Cuffay was mixed-race, he was born on a merchant ship in the West Indies in 1788, the son of a naval cook and former slave from St Kitts. His family later settled in Old Brompton, an area of the Medway Towns that is now in Gillingham, Cuffay was apprenticed to a tailor, and later worked for Matthews and Acworth, on Chatham High Street. He was of short stature, being 4 ft 11 in (1.50 m) tall.
Cuffay, was a leading figure in the Chartist movement, the first mass popular political movement in Britain. He was transported to Australia for allegedly planning an uprising against the British government.
Cuffay became a journeyman tailor but lost his job when the new tailors’ union went on strike in 1834.
Furious at the way he had been treated and convinced that workers needed to be represented in parliament, he became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage. In 1839, he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and soon became an important figure in the Chartist movement in London. He was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association in 1842 and later that year voted president of the London Chartists. Cuffay’s significance is illustrated by a contemporary report in The Times which referred to ‘the black man and his party’.
During 1848 Cuffay was one of three London delegates at the National Chartists Convention and was considered one of its most militant leaders. The main task of the convention was to organise a march to London to present a Chartist petition to the House of Commons. Cuffay was disgusted when the march was called off at the last minute.
In the summer of 1848 Cuffay became involved in a conspiracy to lead an armed uprising against the government. Based on the evidence of a government spy, Cuffay was arrested and convicted for preparing to set fire to certain buildings as a signal for an uprising. He was sentenced to be transported to Tasmania for 21 years.
Three years later all political prisoners in Tasmania were pardoned but Cuffay decided to remain, carrying on his trade as a tailor and again becoming involved in radical politics and trade union issues. He played an important role in persuading the authorities to amend the Master and Servant Law in the colony, before dying in poverty in July 1870.
Southwark Council have named a new block in Camberwell in his honour.