h i st or y dav i d g i lmour
A Dyer Order The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day
By Nick Lloyd (I B Tauris 264pp £19.99)
Along open-topped motorcar slides its way through the bazaar, preceded by an armoured vehicle and followed by a company of Gurkhas and Baluchi soldiers, trotting along holding Lee-Enfield rifles. The car stops. Brigadier Rex Dyer, crustily played by Edward Fox, gets out and strides to a broad but enclosed space known as the Jallianwala Bagh. While his soldiers line up on either side of him, Dyer observes a large, peaceful-looking crowd to whom a Sikh orator is preaching Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violent resistance. Declining to give the crowd a warning, he orders his men to open fire and to keep on firing for a cinematic eternity. He even directs the Gurkhas to aim at a group of people trying to escape over a wall.
In the long catalogue of cinema’s historical distortions, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is not in the Braveheart league of inane offenders. The depiction of the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 is roughly accurate, even though the speakers were less Gandhian and the crowd less pacific than the director made out. The problem is that it’s a scene without a context. There is no indication of what had happened over the previous few days – violent riots in the Punjab, including Amritsar, where government buildings had been looted and burned and several British civilians had been murdered. There is also no reference to the actions of Dyer on the morning of the massacre, when he had toured the city proclaiming in Urdu and Punjabi that the authorities would permit no gatherings of more than four persons. Nor did the film indicate what happened afterwards: Dyer was censured by the governments of India and Great Britain and was forced to retire from the army.
Attenborough’s Amritsar scene is one of the enduring representations of British India, on a par with the scene in A Passage to India when the British in their club become collectively hysterical, wanting to clear the bazaars and ‘flog every native’
in sight following an obscure incident in a cave. Ever since 1919 the massacre has been for many people emblematic of the British Empire. Indian nationalists claimed it was part of a campaign to terrorise the Punjab; post-colonial historians have cited it as an example of the ‘intrinsic violence of British rule’ (though it was not an example but an exception); and in his novel Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie made his contribution to the mythology by arming the Gurkhas with machine guns (that made ‘a noise like teeth chattering in winter’) to mow down the crowd in the Jallianwala Bagh.
Nick Lloyd, a lecturer in defence studies, is determined to combat such interpretations. He is scornful of nationalist historiography and scoffs at the notion that the Amritsar Massacre, in which some 400 people were killed, was ‘a premeditated act of imperial mass murder intended to strike terror into the Indian
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Links wtih literary agents and top publishers population’. Yet he is also critical of those British politicians who found Dyer’s actions indefensible and regarded them as ‘frightful’ and ‘un-English’, the most outrageous act of violence against a civilian population since the Indian Mutiny of 1857–8. As Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill accused Dyer of ‘frightfulness’, meaning ‘the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country’. It was ‘not the British way of doing business’.
The author claims that his book is a ‘new account’, a ‘new history’, the ‘untold story of one fateful day’. Yet in most respects it is a valiant – and perhaps foolhardy – exposition of the case put forward at the time by many of the British in India and by the right wing of the Conservative Party in Britain. These were the people who believed that in 1919 the Punjab was on the verge of rebellion and that British women and children were potentially in as great a danger as they had been in 1857. For them Dyer was ‘the Saviour’, the man who had thwarted a conspiracy to overthrow British rule in India. Lloyd has far greater sympathy for this view than for its more logical rival – that Dyer destroyed the trust many Indians still had in Great Britain and irrevocably alienated their leaders; he certainly shook Gandhi’s belief that India should become a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.
The author unveils a convincing picture of the violent and volatile situation in Amritsar in April 1919. Following the local government’s unwise deportation of two ‘agitators’ on the morning of 10 April, large crowds gathered in the city and tried to break into the civil lines, where most of the British lived. In Amritsar, as elsewhere in the Punjab, a handful of soldiers and policemen were ultimately forced to deter them with gunfire, inflicting a small number of casualties, and Lloyd is probably right to regard this response to the ‘unrest’ as ‘proportionate and reasonable’: the city was out of control and British civilians still in the old town were being killed or beaten up.
By 13 April, however, the violence had subsided. That morning Dyer marched into the city to warn its inhabitants not to assemble; in the afternoon, on hearing that
| o c t o b e r 2 0 1 1 l i t e r a r y l i v e s a crowd was gathering in defiance of his orders, he returned with his riflemen and ordered them to disperse it. He later said that between the two visits he had had ‘ample time to consider the nature of the painful duty [he] might be faced with’. Later he declared that he had wanted to create a ‘widespread effect’; he was not ‘merely dispersing the crowd’ but ‘producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab’. No wonder Churchill found this ‘frightful’.
Dyer’s earliest explanation of his action was very different. He had opened fire, he said, because his ‘force was small and to hesitate might induce attack’. According to Lloyd, he was frightened but could not admit it later; hailed as the ‘saviour of the Raj’, he subsequently assumed the role and pretended that the massacre had been premeditated. The author may or may not be right to argue that Dyer’s first claim was the correct one and that his protagonist was guilty of an error of judgement rather than an intention to murder. But he tests our credulity as well as our goodwill by defending Dyer on the two points on which he was censured by the official inquiry: that he had not warned the crowd before firing; and that he had gone on shooting for too long – between ten and fifteen minutes. Lloyd excuses the pitiless continuation by arguing that, because the Bagh had only a small number of exits, it took a long time for the crowd to disperse. The length of the massacre was therefore not Dyer’s fault, since he was unacquainted with the geography of the place and could not know about this detail; so he went on firing, killing hundreds of fleeing people who at no stage had presented any threat to his soldiers.
Lloyd extends his defence of Dyer to other incidents and attempts to mitigate the brigadier’s notorious ‘crawling order’ (forcing Indians to crawl on their bellies along a street where a British missionary had been beaten up and left for dead) by stressing its ‘insignificance’: it was ‘only in force along one lane for five days’. It is advocacy of this kind, which permeates the text, that ultimately undermines the credibility of the book. To order this book for £15.99, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
j ohn s u t h e r l a n d
A Tale of Two Dickens
Charles Dickens: A Life
By Claire Tomalin
(Viking 527pp £30)
Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 389pp £20)
There have been around ninety fulllength lives of Dickens. As the 2012 bicentennial approaches the discriminating purchaser will be able to choose between three current frontrunners. Michael Slater’s 2009 biography, still going strong in paperback, is one. A ‘radically revised’ reissue of Peter Ackroyd’s 1990 biography is another. And, coming up fast on the outside track, we have Claire Tomalin.
Each brings something distinctive to the task. Slater’s book is the distillation of fifty years’ rigorous scholarship. Ackroyd brings a novelist’s privileged insight to his subject. And Tomalin? She is a biographical big-game hunter, having already bagged Austen, Hardy, Pepys, Wollstonecraft and Mansfield. The shelf of prizes she has won testifies to her ability not just to write ‘lives’ but to bring the authors she writes about to life.
Most nineteenth-century novelists hated the idea of too much being known about them. As Henry James put it: ‘My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter’ – a species of literary vermin anatomised in The Aspern Papers. James frustrated the publishing rascals with that handiest of weapons, the safety match. In the conflagration he started in his garden many things which prurient posterity yearns to know (what was that ‘obscure hurt’ in the groin area?) went up in smoke. Dickens, as his personal life went haywire at the end of the 1850s, lit a similar bonfire. It was so massive that his children roasted chestnuts in the embers. All that was left for the biographers was cold ashes. No chestnuts for them. Dickens went a step further in his campaign against the postmortem exploiter. At the astonishingly premature age of thirty-seven he appointed his bosom friend, John Forster,
as his biographer. It was to Forster that he entrusted the unpublished ‘autobiographical fragment’ – that short sketch of his childhood which, like a plutonium pellet, has shaped every biography since.
The fragment relates two traumatic events: his father’s incarceration in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison; and his own ‘agony of soul’ at being sent for a few months to work in a boot-blacking factory by the Thames to help out with the family finances.
Why did Dickens confide these lifechangingly shameful events to Forster alone? The motive was not, one may hazard, confession but control. Both Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst draw attention to a jubilant remark he made to his wife after reading one of his Christmas stories to a group of friends: ‘If you had seen [William] Macready last night undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa as I read – you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have Power.’ As editor of the tuppenny newspapers Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens customarily referred to himself as ‘the conductor’. Every biographer he’s ever had, however ingenious, has been subject to that posthumous Dickensian baton.
Why, then, should one buy Tomalin’s book rather than (or in addition to) Slater’s or Ackroyd’s? A good reason is her shrewdness. Tomalin, for example, is surely right in claiming that ‘Nelly’ Ternan, the young woman for whom Dickens left the wife who had borne him ten children, was his mistress, in the full sense of the word. Ackroyd, by contrast, finds consummated sex between them ‘almost inconceivable’. Slater – in the absence of clinching evidence – will not speculate. Tomalin’s speculations, as she weighs them up, have the force of o c t o b e r 2 0 1 1 |