UNPLEASANT LETTERS FROM NED LUDD AND CAPTAIN SWING

Ned Ludd

 

The businessman who received the following note from Ned Ludd would have been in no doubt that the writer intended to do serious harm.

Mr H

at Bulwell

Sr,

Sir if you do not pull don the Frames

or stop pay [in] Goods onely for work

extra work or m[ake] in Full fashon

my Companey will [vi]sit yr machines

for execution agai[nst] [y]ou–

Mr Bolton the Forfeit–

I visitd him–

Ned Lu[d]

Kings [illegible]

Nottinghm—Novembr 8 1811

It was one of many similar semi-literate threatening letters sent to factory owners and employers of weavers by Ned Ludd. The letter commands Mr H to stop paying his weavers in ‘truck’, meaning in poor quality goods instead of cash, one of the frequent complaints of the workers. Or else…

Another letter from a Nottinghamshire knitter was sent to Richard Dennis, farmer and framework knitter, in 1819:

Richad Denniss

If you keep that Rouge in you house Ned shall viset you and we shall be acpt too give you A little could led and you cattle too if you dont get shoot ove him very soon and Need will set you all on Fire And you Promess Need will send them too Hell and Hall ove you too and you sheep Ned will ham string And if you don thay will send me word in the course ove of day

March the 12

I GENRALL LUD.

But Ludd, also sometimes titled ‘General Ludd’, as here, and ‘Captain Ludd’, did not exist. He was a mythical leader of a diffuse group of mainly northern English insurrectionaries angry at the threat to their livelihoods posed by the introduction of labour-saving machines into the framework knitting industry. ‘Luddites’, as they came to be known, formed clandestine groups who swore secret oaths and destroyed and damaged the feared new machines that were taking their jobs. The sabotage tactics of the Luddites failed, many were executed, imprisoned or transported. But their actions, and consequences, did bring their plight to the attention of the wider public.

In 1830, much the same situation, this time in agriculture, triggered the most serious rioting, mostly across southern England. Led by a ‘Captain Swing’, rural workers rose in large numbers to break threshing machines and to demand what they thought were their rights. They also said so in caustic correspondence, such as this note delivered to King’s College, Cambridge on December 8, 1830:

Dr Agnus

The college that thou holdest shalt be fired very shortly. Thou shalt here further from me when it is in flames.

Swing

Head Quarters

A more detailed and oddly polite letter detailing the rioters’ grievances arrived at the Goodwood estate of the Duke of Richmond in December 1830:

We beg to say that if the sentences of the men in kent & all others for rioting is not reduced to 3 months imprisonment & all those taken heairafter to 1 months ditto all the woods to a hedge stick on the duke of richmans estate with that of the other ministere [of] the crown lands magestrates constables &C engaged in takeing & triing the said men shall be all burnt up even to a furse bush but we promis faithfully if you comply with our request we will refrain from it all we want is Work & fair wages don’t think that the reward will induse our party to split we have all put our hands to the match so we cannot fear each other and are determind to carry on or have our starveing Contramen at liberty there is only 2 things to be done & then we shall have pease & plenty that is machinery put down and the Clergy paid out of the publick revenew and an income tax put on to take this burden of the farmer in lieu of the tithes’

swing 2 goodwood-mss-1446-fa18-backThese revolts were all put down with the ruthless force usually unleashed by the British establishment against those who dared challenge it. Rioters were perceived and presented as dangerous revolutionaries and criminals rather than starving workers. Some were shot, some hanged, many imprisoned and transported. Mechanisation of their livelihoods proceeded apace.

Neither Ned Ludd or Captain Swing existed. They were convenient fictions drawn from the traditions of underclass revolt stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in which a shadowy character named ‘Jack Straw’ appeared. At least one of the rebels in this revolt took this name, but historians are uncertain if such a person ever existed. His name is certainly suspiciously folkloric!

To some extent, the threatening letters, the dressing up and the blackened faces of the rioters can be seen as part of the ‘theatre of protest’. This does not mean that the rioters’ issues were not genuine and serious, but that there was an underlying assumption that the societal ties between workers and their employees would deliver justice. Naïve as this seems, a ‘moral economy’ as historian E P Thompson famously perceived, underlay the economic transactions between workers and employers.

The tragedy of this perception by the rioters – weavers or farm labourers – was that it was no longer true (if it ever was in any effectual rather than symbolic sense). Their bosses had moved on from the traditions and assumptions that underlay the moral economy ideal and embraced the improving agrarian mode of capitalism. Now, workers were no longer essential parts of a rural community but simply one element in a broader, more predatory economy in which calculations were made on the basis of profit and loss and not any obligation that the better-off might once have had towards their less affluent neighbours.

 

SOURCES:

Home Office archive (HO 42/118

The Nottingham Review 6 August 1819 – the sender of the letter had a grudge against the ‘Rouge’ mentioned

National Archives Catalogue ref: HO 52/6

‘Swing Riots letter’, 2 Dec 1830, West Sussex Record Office, Goodwood Mss 1446 fA18

 

 

 

BANDIT LANDS 2 – WITH HIS PISTOL IN HIS HAND: GREGORIO CORTEZ

Gregorio_Cortez_Pictured_in_1901

Gregorio Cortez Pictured in 1901

 

Perhaps the most surprising fact in the extensive folklore that surrounds the figure of Cortez is that his outlawry lasted only ten days. Action-packed though those ten days were, they would perhaps only have given rise to such a legend in a region like the Border. While the existing legendry of Cortinas was strong in the years immediately after the earlier bandit’s death, the discontents and tensions that originated the legend and kept it alive were also still smouldering.

The incident that turned Gregorio Cortez from an obscure small farmer and vaquero was not unlike that which had set Cortinas upon his influential path. Nor was it unlike the situation in other places, such as Australia, where stock theft was the background to many bushranging outbreaks. Cortez and his family had been involved in stealing horses, which explains why Sheriff W Morris and two deputies wanted to question him about a missing horse one day in June, 1901. The lawmen arrived at the small plot Cortez and his brother, Romaldo, rented near Kennedy. According to the court evidence there were language difficulties during the questioning which led the Sheriff to draw his pistol and fire on the brothers, wounding Romaldo. Cortez returned fire and killed the Sheriff.[i] Cortez fled on foot and began walking towards Austin, eighty miles away.

A manhunt was quickly initiated and Cortez’s wife and children, his mother and sister-in-law were illegally gaoled, a tactical error frequently made by authorities during episodes of outlawry. During the manhunt Cortez shot and killed another two lawmen and embarked on another walking feat, this time a 100-mile journey from Belmont towards Laredo. With the newspapers referring to Cortez as ‘an arch-fiend’ and a $1000 reward on his head, Mexican-Americans instead saw Cortez as one of their own making a heroic stand against American oppression and injustice. At the same time, Anglos in a number of towns rioted and a number of Mexican-Americans were killed. Despite this there was some admiration in the English language press for Cortez’s endurance and his ability to elude pursuers through his excellent knowledge of the country. Eventually he was captured on June 22, 1901 when a friend led the posse to his hiding place. The Judas in this case was the ironically named Jesús González, later vilified by some Mexican-Americans as a traitor.

There followed a number of trials and verdicts and a lynching attempt on Cortez. He eventually began serving a life sentence for the murder of the Sheriff in 1904. Cortez had become a cause celebre, his case attracting attention throughout the Hispanic world. Agitation for his release continued until 1913 when he was freed on a conditional pardon. He then fought in the Mexican revolution and died of pneumonia in February 1916.

The legendry of the man ‘with his pistol in his hand’ is extensive and still powerful in the folk traditions of the Border. Américo Paredes documented and interpreted these, noting his Robin Hood-like attributes:

In some of his feats the Cortez of the legend resembles folk heroes like Robin Hood. Like Robin he surprises his enemy and provisions himself from them, taking food, arms, and other necessaries and letting them go unharmed. In a way reminiscent of Robin Hood, Pancho Villa, and the Saxon King Alfred, Cortez comes into town in disguise while the chase after him is on, mingles with the townspeople and listens to the tales told about him.[ii]

The corrido of Gregorio Cortez, in its numerous variants, concentrates mainly upon the bravery of Cortez in the face of the hated Texas Rangers, the rinches:

Then said Gregorio Cortez,

With his pistol in his hand,

‘Don’t run you cowardly Rangers,

From a real Mexican.’[iii]

In 1982 a feature film on the outlaw’s life and legend reached the silver screen, as the mass media picked up on another suitable storyline. This was just another stage in the evolution of the Cortez legend, one that graphically demonstrates the interaction of fact and folklore, as noted by Paredes:

            … one of the most striking things about Gregorio Cortez is the way the actual facts of his life conformed to pre-existing legend. In his free, careless youth, in the reasons for his going outside the law, in his betrayal, his imprisonment, and release and even in the somewhat cloudy circumstances surrounding his death – the actual facts of Cortez’s life (so far as we know them) follow the Border-hero tradition that was already well established before Cortez made his celebrated ride.

Paredes goes on to describe how the facts of Cortez’s life fitted the outlaw hero legend, and vice versa:

It was as if the Border people had dreamed Gregorio Cortez before producing him, and had sung his life and deeds before he was born.[iv]

The brevity of his outlaw career meant that Gregorio Cortez had little time to generate and nurture a Robin Hood reputation for himself. Nevertheless, his legend developed quickly among his supporters and sympathisers. He is compelled to go outside the law by unjust treatment; he acts only against the representatives of the oppressive American laws; he skilfully eludes his pursuers and is finally betrayed by a friend. He is certainly brave, even though he does not die game. In the circumstances of his time and place, even his ten-day defiance of authority was sufficient to turn him into an outlaw hero among the disaffected Mexican-American population of the border region.

 

SOURCES

[i] Mertz, R., ‘No One Can Arrest Me: The Story of Gregorio Cortez’, Journal of South Texas 1, 1974.

[ii] Paredes, A., With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, University of Texas Press, Austin, (1958), 1990, p. 120.

[iii] Paredes, p. 164 (variant C)

[iv] Paredes, p. 125.

BANDIT LANDS 1 – CORTINAS

Juan_Nepomuceno_Cortina

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894), aka ‘Cortinas’

 

Bandit lands are places where outlaws can base themselves and their confederates, operate their criminal enterprises and also hide from the law or other antagonists. These secret spaces can be mountains, forests, river valleys, marshes, or along borderlands – wherever access is difficult and solitude assured. They have existed everywhere since ancient times. Some still do.
 
Quite a few of the outlaws who have inhabited these wild areas have become, rightly or wrongly, popular heroes, celebrated in rousing songs and fiery stories. Here’s the first of an occasional Gristly History series about them titled ‘Bandit Lands’.

 

CORTINAS – ALONG THE RIO GRANDE

The ‘Border’, being the contested land between America and Mexico, has a long, unsettled history. Incursions, lynchings, riots, wars, smuggling and ongoing antagonism between Anglos and Mexican-Americans have produced some celebrated outlaw heores. The earliest of these was a well-born man who became known as ‘Cortinas’.

Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (1824-1894) was known from the time of his outlawry as ‘Cortinas’. His family had aristocratic origins and a large landholding in the lower Rio Grande Valley, particularly around the south Texas city of Brownsville, across the border from Matamoros. After fighting in an irregular unit during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Cortinas returned to the family farm which he appears to have used as a base for rustling. He was twice indicted for these offences but was able to escape arrest through the family political connections.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially declared the border between Mexico and the United States in 1848, relations between the Anglos and Mexican Americans in the Brownsville area deteriorated. One of the major issues was the belief that Americans were using their superior knowledge of the legal system to enable them to procure ever-greater amounts of land at the expense of Mexican-Americans new to the country.

One day in July 1859 Cortinas witnessed the Brownsville Marshall, Bob Spears, arresting and pistol-whipping a man who had worked on his mother’s farm. There was a confrontation in which Cortinas shot and killed the Marshall and escaped with the prisoner. Cortinas was outlawed and from then on became a guerrilla, fighting the Americans and also operating in the politics and conflicts within Mexico itself. In September 1859 he and his men attacked and occupied Brownsville, shooting five locals. Cortinas eventually retreated to the family ranch from where he later issued a proclamation defending the rights of Mexican-Americans and demanding that any who infringed them be punished.

There was ongoing violence between Cortinas’ men and various groups of Texas Rangers sent against him. Cortinas issued a second proclamation, calling on Governor Sam Houston to recognise and protect the legal rights of Mexican-Americans. By this time the outlaw’s numbers had expanded to around 400-armed men. There was further fighting with Texas Rangers in December which resulted in Cortinas retreating to Mexico and finally to the Burgos Mountains where he holed up for a year.

He returned to the American side of the Border during the Civil War, fighting against the Confederates. He then became embroiled in the politics and turmoils of Mexico, returning again to the Border in 1870. Despite attempts to have him pardoned for his crimes, based on his support of the victorious Union during the Civil War, Cortinas was forced to return to Mexico in 1871.

In later years the cattle ranchers of the Nueces Strip accused him of being the ringleader of a large rustling operation and he was eventually removed to Mexico City through American diplomatic pressure. From this time Cortinas passes from the large events of his time. He spent the sixteen years between 1877 and his death from pneumonia in 1894 in prison and under house arrest.

Despite obscurity, neglect and vandalism of his grave, Cortinas’ legend among Mexican- Americans is firmly established.[i] He is the subject of a famous corrido, or ballad, that portrays him as a great hero and friend of the Mexican people, whose death caused the gringos to celebrate:

That famed General Cortinas
is quite sovereign and free,
the honor due him is greater
for he saved a Mexican’s life.
The Americans made merry,
they got drunk in the saloons,
out of joy over the death
of the famed General Cortinas.[ii]

Cortinas was, and still is, a hero of the Mexican-American people. Stories and songs of his real and fanciful actions remained strong in oral tradition and prepared the way for the greatest of all the Border outlaws, Gregorio Cortez.

NOTES

[i] Thompson, J. (ed), Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico Frontier 1859-1877, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, Southwestern Studies 99, 1994, pp. 93.

[ii] Hispanic American Almanac, Gale, 1997.

THE ROBIN HOOD FACTOR

 

Known to generations of English-speaking peoples, and beyond, as the forest archer in Lincoln green, Robin Hood is the undisputed model of the outlaw hero. His image has undergone many transformations since his first brief mention in medieval manuscripts and has come to embody all the essential elements of the noble robber. Whether we see Robin Hood as a shadowy guerrilla fighter, a cast-out noble or as a wisecracking and nimble-limbed Errol Flynn, he is the righter of wrongs, friend of the poor and foe of the corruptly powerful. In one version or another he has been, and continues to be, celebrated in literature, art, folklore, film and television, board games, placenames and tourist ventures. His progress from a few passing references to international symbol of resistance and justice has been achieved through more than six centuries of defying authority, eluding capture and escaping death. His most important activity is to rob the rich and to redistribute their wealth to the poor.
This record is especially impressive for a man who never was, or at least, who has never been found. Robin Hood’s appropriately elusive existence has been researched by many over the centuries, with nothing more to show than a few theories, suppositions and intriguing references to someone who might have been the real Robin Hood. The truth, of course, is that the ‘real’ Robin Hood is not in history but in our heads, hearts and hopes. He is a myth. Even if someone can prove that he lived and carried out just a few of the things with which he is credited, it would make no difference to the way we understand Robin Hood today. He is so engraved into the well-worn cultural grooves that sustain his image, and those of others in the same mould, that he seems likely to remain with us for a very long time.
Ever since Robehood’ or ‘Robinhood’ is first mentioned in early thirteenth century legal records the outlaw has existed in a shadow world between history and fantasy. The first passing literary mention of a hero by that name is in Langland’s 1377 poem, Piers Ploughman.  Further references appear in various chronicles and Robin Hood gradually emerges as a fully-fledged defier of authority. A 1439 petition to Parliament concerned one Piers Venables of Derbyshire, a fugitive who had gathered a band around him which “beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurrection went into the wodes in that county like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee”.  In Southacre, Norfolk, during 1441 labourers and yeomen threatened to kill a Sir John Harsyk. They blocked the road and chanted ‘We are Robynhodesmen. War, war, war’.
By the mid-1550s Robin Hood had become a troublesome enough character to require official suppression. The Scots Parliament of 1555 banned the presence of figures representing the outlaw and his gang in public festivities such as May Day games. Those who persisted were threatened with banishment. This was a disproportionately strong punishment for the brawling, drinking and nuisance-making that purported to be the reason for banning the outlaw from a major form of revelry.
Although the notion of robbing the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor is a later refinement, the portrayal of Robin Hood as the friend of the poor is an early element of his image. In the various versions of the fifteenth century romance, A Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin is a heroic figure and ‘a good outlaw’ who ‘dyde pore men moch god’. By the early seventeenth century Robin Hood has become not just a friend of the poor but also a man who deliberately targets the rich on behalf of the poor.  In a 1622 poem by Thames waterman John Taylor, the poet writes:
…Robin Hood with little John agreed
To rob the rich men, and the poore to feed.
In ‘The True Tale of Robin Hood’ (1632) Robin is a morally upright friend of the poor – ‘all poore men pray for him,/And wish he well might spede.’ He helps distressed travellers on the road, assists widows and orphans, protects women, generally operates against the established power and corruption of the church and robs the rich, particularly those who ‘did the poore oppresse’. He does not harm the humble workers nor harm any man ‘That him invaded not’.  The outlaw is finally betrayed to death by ‘A faithlesse fryer’.
Robin Hood’s status as a commoner, one of ‘us’ is also powerful, despite the seventeenth and eighteenth-century resurrection of the medieval version of the outlaw as a wronged aristocrat. In the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’, the potter bests the outlaw, after which Robin symbolically exchanges clothes with him and in this trickster disguise goes off to Nottingham for further encounters with the Sheriff and, as it turns out, his wife. This is similar in some ways to the later ‘Robin Hood and the Pedlar’ in which a pedlar defeats Robin in a fight and is symbolically incorporated into the ‘band of merry men’, an incident echoed in the ballad of the eighteenth century English outlaw hero, Dick Turpin.
Robin Hood passed from street literature and ballads into the more respectable form of the novel from 1819 when Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was first published. Ever since he has been the subject of countless treatments. He has featured in operas and musicals since the mid- nineteenth century, in film and television since 1908 when a silent film was produced and has a strong presence in the video gaming industry and in comic books.
Robin Hood has continued to be connected with political discontent and action. The Poll Tax rioters of 1990 who invaded Nottingham Council Chambers disguised themselves in hoods of Lincoln green and dissident French electricity workers borrowed the mantle in 2004, specifically identifying with the English outlaw. The Robin Hood mantle has been claimed by many anti-capitalist organisations and initiatives since.

The county of Nottinghamshire vigorously promotes the mythology for tourism and there is even an American charity named the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as a hedge fund named for the outlaw. There is no end to the presence of Robin Hood in modern culture.

The combined effect of this weight of history, myth, romance and commercial and media exploitation has produced a global icon. The man who never was is everywhere. He belongs to everyone and his name is known around the world. But the image of the ‘good robber’ is not his alone. Thousands of brigands, bandits and outlaws in many different times and different places have also been celebrated as friends of the poor and definers of the strong. Some recent examples include ‘the Greek Robin Hood’, Vassilis Palaiokostas, currently on the run, ‘the Barefoot Bandit’, Colton Moore and even the chainsaw charmer drug lord, Pablo Escobar. He was killed in 1993 but lives on in his legend as a friend of the poor in his home country of Colombia.

NOTE: For a more detailed look at the enduring mythology of the green archer, see ‘The Robin Hood Principle’.

 

KEYWORDS: Robin Hood, outlaw hero