Amritsar 1919 An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre Kim Wagner

Publication date:
13 Aug 2019
Yale University Press
360 pages: 235 x 156mm
26 b-w illus. + 4 maps
Sales territories:
World excluding the Indian Subcontinent

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

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 was a seminal moment in the history of the British Empire, yet it remains poorly understood. In this dramatic account, Kim A. Wagner details the perspectives of ordinary people and argues that General Dyer’s order to open fire at Jallianwalla Bagh was an act of fear. Situating the massacre within the "deep" context of British colonial mentality and the local dynamics of Indian nationalism, Wagner provides a genuinely nuanced approach to the bloody history of the British Empire.

Kim A. Wagner teaches global and British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London. His books include The Skull of Alum Bheg,The Great Fear of 1857, and Thuggee.

“Kim Wagner [. . .] skilfully maps a tale of growing tensions, precipitate action, and troubled aftermath.” —Andrew Lycett, The Telegraph

“Mr Wagner argues his case fluently and rigorously in this excellent book. The centenary would be as good a time as any to apologise for Amritsar. In Mr Wagner's telling, such contrition might apply to many other acts of cruelty and violence visited upon Britannia's imperial subjects.” —The Economist

“The hideous story of Jallianwala Bagh has been told often and well, notably by Nigel Collett in The Butcher of Amritsar. Yet no one has told it quite like Wagner, a professor at Queen Mary University of London. He calls his book “a microhistory of a global event”, and he is true to his word. Local events from March 30 to April 30, 1919 are examined and parsed into a narrative as he assembles an elaborate forensic jigsaw. 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.” — Tunku Varadarajan, The Times

“A compelling account” — Tony Barber, Financial Times

Amritsar 1919 chronicles the run up to Jallianwala Bagh with spellbinding, almost minute-by-minute focus. . . . Mr. Wagner’s achievement is one of balance—of minutiae and sweep and, above, all, of perspective. E. M. Forster observed in A Passage to India (1924): ‘It is impossible to regard a tragedy from two points of view.’ Mr. Wagner does so without sacrificing moral clarity or verve.”—Maxwell Carter, Wall Street Journal

“The book is written with a humane commitment to the truth that will impress”— Tunku Varadarajan, The Times

“An extremely well-researched and highly readable account, Wagner's book will appeal to anyone who has an interest in Anglo-Indian history or those with ancestors in India at the time.” —Mark Simner, Who Do You Think You Are?

“Sober and impeccably researched, it stands as the finest of centennial memorials in its own right” —John Keay, Literary Review

"[A] brilliantly clear and authoritative analysis of the massacre."—William Dalrymple, Spectator

“Wagner's considerable research and diligence in putting together this account is admirable.” —Navtej Sarna, Times Literary Supplement

“[The book] examines the Amritsar massacre and, even though this is already well-trodden ground, makes an important contribution to deepening our understanding”– Jonh Newsinger, Race & Class

“Wagner has produced the best narrative of Amritsar 1919” — Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Chowkidar    

"Wagner's Amritsar 1919 is a timely and well-written work on the Amritsar massacre, reminding readers that the contingent choices exercised by the perpetrators of savage violence in Jallianwala Bagh were based on longer traditions of colonial authority in which violence was presented as just retribution"—Sharmishtha Roy Chowdhury, Queens College, City University of New York, Journal of British Studies

"A vivid, finely researched account of the Amritsar massacre which will be of great interest to both specialist and general readers alike. It is also an important book for our postcolonial world more generally."—Yasmin Khan, author of The Great Partition

“The fullest, and by far the most authoritative, account of the causes and course of the Jallianwala massacre in any language. Wagner’s exposition of the way fear caused an event that started the unravelling of the Raj will take its place as the definitive version of a story hitherto capable of controversy, but now finally exposed in its full, undeniable horror.  This is now the standard work.”—Nigel Collett, author of The Butcher of Amritsar

"In the cautionary tale provided in Amritsar 1919, it is enduring racist fear that lies at the heart of precipitate violence. Analytically sharp but gripping to read, the book is a page-turner"—Barbara D. Metcalf, co-author of A Concise History of India

"In this compelling yet exacting study, Kim Wagner combines the intimacy of the storyteller and the distance of the historian to evoke the ‘microhistory’ of the massacre while understanding it as the ‘final stage of a much longer process’, stretching back to the Sepoy Uprising. Mining a variety of sources – diaries, memoirs and court testimonies - he uncovers fresh perspectives and examines the relation between colonial panic and state brutality with sophistication, sincerity and style rare in published accounts of this much-trodden ground."—Santanu Das, author of India, Empire, and First World War Culture