So why were these Luddites protesting and why were they murdered for it?
Sadly people incorrectly brand Luddites as anti-technology, when in fact they very much were in favor of proper and skilled use of technology. Hopefully someday soon this chapter in history will stand corrected.
It’s a common misnomer to say Luddites were an anti-technology group, which sites like the Smithsonian fortunately have tried to dispel.
The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn’t really the enemy.
Technology wasn’t the enemy of Luddites! Let me put it like this. To say Luddites were anti-technology is like saying Robin Hood was anti-technology.
Could anyone say “Robin Hood really hated the bow and arrow”? No. It makes no sense. His story was about a moralist’s use of bow and arrow (use of disruptive technology in his day towards victory, as proven in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt).
Similarly, given the legend of Robin Hood, a powerful Ludd character rose out of the same Sherwood forest area of Nottingham and also to fight for morality in the use of technology; Luddites demanded quality and expertise to be valued in technology above exploitation.
The Luddites therefore were experts at technology who disliked machinery owners doing things known to increase death and suffering.
Think of the heavily armed mill owners in 1800s, targeted by Luddites, as versions of the Sheriff of Sherwood Forrest just 400 years later.
Now ask who really wanted to be on the side of the Sheriff in Robin Hood’s time let alone four centuries afterward?
Or in today’s terms, think of this like people in technology roles protesting Zoom’s immoral practices. Those (including myself) who have been calling for Zoom usage to be ended immediately are not rejecting technology — we’re holding it to a higher bar!
Luddites thus today would be the technical champions calling for and end to Zoom’s obviously deceitful and harmful business practices, and calling for technology made safer for everyone.
Those who have been taught that Luddites didn’t like technology thus have been misled; the entire point of the group was to righteously protest against immoral use of technology (wielded selfishly by owners towards obvious harms).
Even more tragically, people often leave out the fact that Luddites were ruthlessly murdered by factory gunmen and hanged for daring to defend society under a concept of greater good.
In truth, they inflicted less violence than they encountered. In one of the bloodiest incidents, in April 1812, some 2,000 protesters mobbed a mill near Manchester. The owner ordered his men to fire into the crowd, killing at least 3 and wounding 18. Soldiers killed at least 5 more the next day.
Earlier that month, a crowd of about 150 protesters had exchanged gunfire with the defenders of a mill in Yorkshire, and two Luddites died. Soon, Luddites there retaliated by killing a mill owner, who in the thick of the protests had supposedly boasted that he would ride up to his britches in Luddite blood. Three Luddites were hanged for the murder; other courts, often under political pressure, sent many more to the gallows or to exile in Australia before the last such disturbance, in 1816.
At least 8 killed in just one protest. Some estimates are double. But in all cases the government was using overwhelming force.
To be fair, Luddites reportedly also did commit violent acts against people, even though it ran counter their overall goals of social good.
Some claims were made that Luddites intimidated local populations into sheltering and feeding them, similar to charges against Robin Hood. That seems like dubious government propaganda, however, as Luddites were a populist movement and “melting away” was again a sign of popular support rather than violent intimidation tactics.
Indeed, more often there were accounts of Luddites sneaking into factories at night and cleverly taking soldiers’ guns away to destroy only the machines as a form of protest. People were set free and unharmed.
An exception was in the case above where a mill owner “boasted” of murdering Luddites and was arming guards and calling in the military… escalation unfortunately was set on a path where Luddites stepped up their defense/retaliation.
Don’t forget 1812 was a very violent time overall for the British, with tensions rising around inequality (food shortages) and protracted European war (1803–1815), including rising tangles with America over its relations with France.
Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, who extremely opposed the Luddites, was assassinated May 11, 1812 by a merchant named John Bellingham.
Bellingham walked up and shot Perceval point-blank, then calmly sat down on a bench nearby to wait his arrest. Conspiracy theories soon circled, suggesting American merchants and British banks were conspiring to end trade blockades with France.
A month after the May assassination was when the War of 1812 began with America.
All that being said, if you want to ensure technology improves, and doesn’t just exploit unsuspecting consumers to benefit a privileged few, read more about the populist Luddite as well as Robin Hood stories from Nottingham.
These legends represent disadvantaged groups appealing for justice against a tyranny of elites.
Also, consider how “General Ludd” was another fictional character of the Sherwood Forest by design. Here’s a quick Ludd rhyme that was turned into a ticket to entry for meetings.
It was his (and Robin Hood’s) inauthenticity, as a face of the very real populist cause that made them impossible to kill.
The legend of Ludd kept “his” cause of justice alive despite overwhelming oppositional military forces. Allegedly British authorities invoked “posse comitatus” (it’s a thing Sheriffs are known to do) and deployed more military soldiers domestically to stop Luddites than during war with Napoleon.
Nottingham took on the appearance of a wartime garrison… authorities estimated the number of rioters at 3,000, but at any one time, no more than 30 would gather…
In American history we have similar heroes, such as the inauthentic yet also real General Tubman. She fought plantation owners in the same sense that Ludd fought mill owners; targeting the immoral use of machinery.
Surely slave owners would have called Tubman an anti-technology radical at war with their manufacturing if they could have made such absurd accusations stick (instead of her being remembered rightly as an American patriot, veteran, abolitionist and human rights champion).