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Amritsar 1919 Reviews

Amritsar 1919 by Kim Wagner

Amritsar 1919

An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre

Kim Wagner

3.78 out of 5

6 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Yale University Press
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12 Feb 2019
ISBN: 9780300200355

A powerful reassessment of a seminal moment in the history of India and the British Empire--the Amritsar Massacre--to mark its 100th anniversary

3 stars out of 5
14 May 2019

"Recalling a colonial outrage"

Wagner’s considerable research and diligence in putting together this account is admirable. But at places, such as in the narrative of the clashes on April 10, more rank-and-file Indian voices would have ensured better balance: it was after all inept handling and arbitrary shooting that angered the mob, unarmed and peaceful to begin with, resulting in the five graphically detailed European deaths. Wagner’s more level treatment of the aftermath of the massacre itself brings out the prejudices that fuelled the debate – between civilians and the Army, Liberals and Conservatives, Commons and the Lords – on what to do with Dyer: whether to regard him as “the butcher of Amritsar” or indeed the “The Man Who Saved India” for the empire. In the process he effectively unmasks Winston Churchill who disingenuously resorted to British exceptionalism – blaming Dyer for a “monstrous” act – while distancing the larger colonial enterprise from men like him.


4 stars out of 5
Manu S Pillai
12 Apr 2019

"an intelligent and unsentimentally argued account of one of the most horrifying moments in the history of the Raj"

Making historical and scholarly (as opposed to political or emotional) sense of this tragedy is one of the principal intentions of Wagner’s study. Both parties thought their actions legitimate. But how did a massacre resemble justifiable military action for the Raj’s officials?..Wagner’s nuanced book explains the inner workings of both sides. The Indians were certainly the victims: despite their violence on the eve of Jallianwala Bagh, bricks and sticks ought not to have provoked any government to prepare air power against the people it governed. 

5 stars out of 5
William Dalrymple
4 Apr 2019

"gets as close as we are ever likely to get to the truth of what happened in Jallianwalla Bagh"

Wagner’s style is coolly forensic and scholarly. He sets the massacre in its full historical context, and with massive research into a wide range of primary sources—almost every sentence is footnoted — gets as close as we are ever likely to get to the truth of what happened in Jallianwalla Bagh. In the process, he demolishes a large number of myths that have grown up around the event, both imperial and nationalist...Books such as Amritsar 1919 and The Patient Assassin are now more important than ever because they help us to understand why Indians — like so many other peoples around the globe — often have such bitter memories of British rule. 

4 stars out of 5
1 Apr 2019

"The story of the massacre has been told many times, but rarely with such narrative vigour and moral passion "

The story of the massacre has been told many times, but rarely with such narrative vigour and moral passion as by Kim Wagner in this centenary account. He quotes at length from Dyer’s own evidence to the commission of inquiry led by Lord Hunter, who had been solicitor general for Scotland in the Asquith government. Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’

3 stars out of 5
Andrew Lycett
11 Feb 2019

"skilfully maps a tale of growing tensions, precipitate action, and troubled aftermath"

One must recall that Wagner teaches imperial history – a highly politicised area of intellectual enquiry where there’s little sympathy for Britain’s colonial exploits. He harps on about "racialised" violence, spaces and logic in ways not always helpful... Wagner’s text would have been improved by more colour. He mentions Dyer was born in India, but not that his Irish family ran the Murree brewery. He records that Gerard Wathen returned to England to run the Hall school, but not that this was in London where it continues to this day as a successful preparatory school. Such slight observations might have lifted a thorough and readable academic exercise into something more universal.

4 stars out of 5
Tunku Varadarajan
2 Feb 2019

"The story of a horrific colonial massacre is vividly told"

In less skilled hands this spare-no-detail approach might well have suffocated readers, but the book is written with a humane commitment to the truth that will impress. Wagner seeks to establish what happened on the day of the massacre and why, dedicating entire chapters to each of the preceding three days. Wagner’s explanations are dispassionate and he adds that “to explain is not to justify”. He says that his book will appeal neither to Raj nostalgists, nor to Indian nationalist mythologists.