Sahib, p.24Richard Holmes
His brother John became the first Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, and in 1863 he succeeded Lord Elgin as Viceroy, coining the expression ‘masterly inactivity’ for his policy of non-interference in the affairs of Afghanistan. He was elevated to the peerage as Baron Lawrence of the Punjab and Grateley on his return to England in 1869, plunged into an assortment of good works and, from his seat in the Lords, vigorously opposed the Second Afghan War. George became agent to the governor-general in Rajputana, and retired on health grounds in 1864. All three brothers were knighted: Henry in 1847, John in 1857, and George in 1866. They were a remarkable trio, a striking example of one of the many families which produced whole broods of imperial legates.
They left an unexpected legacy. The huge Koh-i-Noor diamond (its name means ‘mountain of light’ in Persian) had a long history, first recorded as being owned by the Raja of Malwa before becoming the property of a succession of Mughal emperors. Carried off to Persia by Nadir Shah in 1739, it then fell into the hands of the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah, and Ranjit Singh obtained it from the unlucky Shah Shujah. After the Second Sikh War it was given to John Lawrence, who wrapped it up, put it in a pillbox and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. Six weeks later he received a message from the Governor-General saying that Queen Victoria wished to have the diamond. John asked Henry for it, only to be reminded that he had the stone himself. He summoned his personal servant, who remembered that he had put the pillbox into one of the sahib’s trunks. The trunk was fetched, and the diamond was unwrapped. ‘There is nothing in here, sahib, but a bit of glass,’ said the servant.
The diamond was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850, and then, recut from just over 186 carats to a little more than 108, it was mounted in a tiara worn by the Queen. In 1936 it was set in the crown worn by Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, at her coronation, and in 2002 it rested on her coffin as she lay in state. There was already a campaign under way to ensure the diamond’s return to India, and on 17 May of that year, a major Indian daily newspaper declared that: ‘If all goes well, the most prominent symbol of colonial plunder, the Koh-I-Noor diamond, may be back in India.’43 However, even if Britain decides to hand back the diamond, there remains a lively dispute as to whom it should be returned: while the Government of India has a claim, so too do Ranjit Singh’s descendants.
Of the same generation as the Lawrences were James Abbot and Frederick Mackeson. Abbot had three brothers in the Bengal army, and had first come to public notice as a result of a trip across central Asia to rescue some Russian prisoners, writing Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva … and becoming ‘something of a hero’.44 In 1846 Henry Lawrence sent him to Hazara, that wedge of land north of Rawalpindi, between the Jhelum and the Indus. The Moslem inhabitants had never accepted the rule of their Sikh suzerains, and when Abbot arrived they were determined to resist that of Gulab Singh of Kashmir, who was meant to become their monarch under the terms of the Company’s recent treaty with him. Abbot persuaded Henry Lawrence that Hazara should remain part of the Punjab. Initially he worked through a Sikh governor, but many of the Sikhs joined the general rising after the outbreak of the Second Sikh War, and Abbot, supported by local levies, hung on only with the greatest difficulty. He then ruled Hazara with a rod of iron until his superiors, mistrusting his idiosyncrasies and total identification with his people, posted him back to the army.
James Abbot spent the rest of his career running an arsenal near Calcutta, reached the rank of general and was eventually knighted. Yet his name was well remembered long after he had left. His new district capital was called Abbotabad, and still is today. And in the 1930s, Sir Olaf Caroe met a very old Hazarwal and asked him if he had met Kaka (Uncle) Abbot. ‘He was a little man with bristly hair on his face and kind eyes,’ said the man.
I was in the jirga when he was asking us if we would stand and fight the Sikhs if we stood by him. We swore we would, and there were tears in our eyes, and a tear in Abbot Sahib’s eye too. And we did! He was our father, and we were his children. There are no Angrez like Abbot Sahib now.45
Ironically it was a dispute with another hero of the frontier, Frederick Mackeson, which led to Abbot’s removal from Hazara. Mackeson had accompanied the Army of Retribution as a political agent, and, with his considerable experience, was unlucky not to be appointed agent to the governor-general for the Punjab and North-West Frontier when John Lawrence got the post. At Ferozeshah he committed the mistake of suggesting that Gough might make more use of his artillery before attacking the Sikhs, and was sharply told to shut up. As commissioner of Peshawar he led a force to assist Abbot against a rising in 1852, and when the two clashed the dispute was eventually resolved in his favour. In 1853 he was stabbed to death on the verandah of his bungalow. Some said his murderer feared further British advances; others suggested that there had been a fatwa against him; some even maintained that he had been having an affair with a local woman.
The rumour about Mackeson’s love life infuriated one of the younger generation of soldier-administrators, John Nicholson. Another Ulsterman, he had gone to India as a Bengal cadet in 1839 and joined the 27th BNI at Ferozepore. He soon found himself escorting Shah Shujah’s harem to Kabul, and at the fortress of Ghazni he met Neville Chamberlain, who became a good friend. Captured when Ghazni surrendered to Akbar Khan’s supporters, he encountered Captain George Lawrence, a fellow prisoner, who generously gave him a shirt to replace the one he had worn for months. Shortly after his liberation, Nicholson met another of Henry Lawrence’s young men, Lieutenant Harry Lumsden, another Bengal infantryman, born at sea off the coast of India, where his father was serving as an artillery officer.
John Nicholson’s brother Alexander, whose regiment of Bengal infantry had marched up into Afghanistan, was killed in the Khyber Pass as the force withdrew, and it was John’s misfortune to find him stripped, his genitals cut off and stuffed into his mouth. Nicholson never wrote about his experiences in Afghanistan, and the episode probably did much to case-harden his character. The historian Michael Edwardes described him as ‘a violent, manic figure, a homosexual bully, an extreme egotist who was pleased to affect a laconic indifference to danger’.46 As a schoolboy I was taught the poem which began ‘John Nicholson by Jullundur came, on his way to Delhi fight … ’ and where Edwardes sees vices it is possible to see some virtues as well. That he was violent there is no doubt, but he was a soldier in perilous times at the outer edge of empire. He insisted on instant obedience and brooked no insult: he was known to strike junior employees with a large black ruler, and when a local mullah in Bannu, pacified by Nicholson between 1852–57, glared at him with open contempt Nicholson had his beard shaved off. He never married, but it is impossible to be sure what this says about his sexuality, and there is no real evidence to link this and his bullying.
Nicholson certainly believed in ‘swift, stern justice’, thinking summary flogging more effective than imprisonment or fines, and during the Mutiny he hanged men without trial, arguing simply that ‘the punishment for Mutiny is death’. He would have gone further with the perpetrators of massacre, telling Herbert Edwardes: ‘Let us propose a bill for the flaying alive, impalement or burning of the murderers of women and children at Delhi. The idea of simply hanging the perpetrators of such atrocities is maddening.’47 Yet a young officer saw him quietly weeping behind his tent after he had passed a death sentence. Fellow administrators often found him insufferable, arrogant, and opinionated, and one officer lambasted his ‘haughty manner and peculiar sneer … ’. A subaltern with whom he shared a bungalow as a young man thought him ‘reserved almost to moroseness’, but that ‘there was great depth behind his reserved and at times almost boorish character’.48 John Lawrence, for long Nicholson’s superior, believed that, despite his arrogance and rudeness, he was worth ‘the wing of a regiment on the border, as his prestige with the people, both on the hills and the plains, is very great’.
Nicholson inspired extraordinary loyalty amongst his Indian subordinate
A motley crew called the ‘Mooltanee Horse’; they came out of a personal devotion to Nicholson, they took no pay from the Government, they recognised no head but Nicholson, and him they obeyed with a blind devotion and a faithfulness who won the admiration of all who saw them. Their men were 250 in number, mounted on their wiry ponies, surrounding the column like a web; they rode in couples, each couple within signalling distance of the other, and so circled the column for many a mile. Nicholson’s personal assistant was a huge Pathan, black-whiskered and moustachioed; this man never left his side, he slept across the doorway of Nicholson’s tent, so that none could come in save over his body. When Nicholson dined at mess this Pathan stood behind his chair with a cocked revolver in one hand, and allowed no one to hand a dish to his master save himself.49
Part of the reason for Nicholson’s success at Bannu and then as assistant commissioner at Peshawar was his sheer blazing physical courage. In 1848 he jumped from his sickbed in Peshawar, set off with a troop of irregular cavalry and newly raised levies, and rode fifty miles to Attock, where he bluffed the fort into surrender, paraded the garrison and instantly dismissed the ringleaders. He had met only three of his cavalrymen before. Another reason was his instinctive grasp of Pakhtunwali – the tribal code of honour. Nicholson’s refusal to accept any slight showed that he knew how important izzat was. Walter Lawrence thought it ‘as dear to an Indian as life itself. It means honour, repute, and the world’s esteem.’50 There was something of the unforgiving Old Testament deity in John Nicholson, and his own profound religious belief shut out any notion of error. When on his way to Delhi he stopped at Jullundur, where the commissioner, Major Edward Lake, held an audience for local notables. General Mehtab Singh, commander of the army of the little state of Kapurthala, entered with his shoes on. Nicholson saw at once that this was a calculated insult, and declared:
If I were the last Englishman left in Jullundur you should not come into my room with your shoes on. I hope the commissioner will allow me to order you to take off your shoes and carry them out in your own hands, so that your followers may witness your discomfiture.
Many years later, the Raja of Kapurthala told Roberts that Mehtab Singh was alive and well: ‘We often chaff him about that little affair, and tell him that he richly deserved the treatment that he received from the great Nicholson Sahib.’51 Some Sikhs came to regard him as little short of a prophet, and Nikalseynism assumed the status of a minor cult. Roberts wrote that Nicholson:
impressed me more profoundly than any man I have ever met before or any man I have ever met since … His appearance was distinguished and commanding, with a sense of power about him which to my mind was the result of his having passed so much of his life amongst the wild and lawless tribesmen, with whom his authority was supreme.52
Many other young officers were struck by his quite extraordinary presence. Lieutenant A. R. D. Mackenzie wrote that:
There are some men whose personal appearance harmonises so perfectly with their intellectual and moral characteristics that any one on seeing them for the first time would be almost certainly intuitively to guess their identity. Nicholson was one of these. 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. It was impossible to associate him with anything commonplace, or otherwise than heroic or great. On me, as on every one else, he produced a vivid impression, which can never become dim. When I first saw him it was only for a moment. He said something in low tones to an acquaintance, and passed on, but instinctively I felt that I had come into contact with one who stood apart from and overtopped other men. ‘That is Nicholson,’ I said, knowing that it could be no one else.53
R. G. Wilberforce recalled that he was:
of a commanding presence, 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 … 54
When, hastily promoted brigadier general to command the Movable Column, Nicholson arrived on Delhi ridge there was a palpable change in morale. Lieutenant Henry Daly thought that he seemed ‘by the grace of God … a king coming into his own’, and William Hodson believed that he was ‘a host in himself’.55 Lieutenant Arthur Moffat Lang was having trouble with a new enemy battery, but the moment he saw Nicholson he declared: ‘I wish he were to have the command of a force to take that battery and that I were of the party.’56
Nicholson was mortally wounded in the storming of Delhi in 1857. Roberts found him lying in an unattended doolie (stretcher),
with death written on his face … On my enquiring a hope that he was simply wounded, he said: ‘I am dying; there is no hope for me.’ The sight of this great man lying helpless and at the point of death was almost more than I could bear … to lose Nicholson seemed to me at that moment to lose everything.
It took him nine days to die. Early on, when Archdale Wilson was considering pulling back from the city, he said: ‘Thank God I have the strength yet to shoot him, if necessary.’57 He would probably have been as good as his word: when his wild horsemen made a racket outside his tent, he shot at them through the canvas. His brother Charles, who had just lost an arm, was brought in to see him, and the trusty Muhammed Hayat Khan tended him as he sweated out his last days, with the pain somewhat dulled by morphia. He often thought of his mother, and of Herbert Edwardes, one of the few men with whom he was close, telling Neville Chamberlain, a frequent visitor, that ‘if at this moment a good fairy were to grant me a wish, my wish would be to have him here, next to my mother’.58
If there was hard light and deep shade in John Nicholson, Herbert Edwardes himself was a more sympathetic character. Like Hodson, he was a clergyman’s son and a university graduate, and joined 1st Bengal European Fusiliers in 1841. But unlike Hodson he was no beau sabreur, and unlike Nicholson he was quiet and diplomatic. Henry Daly had reservations about Edwardes, although he thought him:
palpably a man above the mark in talent … He is subdued and somewhat grave; has somewhat the affectation of dignity … In his early youth he was frolicsome, gay and witty; he now seems to have a puritanical conviction that these things are unbecoming. He is friendly and polite to me, yet I do not warm to him. He is somewhat diplomatic and less straightforward than is pleasant. Unlike our noble, high-minded host [Henry Lawrence], whose heart is full of true religion, whose mind is cultivated and generous … a rare creature, made for love and honour.59
Edwardes served on Gough’s staff and, unsurprisingly, was wounded: he met Henry Lawrence after Sobraon, and was appointed his personal assistant after the British victory. Once he had accepted the post, Lawrence spoke to him in terms which show quite clearly why he was such a revered chief. ‘There’s only one thing I wish you to remember,’ he said. ‘If I say or do anything that hurts or vexes you, don’t brood over it. Just out with it, and we shall come to an understanding at once.’
In 1847 Henry Lawrence sent him to Bannu, up on the frontier around the confluence of the Kurram and Tochi rivers, which owed taxes to its Sikh overlords. Edwardes had a low regard for the inhabitants, a mixture of Pakhtun tribal groups, and, like many of his countrymen, he found them somehow less ‘manly’ than the fiercer but pure-bred tribesmen to the north and west. But he strove to ensure that the Sikh garrison stopped looting, and he eventually persuaded local leaders to pay up or risk losing their land, and demolished the hundreds of little forts which had helped make the territory all but ungovernable. A year later, on Waterloo Day, 18 June 1848, he beat Mulraj, rebellious governor of
Edwardes departed on home leave, finding that the publication of A Year on the Punjab Frontier, an account of the pacification of Bannu, had done him no harm at all. In October 1853, he succeeded the murdered Mackeson as commissioner of Peshawar, where he clashed with William Hodson, acting commissioner of Yusufzai and officer commanding the Corps of Guides. Hodson was in trouble on two counts, firstly for his arbitrary treatment of unconvicted tribal leaders, and secondly for alleged falsification of the regimental accounts. A court of inquiry threw Hodson back to 1st Bengal Fusiliers, shorn of his former pay and status. It is impossible for us now to see how much real fire there was within the abundant smoke generated by the impulsive Hodson. However, the fact that even Henry Lawrence had begun to lose faith in his young protégé suggests that there was more to Hodson’s fall from grace than the dislike of the strait-laced Edwardes for an over-age, self-willed subaltern who made no effort to be ingratiating.
When news of the Mutiny reached Peshawar, Edwardes convened a council of war which fortuitously included John Lawrence, who had been heading for the hills on leave. Lawrence urged that the Mutiny had to be crushed as quickly as possible, and the council (sweeping along poor old Major General Reed, commanding the Peshawar division) decided to form the Movable Column and send it to Delhi. Edwardes warmly supported Brigadier Cotton, who decided to disarm the native infantry regiments in the Peshawar garrison, and was on parade when they gave up their weapons, finding it ‘a painful and affecting thing’. But he thought that it was decisive, writing:
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