Wednesday, July 28, 2010

William Cuffay - "Britain's Black Revolutionary"

While driving to a meeting with HR today I listened on Radio 4 to former T&G General Secretary (now Lord) Bill Morris describe the extraordinary life of Chartist Movement leader William Cuffay. Bill explained that as the first GS of a major trade union he is often described as the “First black leader of the Labour movement”.

Yet over 160 years ago William Cuffay (another Bill) who was the son of slaves (and also physically disabled) was a leading trade union and national political activist.

But Cuffay is now as Bill explained almost “entirely forgotten” yet at the time of the Great Chartist petition of 1848 he was one of their foremost organisers and orators. After the (relative) failure of the “moral force” Chartists in 1848 Cuffay became disillusioned with such protest and became involved in a “physical force” plot to overthrow the government. He was betrayed, arrested and transported to Tasmania. He was later pardoned but chose to remain in the colony and died there still fighting for social justice aged 82.

The early 19th century chartist campaign was described in the programme as the British civil rights movement. There was immense opposition and repression towards the Chartists at the time by the rich and the powerful. Nowadays nearly all their demands for Parliamentary reform are now fully accepted as being the democratic norm.

This is a great story and you can listen to it here again for the next 7 days on BBC IPlayer. Picture is of William in jail before he was transported which was probably used to make prints and raise funds for his wife to later join him in Tasmania.

This picture (left) of the mass meeting of Chartists on Kennington Common in 1848 which I think is the first ever photo of a political protest meeting?


Anonymous said...

Don't you think there's a certain irony about this - for Bill Morris, and even more for you - since Cuffay was a far-left revolutionary of the kind you regularly denounce on this blog?

Sacha Ismail

John Gray said...

Hi Sacha

Not really, history is full of irony. Bill Morris can look after himself well enough but it would seem that you did not listen to the programme? Anyway - it would appear you "don't get it" - the conditions of working people today is nothing like whatsoever that of the 1840's. While the ironic thing about the Chartists is that eventually they did achieve nearly everything they fought for but failed to get at the time.

This was eventually won via largely peaceful democratic reformist means - not by the self indulgent toy town ultra left revolutionaries I happen to mention from time to time.

IMO :)