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Dockyard Characters15th July 2021

Celebrating Medway’s Black heroes

Medway African and Caribbean Association (MACA) in partnership with the Nubian Jak memorial trust have today, 15 July 2021, unveiling a new plaque honouring two of Medway’s notable historical Black heroes.

The plaque featuring Chatham Cuffay, who after fleeing slavery and emigrated to Medway in 1772 worked at Chatham Dockyard, and his son William Cuffay, born in 1788, who was a chartist and a tailor, with a shop in Rochester High St, is located at The Historic Dockyard Chatham.

William started a movement that fought for the rights of workers, widely seen as the pre cursor to the Trade Union movement. The plaque was due to be unveiled last year, which was 150 years after his death, however due to COVID 19 this was postponed.

Chairperson of MACA Carol Stewart said: “ We are really proud to be unveiling this plaque to a family that made such a significant contribution to Medway. So much of our Black history is hidden or unknown, and without a balanced view of history that reflects all the important people who played a part in shaping it, then we will have a world where we continue to be misrepresented. Installing the plaque at the dockyard builds on the amazing work we have done with the team there in bringing to life the untold stories of Black people in Kent, and their contribution to making the dockyard more inclusive.”

Dr Jak Beula said: “Nubian Jak is pleased to be working with MACA to remember and memorialise Chatham Cuffay and his illustrious son William in the town of Medway. The Historic Dockyard Chatham is a particularly poignant place to install this historic blue plaque, which also serves as a marker for 100’s of Black people who via the dockyard became familiar with the town between the 18th and 19th century.”

Councillor Howard Doe, Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder for Community Services, said: “I’m pleased the plaque has been officially unveiled at The Historic Dockyard Chatham to celebrate a family that made such an impact. The equality and inclusion of all Medway residents is among our top priorities, and we are proud to celebrate everyone in our community.”

Richard Morsley, Chief Executive, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust said: “Museums, heritage sites and memorials have an important role to play in supporting an inclusive, diverse and equal society. We have a responsibility to educate people about the lessons of the past. Britain’s history is intertwined with terrible colonist acts and the transatlantic slave trade, this legacy must drive us to do more to stand against inequality. For over 8 years now we have been working in partnership with MACA and we thank them in supporting us to learn as an organisation and for enabling us to discover stories and history that had not previously been told here at the Dockyard. The ground breaking exhibition ‘Untold Stories; A Celebration of Black History Kent’ was an important step for us and has paved the way for telling the stories overlooked or forgotten. Specifically, today, the story of Chatham and William Cuffay. People often talk about the importance of William Cuffay. However, it is his father Chatham Cuffay whom is significant to the story of The Historic Dockyard Chatham.

Chatham Cuffay, believed to have originally been from St Kitts and Nevis. His parents were possibly former slaves who had been freed but their son Chatham Cuffay was never enslaved. In 1772, he emigrated with his mother to Medway on board a naval ship under Captain Charles Proby. A young man of about 17, he was baptised in the same year in Gillingham and given his first name after the port at which he had landed.

Proby later became Resident Commissioner at Chatham and it is his influence which was likely to have helped Cuffay find employment in the Dockyard as an Able Seaman and Cook. In 1780 he gained a position on the Chatham Yacht –the Commissioner’s official vessel.

The plaque has been positioned where it is as this is the location the Chatham Yacht would have been moored and subsequently where Chatham, worked and boarded the ship from. Chatham appears in pay books across several years at Chatham Dockyard, the last entry being March 1803 where he is recorded as a Storehouse Labourer.

Chatham is by no means the first Black worker at the Dockyard but he is the first named. He represents an unknown number of slaves that, by free will or force, boarded Naval Ships in the Caribbean and established themselves in England.

To find out more about Cuffay and other noteable historical Black people in Kent and Medway visit:

MACA would like to acknowledge the support of funders and sponsors for the Plaque which include:

Medway Council Arts team
The Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
Chinara Enterprises Ltd
Medway TUC
Unite SE region
Councillor Lady Lola Magdalena Ministries
Medway Health Unison Branch
Steve Wilkins Medway TUC

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