Wednesday 1 February 2012

Brigadier-General John Nicholson, 1822-1857 (pt 2)


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Second Sikh War. Chilianwala, Gujarat.  Death of William Nicholson.

At Sabraon the Sikh power in the Punjab had been crushed but not broken, and now, by the middle of 1848, the clouds of war were again gathering thick and black on the horizon. Nicholson was busy night and day fighting, organising, struggling, in conjunction with many more brave men, to avert the storm, but in vain. By September the Sikh army was in fierce revolt and the country plunged once more in war. Nicholson fought through the campaign, and on January 13, 1949, was present at the indecisive but bloody battle of Chilianwala. Our hero was masterful and maybe a little intolerant of the failings of weaker mortals. The story is told and well authenticated by an eye-witness, that during the heat of the day Nicholson seeing a British officer not so forward in attack as he thought proper, caught the defaulter by the shoulders and literally kicked him into the hottest of the firing. On February 21, 1849, was fought the decisive battle of Gujarat, which decided ones for all the question of Sikh or British rule in the land of the five rivers. Nicholson bore his part in the battle, and received the thanks of the Commander-in-Chief for his invaluable assistance, both on the field and throughout the operations. The war was over, and the Punjab now, for good or evil, a province of British India, Captain Nicholson was appointed Deputy Commissioner for Rawal Pindi. He had become well known in the district during the previous year, and the bulk of his new subjects gladly welcomed him. They had already learned to note the difference between the grinding Tyranny of the Sikh yoke and the strong, upright, even-handed sway of the young sahib. At this time the two brothers, John and Charles, met again. The closest, and most brotherly relations existed between them. They were wonderfully alike -- both tall, strong, noble-looking men. William, another brother, had gone out to India in 1847, and died under peculiar circumstances at Sakkar, June 1, 1849, at the age of twenty. He was found one morning in bed with two ribs broken and many bruises about the head and body. The only account which he could give was that he had been dreaming of a fall from a great height, It was supposed that he must have walked in his sleep, fallen from the veranda, and in some way crept back into bed again.

Nicholson Worshipped as a God. The New Sect. Nikalsain.

In the year 1849 was seen the astonishing transformation of a plain, unassuming, honest Irishman into a Hindu deity. Fancy a respectable citizen of Lisburn worshipped as an Indian god! A certain Hindu devotee discovered in Nicholson a new incarnation of the Brahmanic godhead, and immediately proceeded to preach the worship of his new god, Nikalsain. The sect grew and flourished. Probably the strangest thing about this new sect was that no one molested or persecuted them save the divinity of their adoration. His honest soul was disgusted with their fulsome flattery and impiety. He rewarded their adulations with floggings, varied occasionally with kicks. They took their punishment like martyrs and repeated the offence. Then followed imprisonment, and release only on the promise that they should transfer their adoration to a neighbouring commissioner. Eight years later they were still worshipping Nicholson, only at a safe distance. After his death they came together to lament. One stepped forth and said there was no gain in living in a world that no longer contained Nikalsain, so he cut his throat and died. Another stepped forward and said that was not the way to serve their great master; they must learn to worship Nicholson's God. They went to a missionary, and, after a year's probation, several were baptised. Four years afterwards it was stated, on good authority, that the movement was spreading.

On Furlough at Home, 1850-1851.

The ten years' service in India had now expired which entitled Nicholson to furlough in Europe. January, 1850, saw him, with his friend Herbert Edwards, leave Bombay on the same steamer with the brave and courteous old Irishman, Lord Gough, en route for home. On the way he visited Cairo, Constantinople, Athens, Vienna, Berlin, and other places. The story of his journey is full of interest, but must be passed over for want of space. At length, after a separation of more than ten years, mother and son met in London in the last week of April, 1850. In the summer of the same year he revisited his mother's home in Lisburn, and spent some time in renewing acquaintance with old friends. Before leaving for India he had his photograph taken [-?-] daguerreotype. In this he is clean-shaven, and it is the picture which pleased his mother most. In all the others he is taken with full dark beard and whiskers.

Return to India, 1852. Deputy Commissioner of Bannu.

On Nicholson's return to India he was appointed deputy commissioner of Bannu (May, 1852), a district in the Punjaub about the size of Wales. His duties were to keep order, suppress crime, protect the people from the oppression of the tax-collectors, and keep up a sufficient and efficient army. How he discharged his duties may be summed up in the words of one well able to judge. Edwards found Bannu a valley of forts and left it a valley of open villages. Nicholson found it a hell on earth and left it, probably as wicked as ever, but curbed to fear of punishment. From time to time reflections of his memory have been made of unnecessary sternness in dealing with the natives. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was stern, but not cruel; firm, but just. To illustrate: The leader of a band of thieves was killed in a midnight fray. It was discovered that this leader by day was a respectable, responsible man; by night a thief. As an example and warning, Nicholson next day exposed the dead body in the market place. Twelve years later, in the same village, the story was gravely told that Nicholson had captured this man and had him cut to pieces in the open market. Even at home his character was not free from aspersion. Then, as now, there were those who were unable to see that there are circumstances in which the only true mercy is stern severity, combined with even-handed justice. No man has ever called in question his justice. Let those who squirm at the memory of his manner of dealing with the native population pause in their sentimental wrigglings and consider the time and circumstances in which he lived, and be thankful their country had such a man at such a time.

Early in 1858 Nicholson learns that his old friend and chief, Sir Henry Lawrence, was about to leave the Punjaub and take up duties at Rajputana. In a letter to Lawrence he writes:-- "I would indeed gladly go with you even on reduced allowances. I feel I am little fit for regulation work, and I can never sacrifice common-sense and justice or the interests of a people or country to red tape." John Lawrence succeeded his brother Henry in the government of the Punjaub, and Nicholson remained on in his district. Towards the end of the year we find John Lawrence reporting "that he looked on Major Nicholson as the best district officer on the frontier, shrewd and intelligent, and well worth the wing of a regiment, his prestige with the people was so great."

Red Tape. Charity. Character of Indian Officers.

Red Tape was the bane of Nicholson's official life. Sometimes his masterful temper and thorough-going disposition kicked against control. His direct way of shouldering responsibility and doing his duty in his own way had been a source of trouble and annoyance to his old chief, Sir Henry, and not at all in accordance with accepted ideas of administrative decency. Now his new master, John Lawrence, writes in despair:-- "Report officially all matters. I shall get into trouble it you don't. The Governor-General insists on knowing all that goes on, but I can't tell him if I don't hear details. Don't send up any more men to be hanged direct, unless the case is very urgent." An intimate friend once found him sitting in his office with a bundle of Government regulations before him. "This is the way I treat these things," he remarked laughingly, and proceded to kick them across the floor. It is on record, however, that, notwithstanding this practicality of his disposition, the two chiefs under whom he served. Henry and John Lawrence, recognising the sterling merits of the man, bore with him and loved him as a son. Writing to his mother, April, 1854, he tells about a visit to Herbert Edwards, and mentions certain preparations for establishing a Christian mission, and that he had given 500 rupees towards it on her account, his own name not to appear in the matter. A little later he writes again:-- "I have nothing to say this mail, and only write to enclose a bill for £185." Not much to say, certainly, but very much to the point. A student of Indian history is very strongly impressed by the evidence of true Christian piety exhibited by so many British officers at this period. Nicholson's predecessor in Bannu is thus described:-- "Just a saint on earth, duty and religion were stamped on all he did from hour to hour and day to day." A healthy, vigorous, manly Christianity appears to have permeated their lives. They lived religion, did their duty, and so served their country and their God.

Attempt on His Life. Summary Method of Transacting Business.

Nicholson had a narrow escape about this time. Standing one evening with some friends and a few native orderlies at his garden gate a man rushed with a drawn sword calling aloud for Nikalsain's blood. An unarmed orderly stepped between , saying:-- "All our names are Nikalsain here." The relief sentry passing behind at the time, Nicholson snatched his musket and presented it at the man, saying -- "If you do not put down your sword and surrender I wil fire." The would-be assassin cried. "Either you or I must die," and rushed in. There was no alternative. The funeral, however, was not in Nicholson's family. Some of his methods of transacting business were, to say the least, startling. A deputation of petty chiefs from beyond the border came to wait on him. Under the mild rule of his predecessor they had become most insolent in speech and behaviour. They knew not the new sahib, but they were soon to learn. Nicholson listened patiently for some time to their grievances. At length one of them hawked, and spat out between himself and Nicholson -- a dire insult, and intended as such. And then -- "Orderly," said Nicholson, "make that man lick up his spittle and kick him out of the camp." The orderly seized his victim by the back of the neck, ground his face on the floor, and held him there till the deed was done. This lesson had a most salutary effect, and, curiously enough, was thoroughly appreciated by the trans-border men themselves.

The Law was Satisfied.

His powers of investigation were great, and though very prompt when quick action was required, he could be very patient when patience was needed. To illustrate: In the old Sikh days Alladad Khan, who was guardian of his orphan nephew, seized the child's lands and turned the boy out. In due time the boys grew up and sued his uncle in Nicholson's court. Alladad Khan was the most powerful man in the village and no one dare give evidence against him. The case was still pending when, at break of day one morning, a villager saw Nicholson's white mare peacefully grazing on the outskirts of the village. Paralysed, he gazed with bulging eyes at the awful sight, then, recovering from his fright, darted back to alarm the village. Soon the whole population were out gazing at the awe-inspiring, unconscious mare. Alladad Khan advised them to drive her on to the lands of some other village, or for a surety they would all be whipped or fined. Cautiously they proceeded t work, but had not gone far when, horror of horrors, they saw the awful sahib himself tied to a tree. The first fright over and the inclination to run away overcome, some of them ventured to release him. Nicholson, ordering them to stand aside, wrathfully demanded on whose lands he stood. Instantly every eye was turned on Alladad Khan, and every finger pointed silently at him. Trembling, Alladad came forward and cried, "No, no; the land is not mine, but my nephew's." "Swear," said Nicholson," in the presence of all, that the land is not yours but your nephew's." The trembling Alladad swore and then Nicholson was released. Next day the nephew was decreed his inheritance, and the whole village rejoiced that the boy had come into his own again.

Kashmir. Peshwar. Lord Roberts. The Mutiny, 1857.

Early in 1856 Nicholson retired from the deputy commissionership of Bannu and went for six months as officer on special duty to Kashmir. The end of the year saw him installed as deputy commissioner of Peshwar under his friend Herbert Edwards. During the greater portion of the six months Colonel Nicholson served in Peshwar he was in full charge of the district, as his chief, Herbert Edwards, was absent on leave. His services are admirably set forth in a report. Even in one half-year Nicholson made an impression not easily to be effaced. It is generally supposed he was a severe ruler. In some senses he was. A criminal had no chance of long escaping him; an incorrigible official had no chance of ultimate impunity. He was generous in over-looking the past when a man set himself to recover his character. Rapid in settling trials, he used the lash freely to vagabonds and petty ruffians. The people and the neighbouring mountain tribes all felt that there was a master-hand over them. As a native well expressed his influence, "the sound of his horse's hoofs was heard from the Attock to the Khaiber." The crowning and closing period of Nicholson's life had now arrived. The shadows of a dread catastrophe were already sweeping over the plains of Central India. On May 11, 1857, the startling news was received that the native troops were in open mutiny at Meerut, and had taken possession of Delhi. When the friends heard the particulars of the disgraceful incapacity of the leaders at Meerut, one can well imagine their indignation and scorn. With such men as Nicholson and Edwards in charge, in all probability the rebellion would have been nipped in the bud and the story of the great Mutiny never been written. Like a trumpet-call to duty was the news of the Mutiny to the brave men in the Punjaub. How John Lawrence and his assistants responded, how they kept peace and quiet within their borders, how they fed the army before Delhi with their last man and gun, and how they finally fought, so that the crimson banner of Britain floats to-day over every city and cantonment in India, are fit subjects for an epic poem, rather than dull, bald prose. To meet the exigencies of the situation a movable column of picked troops was formed under command of Neville Chamberlain which should be free to march about the Punjaub to keep order and strike swift and hard at open mutineers, Nicholson to accompany the column as civil and political officer. The column was soon at work, marching and counter-marching, overawing the people and disarming tainted native regiments. How the mutineers were disposed of at Mardan can only be looked at in passing. At this station they rose before the arrival of the column and marched off with drums beating and colours flying, some 700 strong. Nicholson was sent in pursuit with 300 reliable native horsemen. Mile after mile and hour after hour the chase continued, Nicholson, on his grey charger, with his great sword felling a Sepoy at every stroke. All day long the hunt continued. From Mardan to the hills of Swat they were chased. Nicholson himself was twenty hours in the saddle, and must have covered upwards of seventy miles. When the day's work was finished 120 were slain, 2150 taken prisoner -- 40 of whom were afterwards blown from the guns -- the regimental colours recovered, and 200 stand of arms taken. Of the remnant who got clear away, many were handed over to the police, and many more were hunted down by loyal native levies. About this time, Lord Roberts first met Nicholson, and his impression regarding him is worth recording:-- "Nicholson," he says, "impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever met before, or have ever met since. I have never seen anyone like him. He was the beau-ideal of a soldier and a gentleman." Lord Roberts acted as Colonel Nicholson's staff officer.

(To be Continued.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 1 February 1918 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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