So why were these Luddites protesting and why were they murdered for it?
There’s a common misnomer among those who say Luddites were an anti-technology group, which the Smithsonian fortunately has tried to dispel.
The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn’t really the enemy.
Let me put it like this. To say Luddites were anti-technology is like saying Robin Hood was anti-technology.
Does anyone say “that Robin Hood really hated the bow and arrow”? No. That makes no sense. His story was about the moral use of bow and arrow (disruptive technology of his day, as proven in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt).
Similarly to the legend of Robin Hood, a powerful Ludd character rose out of the Sherwood forest area of Nottingham to fight for morality as a crucial factor in use of technology; Luddites then demanded quality and expertise in tech to be valued above exploitation.
The Luddites therefore were experts at using technology who disliked owners using machinery in ways known to increase death and suffering.
Think of these heavily armed mill owners in 1800s, targeted by Luddites, as the Sheriff of Sherwood Forrest from 400 years earlier. Then ask who really was on the side of the Sheriff in Robin Hood’s time?
Or in today’s terms, think of this like people protesting Zoom’s immoral practices. Those (including myself) calling for Zoom usage to be ended immediately until their ethics show signs of improvement… we are not rejecting technology by holding it to a higher bar!
Luddites today would be the ones calling for and end to Zoom’s obviously deceitful and harmful business practices, to make technology safer for everyone.
Those who have been taught that Luddites didn’t like technology have been misled; don’t forget the entire point of a group who righteously protested against technology used immorally (wielded selfishly by owners and with 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).
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.