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Lieutenant-General John Nicholson: Hero or villain?


“You may rely upon this – that if ever there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it.” - Herbert Edwardes to Viceroy Lord Canning, 1857

“Let us never forget the intrepid Nicholson.” - Benjamin Disraeli, 1857

“Nicholson was an army in himself.” - Quoted in Lives of Indian Officers, 1867

“This great imperial psychopath.” - William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, 2006

These quotations say much about the awe and ultimately the anger that the name of John Nicholson evoked. Born in Dublin, he was sent out to India as a boy soldier at the age of 16. Nicholson was to become probably the finest frontline battlefield commander in the Victorian British Empire. He was involved in the first Anglo-Afghan war, the two Anglo-Sikh wars and the Great Rebellion or Mutiny, dying in the thick of battle as the British army he was leading stormed into the ancient city of Delhi in September 1857. This is a young man’s story: he was only 34 years of age when he died.

Nicholson’s tale is undoubtedly an epic, even when the more fanciful stories of his life are discarded. In stature, he was at least 6ft 2in (1.9m) tall, with broad shoulders, a great beard and a deep Anglo-Irish accent. Holding his head high as he walked gave the impression of aloofness, a characteristic reinforced in many people’s minds by his reserve, which in turn was the product of shyness but also of a distrust of strangers. His manner tended to be unsocial, one of dark foreboding, and there was a certainty and forcefulness about him that brooked no opposition. He gave the impression of one whose destiny was set. As a soldier, he was a terrifying and impressive figure on his grey charger. In the three set-piece battles that he fought as commander, though, he ended up fighting on foot among his troops. He led his men from the front, fighting with a long curved sword and showing neither fear nor mercy on the battlefield. He was described by one contemporary as ‘the bravest of the brave’. Even one of his sternest modern critics has observed that Nicholson, ‘would later go on to change the course of Indian history’.

Nicholson was a lonely and a shy man, a limited man in some respects. But he was aware of those limitations, especially relating to his temper. That he was possibly homosexual or, more likely, a repressed homosexual, served only to torment his Victorian Christian soul. However, the one thing Nicholson was not, in the modern sense, was a racist. The ebullient Reginald Wilberforce, writing in the early 1890s, asserted that Nicholson ‘hated Sepoys’ but then goes on to say how after the engagements at Trimmu Ghat, the brigadier general had erected a memorial to the insurgent gunners who had died at their post as well as adding a footnote with the equally sweeping statement, ‘Nicholson loved his Mooltanees, Pathans, and Afreedis’.

Nicholson’s negative perceived attitude towards Indians does not stand up to scrutiny. He certainly considered himself to be of a superior culture, yet that inner prejudice is contradicted by the relationship he had with his Indian troops and officials. One gets the distinct impression that, apart from a handful of close friends, Nicholson preferred the company of Indians to Europeans. It is not difficult to conclude that the ‘wild hillmen’ of the North-West Frontier, with their set views and staunch loyalties, struck a chord with someone who had spent some years of his youth in the heartland of Protestant Ulster.

Nicholson, like many of his contemporaries, learnt several Indian languages and spoke to the locals in their own tongue. There is overwhelming evidence that Nicholson cared for his Indian troops and went to extremes to see to their welfare. Indeed, by July 1857 he was permanently accompanied by a large cohort of irregular soldiers from the hill tribes. Of course, famously, there was also a religious sect, albeit small, who worshipped him, much to his irritation.

Equally, there is also no evidence that Nicholson was a jingoistic imperialist. He certainly believed Britain to be top dog, but who in Britain then did not? Nicholson had no difficulty in considering joining the Turkish Ottoman army, and equally, in the right circumstances, he would have willingly led a division for the Persian army.

It is often forgotten that Nicholson was an effective, if stern, colonial administrator. Ironically, the latter gave him the freedom he needed to be a good soldier, independent and unfettered by regimental ties and obstructions. For Nicholson was a frontier’s man, with all that implies about being betwixt cultures; beyond the mores and laws of established society; and a figure of depth and mystery, echoing the terrain and uncertainties of those regions where British India stopped.

As early as 1980, a scholarly book of documents relating to the Graham family and the Indian Mutiny criticised Nicholson. But it was not until the 2000s that Nicholson has become the target of severe attack by several authors. In his book on the fall of Delhi, William Dalrymple talks of ‘this great imperial psychopath’, and uses a range of words describing Nicholson, from brutality, cruelty and merciless, to taciturn and piety. So it is that heroes become villains. And it cannot be denied that Nicholson’s approach and methods of dealing with rebellion shocked even some contemporaries. The case against Brigadier General John Nicholson is that he showed no or little mercy on his enemy. That perception is correct. But it is not the whole story.

Nicholson’s reputation for being brutal is interwoven with his undoubted bad temper, which was in part the product of temperament but probably as much the results of the poisonous cocktail of medicines he was prescribed. It might seem incongruous to compare General John Nicholson with President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, and yet they had two things in common – their behavioural patterns and the medicine they took. Both Lincoln and Nicholson were prescribed the nineteenth-century cure-all ‘blue pill’. This was a bizarre concoction of liquorice, marshmallow, honey and mercury, the mercury constituting a third of the dose. The result for both men was erratic behavioural patterns and a tendency to violent outbursts. Things were not helped by the fact that for constant liver pains in the 1850s Nicholson also took doses of what is today the modern domestic and industrial solvent hydrochloric acid.

To this literally poisonous cocktail needs to be added the fact that Nicholson was psychologically damaged by a difficult childhood in a gloomy puritan household, having lost his father at the age of 9. He was then brought up in genteel poverty by a religiously fixated and probably guilt-ridden mother, whom he loved dearly. Having been posted to India, it would be eleven years until Nicholson saw his home in Lisburn again. By then, assisted by the trauma of his experience in Afghanistan, the damage was complete.

Nicholson has been accused by several modern writers of brutality. The nature of that brutality needs to be commented upon. Nicholson’s violence was institutional violence, primarily the violence of campaign and battle. It is said that he knew no fear. The psychologist might well add that Nicholson’s social dysfunctionality resulted in a tendency to drive him to extremes. He was certainly an officer who led from the front and it might be argued with justification that a lack of fear meant a lack of restraint. And yet this is the officer who pressed on one occasion for the sparing of the lives of young insurgency troops whom he considered had been misled.

And yet, all this conceded, Nicholson was not ‘normal’. He had a furious and frightening temper. He frequently did treat his military enemy without mercy, behaving in a way that would be completely unacceptable today. A great deal of the Nicholson stories can be dismissed out of hand as either fiction or exaggeration. Sometimes with Nicholson one just does not know for sure what was going on.

Extracted from Nicholson: How an Angry Irishman Became the Hero of Delhi by Donal P. McCracken

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