John Nicholson (East India Company officer)

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John Nicholson CB
General John Nicholson - Project Gutenberg eText 16528.jpg
Brigadier-General John Nicholson
Born(1821-12-11)11 December 1821
Lisburn, Ireland
Died23 September 1857(1857-09-23) (aged 35)
Delhi, British India
Service/branchBengal Army
Years of service1839–1857
UnitBengal Native Infantry
Other workColonial administrator

Brigadier-General John Nicholson CB (11 December 1821 – 23 September 1857) was a Victorian era military officer known for his role in British India. A charismatic and authoritarian figure, Nicholson created a legend for himself as a political officer under Henry Lawrence in the frontier provinces of the British Empire in India. He was instrumental in the settlement of the North-West Frontier[1] and played a noted part in the Indian Mutiny.

Family and education[edit]

Nicholson was born in Armagh, Ireland, the eldest son of Dr Alexander Jaffray Nicholson and Clara Hogg.[2] Dr. Nicholson died when J.N. was nine, after which the family moved to Lisburn.[3] Nicholson was privately educated in Delgany and later attended the Royal School Dungannon, through the patronage of his maternal uncle, Sir James Weir Hogg, a successful East India Company lawyer and for some time Registrar of the Calcutta Supreme Court, and later a Member of Parliament;[4] and soon after his sixteenth birthday, it was also through the good offices of this uncle, that J.N. was able to secure a cadetship in the East India Company's Bengal Infantry.[5] He then set out for a military career in India in 1839.

Early career[edit]

On reaching India, he was ordered to join the 41st Native Infantry at Benares on temporary attachment, being transferred some months later in December, as a regular Ensign, to the 27th Native Infantry at Ferozepore.[6] He served in the First Anglo-Afghan War when his regiment was ordered up to relieve one of the infantry units already in Afghanistan, in November 1840, and during this time he saw early and fierce military action.

Nicholson was present at the British garrison at Ghazni when it was besieged by Afghan tribesmen during a freezing winter between 20 November 1841 and 10 March 1842. After Colonel Palmer, the garrison commander capitulated, Nicholson — together with 10 other British officers — was held captive at Ghazni in a filthy, ordure-ridden, lice-infested cell between 10 March and 19 August 1842. They were taken to join other British prisoners in Kabul on 24 August.[7]

Later on, upon his release and the consequent return of the British forces to India, he was stationed at Peshawar, and later for two years at Moradabad and in November 1845, on passing his Urdu vernacular examination, was posted to the Delhi Field Force which was being organised at that time, as the threat of a war with the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab loomed near.[8]

John Nicholson after Daguerrotype by Kilburn

First Anglo-Sikh War[edit]

Involved in the First Anglo-Sikh War as a junior officer, he was taken under the wing of Henry Montgomery Lawrence along with several other similarly-aged officers such as Herbert Edwardes, James Abbott, Neville Chamberlain, Frederick Mackeson, Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew, William Hodson, Reynell Taylor, Harry Burnett Lumsden, Henry Daly, John Coke, which group was known as Henry Lawrence's "Young Men", and was given much power as a political officer, and later a District Commissioner. He was feared for his foul temper and authoritarian manner, but also gained the respect of the Afghan and North Punjabi tribes in the area for his fairhandedness and sense of honour. He inspired the Nikal Seyn, or Nikal Seyni cult, which had a short and popular hey-day but survived in surprising forms and ways in some remoter parts of North-West Pakistan, well into the 1980s.[9]

Indian Mutiny[edit]

Lieutenant Roberts finding General Nicholson
Statue of John Nicholson with naked sword in hand in Delhi
John Nicholson statue in the grounds of the Royal School, Dungannon, Northern Ireland.

Nicholson was best known for his role in the Indian Mutiny, planning and leading the Storming of Delhi. Famously dismissive of the competence of his superiors, he said, upon hearing of Colonel (later General Sir) Archdale Wilson's hesitancy while on his deathbed, "Thank God I have yet the strength to shoot him, if necessary". One famous story recounted by Charles Allen in Soldier Sahibs is of a night during the Rebellion when Nicholson strode into the British mess tent at Jullunder, coughed to attract the attention of the officers, then said, "I am sorry, gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks." He had been told that the regimental chefs had poisoned the soup with aconite. When they refused to taste it for him, he force fed it to a monkey - and when it expired on the spot, he proceeded to hang the cooks from a nearby tree without a trial.[10]

Nicholson also called for the Mutiny to be punished with greater severity. He proposed an Act endorsing a 'new kind of death for the murderers and dishonourers of our women', suggesting, 'flaying alive, impalement or burning,' and commenting further, 'I would inflict the most excruciating tortures I could think of on them with a perfectly easy conscience.' [11]

Nicholson never married, the most significant people in his life being his fellow Punjab administrators Sir Henry Lawrence and Herbert Edwardes. At Bannu, Nicholson used to ride one hundred and twenty miles every weekend to spend a few hours with Edwardes, and lived in his beloved friend's house for some time when Edwardes' wife Emma was in England. At his deathbed he dictated a message to Edwardes saying, "Tell him 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."[12] The love between him and Edwardes made them, as Edwardes' wife later described it "more than brothers in the tenderness of their whole lives".[13]

He died on 23 September 1857, in a small bungalow in the cantonments of Delhi, as a result of wounds received in the taking of the city nine days previously. He was 35.


John Nicholson's grave at Nicholson Cemetery, 2012
John Nicholson's tomb, Delhi. c.1880
Nicholson Cemetery near Kashmiri Gate, Delhi

He became the Victorian "Hero of Delhi" inspiring books, ballads and generations of young boys to join the army. Nicholson is referenced in numerous literary works, including Rudyard Kipling's Kim, in which the protagonist, Kim, traveling with his companion the Buddhist Lama, meets an aged Risaldar-Major (a native officer of Cavalry, equivalent to present-day JCO). The man turns out to be a veteran of the Great Uprising of 1857, and while sojourning on the road, he sings the old "song of Nikal Seyn before Delhi".[14]

Nicholson features in a number of works about this period in history. He might appear in a somewhat unsympathetic light to today's sensibilities in Henry Newbolt's "A Ballad of John Nicholson", in which he humiliates a visiting rajah who deliberately fails to treat him with sufficient deference as one of those who "brook no doubt of our mastery, We rule until we die", admirable as this might have appeared to Newbolt's contemporaries. He is mentioned by George MacDonald Fraser in his book Flashman and the Great Game, in which Flashman meets Nicholson on the road between Bombay and Jhansi just before the rebellion, and describes Nicholson as "The downiest bird in all India and could be trusted with anything, money even." This from Flashman is a rare compliment. He also appears as one of the main characters in James Leasor's novel about the Indian Rebellion, Follow the Drum, which describes his death in some detail. and features heavily in the same author's history of the siege, 'The Red Fort'. Nicholson's intrepid and heroic personality and violent exploits are also memorialized in Ian McGuire's novel The North Water.

Brigadier-General John Nicholson's tombstone, made from a white marble slab near Delhi’s Kashmir gate, was a former garden seat of the Mughals. His gallant service and untimely death are commemorated on a white marble memorial plaque at the 1857 Memorial, on the Ridge in New Delhi. A large statue of Nicholson showing him with a naked sword in hand and surrounded by mortars was erected in his honor in Delhi, but was taken down when India became independent and later removed to the Royal School Dungannon, his old school.

A granite obelisk (Nicholson's obelisk or memorial), and a small fountain below, were erected in 1868 in the Margalla hills near Taxila as a monument to pay tribute to his valour.[15]

A tablet in the church at Bannu where Nicholson served as Deputy Commissioner from 1852-1854 carries the following inscription: "Gifted in mind and body, he was as brilliant in government as in arms. The snows of Ghazni attest his youthful fortitude; the songs of the Punjab his manly deeds; the peace of this frontier his strong rule. The enemies of his country know how terrible he was in battle, and we his friends have to recall how gentle, generous, and true he was."

One of the four Houses of the Royal School Dungannon is named after him, having yellow as its colours. It is the youngest House at the school. There is also a statue of him in the city centre of Lisburn, Northern Ireland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charles Allen, Soldier-Sahibs: The Men who made the North-West Frontier, London: Abacus/Time Warner Books UK, 2002 ed, various references between pp. 2-328. ISBN 0-349-11456-0
  2. ^ Charles Allen, p.22-23
  3. ^ Robert Hamilton Vetch, “Nicholson, John (1821-1857),” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 41.
  4. ^ Allen, p. 23
  5. ^ Allen, p.24
  6. ^ Allen, pp.28-29
  7. ^ Stocqueler, app no.. 10; citing Lieut. Andrew Crawford, 1st Regiment of Cavalry, Shah Shuja’s Force, "Narrative of the captivity of Colonel Palmer and other officers at Ghuzni during and after the insurrection at Cabul 1841."
  8. ^ Allen, p.62
  9. ^ For further details and fascinating research on the 'Nikal Seyni' cult, as it should properly be called, see O.Tarin, "Tending to the Dead Sahibs", Unpublished Ethnological Research Report/Paper, South Asian Studies Seminar, SASI, University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan, 2006; and an earlier, brief study by O.Tarin and SD Najmuddin, in Suddah:A Journal of the Humanities (Pakistan), Vol 12, No2, Summer 1999, pp. 10-18
  10. ^ pp.288-289
  11. ^ Kaye & Malleson (1889). History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 -8. London: W.H.Allen. pp. 301–302.
  12. ^ Trotter, p.302
  13. ^ Trotter, p.132
  14. ^ Rudyard Kipling, Kim, orig. 1901; New York:Bantam Edition, 1988, p.50. ISBN 0-553-21332-6
  15. ^ For the rebellion. He had also earlier fought here in an operation against the Sikhs in July 1848. In this fighting, he had been helped by Karam Khan, father of Muhammad Hayat Khan, of nearby Wah village, and this family owed a great deal to Nicholson for their subsequent elevation amongst the very top elite of British Punjab


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