African-English-Australian labour activist William Cuffay

William Cuffay, by William Paul Dowling

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Tale of a Chartist legend

Tuesday 31 May 2011

by Mark Gregory

In the spring of 1870 the Hobart Mercury reported that a marked pauper’s grave in the Trinity burial ground in Hobart held the remains of a convict who had just died in poverty, aged 82.

That convict was William Cuffay, the black tailor and Chartist leader, born in Chatham in 1788 – the year that the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay bearing the first consignment of prisoners to that distant shore.

That Cuffay‘s grave was marked was unusual for a pauper, but then he was a most unusual person – a man who, from the time of his arrival in the colony in 1849, played a role in Tasmania‘s political life. By the time he died a number of basic democratic reforms that he had been promoting for half a century had been achieved in much of Australia.

Over 50 newspaper articles are available online that mention him by name. Sixteen of them are reprints from the British press covering events such as the Kennington Common meeting of Chartists in 1848 and the trial and sentencing of Chartists for treason later that year.

Cuffay’s activities and his name had been well publicised to readers of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Argus, the Maitland Mercury, the Morton Bay Courier, the Hobart Town Courier and the Perth Gazette even before he was transported.

When Cuffay landed in Van Diemen’s Land on November 29 1849, his arrival was reported in five newspapers. Of all the convicts on the transport ship Adelaide, only Cuffay was mentioned by name in all five newspapers. The official convict report book includes the information that Cuffay had been transported for “sedition, convening a public meeting and speaking at the time.”

Cuffay quickly managed to continue his political activity and begin exercising leadership in Van Diemen’s Land. On February 28 1851, after only a year in the colony, the Colonial Times reported his involvement in a “public meeting of the free trades union,” called to end transportation and the use of convict labour for public works.

After some preliminary arrangements had been made, Mr Cuffay was unanimously called to the chair, and opened the meeting with a brief address, developing the principal objects of the meeting.

Here it was revealed that ticket-of-leave man Cuffay, a convict and political prisoner transported for life and only 15 months into his sentence, was already a respected and trusted member of the Hobart labour movement.

The report also showed that organised workers in Tasmania, a large proportion of whom were ex-convicts or were related to convicts, played an important role in the anti-transportation movement.

One of the Chartists who was sentenced and transported with Cuffay was William Paul Dowling. He was to become a successful Tasmanian portrait painter and photographer.

He and Cuffay were imprisoned together in Newgate Jail while waiting to be transported. In Newgate, Dowling drew a portrait of Cuffay that the Chartists later published as a lithograph and a copy of which is today in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In 1854 political debate in the Tasmanian Legislative Council focused on the Master and Servant Act.

Workers’ organisations were particularly wary of the proposed version of this legislation and its onerous punishments that included imprisonment.

Most Tasmanian workers were ex-convicts and they understood that this law, coming at the end of transportation, was an attempt to give employers the same powers that they had previously wielded over convicts.

Tasmanian workers lobbied hard for it to be abolished or at least amended so it was less biased in the employers’ favour, referring to it ironically as “the masters’ act” seeing nothing in it for the servant.

A well-organised campaign of public meetings and petitions resulted in a much-amended Master and Servant Act, watering down the powers of employers over workers.

At the end of December in 1857, an anonymous Tasmanian employer expressed his concerns about this less draconian legislation in a letter published in the Hobart Mercury.

“The Act abandons imprisonment and supplies no check in its place; but it is said, that imprisonment is of no use to those to whom it is no degradation; but it involves loss of time, and therefore loss of money, and the shearer or reaper will not like to make himself liable to a month’s loss of either shearing or harvest … That I am not a bad master may be inferred from the facts that I have only twice (during 14 years that I have been an employer of labour in this country) brought my servants to the police office. But why! Because they knew there was a law in force which would punish them if I saw occasion to avail myself of it … will the house pass a measure that will make the masters still greater slaves?”

Cuffay received a conditional pardon in 1854 and a free pardon, restoring full civil rights, in 1857. He continued to work as a tailor in Hobart where he and his wife, who had joined him in 1853, had decided to stay. Cuffay remained politically active and involved in the working-class campaigns.

Some newspapers in Tasmania began to attack Cuffay and his political activities. The Courier of March 21 1857 carried an article titled “The reopening of the Albert Theatre.”

“After a long recess this popular place of amusement is to be reopened on Monday next, under the management of Mr William Cuffay, the recent Chartist agitator of Kennington Common notoriety … The opening piece, which from a casual glance at the bill seems to be an adaptation from [a] play of the third year of the French revolution, viz, The Press Chained and Muzzled by the People.”

There was a battle going on between various political factions in the Tasmanian Parliament and newspaper proprietors were ensuring that their preferences were known.

It was not a time for polite exchange. The Courier campaign continued with a report on the behaviour of onlookers in the Parliament.

“The miscellaneous assemblage in the gallery, comprehending principally such descriptions of persons as meet under the chairmanship of Mr Cuffy – forgetting where they were during some excited but excusable remarks of the Premier’s son – are guilty (to quote the Cabinet organ) of “loud clapping of hands, kicking of feet, and thumping of sticks.” A proceeding so derogatory to the character of the assembly, so fatal if permitted to all independence in its proceedings, evokes the interference of the speaker, and under his orders the sergeant-at-arms proceeds to clear the gallery.”

At least two of Cuffay’s speeches at Tasmanian meetings were recorded at some length and published in Tasmanian newspapers. One is of Cuffay speaking at a meeting called to discuss a petition for submission to Parliament regarding “exorbitant expenditure entailed upon the colony.”

The meeting of “between 1,000 and 1,500 persons” was reported in the Courier in September 1858.

“Mr Cuffay: Fellow citizens and brother working slaves (laughter). I’m determined that shall not be forgotten.”

Cuffay’s opening address was as well known to his Tasmanian audience as it had been to his Chartist audiences in England, hence the amused reception.

Undoubtedly for Cuffay, the son of a slave, the phrase was invested with personal meaning. Rhetorical use of “brother working slaves” at such a meeting was deliberately inclusive.

Newspaper reports reveal his vernacular style, the in-jokes, the liveliness and the asides showing an accomplished storyteller in action among his equals.

Here he is, a speaker at a public meeting, being cheered and jeered, dealing with hecklers and instructions from the chair. The local newspapers are drawn to Cuffay, recording his arguments and placing them before their readers.

Cuffay remained politically active at 81 years of age, as this extract from a Hobart election meeting held in June 1869 in the hall of the Mechanics Institute shows.

“Mr Cuffay in some brief remarks, and amid occasional interruptions, moved that Mr Cook was a fit and proper person to represent Hobart town in the House of Assembly. He maintained that that gentleman ever since he (the speaker) had known him, had been a true friend to the working classes.”

William Cuffay died in Hobart on July 29 1870. Three obituaries were published, one in Tasmania, one in New South Wales and one in Victoria. They show there was still interest in him a quarter of a century after his name had first been reported in the Australian press. In Tasmania the Hobart Mercury published a lengthy obituary under the heading “Death of a celebrity.”

“At a meeting of the board of management of the Brickfields Invalid Depot yesterday, four deaths were reported as having taken place since the previous meeting.

One was the death of William Cuffay, aged 82, who had been an inmate since last October … He particularly distinguished himself in the agitation for the amendment of the Masters’ and Servants’ law of the colony, and being a fluent and an effective speaker, he was always popular with the working classes … Deceased took a prominent part in election matters, and always went in strongly for the individual rights of working men. One of his last appearances on the platform was on the occasion of the meeting at the Theatre Royal … when he urged his right to complain by such characteristic expressions as “fellow-slaves” and “I’m old, I’m poor, I’m out of work, and I’m in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.” His remains were interred in the Trinity burying-ground and by special desire his grave has been marked, in case friendly sympathisers should hereafter desire to place a memorial stone on the spot.”

In the New South Wales regional newspaper the Maitland Mercury his obituary, “Death of a Chartist celebrity,” ended with the statement: “During his better days his company was much sought by his fellow labourers, as he was witty and full of anecdote.”

In Australia now a number of historians and union activists are starting to push for a suitable memorial to properly commemorate this remarkable working-class leader who campaigned so strongly for civil and workers’ rights in Britain and Tasmania.

This is an edited version of an article published by the Tasmanian Historical Research Association. The full article can be downloaded from

Australia: A 500-year-old Portuguese gun has been found on an NT beach, and may suggest Europeans arrived earlier than thought: here.

Luddism: here.

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