Some defenders of British imperial crimes argue that empires have always existed and, if the British hadn’t been dominant, someone else, perhaps, even more brutal, would have. Empire and its engine of aggression and exploitation, is, they imply, a fact of life. Be grateful it was the British rather than the Soviets or the Germans. Just as now, be grateful it is the Americans, rather than, for example, Putin’s Russia.
But, who said that exploitation by the strong amongst nations is inevitable? The nature of imperial exploitation has changed dramatically, even in recent times. Whereas, for example, the US could once brutally attack Vietnam without so much as a peep from the US population, the proposal to invade Iraq drew unprecedented crowds opposing the aggression. As a result, US actions in Iraq, vicious as they have been, have been restrained compared to the wild assault on Indochina.
The terrible crimes of the empires are fact which only silence can make inevitable to be repeated. As with most empires, British aggression was driven by dominance and desire for economic exploitation and expansion. That some sections of subjugated populations derived some benefits from this domination cannot feasibly justify the repression. If the primary intent is to dominate and extort, incidental benefits, whatever their size, cannot change the moral character of the crime.
The subjugation of people for self-gain in the systematic way it occurs with empire can only be disguised as benevolent by keeping quiet the victims and dissidents. This sadly goes on, today.
Many people have heard of the Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919, in which a crowd of Indian protesters were fired upon on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, killing hundreds of defenceless individual – in ten minutes of shooting.
But how many of us know the context of the Amritsar massacre? World War 1 had a great toll on India. Some 43,000 Indians died fighting for the British and trade in the region was disrupted. The resulting fall in living standards and renewed drive for independence gave rise to a surge in social unrest and trade union militancy.
The British sought to placate to dominate in 1918 with limited provincial self-government reforms and the Rowlatt proposals of greater police repressive powers, including two years imprisonment without trial.
Indians, lead by Gandhi, revolted against the Rowlatt proposals in a series of strikes which lead to clashes and deaths. John Newsinger describes the lead up to the Amritsar massacre in his excellent book, “The Blood Never Dried:
“When Gandhi was arrested (he was soon released) to stop him travelling to Punjab, however, serious rioting broke out. In Ahmedabad the textile workers took to the streets, fighting with the police and burning down government buildings, offices and police stations (51 buildings were destroyed). By the time the police had regained control of the city, 28 people had been killed including a British police sergeant. There was a two-day general strike in Bombay on 10 and 11 April (1918) that went off without violence, but in Calcutta on the 12th troops machine gunned a crowd, killing nine people.”
“In Amritsar, in Punjab, the general strike on 6 April had been peaceful. When news arrived of Gandhi’s arrest on the 10th, however, large crowds took to the streets and clashed with troops, who opened fire. After between 20 and 30 people had been killed, an outraged crowd set about destroying British property, killing five Britons (three bank managers, a railwayman and an army sergeant) in the process. A British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten and only rescued by the parents of some of her schoolchildren. An uneasy calm returned to the city and the protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally and without any warning opened fire on the 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes with Dyer only ordering a ceasefire when they were nearly out of ammunition. By the time they had finished the bodies were piled ten to twelve deep around the exits. Dyer made no attempt to help the wounded and dying. Indeed, the curfew came into effect soon after he ceased shooting so the wounded and injured were left screaming, moaning and dying all through the night.”
The official estimate of 329 dead, including 42 children, is likely to be too low. Nonetheless, Dyer was unrepentent, stating that it was not simply a case of dispersing the crowd but inflicting “sufficient moral effect” to terrify the Punjab into obedience.
Dyer went on to order that any Indian seek to pass through the street in which Marcella Sherwood had been attacked must do so crawling on their bellies, on pain of death. A regime of public floggings, reprisals and bombings were also instigated in Punjab.
The context of the Amritsar massacre is not simply 13th April 1919 or even the events of the years, 1918-19. The fuller context of all imperial crimes spans the entire history of the particular empire. It would be inaccurate to view General Reginald Dyer as a mere ‘bad apple’ – even if the Amritsar massacre did cause something of an outcry in Britain. What the perpetrators and defenders of police brutality in the British Raj in the 20th century kept repeating fearfully was the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, in which a violent uprising in India was put down with great brutality by the British. The 1857-58 rebellion had its own General Dyers, or worse – such as Colonal James Neill who conducted a mass pillage and hanging campaign of hundreds, including children. The death count of his troops finally stood at 6,000 – far outweighing the violence committed by the rebels, including the Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacre in which a small British force was massacred after a negotiated settlement for them to evacuate had been agreed, after which the rebels killed the 180 survivors, mainly women and children.
Imperial history should acknowledge the crimes of all concerned but, in doing so, a truthful account cannot but find the crimes of the subjugated population to pale in comparison to that of the aggressor. The aggressor doesn’t just aggress but creates an environment from which anger and violence is bound to unleash, engulfing innocent civilians. As British commander and chief, Henry Rawlinson, put it in 1920: “You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu (secretary of state for India) calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not.”
The Amritsar massacre would be followed by a further 28 years of British rule before India won independence on 15th August 1947. This would be another 28 years of strikes, riots, imprisonments and police brutality which successive British governments had direct responsibility for.
The 20th century atrocities of the British Empire occurred in India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaya, Palestine, Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. The repressed people of the empire were not prepared to accept continued direct domination and exploitation by a foreign government. Imperial exploitation continues with the US relegating Britain to a junior role but peoples’ resistance has made it more awkward for acts of open brutality and criminality to occur.
That the British empire is still held up by some as benign or, even, admirable, reveals our ignorance of the history of the victims and dissidents. Likewise, the acts of imperial aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The victims and dissidents continue to be kept largely silent. The Imperial War Museums must do more to tell the truth about the victims of the massacres, revolts and resistance created by the repression of the British empire.