ON THIS DAY: Irishman worshipped as an Indian god, John Nicholson was born in 1822
Irish History

ON THIS DAY: Irishman worshipped as an Indian god, John Nicholson was born in 1822

JOHN Nicholson, the ruthless and daring colonial soldier who was worshiped as an Indian God, was born in Dublin on 11 December, 1822.

John was raised and initially schooled in Dunnegan, Northern Ireland, until his father’s untimely death when he was only nine years old – whereupon the young orphan was taken under the wing of his uncle, a lawyer working for the East India Company.

In early 1839, Nicholson was given several weeks of tuition to prepare him for his journey to a civilisation that dated back several millennia.

Upon arriving on the sprawling continent where he would spend the majority of his short life, Nicholson, at 16, began his military career in regiments fighting in the doomed Anglo-Afghan war.

Historians have alluded to the fact that recent Anglo-American excursions into Afghanistan, a region renowned for its topographical quagmires, and aptly, as the graveyard of empires, show the lessons of this war were soon forgotten.

Chief among them is the bottomless cost and strategic futility of fighting guerrilla warfare in hostile, mountainous terrain thousands of miles away from home.

Nicholson would learn this first hand when his garrison was besieged by Afghan tribesmen during the freezing winter of 1841.

His regiment capitulated following assurances of safe passage from the Afghans, who later reneged on their side of the bargain.

In his first major brush with the enemy, a tearful Nicholson, after initially refusing to surrender, was forced to watch while his sepoys were massacred after declining to convert to Islam.

Like many colonial explorers and ambitious military men, Nicholson never married what would no doubt have been a long suffering spouse.

He was devoted to his work and the male bonds he formed throughout his life, especially with his superior Sir Henry Lawrence whom Nicholson saw as a father figure.

But his most intimate friendship was formed with Herbert Edwardes, who Nicholson used to ride 120 miles to spend weekends with.

Tender feelings for his fellow Englishmen were not extended to the Indian natives, though, who were regarded with contempt.

In addition to witnessing the fanatical barbarism of militant Islam, one event in particular shaped Nicholson’s view of those he was to rule over.

On 1 November 1842, Nicholson was joined in India by his younger brother Alexander, who was now helping to escort the British forces through the treacherous terrain of the Khyber Pass, located on the border of Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan.

Shortly after the brothers were reunited, Alexander's unit was ambushed by Afghan rebels and shown no quarter.

Finding his brothers body several days later, badly mutilated, with his testicles shoved in his mouth, was a life-altering experience for Nicholson.

These seminal and traumatic events could explain the Christian zeal, or "near-messianic sense of destiny" in the words of historian Charles Allen, with which he ruled the Indian natives under his control.

In a turn of events reminiscent of The Man Who Would Be King, Nicholson was to inspire a cult following among his subcontinental subjects.

The Nikal Seynis religion – likely a phonetic attempt at 'Nicholsonis' – took root among groups of Indian locals in the 1840s.

They donned outfits resembling the colour of faded leaves, worshipped, and followed Nicholson wherever he went.

Amusing as this seems in retrospect, it was no laughing matter for the staunch Christian proselytizer who was there, by his own estimation, to do God’s work.

Native veneration for the 6 foot 2 Irishman thus, ironically, made a mockery of his own ‘divine mandate’ – to make honest Christians, not Nikal Seynis’, of them.

While he indulged the pagan idolatry up to a point, when the natives began bell-ringing, chanting, or openly worshipping him, the Irishman would lose his temper – the worst offenders were whipped.

Despite his best efforts, the cult lived on into the 21st century, with its last member passing away in 2004.

Though he rebuked the Indian’s for the backwardness of their religious doctrines, Nicholson had his own mystical streak.

He would have men paraded before him to judge whether they were guilty of being an enemy spy, and would ultimately make life and death rulings based on his intuition.

Conduct of this kind was more in keeping with the image of an Eastern despot than the sense of justice and rationality upon which the Victorians prided themselves.

Nicholson is perhaps best remembered for his derring-do that became a staple of colonial heroes of the time, like Charles George Gordon who would go onto eclipse the Irishman’s fame decades later.

In what could be the opening scene of a Spaghetti Western, Nicholson rode off on horseback to hunt down a notorious bandit with a bounty on his head.

Finding the fugitive in his own village, surrounded by his clan, Nicholson somehow fought and killed him, and took his body back to town.

Although, Nicholson’s later actions, decapitating the man's head and leaving it for all to see on his desk, might have proved a step too far for any of Clint Eastwood’s characters.

Extravagantly violent episodes like this could explain why historian William Dalrymple describes Nicholson as a "imperial psychopath" in his book The Last Mughal.

The accuracy of this diagnosis aside, he was certainly known for his fierce temper, which could erupt to devastating effect.

BBC journalist Sajid Iqbal relayed the following correspondence to Nicholson from his beloved father figure, Sir Henry Lawrence:

“My dear Nicholson, Let me advise you, as a friend, to curb your temper…Don’t think it necessary to say all you think to everyone. The world would be a mass of tumult if we all gave candid opinions of each other. I admire your sincerity as much as any man can do, but say this much as a general warning. Don’t think I allude to any specific act; on the contrary, from what I saw in camp, I think you have done much towards conquering yourself, and I hope to see the conquest completed”, Henry Lawrence wrote to him in one of his letters as Resident at Lahore Darbar before the annexation.”

Nicholson’s crowning achievement proved to also be his last.

When the Indian mutiny erupted in May 1857, Nicholson sought to quash it at all costs and in doing so, showed the kind of initiative that can't be taught in military colleges.

Despite not being in formal command, he began inspecting fortifications in Delhi, and soon realised they weren’t up to the task of defending the city.

At the helm of around 2,000 men, Nicholson crushed the rebels before they could intercept a British siege train, which would have dealt a serious blow to the British re-capture the city.

After pulling off this impressive military feat, Nicholson was shot by a sepoy sniper while rallying his men.

Nicholson remained alive for nine days, just long enough to be informed the British had re-taken Delhi.

John Nicholson died on 23 September, 1857.

He was immortalized as a fictional character in the novels of George MacDonald Fraser, as well as in a number of statues, one of which was returned from India upon independence in 1947 to Dunnegan, Northern Ireland.