Chartism and the multi-ethnic proletariat


A short history on the influence of William Cuffay, a black tailor, and Irish Catholic workers in the Chartist movement and how the British ruling class used racism to divide an increasingly multi-ethnic working class.

It is surely no coincidence that it is amidst a series of catastrophic defeats in both the political and industrial spheres during the early 1830s that we begin to discern the emergence of a growing antagonism between the English and minority worker. The first of these defeats occurred when working men failed to secure the vote in the 1832 Reform Act as middle class and manufacturing interests switched sides and aligned themselves to the aristocracy to save Old Corruption. At first, 'working-class alienation was extreme' (Colley 1996: 363), leading to another cycle of protest and rebellion. In the industrial sphere, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) was established, whose aims were to

rationalise the structure of combinations, to achieve a general control of movements for an advance of wages, and to co-ordinate assistance for strikes, especially strikes against a reduction of wages. (Pelling 1987: 29)

The establishment of the GNCTU marked the climax of those attempts 'to use unionism as a vehicle for the transformation of society' (Pelling 1987: 29). Although it quickly accounted for 5()0,000 members (Pelling 1987: 29—30), the employers refused to retreat. When rural unrest amongst agricultural labourers began in the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset in 1834, Lord Melbourne, the then Home Secretary, chose to make an example of six labourers from the village by prosecuting them for taking unlawful oaths for seditious purposes. They were sentenced to seven-years imprisonment in Australia. Despite further opposition, the trade unions found themselves unable to resist employer and state repression. The outcome was the almost total collapse of trade unionism with only craft workers retaining some level of union organization (Hobsbawm 1990; Thompson 1991). This constituted the second catastrophic defeat for the English working class.

And it is in this moment of defeat, in both the political and industrial spheres, that anti-Irish sentiment appears to gain some traction within parts of the working class public. Accusations of such labour undercutting English workers, and, thereby putting a downward pressure on the wages of all workers emerged (McDermott 1979; Engels 1987). Thompson (1991: 480) describes how 'pitched battles with mortal casualties took place among railway navvies' of English and Irish descent. It was particular elements of the English working class, namely those that worked alongside Irish migrants in unskilled jobs in parts of the cotton industry (Nliles 1982), the railways and the building trade (McDermott 1979: 4—5; Thotnpson 1991) that became especially antagonistic towards the Irish worker. The roots of such working class opposition to the Irishman lay in the weak bargaining position such unskilled English labour found themselves in, which exacerbated concern about their employment prospects, especially during a period where their only means of collective defence -- trade unionism — had been prohibited.

Alongside this, the elites began to place a new emphasis on national integration and the manufacture of consent among a broader cross-section of the population, including elements of the middle and working class. Key here was the attempt to remake Britishness by developing

a far more consciously and officially constructed patriotism which stressed attachment to the monarchy, the importance of empire, the value of military and naval achievement, and the desirability of strong, stable government by a virtuous, able and authentically British elite. (Colley 1996: 154)

The aim was to integrate the population horizontally along the axis of nation, and thus, re-imagine the nation as a singular entity regardless of vertical divisions like class that emphasized material inequality within nations. With opportunities for collective working class action in the political and industrial spheres severely curtailed, perhaps segments of the English working class began to see-advantages in re-imagining themselves as British in opposition to the Irish Catholic. After all, elite conceptions of both English and British nationalism since the English Civil War had been constructed on the basis of a strong allegiance to a Protestant identity, in opposition to the Catholic other. By doing so, they perhaps thought they could lay claim to a greater entitlement to jobs at acceptable rates of pay than the Irishman who could not be considered British, and was therefore undeserving. This may also help to explain the relatively muted support amongst the working class for the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 compared with that for the abolition of slavery, although we should also acknowledge that the working class remained even then the least hostile segment to its enactment since they invested 'their hopes and energies in political not religious activism, in the struggle for parliamentary reform' (Colley 1996: 352).

Even then, the defeats combined with such attempts at integrating the working class into the British nation were not enough to quite bring down the curtain on the 'heroic age of the proletariat'. Such nationalism failed to generate the scale and scope of working class allegiance to British nationalism that the elites had hoped for. This was as much to do with elite policies as working class rejection with the former continuing to mistrust the working class as a collective entity, regarding them with 'fear and suspicion and certainly not people who could be trusted with the vote' (Hobsbawm 1990: 89). In this sense, the worker remained outside the elite-constructed image of the ideal British nation — a social group that simply could not be trusted to be active citizens. It was this continuing outsider status that would give rise to one final mass social movement of the working class and middle class radicals — Chartism.

Chartism was a political movement whose aim was to win support for constitutional change that would combat privilege and extend democracy (Webb and Webb 1919).

In the aftermath of the failure to extend the franchise to the working man in the 1832 Reform Act and the restrictions imposed upon legal trade unionism, a political and educational body called the London Working Men's Association was established in June 1836. The following year, they launched a people's charter, designed to win working class support for annual Parliaments; universal male suffrage; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; abolition of the property qualifications for MPs; and voting by ballot (Morton 1994: 370). By the spring of 1838, these six demands had been drafted into a parliamentary bill which was

endorsed at gigantic meetings all over the country. 200,000 assembled at Glasgow, 80,000 at Newcastle, 250,000 at Leeds and 300,000 at Manchester. At all these meetings the charter received empathetic approval. (Morton 1994: 370)

Many industrial workers saw in them 'the means to remove their intolerable economic grievances' while Engels believed that the six demands were revolutionary, 'sufficient to overthrow the whole English constitution, Queen and Lords included' (Morton 1994: 370). To secure the Charter's acceptance, a campaign of large demonstrations were organized alongside a mass petition to Parliament and a national convention. If the petition was rejected, a political general strike would be launched, or what the Chartist leadership referred to as a 'sacred month' (Morton 1994: 371). A series of huge processions, protests and strikes involving thousands followed ranging from the rising of 1839 to the General Strike of 1842. The latter marked the high watermark of the Chartist movement with 500,()0() workers participating in strike action. This was followed by the 'Great Delegate Conference' in Manchester in August 1842 where amidst an angry mood, some delegates spoke of a 'final reckoning' against the ruling elites. The British state, steeled by war against France and internal rebellion at home, was not going to buckle easily. Instead, they set about cutting off the head of the rebellion by arresting many of the Chartist leaders. State repression continued over the next few years with more than 1,500 Chartists brought to trial, and 200 being deported to Australia (Saville 1987).

Dorothy Thompson (1982: 123) usefully reminds us how 'there was a very considerable Irish presence in the Chartist movement' as well as a concern for Irish questions more broadly. There were individuals of Irish descent who played a central role in the Chartist movement, including occupying positions in the national leadership, such as James Bronterre O'Brien — commonly referred to as the 'Chartist Schoolmaster' and the main theoretician of the movement (Morton 1994: 372). There was also Thomas Devyr, an Irish migrant from Donegal who became Secretary to the Chartist Northern Political Union (Thompson 1991: 483), and Feargus O'Connor, the leader of the physical force Chartists. The latter, from the beginning 'had the support of the great majority of the industrial workers, the miners and the ruined and starving hand workers of the North' (Morton 1994: 371).

Perhaps less well known is the scale of rank and file Irish involvement in Chartism (Thompson 1982; Kirk 1985). Half the Chartists in Bradford were Irish, and Irishmen like George White and shoemaker John W. Smith played an influential part in transforming northern towns like Bradford into hotbeds of Chartist activity involving both English and Irish workers (Thompson 1982: 124). Thompson (1982: 125—126) challenges the commonly held belief that 'concern for Ireland and support for Repeal were grafted on to Chartism because of a personal foible of its leader' O'Connor. Instead, concern felt about Ireland was born from a recognition by parts of the working class in England that '[t]he way Ireland was ruled and the living conditions of her people affected the rest of Britain intimately and immediately' (Thompson 1982: 126). When attempts were made to impose the Coercion Act in Ireland alongside the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 in Britain, it was Irishmen like Bronterre O'Brien who made the English worker aware of what was going on in Ireland, particularly the possibly disastrous consequences of extending coercion in Ireland, and the low living standards comparable to the Irish worker that would await the English worker unless they mounted effective collective opposition to such proposals:

I have lived in Ireland, was born and bred in Ireland . . . I have seen thousands of Irish who have never tasted animal food, or fish, or wheaten bread once a year since they were born . . . I have seen them clothed in rags, their heads full of vermin their legs and hands covered with scabs, their bodies broken out in sores, and their feet cut and hacked with chilblains and stone bruises until they were unable to walk . . . but you ask 'are we, the wealth-producers of England, to be brought to this?' I answer YES, unless you bestir yourselves in time, there is no escaping the Irish level if the New Poor Law Act be fully carried out. (cited in Thompson 1982: 128—129)

This argument linking oppression abroad with exploitation at home was consistently made and sustained by Irish and English radicals and gave the Chartists an outlook and political complexion that regularly transcended the traditional boundaries of British nationalism. It should also not be forgotten that O'Connor, Devyr as well as 'many of the other Irish in the Chartist Movement' had their roots in 'the Republican wing of the nationalist movement' (Thompson 1982: 134) — that of 1798 and the United Irishmen. It was this constellation of historical experience and unique personnel that was decisive in determining Chartism's strong support for Irish independence. As McDermott (1979: 16) points out, 'O'Connor's newspaper the "Northern Star" — the name of the United Irishmen journal — regularly preached the revolutionary potential of a union between Irish nationalism and the English working classes'. This unity was practically built upon on several occasions such as when

[a] large contingent of Irish ConfZ•dcrates marched with their green banners to Kennington Common alongside the Chartists on the 10th April 1848 to present the Petition to Parliament. (McDermott 1979: 17)

Alongside the Irish Catholics, the Chartists also counted amongst its core leadership individuals of African descent. William Cuffay, born in 1788 in Chatham — an English tailor of African origin — joined the organization in 1839 and became an influential figure in London. He was one of three London delegates sent to the Chartist national convention in April 1848 and assigned the responsibility of organizing the march from Kennington Common that was to accompany the Chartist petition to Parliament. Elite concern about the mobilization was widespread with the royal family being evacuated to the Isle of Wight. The armed forces had also been put on standby. Fearing a bloody confrontation with the repressive state apparatus, the Chartist leadership called off the march. This was interpreted as an indication of its relative weakness by the state, and Cuffay was arrested shortly thereafter on a trumped up charge of proposing to bomb strategically important buildings as a signal for the working class to revolt in response to the expected rejection of the petition by Parliament.

This fear of working class revolt, of a working class revolt that was multiethnic in character and united in opposition to the state was the context in which elite use of racism grew exponentially. During Cuffay's trial, prominent parts of the media, including The Times newspaper deprecated Chartism as the 'black man and his party'. The newspaper went on to refer to Cuffay as 'half a "nigger". Some of the others are Irishmen. We doubt if there are half-a-dozen Englishmen in the whole lot' (Fryer 1984: 242). A central element of this elite racism was its attempt to portray the insurgent Chartist movement as foreign and alien, and therefore not an authentic expression of the wishes of the English masses. There was a pseudo-valorization of the latter group as virtuous, a group that had somehow been misled by foreign Irish Catholics and Africans to engage in unrepresentative forms of collective action that were incompatible with English traditions.

At first, such crude attempts at racializing the Chartist movement failed to gain the level of traction within the English working class that the British elites had hoped for. While it remained in motion as a collective actor, such messages were critically decoded by the radical strata of the working class, and an alternative interpretation placed on such unsavoury attempts at generating conflict and division. As the 'Reynolds Political Instructor' — a radical paper mth a circulation of 30,000, noted: Cuffay

was loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him not, and had no sympathy with his class, and banished by a government that feared him . . .

Whilst integrity in the midst of poverty, whilst honour in the midst of temptation are admired and venerated, so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Africa's oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion. (Fryer 1984: 244)

Other prominent newspapers such as the English Patriot and Irish Repealer also protested against such crude racism describing it as 'The Old Original Dodge! Divide and Govern!' (Belchem 1985: 94). Nevertheless, this form of elite racism continued to gather momentum and began to embed itself in the political culture of British life. Ibe Times claimed it was appalled by 'that extravagance of sedition which, for want of any other adjective, must be denominated "Irish" ', and London vas endangered by 'the Irish love of knife, dagger and poison bowl' (cited in Belchem 1985: 93). Meanwhile, Punch — the weekly satirical magazine — regularly referred to the Chartist conspirators of 1848 as 'MOONEY, ROONEY, HOOIAN, DOOLAN' (cited in Belchem 1985: 94). Charles Kingsley — later to be chaplain to Queen Victoria — warned the Chartists against any association 'With the United Irishmen: 'What brotherhood ought you to have with the "United Irishman" party, who pride themselves on their hatred to your nation' (Thompson 1982: 143).

While it would be that other side of the state, namely coercion and repression, that would ultimately bring about Chartism's downfall (Saville 1987), it was clear that any attempt to remake the solidarity between the English working class and racialized minorities from the mid-nineteenth century onwards would have to contend with and overcome the growing penetration of racist and nationalist sentiment in British public life, including within parts of the working class. It is why 'the mid-nineteenth century remains an important — and distressing watershed in labour history' (Belchem 1985: 94).

Originally from Satnam Virdee's excellent book, 'Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider'.