Saturday, March 24, 2012

Swing Out Sisters and Brothers

Protests without leaders - the Arab spring, the Spanish Indignants, the Occupy movement – are a product of the digital era. With no single person or group having ownership or rights to the name, it is a franchise of rebellion that can be used by anybody, anywhere and at anytime, allowing protests to grow in size and spread to other areas; a truly modern phenomenon that gives voice to the voiceless against the forces of wealth and power and one that could never have taken place without the proliferation of social networks in the internet age. Except that the Swing Riots that took place in rural Sussex in the autumn of 1830 were just that: a rapidly spreading outbreak of dissent that united poor farm labourers, under the banner of the mythical figure of Captain Swing, against the oppression of the landed class.

Farm labourers at that time would earn very little money but would receive a large part of their wages in kind as food and accommodation. Threshing – literally separating the wheat from the chaff – was work that took place on the farm between November and January and was the bridge between harvest-time and sowing that meant secure, year round employment. There was nothing idyllic about this life: it was a subsistence existence of hard, physical work and little pleasure.

And then along came the threshing machine. The mechanisation of the labourers’ winter work provided an opportunity for further rationalisation, leading farmers to offer lower wages for the human element of the process of threshing and laying off workers in the harshest months of the year. The machines represented a dire threat to already low wages and job security.

The uprising began in Kent. Mobs would break into farms, search for the threshing machines and destroy them. This spread panic amongst landowners who soon began to receive letters, signed ‘Captain Swing’, demanding that the machines be destroyed else barns, houses and haystacks would be fired. Many acquiesced, those that did not found out that the threat was not an empty one.

The rebellion quickly spread into Sussex as more acted under the name of Captain Swing; he did not exist, of course, but became a figure of fear and his name was taken up and widely used to give power to the worker’s campaign against reduced wages and seasonal employment.

As rioting spread westwards, the military were called in and stationed at Uckfield. Hundreds of rioters were prosecuted and a few were hanged; most received long prison sentences or were transported to Australia.

The rioters were not revolutionaries but simply wanted to protect their existing conditions of employment against creeping capitalism. Captain Swing gave a voice to the very weakest - the rural poor – and in many cases he was able to ensure that landowners did negotiate with the workers. Agricultural wages rose in the southern counties of England as a result of the protests and many of the destroyed machines were not replaced. The Captain Swing riots of 1830 represented the last major revolt of agricultural workers in England but his spirit lives on in those leaderless expressions of protest that we see spreading through the digital world today.

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