Tropical luddism

Last summer, in my small back garden in Nottingham, a smallish city in the middle of England, I found myself simultaneously reading about two rebellions – the outbreak of luddism in this city in 1811, and the Uprising of the Malês, in Bahia about 25 years later.

I'd been made obsolete by Covid, after two years of struggling with pain and crushing fatigue, I stopped working. I am unsure why these two rebellions became the object of my slow, convalescent focus.

I'd stumbled across an amazing history article called “Rural Luddism and the makeshift economy of the Nottinghamshire framework knitters” by Matthew Roberts, and how the rebel workers movement was not purely urban. People in outlying villages played a key role in the movement, smashing knitting machines, destroying property and even playing pranks. My house is situated in what was recently-stolen common land of one of these villages. Suddenly luddism felt very close.

And until last summer, a Brazilian re-edition of João José Reis' book Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia had been staring at me for years from the bookshelf. A gift from a friend who knew my research on colonial revolt in Portuguese Timor, I had never felt the headspace to do the text justice.

Ever since then, I've been asking myself about connections and disconnections of these events. And I suppose my main curiosity has been “what were the tropical analogs of luddism? would luddism take on different forms in different parts of the global economy?”

The first four of paragraphs of this post form the beginning of a short personal essay I submitted to a Brazilian magazine. It felt tentative, slightly held together by a Machado de Assis text about emancipation and technology. (It's very hard to describe the importance and continued relevance of this 19C Brazilian writer.)

Suddenly I heard strange voices, it seemed to my that the donkeys were conversing, so I leaned in (I was in the front row); it was really them... — You are right and you are wrong, responded the donkey to the right to the one on the left. The one on the left: — When electrification reaches all of the streetcars, we will be free, it seems clear. — Clear it seems; but between seeming and being, the difference is great. You don't know the history of our species, mate; you ignore the life of donkeys since the world began. You don't remember that, having the saviour of mankind born among us, honouring our humility with his, not even on Christmas Day do we escape Christian beatings. Those who save us one day, take revenge on us the next. From Machado de Assis, “A semana”, 16 de outubro, 1892, na Gazeta de Notícias, Rio de Janeiro Portuguese version here

But since I've written the text, two fascinating additions to this question arose.

At the Ecologies of Labour conference I attended in June, Beatriz Leandro, who was presenting from the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Worker's Movement) in Brazil, posited that landless women activists who targeted and destroyed transgenic and terminator seedlings/crops were actually modern luddites. I have worked with farming communities fighting against terminator seeds, and communities where sabotage against industrial plantations was rife. So why had I not considered that “technology” could encompass so much more than machines, especially in extractivist economies? Even when considering revolt of the enslaved as potential “tropical luddism”, I'd wanted to know if rebels destroyed sugarcane mills, or destroyed other enslaving technologies. But I hadn't considered that sugarcane, cotton, and now soy, the plants themselves represent a technology.

Non-human organisms can also represent a form of knowledge that can be appropriated, captured, and controlled, at a global scale. Across the world, people are fighting back against capitalist attempts to steal their ancestral “technologies” – and this is a form of tropical luddism, or luddism from the periphery.

One very misunderstood but crucial aspect of the historical luddites is that they were not brutes who hated machines. It was in fact the opposite. They did not own their machines but they knew them better than their owners. Many of them made improvements on the machines, what today we might call “modding” or “hacking” – but these innovations were in fact stolen by their bosses, the owners of the machines, who patented them for their own benefit.

And this issue of who controls different forms of technology and innovation is central to the second addition to my ongoing thoughts on tropical luddism. I was intrigued to read an article entitled “Industrial Revolution iron method ‘was taken from Jamaica by Briton’”. The research the story is based on, by Jenny Bulstrode, is a super fascinating dive into three points on the Atlantic triangle — the West African iron-working cultures who had ancestral knowledge, the Jamaica scenario of enslaved, Maroon and free iron-workers continuing in this tradition and gaining inspiration from the sugarcane economy, and the English context for the stealing of innovation.

It's a very complex story in the end, where the Jamaican metallurgists did not adhere to a massive rebellion in their day, in fact some of them famously sided against rebels in Morant Bay. And yet rebellion resulted in the dismantling of their ironworks, and the eventual stealing of their innovation by an embezzling Englishman. And no doubt the subsequent boom in iron production in England hurt Jamaican metallurgists in the long run.

Perhaps one of the most important elements of historical luddism is in fact the appropriation of technology from workers and its weaponisation against them. Innovation in technology “saves us one day”, for the bosses to “take revenge on us the next”.