William Cuffay - A Chartist Hero

Federal Government Senate Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania—Deputy Government Whip in the Senate)

For those of you who may not be as acquainted with the early history of the labour movement in Australia and the United Kingdom, I want to share with you tonight a few words about a Chartist hero from my home state of Tasmania, William Cuffay. Before I talk about William Cuffay, however, I want to take a few moments to reflect on Chartism—a movement which has underpinned Australia's social and political development, representing the key milestones of our democracy.

Chartism characterised the movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century, between 1838 and 1850. The name Chartism is derived from the People's Charter of 1838. The charter represented a codification of basic demands of the working class for democratic political reform of the Westminster system. The six principles enshrined in the people's charter are those which have arguably underpinned Australia's representative democracy. Those principles were universal manhood suffrage, the ballot, equal electoral districts, annual elections, payment of MPs and the abolition of the property qualification for parliamentary candidates.

The Chartists, in line with these principles, fought to extend and expand the rights of citizenship and the development of a healthy democratic system in which all citizens could play a role. Chartism subsequently emerged as one of the first mass working class labour movements in the world. Whilst Chartists were largely unsuccessful at convincing parliament to reform the voting system of the mid-19th century, the movement mobilised the working class and gave them a platform in politics that gave way to future suffrage movements. Chartism was a powerful assertion of the rights of working people, fostering a long-term self-confidence and self-reliance within a more inclusive and democratic society.

In 1839 the first Chartists were transported from the UK, mostly to Van Diemen's Land, now my home state of Tasmania. Once in Australia, some of the London Chartists moved to Victoria, later forming the Ballarat Chartists and building the movement which ultimately led to the Eureka Stockade in 1854. William Cuffay, a Chartist celebrity, often started with the catchphrase, 'I'm old, I'm poor, I'm out of work, I'm in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.' This was just one of William Cuffay's most notorious catchphrases as we remember his mark on the social and political history of Tasmania and on the labour movement in Australia. Cuffay was the only 'black' Chartist leader, the son of a West Indian slave born in Chatham in the UK in 1788. He first worked as a tailor in England and became active in the Chartist movement when he attended the great tailors' strike of 1834.

A physical force member of the Chartists, after the tailors' strike, Cuffay and other union members formed the Metropolitan Tailors' Charter Association. Cuffay was then was elected to the metropolitan delegate council of which he became chair, moving on to become a leading London Chartist organiser. Cuffay's involvement in the Chartist movement peaked as an organiser at the 12 April 1848 Chartist's national convention. He was subsequently arrested in August 1848 for his part in the Orange Tree conspiracy—the attempt to overthrow the UK government and establish a republic. Cuffay's crime was described as 'seditious convening of a public meeting and speaking at the same time' and his activities were reported in the Australian press in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Argus, the Maitland Mercury, the Morton Bay Courier, the Hobart Town Courier and the Perth Gazette well before he was even transported. Sentenced to transportation for life to Van Diemen's Land, Cuffay arrived in Tasmania on 29 November 1849. Significantly, Cuffay was the only convict on the ship Adelaide to arrive in Van Diemen's Land that was named in at least five newspapers.

Only one year after arriving in the colony, Cuffay began to leave his mark on the labour movement and Tasmanian politics. On 28 February 1851, he was reported in the Colonial Times as being involved in a public meeting of the free trades union; calling for an end to the transportation and use of convict labour for public works. It became evident that Cuffay was instrumental in mobilising a proportion of organised workers in Tasmania, many of whom were ex-convicts or related to convicts and who would go on to play a huge role in the anti-transportation movement.

In 1854, the same year as William Cuffay received a conditional pardon, the Tasmanian Legislative Council began to debate the Master and Servant Act. It is widely accepted that those master and servant laws first introduced in early colonial Australian perpetuated a class bias and Cuffay, through his experience with the legislation in the UK, was determined to fight for the rights of the workers in Tasmania. The proposed Master and Servant Act meant that all breaches of work contracts would result in criminal offences attracting severe penalties. What is more, the legislation was inherently biased in favour of the 'masters', or employers. Needless to say, given the moves to entrench such legislation in Tasmania, workers organisations began to mobilise. Significantly, Tasmanian workers assisted by and in part led by Cuffay fought for the Master and Servant Act to be abolished or at the least amended to provide more rights for the worker. On the 31 August 1854 Cuffay sent a letter to the Hobart Town Courier condemning the legislation as not suitable for an 'enlightened' 19th century and praising Tasmanian workers for standing up for their rights.

Despite his political activism whilst on a leave ticket, William Cuffay was still awarded a free pardon, restoring his full civil rights in 1857. His full pardon was actually queried in the Hobart Town Courier in February 1857. Whilst the paper proposed that the parliament should enquire about Cuffay's status, his remained officially 'free'.

Upon reaching his early 70s, Cuffay's transition from convict to full citizen to honoured and celebrated political activist was almost complete. His activist efforts were reported in the papers on the mainland, with the Sydney Morning Herald in July 1857 publishing a report about Cuffay's public appearances and speeches at so-called monster meetings. In 1858 Cuffay gave a speech at a public meeting calling for a petition to submit to the parliament regarding the 'exorbitant expenditure entailed upon the colony'. There were some 1,000 to 1,500 people reported in attendance at that meeting.

Cuffay was scathing of elected representatives who failed to carry out pledges to supporters. He said that elected representatives should be accountable to the electors, echoing an important Chartist principle. He was also actively involved in endorsing electoral candidates running for the local council and the Tasmanian parliament. What we can garner from Cuffay's career is that he was successful activist in Tasmania. We also have several reports that he was known for his ability to entertain not just as a speaker at meetings but through his role as a comic singer. The way in which Cuffay was remembered by his peers has been reflected in his three published obituaries and the various newspaper records from papers in Tasmania, mainland Australia and the UK.

Despite his critics, mainly from the 'master' class, Cuffay was generally regarded as a Chartist hero and celebrity. The passionate advocacy he displayed for workers' rights and for participatory democracy was evident in the way he was able to mobilise workers in Britain and then in Tasmania. Remarkably, William Cuffay was still politically active at 81 years of age, speaking at election meetings in June in 1869. His wife, Mary Anne Cuffay, died in Hobart in 1869 and William Cuffay died in Hobart on 29 July 1870 in the Brickfields asylum. The obituary in the Mercury said William Cuffay had:

... particularly distinguished himself in the agitation for the amendment of the Masters' and Servants' law of the colony, and being a fluent and effective speaker, he was always popular with the working classes. He took a prominent part on election matters, always strongly advocating for the individual rights of working men.

The Maitland Mercury described William Cuffay's death as the 'Death of a Chartist Celebrity'.

Partially due to William Cuffay's early efforts, built upon by those who continued in the labour movement, the Master and Servant Act is now a part of our colonial past and not a feature of our present workplace relations system. Ironically, the Master and Servant Act in Tasmania was only fully repealed in 1976.

As for William Cuffay, some in Australia, including a number of historians and union activists, have called for a suitable memorial to properly commemorate Cuffay's contribution to civil and workers' rights. William Cuffay was well remembered in the UK some 21 years after he landed in Van Diemen's Land. I hope that his memory continues to be celebrated in Tasmania and it is my great pleasure to remember and acknowledge his contributions this evening.