about one of these historical figures, the Chartist leader William Cuffay.

William Cuffay

William Cuffay was born in Chatham, Kent in 1788. He was the grandson of an African slave, and his father, who came from St Kitts in the Caribbean, had also been born into slavery, although he arrived in Britain as a free man.

Cuffay became a tailor but was sacked from the position he had held for many years when he participated in a strike. It is said to be this experience which drew him into politics. In 1839 he joined the Chartist movement, the first national political organisation of the workers in Britain.

The Chartists were so called because of their support for a Peoples' Charter that demanded universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs, abolition of the property qualification for those standing as parliamentary candidates and equal electoral districts.

Reynolds's Political Instructor, 13 April 1850
Cuffay soon became one of the leaders of the Chartists in London, helping to set up the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association - about 80 joined on the first night - in the autumn of 1839. As a result, he lost his job, and joined the movement in support of the People's Charter drawn up by the cabinet maker William Lovett. In 1841 the Westminster Chartists sent him as a delegate to represent them on the Metropolitan Delegate Council and in 1842 he was, for a time president of the Council. In February 1842 he chaired a "Great Public Meeting of the Tailors", at which a national petition to the Commons was adopted.

Later that same year, the Metropolitan Delegate Council responded to the arrest of George Julian Harney and other national leaders by appointing Cuffay as president and three others to serve as an interim executive. He was subsequently a leading member of many Chartist committees and in 1848 was one of three London delegates to the Chartists' national convention. He became so well known for his political activities that The Times contemptuously referred to the London Chartists as 'the Black man and his Party'. As a result of this press campaign his wife Mary Ann was also sacked from her job as a charwoman.

In 1846, Cuffay was one of three delegates from London to the Birmingham Land Conference, and he and another tailor, James Knight, were appointed auditors to the National Land Company, which soon had 600 branches all over the country. In the same year Cuffay served as one of the National Anti-Militia Associations directors and was a member of the Democratic Committee for Poland's regeneration of which Ernest Jones, friend of Marx and Engels, was president.

Cuffay was arrested on the evidence of informers. Still defiant, he pleaded not guilty to the charges of 'levying war against the queen', and denounced both the government and those who tried him, while championing the struggle for the rights of working people
For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in Western Europe, 1848 was "the year of decision." He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists' national convention that met in April of that year, and was one of the leaders of a committee responsible for planning a mass uprising in London after the Chartist petition was rejected by Parliament. The committee was infiltrated by police spies and Cuffay was arrested on the evidence of informers.

Still defiant, he pleaded not guilty to the charges of "levying war against the queen", and denounced both the government and those who tried him, while championing the struggle for the rights of working people. Cuffay was found guilty and transported to Tasmania for life.

Cuffay continued his radical activities; he was successful in the agitation for the amendment of the's Master and Servant Act. He was described as a "fluent and effective speaker" who was always popular with the working classes. He received a pardon in 1856, and continued to campaign for the rights of working men. In October 1869, he was admitted to the Tasmania workhouse, in whose sick ward he died in July 1870.

With files from Progress, No. 19, October 2002

African and Caribbean Progressive Study Group, London
Website: http://www.acprogress.org/

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