‘Lion of the Punjab’ or ‘great imperial psychopath’?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Volume 27

John Nicholson—the Irishman who became a god.

By Stuart Flinders

Question: What had the duke of Wellington, the writer Brendan Behan and the explorer Shackleton in common? Answer: Their portraits all appeared at an exhibition of ‘great Irishmen’ in 1965. You can imagine the arguments amongst visitors to the event in Belfast about who deserved to be honoured and who did not. Amongst those looking down from the gallery walls was John Nicholson, a soldier who became a great hero of the British Empire when the whole of Ireland was part of that empire. At the time, his death in battle during the Indian Uprising in 1857 was described as a ‘national misfortune’. He was the ‘Hero of Delhi’, the ‘Lion of the Punjab’. He was even compared to Napoleon. Should a similar exhibition be staged today, however, it would be hard to imagine Nicholson still making the list. In Britain attitudes to race and Empire have moved on, and Nicholson’s name has become a byword for brutality and racism. One historian recently called him the ‘great imperial psychopath’. In Ireland he has long been a divisive figure. The portrait proudly displayed in Belfast 50 years ago now lies hidden in a storeroom beneath the Armagh County Museum. But his story—of a life lived on a wild frontier—remains compelling.

Above:J.R. Dicksee’s portrait of John Nicholson, currently in storage in ArmaghCounty Museum.

Family background
Nicholson’s family was from Lisburn. His parents, Alexander and Clara, were married in the cathedral there in 1820. Alexander was a doctor and they moved to Dublin, where John was born in 1822, probably in Lower Gardiner Street. When Alexander died of an illness contracted from one of his patients, Clara and her seven children were forced to move back north, where they could rely on the support of her family. Her brother, James Weir Hogg, had made a fortune in India and was now an MP in England. As John was the eldest, Uncle James ensured that he had a good start in life, paying for him to attend the Royal School, Dungannon, and then, using his influence, helping him to secure a cadetship in the Indian Army. John Nicholson set out for India in 1839, and over the next two decades he would earn a reputation for being utterly fearless, but equally merciless to his enemies.

His looks were remarkable. ‘He was of a commanding presence,’ wrote one of those who fought alongside him, ‘some six feet two inches in height, with a long black beard, dark grey eyes with black pupils (under excitement of any sort these pupils would dilate like a tiger’s), a colourless face, over which no smile ever passed, laconic of speech.’ His height alone would have made him stand out. Six foot two (185cm) is tall by modern standards but was extraordinary at a time when the average British soldier was nearly six inches shorter. His general demeanour also carried a threat, according to another who served with him: ‘Tall, dark, and stern, he looked every inch what he was, a fearless, self-reliant, fierce and masterful man, born for stormy times and stirring events’.

Above:John Henry Foley’s monument to Nicholson, paid for by his mother, in LisburnCathedral.

Sikh rebellion of 1848
When the Sikhs rebelled against British rule in the Punjab in 1848, the young officer rose from his sickbed and led his men over 50 miles in the summer heat to confront the enemy. On hearing that a mutinous Sikh regiment was on its way to Rawalpindi, he headed to the Margalla Pass to intercept them and waited. What happened next became part of Nicholson folklore and illustrates the sheer power of his personality. When the rebels appeared, he summoned the Sikh colonel and gave him an ultimatum: if his men returned to their duty he would rejoice; otherwise they would be treated as open mutineers and killed. He gave them half an hour to decide, took out his watch and waited. This was tough talk from a man with the odds stacked against him. On the one side were the Sikh rebels, a strong regiment of disciplined infantry, armed with two light guns and sheltered within the walls of a Muslim cemetery; on the other was Nicholson with a force of 700, recently thrown together, ill armed and poorly trained, with little real prospect of being able to cross open ground and attack the enemy. ‘The debate between the peace and war parties was a stormy one,’ he wrote in his official report, ‘the former being in a very small majority.’ Nicholson’s bluff paid off. The Sikh colonel ‘came out, begged pardon on his own behalf and that of his men, and declared their willingness to march whithersoever I directed them’.

Above: The statue of Nicholson erected in Lisburn’s Market Square in January 1922 divided the town at a time when Ireland itself was splitting in two.

The Empire needed an energetic band of rulers to take charge of its new frontier territories in India. They were known as ‘politicals’, men with a military background in what were largely civilian appointments. They were expected to act as policemen, judges, revenue collectors and diplomats. Before the Sikh War, Nicholson had taken charge of Rawalpindi and the Sind-Sagar Doab, the land between the Jhelum and Indus rivers. He reported on the state of the crops, the building of forts and the settlement of disputes. At 25 years of age, Nicholson was judge and jury in his own court. His official diaries provide a snapshot of life in a remote part of the Empire. He mentions a European deserter passing through on his way for punishment at Lahore, and in another entry: ‘Saw an alligator swimming about, said sometimes to do mischief’.

In 1852 Nicholson took charge of Bannu, a strip of land on the border with Afghanistan almost as big as Wales, with a reputation for lawlessness. Like a sheriff in the Wild West, he would lay down the law by hitting troublemakers hard and making sure that others took it as a warning. He offered a reward for the capture of a local bandit, who remained at large until Nicholson himself went in search of him. Before setting out, he was warned that he would need a strong force, as his quarry would be holed up in his village with his supporters. Ignoring the advice, Nicholson rode alone to the village, where he ordered the man to surrender. Refusing, he rushed at Nicholson, who cut him down and took his body back to his office. There he had the head removed and placed on his desk as a warning to visiting tribesmen. A man of action rather than words, he survived an assassination attempt, writing to his superior in Lahore: ‘Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I have just shot a man who came to kill me. Your obedient servant, John Nicholson.’

1857 mutiny
In 1857 Indian troops mutinied, sparking one of the great crises of the British Empire. Nicholson was given charge of a ‘movable column’, a force that could respond at high speed to reports of rebel movements anywhere in the Punjab. His spies supplied him with reports of treachery from within his own ranks. On one occasion his officers were left confused when, ready for their dinner, neither it nor their commanding officer, Nicholson, appeared. Half an hour later he arrived, telling them: ‘I am sorry, Gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks!’ Nicholson had received intelligence that their soup had been poisoned. He told one of the cooks to eat some of it but he refused, so a monkey was brought in and some of the soup poured down its throat. It died shortly afterwards, proof of the plot against Nicholson and his men, and the cooks were hanged.

Other examples of Nicholson’s famed capacity for rooting out the hidden enemy are bound to make us feel uneasy, however. Prisoners arrested during a day’s march would be paraded before him. As he walked down the line he would every now and then point to a man he thought to be an enemy soldier, deeming the others to be innocent. The ‘guilty’ were executed immediately. This was too much even for some of his contemporaries. One of his lieutenants described him as a ‘great brute’ after he thrashed a cook-boy, who died from his injuries. Nor did Nicholson shrink from enforcing the perceived racial superiority of the European. He issued an order that no Indian was to ride by any white man. He was to dismount and salaam, bending his body in submission.

Nevertheless, at a time when the future of British rule was in the balance he drove himself and his men to the limit to preserve it, on one occasion announcing to his officers at eight o’clock in the evening as they ate: ‘Gentlemen, I do not want you to hurry your dinner, but the column marches in half-an-hour’. Even at night-time, as they began their march, it was hot, and as the July sun rose so did the temperature. It was too much for many men, who died on the march. Horses collapsed, unable to continue, and at ten in the morning the men were allowed to rest under the shade of a gigantic tree. Nicholson, however, remained mounted in the middle of the road, exposed to the sun, waiting to move on. By the time the movable column caught up with the rebels at the River Ravi, the men had spent eighteen hours on the road. They were allowed to sleep, but as they marched into battle the following morning they were still feeling the effects of their long march. Scores collapsed and had to be carried. The rebels, waiting at a ferry point known as Trimmu Ghat, were 1,000 strong. There were 220 men of all ranks on the British side. Against such overwhelming odds and wearied by the effort just to reach the enemy, Nicholson and his men won the day.

In September 1857 came the battle that would determine the outcome of British attempts to reassert control. Nicholson, by now talismanic within the army, was chosen to lead the assault on Delhi. He took his men over the city walls, in places reduced to rubble after being pounded for days by artillery. Once inside, however, they met stern resistance and were driven back. Nicholson ordered his men to follow him. With the city wall on their right and adjoining houses full of enemy marksmen, they made their way along a narrow lane. Grapeshot and bullets poured into them and many men were hit; as Nicholson’s soldiers hesitated, he sprang forward, appealing to them in the name of God and the queen to follow him. As he rushed on, his sword arm raised, he was shot and fatally wounded. He died an agonising nine days later and was buried under a slab of marble previously used as a garden seat in the Mughal’s palace. His grave can still be visited in a cemetery that bears his name, and there is still a ‘Nicholson Road’ in Delhi by a section of the city wall along which he passed on the day of the assault.

Funerary monument
Back home, his mother paid for a monument to be installed at Lisburn Cathedral, depicting the battle for Delhi. The artist was John Henry Foley, the man who immortalised Prince Albert in his London memorial and Daniel O’Connell in Dublin, and it can be seen on the wall of the cathedral still. It was highly praised at the time, one critic comparing it to the work of Michelangelo. The statue erected a short distance away in the town’s Market Square, however, divided the city at a time when Ireland itself was splitting in two.

In the early years of the twentieth century Nicholson became a symbol of the defence of Empire, not just in India but also in Ireland. One prominent Unionist even hinted that Nicholson’s penchant for dealing out rough justice might be an example of how to treat those who would separate Ireland from the rest of the kingdom. He had tamed ‘a wild and turbulent district almost as bad as Ulster’, argued Colonel R.H. Twigg, himself a veteran of India. ‘There he showed his power of dealing with the insurgents.’

In 1920, exactly 100 years after Nicholson’s parents had married in Lisburn Cathedral, a police inspector was shot dead by the IRA as he left Sunday service there. It led to days of rioting, as Catholic homes and businesses were set on fire, and the scene reminded men recently returned from the First World War of a bombarded town in France. By 1922 Lisburn found itself within the newly created Northern Ireland. In January a statue of Nicholson at his most warlike—sword raised in one hand, a pistol in the other—was unveiled in Market Square to mark the centenary of his birth. On the day of the unveiling Lisburn came to a standstill, as shops, schools and factories closed for the event. The prime minister of Northern Ireland looked on as Dr George St George spoke on behalf of the Urban District Council: ‘Alas! at the present moment it was rather the ideal of politicians to tear down and dismember that Empire, that men like Nicholson, Rhodes, and others had died to build up’.

It is unlikely that Lisburn will mark the bicentenary of Nicholson’s birth with as much enthusiasm as it marked the first 100 years. He is largely forgotten, even in Northern Ireland. Nor could a man who openly declared his hatred of Indians be considered a hero in modern Britain or Ireland. Perhaps Nicholson’s current standing is best reflected in the state of the cemetery in which he is buried. In 2004 the Daily Telegraph noted that the railings around his tombstone were used to drip-dry jeans. At around the same time a couple were spotted making love on the grave. A few years after Nicholson’s death, one of his successors noted that his name still had the power to make a man ‘shiver in his pyjamas’. Not any more.

Stuart Flinders is the author of Cult of a dark hero: Nicholson of Delhi (I.B. Tauris, 2018).

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