About John Nicolson of India

Introduction to John Nicolson of India

Brigadier General John Nicholson was a charismatic, complex, and controversial  Victorian Era political and military officer in India. He was actually only a captain and the promotion was deemed temporary for the duration of the crisis.  Some men are trapped by events and some men became famous because of  events. JN was all but unknown but he died famous because of a crisis that caught everyone by surprise.

 Recruited by Henry Lawrence to establish the Pax Britainia in the Punjab (North India), JN  was a one man government bringing police,  justice, medicine, construction, mediation, law and order, revenue, scouting, spying, and whatever else was needful to the Frontier. Much like Will Bill Hickock in the American West, JN ran his district single handed . But unlike the sheriffs of the Wild West JN, as a British Political Officer, had to supply the entire government and civilization — British style, off the cuff, inventing as he went. Born in North Ireland, he was a clairvoyant and his brushes with the supernatural further alienated him from his more proper English  associates who viewed such incidents as being ‘Too Irish to be respectable.”

In 1857 JN was recruited along with the rest of ‘Henry’s Boys’ to create a rescue moveable column to reach Delhi to save the British and Indian Forces stranded on the Ridge or high hill overlooking Delhi which was rebelling against British Rule in India. That this was a sort of civil war was clear. Two thirds of the army on the Ridge was Indian and two thirds of the moveable column were also Indian.  They were attacking Delhi which was the old capital of India before the British came.  Indians were fighitng Indians. Sadder still, Indian soldiers were fighting Indian soldiers.  That is a civil war in anyone’s book.  

JN not only commanded the rescue column toward  Delhi but buttressed the Ridge, helped to organize the siege,  and led the key assault column at Kashmiri Gate,  during which he was fatally wounded.  This earned JN the title ‘Butcher of Delhi’ by later historians writing for the Sepoy Rebels and ‘Hero of Delhi’  by later historians writiing for the British who won because of JN and other officers both British and Indian. 

 Later, after Independance, his name and image  was vigorously removed and his grave left to be covered by weeds. Yet such was the paradox of the events that at his funeral his own troops, mostly Indian, wept with wild abandon  on that same grave that is today decayed and all but forgotten.

After JN’s death the Victorians  wanted his death gilded with the gold of the conqueror’s laurel crown. In the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny ie the undeclared civil war that ravished one third of India,  JN was needed to salvage the propaganda situation no less than his death in battle at the walls of Delhi. In sort, people needed a hero. Later people needed a scapegoat. JN, being dead, was ideal for  both needs.

So his records, journels, and letters were given to a Victorian biographer who apparently found them too controversial. When Victorians found things too controversial they engineered convenient ‘fires’ to accidentally destroy the records. Such a fire consumed JN’s writing resulting in generic white-washed books deemed safe for little Victorian boys to read. Today other books damn JN as anything but an example for anyone and he is accused of being just about every sort of dreadful thing a Victorian  can be accused of being. 

However it appears his journal, which JN kept off and on  in a random and casual way, rather like a Victorian blog, was in fact saved, locked away in a vault and forgotten. 

Today JN is all but forgotten too, a dusty soldier filed away by history. Today   people by and large would rather forget about him. The Pax Britania he brought to the Frontier is politically incorrect. The Sepoy Revolt failed because Dehi fell to the British.  His black and moody Irish personality is too dark. His odd behavior ( for  he was painfully shy which can appear as arrogance) and  odder way of handling situations ( he was known to weld a black ruler like a judge’s hammer during his court trials and wack people with it  who bickered on too long), all appear decidedly  odd in this politically correct age.  Hunting tigers is politically incorrect too  even if JN hunted tigers on horseback armed with only an Indian saber.

 Surely now his journel can be safely read by the world at large. Therefore I plan to release the journal as JN wrote it, as a  series of events he pondered as he wrote,  a sort of Victorian Blog.

Check out the pictures being loaded on John Nicholson of India  on Facebook!

Check out the continuing blogs on John Nicholson Political Officer  and John Nicholson and the Great Mutiny on WordPress!

JEF Rose

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9 Responses to About John Nicolson of India

  1. Jeremy Stone says:

    Hello Jeff. I really enjoyed reading through JN’s Victorian Blogs. The Lieutenant Crawford with whom Nicholson, Palmer et al were held captive at Ghazi was my 3rd Great Grandfater, Andrew Crawford of the Bengal Native Infantry and Shah Shujah’s Force. Crawford retired as a lieutenant Colonel after John Company was dismantled and Victoria installed as Emporess of Indua. He emmigrated to Van Deamon’s Land where he became a noted pioneer of Anglo-Imdian settlement in Tasmania. I have long been fascinated by Crawford’s career with the HEIC and I’m currently researching the facts and stories surrounding his captivity at Ghazni and subsequent release to freedom. To this day, my Crawford cousins retain an Afghan shawl that was presented to Lieutenant Andrew by Akbar Khan. While I have Crawford’s personal account of his ordeal, JN’s blog adds rich colour and context to the story but how much of his blog is based on fact or fiction? Please tell me more!

    With thanks and best regards,

    Jeremy Stone

    • fairawayland says:

      hi back and I am glad you are enjoying my blogs. It must be interesting to have a biological link to history. I wish I could have had access to Crawford’s records. As for my blogs, they are of course fictional but I researched over 10 books plus over 300 internet records including gov reports to try to make the historical fiction as realistic as possible. Unlike Patrick O’Brien, I knew I could not copy the verbal voice of the era but I decided that a soldiers back then spoke differently from how they wrote. The writing was a official record and Victorians had an official voice they would use so I figured JN would write as he talked assuming his ‘blogs’ would not be official. Also I guesstimated from descriptions that JN had Aspergers which would also impact how he spoke and wrote. The Aspergers is a guesstimate of course. I do know soldiers would keep erratic diaries and then use them as raw material to transfer to formal letters home or into governmental reports so the diary might be more raw. I am curious what is the tone of the Crawford personal account? Diary? Or official account intended to be published? Did he speak to himself or in an official Victorian voice to the public at large? JEF Rose

  2. S. Strauch says:

    It’s worth mentioning that his own descendant called him “a monster” on a British TV programme about British India, because he slaughtered every man, woman and child he found when he entered Delhi. I think that just about sums him up.

    • fairawayland says:

      Who slaughtered who? If Nicholson then how and when did the guy butcher Delhi when the guy was fatally wounded on the first day of the Battle of Delhi and he was fatally wounded during a battle on a street leading to the Burn bastion and he died some days later in a comma so the Battle of Delhi was completed by Chamberlain who was the original commander slated to run the battle despite being wounded himself. Wilson was having what appeared to be a nervous breakdown and his head of engineering was co running the Battle of Delhi. I agree the battle was messy as all urban battles are messy and the destruction was terrible and there was a massacre of civilians by combined British and Native forces (the Northwest Pathans were out for blood and slaughtered their Northeast Pathans with gusto which appears to be what happened ) but how can Nicholson be blamed when he was mortally wounded midway on the first day?

      Up to the battle Nicholson was actually the most sensible commander. He ordered the far gates and bridge of boats to stay open to allow refugees to flee Delhi up to and through the battle and called it ‘The Golden Bridge’ after a Jewish motto to always offer the enemy the ability to retreat to cut casualties in battle. He was not lynching all over the countryside like may Loyalists. He did hang two cooks who were plotting to poison the entire officer mess with aconitum wolfbane poisoning and I dramatized that fairly well. He did not lynch every potential rebel mutineer and arrested ordered several regiments to be held for the duration in the brig. He initially allowed suspects in Pewhawar to flee. He refused to prosecute Sikhs who were trapped in regiments mutinying (being biased in favor of Sikhs) . He did chase down and crush some mutinying regiments trying to flee to Delhi as an example. That battle was brutal but it was a battle. Neither side were taking prisoners. Up to the arrival of Nicholson Delhi was controlled by a Wahhabi junta and they engaged in continuous massacres and unchecked looting that ravished Delhi (see The Last Mughal by Dalrymple and 1857 Jihad by More who is Indian by the way).

      The Rebels murdered all captives as well and threatened to blow civilians from cannon (See The Last Mughal by Dalrymple and also 1857 Jihad by More). Nicholson did not personally massacre civilians or chop people up ‘like cabbages’ or parade severed heads around or burn down whole villages like the rebels were doing (see 1857 Jihad by More). 1857 was famously violent and it can be asked why both sides engaged in such violence and why the rebels chose to start it by engaging in massacres of civilians and by murdering loyalist soldiers who were mostly their own native Indians. Please remember who started the massacres and please remember that the Loyalist Army was 4/5 native Indian so this was a very bloody civil war by every standard!

      Nicholson was weird to be sure and being gay historians up to today were biased against him for being pretty much openly gay. Nicholson might have also had Aspergers which I used in my dramatic retelling of his life. There is not doubt he was weird but up to Delhi there is no record of countless massacres and most of his staff (outside of Freddy Roberts ) was not white and therefore were native Indians which was typical of how the Corp of Guides operated on the frontier. They operated in tandem with native officers. The Great Game spies always operated in tandem with native co-parts. Nicholson also spied in the Great Game. So he probably had his native counterpart which the Victorians simply ignored (their bias). Evidence shows he was biased in favor of Sikhs, and as a Corp of Guides reject and political officer he spoke every native language, knew every native custom, and knew the history of India which is was a requirement for him to have the job he had. Therefore, Nicholson was not some Queen’s Army bigot. He was ‘John Company’ and did not buy his commission but rather tested for it, qualified, trained, and worked his bony butt off in it. Henry and John Lawrence knew the best and put Nicholson in the most dangerous districts of the Frontier. Nicholson was rejected by the Corp of Guides because he was weird and because Chamberlain applied and everyone wanted Chamberlain. Nicholson was not rejected because he was a gibbering bigot massacring the natives. He served in districts where he was often the only white face in a 100 miles.

      The better question to me is why didn’t the rebels offer to retreat to allow Delhi to surrender? In war up to WWI any city that refused to surrender up to the forlorn hope rushing through the breach is therefore allowed to be destroyed, looted, and massacred at well. History. Fact. Europe. India. Akbar the Great at Chittor Fort. Russians at Crimea. All over. Fact. Henry the IV had a great scene where Harry threatens the French city to surrender or face just such a terrible end.

      Prince Potemkin started the novel idea of only allowing only 3 days carde blanche destruction and General Rose ordered that at Jhansi which likewise refused to surrender (the only city of civilians that Rose was forced to destroy in his campaign of the Decca ). It is not known if the Loyalists discussed the 3 day option to restrain destruction. The Sikhs and Punjabis and Pathans swore to destroy Delhi so it is not likely they could have forced the 3 day option. Wilson begged the Loyalists to not slaughter women and children. That was pretty much kept to. Ignoring the destruction of a city in battle (Delhi looked like any WWII city by the end) and the one infamous massacred of upper class Muslims by British and Native (I suspect Pathan Muslim) troops there was remarkably little out and out massacring considering they could do so. Everyone looted before and after (both Rebels and then Loyalists) and the population was driven out of the mostly destroyed and therefore dangerous city just as in WWI and WWII. But Delhi got off better than Chittor when Akbar the Great slaughtered 30,000 men and women and children when it refused to surrender.

      So why didn’t the rebels flee across the bridge of boats which was left open so Delhi could surrender? The Last Mughal by Dalrymple has quotes that show some of the royal family were asked to do that: surrender to save Delhi. But the Wahhabi junta running Delhi refused to discuss surrender despite the fact they had no food, little water, almost no ammo, and the citizens of the city were fleeing by the thousands. They chose to flee during the battle in effect behind a human shield of cannon fodder and civilians. If they did not have the ammo to fight and did flee during the battle and the bridge of boats was wide open they why not flee before to allow the city to surrender and not meet the fate of Chittor where Akbar the Great massacred 30,000 men and women and children?

      Did the Wahhabists always plan on Delhi being destroyed? The Wahhabists considered Delhi to be Sodom and Gomorrah, filled by corruption, tainted by heretic Sufi shrines, corrupt Mughals they planned to depose to install a pure blood Arabic Ashraf Wahhabist caliph, and their capital was to be Sitana in their proposed Wahhabi Pure Land of Islam (today located in Pakistan). Did the junta decide that the propaganda value of forcing the Loyalist Army to destroy Delhi was too great to miss? if Delhi had surrendered before the first day of battle then legally the Loyalist Army would have been required by every military law to protect Delhi. So who is the ultimate butcher of Delhi? That is why I dramatized Nicholson’s fear of Delhi’s destruction and being labeled the ‘butcher of Delhi’ when he was preparing the battle. But the records show the Loyalists never received any offer by the junta or royal family of Delhi to surrender. The Royal Family instead negotiated to surrender to save their own lives. So who is the real butcher of Delhi?

  3. Eva Schawohl says:

    Have you read “Soldier Sahibs” by Charles Allen? The book deals with Henry Lawrence’s young men in great detail and is a gripping read.
    John Nicholson has unfortunately, in our modern times, been portrayed all too often as a beast of a man, however people in this “enlightened” age are too quick to judge Victorians by our standards. That he did kill is beyond doubt, but he lived in a kill or be killed world, especially during his time in the North West Frontier Provinces. Yes, he did say that death was too good for mutineers and he would rather they were tortured to death, which sounds horrific in our times, but Nicholson was also reacting to the reports he had been given of women and children who had been killed in Kanpur and other stations in 1857. It was Brigadier Neill and not Nicholson who ordered the licking up of blood on the floor of the Bibighar and he who allowed the wanton destruction of villages in the path of the “avenging” army. Blood was at a boiling point on both sides and no one can claim that either side, British or Indian, was free from atrocities in some form or another. I agree with you that Nicholson was, as you put it, “weird” but he was after all, a deeply troubled Victorian form of weird, plagued by his own tortured soul – his religious beliefs were grounded in clear views of right and wrong, very black and white with no middle ground. I am probably one of the few people who has an admiration for John Nicholson, not based on his deeds but on his force of will. Greatness is a touchy word, but as a man of his times, Nicholson was great.

    • fairawayland says:

      Yes. key book on which I based my fictional Victorian Blogs of John Nicholson. I agree that Nicholson could go berserk. But I think the key is that he kept the Bridge of Boats and far gates open for golden retreat. Many civilians retreated and the Rebels under fire likewise retreated. I believed Nicholson hoped the rebels would retreat before the battle to allow surrender. I know Indians think the destruction of Delhi was horrible but Chator Fortress was destroyed by Akbar The Great and 3000 Rajputs died. total massacre. A city that refuses to surrender will be sacked. No mercy. Again Nicholson and Wilson begged and pleaded with the Loyalists to not harm women and children and by and large they did not hurt women and children. True story: an Irish soldier kissed a quivering woman during the siege as they were fighting room to room to room. He realized the damsel had facial hair. He ripped off the woman’s veil to see a sepoy! he shot the blackguard dead! He explained he was not harming women but he thought kissing them was ok…..

  4. John Pilling says:

    JEF Rose– You a wrong Nicholson’s grave is neither neglected or overgrown with weeds ! When I was there in Jan 15 there were Indian visitors as well as myself. It’s also known as “Nicholson’s Cemetery” and has a large India government sign saying in English and Hindi that his grave is a protected monument as is the memorial on “Delhi Ridge” to the men who fell before Delhi.

  5. Cool comments. Big thanks for all visitors and for author. I love this site!!!

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