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Son of Medway’s lessons for Ukip

Black Chartist born in the by-election town was the leader in a genuine democracy fight, writes Keith Flett

In October 2011 I spoke to an audience of around 100 people in Medway on a labour-history-related topic.

Considering that getting into double rather than treble figures for any meeting that touches on working-class history can be an achievement, the turnout was excellent.

I doubt it was my oratorical skills, such as they are, that packed them in. Rather it was my subject, the black Chartist William Cuffay, a local Medway radical in whom there is a lot of interest.

The biography of Cuffay makes interesting reading given that tomorrow in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the Ukip candidate Mark Reckless is predicted to do well and perhaps even take the seat - which until his defection in September he held as a Tory.

The life of Cuffay is now quite well known. Indeed his Wikipedia entry is tolerably accurate. Born in Chatham, his father was from St Kitts and a cook on a British navy ship. He was apprenticed as a tailor, moved to London around 1819 and by the 1830s he was an active trade unionist and Chartist.

Cuffay became a leading figure in London Chartism in the 1840s. He was tried and convicted for his part in a revolutionary conspiracy in August 1848. Transported to Australia, Cuffay remained politically active until his death in 1870, aged 82.

Cuffay left no papers and wrote no autobiography so what we can recover of his life comes from newspaper reports and a few official records.

Mark Gregory has done excellent work, reported in a Morning Star article, about Cuffay's activities in Tasmania and there is a new biography by Martin Hoyles that provides some interesting new perspectives, for example Cuffay's theatrical talents.

How can we make sense of Cuffay's life?

There are two key issues.

First, to see Cuffay in the context of the Black Atlantic, a concept developed by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book the Many Headed Hydra. The point is that there is an imperial link between the Americas, the Caribbean and Britain in the 19th century.

That link is slavery, slave ships and the British navy. In the 1790s around a quarter of the British navy was black.

Cuffay, the son of a black sailor on a British ship, was born in one of the central hubs of the British naval empire - Chatham.

He found his way to the very centre of that empire in London, where he organised as a Chartist to try to bring it down.

Frustrated by the repressive forces of the state in that endeavour, he found himself shipped to another part of the empire - Tasmania, where he continued to be active.

These are uncomfortable points indeed for a party like Ukip, with its highly distorted view of British democratic traditions, and not something Tories are likely to be much keener on.

The second point, something pointed out to me by Lord Bill Morris, is that Cuffay was the organiser of London Chartism, the man behind the great demonstration of April 10 1848.

Perhaps Cuffay's imperial background uniquely fitted him for that role. It may explain why he continued to be active into old age when others did not.

With a Medway by-election set to focus on immigration it is worth remembering Cuffay, a notable figure in British history, the son of a slave, born in Chatham because of the importance of British imperial power but someone who fought all his life for the rights of ordinary working people.

Empire and imperialism provide some of the framework for Medway today but not in the way Ukip would have it.

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