Friday, 8 May 2020

Brig.Gen. John Nicholson of East India company, a cult figure and sadist bully

John Nicholsonen. wikipedia.org
Above image: Nicholson  landed in India at a young age and joined the the East India Company' army. He took part in many conflicts - the First Anglo-Afghan War and the First and Second Anglo-Sikh War. Nicholson created a legend for himself as a  tough political officer under Henry Lawrence in the frontier provinces of the British Empire, especially in the Punjab.  He took part in the  settlement of the North-West Frontier, a tough region to handle. Nicholson played no less role during the war of rebellion of  1857. He ruthlessly crushed the rebellions at many places. He received severe wounds while fighting against the rebels in Delhi and died 

in Sept. 24, 1857 (he was just 34 years old) close to the Kashmiri gate. He never married and  was quite upset over the demise of his fatherly figure military officer Henry Lawrence. Mostly 
he served the  Bengal army.  

When India was under the early colonial rule. there were many sadist bullies like Brigadier General John Nicholson
(11 December 1822 – 23 September 1857), a British Army officer serving the East India company.  He was one of a celebrated band of British officers in India, like Herbert Edwards, James Abbott, Reynell Taylor and the Lawrence brothers (Henry and John). These people 's devotion to duty, patriotic zeal  to save the face of the English company and its proxy government in London made them popular and  national heroes. 

Brig Gen.John Nicholson’sstatue, the Royal School Dungannon, Northern Ireland. wikipedia/KennethAllen
As for Nicholson, his area of operation was NW frontier (now part of Pakistan), a disputed and dangerous territory  and it was here he had spent  much of his career. He had to deal with rugged and difficult terrain  and also undisciplined people there - mostly Muslim tribes who were up against the intrusion of the English in their areas. Over a period of time his persona changed to survive in a strange environment and obviously he developed a fearsome reputation among the tribes and later others.  Among his colleagues, it resulted in the creation of a  religious cult dedicated to the veneration of the great god “Nikal Seyn” and  his line of duty, however, merely strengthened their conviction that he was a god and  became a sort of cult figure. Even after his death  the cult lingered on into the 21st century.
That circumstances shape up a man is true in the case of Nicholson. It was during his military services  in the north of Ireland and partly by his experiences as a prisoner during Britain’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the First Afghan War (1839-42), he experienced a change of his character. Being short-tempered  and edgy, having been molded in a tough terrain, Nicholson  developed a tough, uncompromising character with a reputation for his tough and  unforgiving attitude towards Indians.  He was being denounced as a sadistic bully, a racist and a religious bigot even among the hardened East India Company officer corps.

Two instances might tell you what sort of man Nicholson was. He never liked Indians spitting in public places.  When one Indian leader spat on the ground  right in front of him, he could not brook this sight.  Considering it as an insult to his authority and power, he pinned him down and made him  lick up his own spittle.  Once when an  imam, because of preoccupation with something, failed to greet him,  he became so hot headed that he himself removed his long beard - a  humiliation for an innocent Musulman.  

During the first war of independence - the great rebellion of 1857-58 that started off at Meerut  Cantonment, MP, Nicholson's anger and frustration peaked and got a devil out of him.  Upon finding poison in the soup (mixed with aconite) being prepared for the fellow officers, John Nicholson went berserk and  personally ordered and oversaw the hanging without trial of a whole set of regimental cooks - mainly Indians. Soon after entering the mess tent in Jullender he told the officer that he was busy hanging the cooks, hence he was arriving late. 
John Nicholson statue once near the Kashmere gate thehindu.com 
Such weird stories about this man with powder-keg temper were in circulation in those days to show the English company's  bravery in difficult times to please the Victorian public and to impress on them the virtues of the British Empire. The modern audience would see Nicholson as a great bully who treated the native Indians as beasts with contempt. This brought to the fore the mean and nasty act of the British and their atrocities on the natives - the draconian and unjust act of British colonialism.   This hardcore- tough-minded military officer had no respect for Indian leaders  either and he treated them far below their dignity. His forte was flogging Indians to his heart's content  and when occasions demanded  he would use any ground and use it with glee. He knew very well he had no authority to flog Indian natives.  Deeply disturbing dereliction of duty on his part. The senior British officers turned a blind eye to his unethical military duty.  

The great rebellion of 1957 gave him a chance to prove his demonic attitude toward the rioting Indians - a chance he cherished very much. To say it simply, he relished   the opportunity thrown at him  and got into action and openly expressing his contempt for any commander who did not measure up to his  way of handling the rioters. The revelations of atrocities committed by the mobs against British women and children were on his mind and this time he was in full rage against those who  murdered and  mutilated their bodies. During the military operation, he made a wrong move,  and died of wounds.
The scrutiny of the post-colonial age  and the bloody acts of people like Nicholson particularly have caused revulsion among the young mind.  These “Soldier Sahibs” of British India were  portrayed as men of remarkable energy and their mission was to  rescue India from oppressive rulers and backwardness. If some conservative historians came up with this kind of view, the present day generation won't buy it. Rather it would cast a blot on the so called Victorian virtues and fair justice.  Sir Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling wrote popular fiction upholding the virtues  and patriotic zeal of mad people like  Nicholson. Presently, young Indians and others hate such hyped stories about racist ans a mad cap.  https://theconversation.com/john-nicholson-the-sadistic-british-officer-who-was-worshipped-as-a-living-god-in-india-99889
https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/nicholson-rises-again/article24493745.ece