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The editing of history: the case of William Cuffay

If black lives matter then we should finally raise a statue to this giant of the Chartist movement and British black history too, writes KEITH FLETT

BORIS JOHNSON is rarely right. Yet when commenting on demands of some around the Black Lives Matters movement for statues of imperialists, slave traders and racists to be removed from prominent public positions, he tweeted that history could not be edited.

It was, probably accidentally, a rare good point from the Prime Minister. While socialists expect to see a general advance and progress in history, that doesn’t mean that a good deal of history has not represented anything like progress.

Johnson takes a view of British history in which Britain is an exceptional country, its institutions uniquely good and, a few unfortunate matters aside, a model for other countries.

H E Marshall’s Our Island Story, which summarises this particular view of history, has a problem and it is one that Johnson identified: it can only be told by a very serious editing of Britain’s actual history.

One victim of that editing has been all attempts to erect a memorial to one of the better-known figures in black British history, the Chartist William Cuffay.

I participated in a Radio 4 programme on Cuffay with Lord Bill Morris in 2010, when efforts were in hand to erect a plaque to Cuffay on a building in the Strand near to where he had lived in central London and pursued a second career as a stage performer.

Ten years on and no progress has been made on this at all. The owner of the building has resisted efforts to erect the plaque and authority has been uninterested in doing anything about it, including Boris Johnson who was Mayor of London until 2016

There have also been calls for a statue to be erected in Chatham where Cuffay was born, the son of a former slave and a local Kent woman. Given that 2020 is the 150th anniversary of Cuffay’s death in Tasmania, where he was transported for his alleged role in an 1848 attempted insurrection, one might think that this will now happen.

Boris Johnson has now spoken in favour of new statues of black and ethnic-minority figures. We shall see.

There is a wider point here. As I posted about the lack of a memorial to Cuffay on social media, I received many responses from people, supporters of Black Lives Matters, noting that they knew nothing of the Chartists’ history and that it had never been taught in school. Editing British history has long been the practice it would seem.

In 1848 The Times referred to Cuffay by reporting Chartism as “the black man and his party.” This might seem like an example of racism that would not be out of place in the Murdoch press today.

There was another purpose though. Cuffay was the representative of London at the Chartist National Assembly that met through April 1848 and he was consistently more militant than the national leadership.

The Northern Star records a number of his dissenting views. He didn’t think worrying about the precise number of names on the Chartist petition was worth it. It was very large and that was enough. He also didn’t think it was worth complaining about papers that misreported Chartism or petitioning the Queen on legislation. Rather he was for organising a confrontation with the government on the vote.

Cuffay worried authority. He was arrested, found guilty of participating in an abortive central London uprising in August 1848 and despatched to Australia. He was subsequently edited out of history. It’s time to put him back in it, centre stage. Black lives matter and black history matters too.

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