Any massacre in our history is one too many

The calm of the pretty little village of Glencoe at the head of Loch Leven belies its tragic past

Did you catch that Channel 4 documentary about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre last month?  In 1919 there was unrest and protest among the Sikh community in British-ruled Punjab. On 13thApril in the city of Amritsar, soldiers of the British Indian Army under the command of acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed Sikhs gathered in the park area known as the Bagh to celebrate their major festival of Baisakhi. Hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, were killed, and many more injured.

Following writer and journalist Sathnam Sanghera, as the Wolverhampton-born Sikh discovered the details of that terrible event, the documentary ended with him even-handedly managing a virtual debate between defenders of the British Empire – who believe posterity should forgive its well-intentioned excesses – and the descendants of victims convinced that Britain still owes India an apology, rather than the mere “acknowledgments” of wrong already offered.

Jallianwala Bagh sprang vividly to mind more recently when we visited the little museum in the village of Glencoe devoted to the massacre that took place in that remote corner of the Scottish Highlands in 1692.

I vaguely remember learning at school about the Massacre of Glencoe, how the wicked Campbell clan went to dinner with the MacDonalds and, after sharing dinner with them, slew their hosts in the night in murderous negation of all the rules of hospitality. That blot stains the Campbell escutcheon to this day: the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe still displays a sign saying “No Campbells here”.,

Small wonder for the lasting hatred, if that’s what they did. But, of course, they didn’t, not quite. As always, the true history is more complex (an article by Stewart Borland explains it very effectively). The outrage did not stem from inter-clan hostility. It was sanctioned at the highest circles of government, and was a carefully planned exercise in what might nowadays be termed ethnic cleansing.

Between them, London and John Dalrymple, Master of Stair and Secretary of State for Scotland, were determined to bring all the Scottish clans to heel by requiring them to abandon their allegiance to the exiled James II of England (James VII of Scotland) and swear fealty to the new king, William (of Orange), the Protestant monarch who had supplanted him. They set a deadline of 31stDecember 1691, after which any chiefs who had not sworn would be deemed traitors.

The chiefs acceded, but a combination of circumstances including terrible winter weather caused several to miss the deadline. Yet it was only the leader of Glencoe’s clan MacDonald, Alistair MacIain, whose late signature was rejected by the Privy Council in Edinburgh. To Dalrymple, a Lowlander with a hatred of Highlanders, this was the perfect opportunity “to be exact in routing out that damnable sept, the worst in all the highlands.”

In February 1692, on Dalrymple’s orders, 120 soldiers were billeted in MacDonald homes in Glencoe on the pretext that Fort William was full. Their commander was Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon: some tenpercent of his force also bore the name Campbell, but none had prior knowledge of what they would be required to do. The troops were welcomed, not least as a guarantee of protection and for ten days they enjoyed warm hospitality in the Highland tradition.

Captain Campbell’s secret order came from a Major Duncanson. At 5am the next morning he was to “fall upon the rebells, the McDonalds of Glenco, and put all to the sword under seventy. You are to have a special care that the old Fox and his sones doe upon no account escape your hands…” Apparently concerned that Campbell might baulk at such instructions, he added a threat: “See that this be putt in execution with feud or favour, else you may expect to be dealt with as one not true to King nor Government…

The orders were carried out – in part, at least. Thirty-eight MacDonalds were slaughtered, MacIain in his bed, but his sons, perhaps forewarned by sympathetic and reluctant soldiers, escaped. Others escaped into the mountains, not least because Duncanson arrived late: though many more, perhaps more than a hundred, died in the snow that had delayed him after the houses were torched. There are touching stories, unverified, of soldiers allowing men and boys to flee, even of officers breaking their swords and refusing to engage in the barbarity: by contrast, one account describes a Captain Drummond gleefully knifing a twelve-year-old boy as he pleaded for his life.

Not an inter-clan fight, then, but murder authorised at the top. The written order surfaced in Paris, causing outcry. There was an enquiry, some of the officers were charged with murder under trust, and there were accusations of exceeding orders. Nonetheless, while Captain Campbell drank himself to death in Edinburgh, no one was actually punished. The enquiry went nowhere, and was a cover-up. Having ensured that King William himself had signed the order, Dalrymple gained himself immunity. He lost his job, but later both regained it and collected an earldom.

You might say that similar consequences followed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Initially described as the “saviour of the Raj”, Colonel Dyer was later disciplined, removed from his post and passed over for promotion: public opinion refused to censure him, however, and the Morning Post launched a fund for him, raising £26,000 (well over £1m at today’s value).

The more I learn of the English treatment of the Scots over centuries, the more amazed I am that they don’t harbour greater and deeper resentment against us Anglo-Saxons (my 1/32 Scots blood hardly qualifies me to decry the Sassenachs, though I do sing a mean Burns song on 25thJanuary). If I ever get to see more of India than a five-day conference trip to Delhi a decade ago, I suspect I may feel the same about that great continent and its people.

The truth is, of course, that history is written by the winners (an expression Churchill probably didn’t coin). Power corrupts, and the powerful too easily lose sight of their moral compass when they perceive a threat to their ability to control. I’m not about to enter the debate on whether this nation should apologise for the Amritsar massacre: but I am grateful that, in this democracy, we can draw attention, and admit, to wrongs that in our past were committed in our name. And, dare I add, we can and should reject facile suggestions in our current political turmoil that we “make Britain great again”, and insist instead on informed and rational debate.

We owe that, if nothing else, to the murkier bits of our history.


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