The Butcher of Amritsar – General Reginald Dyer by Nigel Collett, Hambledon & London, £25.
ISBN – 185285457X|
If any event undermined Britain’s moral legitimacy in India, and prompted the
rise of nationalism, it was the massacre
at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, on the
orders of General Reginald Dyer.
On 13 April 1919, 379 people were
killed and approximately 2,000 wounded
as a result of British troops firing without warning into a large, unarmed crowd.
To make matters worse, Dyer had ordered his men to shoot at the places where the crowd was thickest and the wounded were left where they fell due to a curfew imposed on the area. Dyer, as the officer
in charge, was blamed and Nigel Collett’s book shows this was fully justified.
After the First World War, political unrest was rife in Northern India. British authorities attempted to quell any disorder by introducing censorship and internment without trial. Dyer, on taking command
of Amritsar from civil authorities, took the view that a repeat of the mutiny of 1857 in the Punjab might be looming and quickly proclaimed there would be no more assemblies, before advancing with his
troops on the enclosed heart of the city.
He deliberately avoided bringing British officers with him for fear his orders might
be challenged. During subsequent days after the massacre, Dyer’s actions only served
to exacerbate the tension. On one street, where a white woman missionary had been beaten, Indians wishing to proceed were forced to advance ‘lying flat on their bellies and crawling exactly like reptiles’. Mohandas Ghandhi was quick to condemn this racial humiliation, which he viewed
as being as bad as the massacre itself. Interestingly, while condemned by the government, Dyer’s actions made him
a hero among many British in India and among certain circles back home.
Nigel Collett’s book reads well and provides a fascinating insight into Dyer. Despite the fact that Dyer’s wife ensured there was little personal archive material to work with, he provides a comprehensive biography of a man whose actions only served to enforce the arguments of Indian nationalists.
Mad About The Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia by
John Keay, Harper Collins, £20.
ISBN – 0007111134|
This dramatic journey along one of the world’s most turbulent rivers begins in Saigon where the Mekong flows into the South China Sea. It retraces the steps of a party of Frenchman, made up of crack troops, naturalists, geologists and artists,
who undertook an expedition to conquer the Mekong in 1866 in an effort to expand their country’s shrinking empire.
This was the first attempt by Europeans to explore and map the Mekong River. The main documenter of the voyage was Francis Garnier, who was to become one of France’s great 19th-century explorers.
Over two hellish years the river pushed the men’s strength and determination to
the limit and we follow the path through tragedy onto success. As well as contending with the hostile tribesmen of the Mekong, the Frenchmen fought against malaria, dysentery and leeches in the suffocating
heat and humidity.
On this re-enactment of the Frenchmen’s historic journey, John Keay eloquently attempts to do justice to the Mekong Exploration Commission which, he feels, was not given the recognition it deserved following their completion of the trip
He takes us on a modern day journey
of the Mekong and successfully makes the reader feel part of his own expedition as
he colourfully captures the river’s immense character, its many natural obstacles and
the people who live along its riverbanks.
The full enormity of the river and its importance is highlighted by his travels through the many countries it flows
through including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and on into China, covering more than 4,000 kilometres.
The Mekong has witnessed many conflicts from the Vietnam War to earlier battles resulting from the Chinese opium trade.
Yet, as the political and ideological barriers that once troubled the river have begun to fade, we see the river coming to life again.
Bury the Chains: the British Struggle
to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild, Macmillan £20. ISBN – 0333904914|
When people think of slavery, images of the American South might come to mind. Adam Hochschild, in this gripping account of
the British abolition movement, is quick to point out that the European colonies of the Caribbean were in fact at the forefront of 18th century slavery.
Coffee, cocoa and, above all, sugar, resulted in remarkable prosperity for slave ports such as Liverpool and Bristol. The enormous wealth accrued by plantation owners was founded on the toil of African slaves. Barbaric punishments were common and mortality rates were extraordinarily high. The fact that it cost more to keep a tired slave than it did to import a new one, may account for the terrible statistic that of the two million slaves imported to the British Caribbean, only a quarter of them existed at the time slavery ended.
The ordeal of these African slaves began long before their arrival in the Caribbean.
In what was known as the ‘Middle Passage’, they were herded on to slave ships anchored off the Gold Coast and crammed into diseased confines below deck for the long and often fatal voyage. The stench and squalor below was such that it was said that you could smell a slave ship long before you could see it.
How a group of high-minded Englishmen transcended party political divisions and successfully opposed brute, mercantile greed makes for fascinating reading. This was,
as Hochschild asserts, truly the ‘first international human rights movement’.
The book’s hero is Thomas Clarkson,
a young idealist, who in 1789 persuaded William Wilberforce to become the abolition movement’s spokesman in Parliament.
Wilberforce has received much credit
for his part in the abolition, but it was Clarkson’s tireless investigations and years
of lobbying that was the catalyst to the end of the British slave trade in 1807.
Abolition, however, did not mean emancipation and Britain’s slaves had to
wait a further 30 years before they were
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