"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Who Was Captain Swing?

General Ludd, and the army of redressers that gathered behind his name, has become something of an all-purpose avatar for any attitude towards technology that is less than fawning. Whether this image of the Luddites is based upon historical evidence or simply upon hysterical paranoia is another matter, though one thing that is certain is that the specter of General Ludd still haunts technological society. Given the frequency with which Ludd’s name is evoked – be it as an epithet or as a source of inspiration (see: Neo-Luddism) – one could be forgiven for assuming that the Luddites were the first, last, or at the very least largest group to have seen machinery as a symbol of both their actual and figurative immiseration and to have acted accordingly.

Yet such a belief would be incorrect.

While General Ludd may haunt the subconscious of technology’s loudest advocates, and while the Luddites may be remembered primarily for their machine-breaking tactics, Ludd’s followers did not originate the tactic of machine-breaking, and similarly they were not the last group to make effective use of the strategy. Indeed, if one is interested in the history of machine-breaking than General Ludd is not the only myth enrobed leader worth knowing about. For there was also Captain Swing. A short historical sketch is necessary before comparisons can be made – for, though there are certainly similarities between Ludd and Swing, there are also important differences.

The followers of Captain Swing are those who participated in what came to be known as the “Swing Riots,” which raged across numerous counties in England from the later part of 1830 into the early months of 1831. By the late August of 1830 the agricultural workers of England had been squeezed to the point of destitution by a combination of economic policies, overabundance of available laborers, the enclosure of the commons (which had previously allowed many to eke out a frail living), dwindling wages, new restrictive Poor Laws, and the increased usage of threshing-machines that resulted in ever fewer laborers being hired (a particular problem in the winter). Modern industrial capitalism was rearing its head and as it surveyed the world it would claim as its birthright it ignored the workers and their traditions – the agricultural laborers may have already been impoverished but conditions were now such that survival itself had become precarious. Amidst the backdrop of political turmoil at home and with the example of revolution across the channel the situation was primed for upheaval, and once it came it easily spread.

The night of August 28, 1830 (in Lower Hardres) marks the start of the Swing Riots – it, at the very least, marks the beginning of the smashing of threshing-machines that was to become the hallmark of the movement. While attacks upon machinery were not the only feature of the Swing Riots (there were also cases of arson, the penning of threatening letters, and large confrontations) the dismantling of threshing-machines occurred (to greater or lesser extents) wherever the Swing Riots erupted. As a movement that was focused upon securing work and wages (a livelihood) for agricultural workers the threshing-machine became an easy target – a physical manifestation of oppression. Indeed – as Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé put it in their (excellent) history Captain Swing – the threshing-machines represented a final insult as these machines particularly displaced workers during the times when work was most needed (the winter), and:

“The threshing machine thus became the symbol of their misery.” (H and R, 74)

thus it was

“machine-breaking that set its stamp on the whole labourers’ movement.” (H and R, 197)

The Swing rioters sought the restoration of their place in society, a rightful (and rights’ protected) place which they felt had been unjustly stolen from them by the new machines. Though the movement at moments and in some locations may have had more revolutionary overtones, on the whole the Swing Riots were more about reclaiming older rights (and expanding them a little) than attaining new rights. The Swing risings, to put it simply, were about economic forces. Though the rioters demanded compensation, broke machines, threatened, and otherwise committed acts that fall under the heading of “rioting,” they did not directly attack the person’s who had hired the threshing machines. Likewise the Swing rioters did not directly attack the persons of the priests and local gentry whose demands for tithes and taxes were pointed to, by the farmers who hired the laborers, as the reason why there were no funds from which to meet the workers’ demands. The size, strength, and local support behind the rioters was of sufficient spirit that in many cases the rioters were able to act during the day – and many a farmer even dismantled their own machines having concluded that the machines were not worth the trouble. In some cases local magistrates even published notices encouraging farmers and landowners to dismantle their threshing-machines themselves and to acquiesce to the laborers’ demands. The figure of Captain Swing emerged largely as a result of the number of threatening letters signed “Swing” and by the need to ascribe particular actions conducted after nightfall to some shadowy figure. It was easier to have some figure of a leader on whom to blame the riots than to acknowledge that they spread as a result of deeply felt and widely spread anger. Nevertheless:

“behind these multiform activities, the basic aims of the labourers were singularly consistent: to attain a minimum living wage and to end rural unemployment.” (H and R, 196)

It is on this account that the Swing Riots must be judged – and though the riots did not bring about the end of the impoverishment of the workers, the movement was still fairly successful (particularly in and around its immediate aftermath). Over the course of the riots the followers of Swing were responsible for destroying nearly four hundred threshing machines and on occasion various other agricultural machinery (including – in one case – a factory where threshing machines were manufactured). And in many cases the demands of the rioters were consented to – wages were increased, farm owners agreed to stop using threshing machines, local parsons reduced tithes, local aristocrats reduced taxes. Relief – momentary though it may have been – was secured. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Swing Riots may have spread so readily was because the tactics channeled the surplus quantity of rage in a direction that bore benefit. The agricultural workers, who made up the bulk of the Swing rioters, had not enjoyed a share in the benefits brought by mechanization and beyond thrashing the fields the threshing machines had also thrashed the workers. Yet, it should be noted that the Swing rioters did not escape prosecution, punishment and repression. Many participants in the Swing riots were transported, jailed, or executed – though a peculiar wrinkle in the tale of the rioter is that many had genuine reason to believe that their acts had been granted a grudging approval by local powers – and many of those brought to trial were acquitted or received lighter sentences than might have been expected. Those who participated in the Swing riots – as Hobsbawm and Rudé eloquently describe them:

“believed in “natural right”—the right to work and to earn a living wage—and refused to accept that machines, which robbed them of this right, should receive the protection of the law…they were firmly convinced that justice—and even law—was on their side.” (H and R, 249)

And it was with that sentiment in mind and at heart that they had acted.

* * *

At the most basic level it is easy to see something of a continuum between the followers of Ludd and the followers of Swing – if only insofar as both groups engaged in (to borrow another term from Hobsbawm) “collective bargaining by riot.” In particular one sees an obvious similarity in the way that both groups targeted the machines that they perceived as the physical manifestation of the nascent industrial ideology that was pushing them towards penury.

It is extremely important to note – in the case of Swing and Ludd – that the target of the workers was not technology as such but particular machines in particular contexts. These were not the “anti-technology lunatics” they are oft portrayed as, but groups of workers who recognized that very specific machines were bringing displacement and depravation to their communities. The Swing rioters (like the Luddites) did not madly smash every machine they came across – they saved their ire for the machines that were being used to smash their wages and their rights. The followers of Swing and Ludd serve as powerful reminders that when a machine is described as “labor saving” this does not mean that the laborer will benefit, what it largely means is that the machine’s owner will “save” on having to pay laborers. That the followers of Swing and Ludd acted out in violent ways is undeniable and yet one should recognize that the system which was pushing these workers and their families to the point of starvation (and death) was also a form of violence. And the economic warfare launched against the agricultural workers surely claimed more innocent lives than the Swing riots did. Bereft of other options for seeking redress or making their voices heard, the followers of Swing and Ludd were forced to rely upon the power of the clenched fist, the sledgehammer, the night time subterfuge, and the strength of a community brought together by outrage (which is often termed a “mob” by those in power).

Despite the similarities between Ludd and Swing it is not correct to portray the two movements as synonymous. To speak of Ludd is not to automatically speak of Swing, and vice versa. Those who followed the banner of Captain Swing were largely impoverished agricultural workers (and other types of workers in the same villages who identified with the struggles of those workers) fighting for the preservation of a position that had not been particularly good but which was only becoming worse with the erosion of traditional rights (such as access to the commons). Those who united to form General Ludd’s vanguard, tended to be skilled laborers associated with crafts and trades that had given them a position in which they could take pride – which is not to say the Luddites were workers of great financial means, but they were not paupers or peasants. To oversimplify the whole matter greatly one might be able to deploy a simple analogy: Swing was to Ludd as agricultural workers were to craft/skilled trade workers; or, Swing was to agriculture as Ludd was to industry; or perhaps, Swing was a response to the triumph of enclosure as Ludd was to the triumph of industrialization.

Due to their link to a skilled craft, the average Luddite (insofar as one can write of an “average Luddite”) was likely better educated and better off financially than the average participant in the Swing riots (the former parenthetical holds true here as well). It may well be that the relatively greater education amongst the Luddites (more could read and write at least) may relate to the more organized and political atmosphere that surrounded the Luddites as opposed to the Swing rioters – as Peter Linebaugh has written of the Luddites:

“they were not out of touch with the intellectual work required of political change, or dismissive of the erudition that can help it.” (L, 20)

The followers of Swing were likely to be – due to their social position – a little bit more out of touch with some of this “intellectual work,” though many were still likely aware of it. This also may help to explain the way in which Swing riots often appeared as somewhat spontaneous swells of public outrage, whilst the Luddite risings had more of an organized clandestine appearance. The swearing of oaths, secretive assemblies, and carefully planned actions that were hallmarks of the Luddite risings are not to be found overly much during the Swing riots. Nevertheless, this position towards the overarching trends of political philosophy and nascent radicalism help to further explain the difference between the Swing rioters’ appeal to the local powers (farmers, parsons, aristocrats) versus the more insurrectionary characteristic of Luddism (which sprung up after appeals to power had failed).

Much of the historical resonance of the Luddites is likely a result of their rising being more closely linked to the industrial revolution than the Swing riots – and while such is true, both groups were resisting the new form of capitalism that was on the ascent in that period (early 1800s). While there is some reason to believe that former Luddites returned to their machine wrecking ways amidst the Swing riots (a few weavers and skilled craft workers were caught up in the riots) such involvement is, at best, extremely minor. Though the armies of Ludd and Swing both targeted “offending” and “obnoxious” machinery – the two movements remain distinct occurrences – separated by years and regions. Economic concerns related to displacement – worsened by the usage of various machines – may have been at the core of both movements, but each of these risings largely tells the tale of a group of workers (and their surrounding community) rising in self-defense when given no other choice but that between direct action and poverty. These were both mass movements that drew their strength from not just the workers but the larger community of laborers as well. These movements were not the work of isolated individuals committing isolated offenses, but the work of whole communities standing together against the offenses that had been perpetrated against them by those in positions of economic and legal power.

So, why does Captain Swing still matter?

Does Captain Swing still matter?

Those are questions at once simple and complex. It is easy to argue that knowing something of the history of the Luddites is important as the term “Luddite” is hurled frequently as a way of denigrating critics of technology and as the term has come to carry a connotation of being “anti-technology” (as such) which a knowledge of the history of the Luddites proves easily false. Yet, one hears many fewer mentions of Captain Swing. Perhaps it is because those who were loosely organized behind the banner of Swing lacked an easy movement name such as “Luddites” – one does not see participants in the Swing riots referred to as “Swingites” or as “Swingers” (the latter term having a quite different colloquial meaning). Likewise it may be that the Swing riots are often somewhat lumped in with the Luddites – Hobsbawm and Rudé at one point describe the tactics of the rioters as:

“the Luddism of the poor.” (H and R, 17)

Nevertheless, it may simply be that the public imagination does not need multiple mythical machine-wrecking leaders – one will suffice – and the one that is picked is General Ludd.

While it is certainly true that the historic placement of the Luddites as a sort of last stand against the infernal machines of industrialization allow them to occupy an important spot in history – it is also the case that much of the criticism hurled at the Luddites might be harder to dispute if hurled at Swing’s followers. After all, if some who use the term “Luddite” as an insult state that those who question technology should “go work in the field” an easy retort is that the Luddites did not work in the fields; however, the followers of Swing certainly did. Furthermore, while it is easy to point to the social position and the history of the Luddites to prove that they were not uneducated or illiterate – the fact is that many participants in the Swing riots were comparatively unschooled (though a lack of formal schooling should never be though to automatically equal a lack of interest in the goings on of the world, a lack of erudition, or an inability to learn – that a worker could not read does not mean that they did not hear the news or political works read to them at a gathering or tavern [which certainly happened often in the Swing counties]).

Indeed, it may be that one of the reasons why Captain Swing remains most relevant (beyond the simple value of knowing history) is that being aware of Swing helps to pierce the fog of uniqueness that surrounds the Luddites. Often times the Luddites are cast as the only group who dared to directly attack the machines that were displacing them; however, the case of Swing helps to demonstrate that machine-wrecking was in fact a not too uncommon form of workers’ direct-action and method of expressing demands in a time when workers had few means of making their demands heard.

Machine-breaking as a tactic predates the Luddites and machine-wrecking as a tactic continued after the Luddites – being able to point to this historical continuity helps to further demonstrate that attacks on machines were not the result of some misguided hatred of all technology, but were actually a tactic that was used with some regularity (and there were some notable periods when a great deal of machine-wrecking took place). Importantly, the Swing riots also demonstrate that in terms of tactics machine-breaking actually proved to be fairly effective, at least for the purposes of securing relief in the short term. Furthermore, the risings of Swing help to restore a bit of heroism to the Luddite narrative – for though the Luddites are often portrayed as failures, it is clear that – at least in their own time – the Luddite risings did not discredit machine-breaking as a tactic. All of which is a long way of claiming that Captain Swing, and the Swing riots, should not just be treated as a footnote (or a foot soldier) but as an important incident wherein workers saw that the “good news” of technology was a faith that involved their being cast into a hellish existence.

There is much obfuscation and murky fog surrounding the figure of General Ludd and it may well be that much of this mist deliberately makes that shape appear somewhat odd. Yet if one begins to push aside the mist and fog one is likely to see the figure of Captain Swing standing there as well.

It may be that the specter haunting technological society is not so much General Ludd as it is the idea that individuals and communities have a right to react.

Works Cited

Hobsbawm, Eric and Rudé, George Captain Swing. Verso, 2014.

Hobsbawm, Eric “The Machine Breakers.” Past & Present, no. 1 (Feb, 1952) 57-70. (this important article is also available online: here)

Linebaugh, Peter. Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12. Oakland: Retort Pamphlet Series (PM Press) 2012.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

[Image note – the picture at the head of this article is a “Swing Letter” held by the National Archive of the British Government – it reads “Dr. Angus. The college that thou holdest shalt be fired very shortly. Thou shalt here further from me when it is in flames. Swing. Head Quarters”]

Related Content

Luddism for These Ludicrous Times

The Luddite Response

Who’s Afraid of General Ludd?

Trading Sledgehammers for Pillows – The Curious Case of Reform Luddism

Ned, Ted and Red – General Ludd gets Blacklisted

The Specter of General Ludd at SXSW

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

8 comments on “Who Was Captain Swing?

  1. JImbo
    September 16, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Readneck Review Blog and commented:
    A very thorough historical story on the Luddite movement and the Swing Riots. To put it in perspective, imagine if angry cashiers and bank tellers went on the rampage and started trashing Walk Marts electronic scanning registers and bank ATM machines for “taking our jobs!”
    How do you think we would react today?

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This entry was posted on August 28, 2014 by in Activism, Capitalism, History, Luddism, Society, Technology, The Commons and tagged , , , , .

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