The Amritsar massacre: the British empire’s darkest day

When Indian civilians were gunned down in the Punjab 100 years ago, British authorities claimed they fell victim to a rogue general. But, asks Kim Wagner, does the theory that the Amritsar massacre was a monstrous anomaly stand up to scrutiny?

A painting of the Amritsar massacre. While Churchill described the killings as "without precedent", MP Benjamin Spoor said: "Amritsar is not an isolated event, any more than General Dyer is an isolated officer." (Photo by AKG Images)

This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


Late in the afternoon on Sunday 13 April 1919, the British military commander General REH Dyer entered the city of Amritsar in Punjab in northern India with a strike-force of 90 colonial troops and two armoured cars. A few days earlier, the authorities had arrested and exiled two Indian nationalist leaders. During the ensuing riots, scores of Indian protesters were shot down, while angry crowds killed five Europeans.

The authorities had banned political meetings, and an uneasy calm prevailed when Dyer reached the public space known as Jallianwala Bagh, which was surrounded on all sides by houses and walls. Here, he found himself face to face with a crowd of more than 20,000 people, whom he assumed to be bloodthirsty rebels preparing to overrun the British parts of the city. Within 30 seconds of deploying his troops, and without warning, Dyer gave the order to open fire. From the vantage point of one of the nearby rooftops, an Indian eyewitness watched the ensuing carnage:

“Shots were fired into the thick of the meeting. There was not a corner left of the garden facing the firing line where people did not die in large numbers. Many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds and thus lost their lives. Blood was pouring in profusion. Even those who lay flat on the ground were shot, as I saw the Gurkhas kneel down and fire. As soon as the firing stopped, the troops and officers all cleared away.”

The shooting lasted for 10–15 minutes. By the time the guns fell silent, Jallianwala Bagh was littered with the bodies of the dead and dying. Although the authorities were never to concede that more than 379 were killed, a more realistic assessment would suggest the death toll was between 500 and 600. The wounded likely amounted to three times as many.

Irreparable damage

Dyer had been disastrously mistaken in his threat assessment. The crowd was not formed of armed rebels but local residents and villagers from the surrounding countryside, who had come to listen to political speeches or simply to spend a few hours in this public space. It was composed of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Most were men and young boys, including some infants. Only a few women were present.

When later called upon to justify his actions, Dyer characterised the situation in Amritsar as a military operation – one with a punitive logic all its own: “I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action,” he said. “If more troops had been at hand, the casualties would be greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

Details of the massacre, and of Dyer’s justification, only emerged months later, but caused irreparable damage to the relationship between moderate Indian nationalists, including Gandhi, and the British government. Although many colonial officials and conservatives rallied to Dyer’s defence, the general was forced to retire from the army, with the government officially denouncing his actions in 1920. During a debate in the House of Commons, then secretary of war Winston Churchill famously described what happened at Jallianwala Bagh as “an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce
General Reh Dyer

Dyer, in other words, was singled out as a bad apple, and the massacre itself portrayed as an aberration within an otherwise benign imperial project. Considering that Churchill, just a few months later, initiated the indiscriminate policy of brutal reprisals for IRA attacks in Ireland, and oversaw the violent suppression of unrest elsewhere in the empire, the speech was blatantly disingenuous. It was also, objectively speaking, wrong. Dyer’s actions at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919 were not “without precedent” and nor were they “foreign to the British way of doing things”, as Churchill asserted.

A culture of violence

The assumption that the only language understood by ‘natives’ was a prompt and forceful response was deeply ingrained in the mindset of colonial officers. The notion of exemplary force harked back to the spectacle of mass executions during the Indian Uprising, or ‘Mutiny’, of 1857–58, when Indian rebels were executed by being ‘blown from guns’ – a barbaric practice in which prisoners were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces. Such rituals of deterrent brutality were entirely indiscriminate, since the guilt of individuals was inferred rather than proven, and ultimately of no real significance to the logic of the colonial violence. For instance, after a regiment of sepoys (Indian infantrymen) killed their officers and deserted in July 1857, the deputy-commissioner of Amritsar, Frederick Cooper, pursued them with a force of Sikh conscripts to the banks of the Ravi river. Trapped on an island, the fugitives were either driven into the water, where they drowned, or captured and executed by firing squad. More than 200 were killed in this manner, and some were dragged kicking and screaming to the edge of a nearby empty well, where the corpses were dropped.

When Cooper recalled the massacre of the fugitive sepoys in his memoirs, he did so with an unmistakable sense of achievement, describing “a single Anglo-Saxon, supported by a section of Asiatics, undertaking so tremendous a responsibility, and coldly presiding over so memorable an execution, without the excitement of battle, or a sense of individual injury, to imbue the proceedings with the faintest hue of vindictiveness… The crime was mutiny, and… the punishment was death.”

Cooper here presented an explicitly racialised portrayal, of the embattled colonial officer carrying out his horrible duty in a dispassionate manner, without ever losing his head. This was the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ at its most colonial – and most brutal.

Gloating over death

Not everyone believed that the ruthless slaughter reflected well on British rule in India. William Howard Russell, correspondent for The Times, was scathing in his reports, exposing the combination of fear and vengefulness that characterised the attitudes of many imperialists: “I have no sympathy with those who gloat over their death, and who, in the press and elsewhere, fly into ecstasies of delight at the records of each act of necessary justice… They see no safety, no absolute means of prevention to the recurrence of such alarms, but in the annihilation of every sepoy who mutinied, or who was likely to have done so if he could.”

Ultimately, such critical voices had little impact either on official policies or public opinion, mainly because violence and spectacular displays of force were commonly believed to be the most effective means of preserving British control in India.

A few years later, in 1872, an attack on Muslim villages in Punjab by a small group of Sikhs, belonging to the Kuka or Namdhari sect, sparked fears among the British of a second ‘mutiny’. The outbreak was soon quelled and the motley gang of Kukas was taken prisoner by a local Indian ruler in the principality of Malerkotla. It soon became apparent that initial reports of the attacks had been hugely exaggerated, but that didn’t prevent a British official, deputy commissioner JL Cowan, proposing that the prisoners be executed immediately: “They are open rebels, offering contumacious resistance to constituted authority, and, to prevent the spreading of the disease, it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern… [T]his incipient insurrection must be stamped out at once.”

Composed as the crowd was of the scum of Delhi city, I am of firm opinion that if they had got a bit more firing given them, it would have done them a world of good
Brigadier-General Drake Brockman

It was no empty promise. Over the following two days, Cowan summarily executed all 65 prisoners by blowing them from guns. Faced with what he perceived to be “an open rebellion”, the deputy commissioner had simply followed the example provided by the Uprising 15 years earlier. His chosen mode of execution was considered “a proceeding warranted by former precedents when large numbers of rebels were thus disposed of in 1857”.

As soon as details of Cowan’s crackdown reached the press and the wider public, a heated debate erupted both in India and in Great Britain, where the affair became a cause for national embarrassment.

The deputy commissioner was removed from his post, but there was substantial support for his actions among the British community in India – in fact, a public collection of funds was later arranged for his benefit. Commenting on Cowan’s actions Lord Napier, the commander-in-chief in India, noted: “It is in short obvious […] that his motive in ordering the executions was to prevent a rising which he considered imminent, by an act calculated to strike terror into the whole Kuka sect.”

This perceived need to nip unrest in the bud before it escalated later assumed the force of doctrine in CE Callwell’s classic 1896 military manual Small Wars: Their Principals and Practice. One of the key tenets of colonial small wars, as defined by Callwell, was in fact the great principle of “overawing the enemy by bold initiative and resolute action”.

A predictable catastrophe?

At Amritsar in April 1919, Dyer had simply followed the example of so many colonial officials before him, who resorted to exemplary and indiscriminate violence when faced with rebellion and anti-colonial unrest. When justifying the mass slaughter of sepoys in 1857, Frederick Cooper described such violence as necessary “to show publicly in the eyes of all men, that, at all events, the Punjab authorities adhered to the policy of overawing, by a prompt and stern initiative (the only way to strike terror into a semi-barbarous people), and to the last would brook nothing short of absolute, active and positive loyalty”.

Given that these words were almost exactly the same as the ones Dyer spoke in his own defence, it’s hard not to conclude that what happened at Jallianwala Bagh was in many ways predictable. “Amritsar is not an isolated event,” the Labour MP Benjamin Spoor noted in 1920, “any more than General Dyer is an isolated officer.”

Dyer’s actions at Jallianwala Bagh did reflect commonly held sentiments among the British officers involved in the suppression of the disturbances in 1919. Following unrest in the colonial capital that same year, Brigadier-General Drake-Brockman openly stated: “Composed as the crowd was of the scum of Delhi city, I am of firm opinion that if they had got a bit more firing given them, it would have done them a world of good and their attitude would be much more amenable and respectful, as force is the only thing that an Asiatic has any respect for.”

At Amritsar on 13 April 1919, General Dyer simply pursued this logic to its terrible conclusion.

OPINION: “An apology would be counterproductive”

Saying sorry would do little to heal wounds in the former British empire, argues Kim Wagner

The notion of truth and reconciliation is increasingly being invoked to address the legacies of empire. While ‘truth’ is certainly a good place to start, ‘reconciliation’ remains a far more problematic concept.

Today, 100 years after the brutal massacre in Jallianwala Bagh, public debate revolves almost entirely around the issue of a formal apology. Though Queen Elizabeth visited the memorial in Amritsar in 1997, followed by prime minister David Cameron in 2013, an actual apology was on both occasions studiously avoided. In December 2017, however, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, urged the British government to give “the people of Amritsar and India the closure they need through a formal apology”.

Although an apology might be personally meaningful to the descendants of the people who were killed or wounded in 1919, most demands are more abstract in nature. Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor, for instance, has repeatedly emphasised the significance of the Amritsar massacre as the keystone of a British apology for the iniquities of the Raj more generally. A recent online petition to “make Britain apologise” similarly describes the demand as “an apology which counts for all the wrong doings [that] happened during the British rule”.

From a British perspective, however, the official line has always been that the massacre was an isolated event and Dyer a rogue officer. If it were to happen, an apology would therefore only be for the massacre as an unfortunate exception, which did not reflect on the moral legitimacy of the empire. An apology that perpetuated the myth of Dyer as a bad apple would, as a result, most likely be counterproductive, creating new wounds rather than healing old ones.

As a political ritual, formal apologies for historical wrongdoings are essentially about the present rather than the past – reducing complex events to simplistic moral binaries of good and bad, of perpetrators and victims. They are not likely to produce a better understanding of our shared history.

Kim Wagner teaches the history of colonial India and the British empire at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre, was published by Yale in February. This article complements Zareer Masani’s documentary Amritsar 1919: Remembering a British Massacre, due to air on BBC Radio 4 on 10 April.


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