Nikal Seyn – the fearless Lion of the Punjab

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, War on Wednesday, 7 September 2011

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This edited article about India originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 808 published on 9 July 1977.

John Nicholson, picture, image, illustration

John Nicholson leading his troops during the Sikh Mutiny, by C L Doughty

There is no record of John Nicholson, the Lion of the Punjab, literally tearing up the Book, but he was seen to do something even more satisfying. A friend once walked into his office and found him staring at a pile of laws and regulations. “This is the way I treat these things,” said Nicholson cheerfully and kicked them across the floor.

Nicholson was the most famous and admired, though not, perhaps, the most likeable, of a group of brilliant young men who brought law and order to the Punjab and the Frontier in the 1840s and 50s. He died leading his men to victory at the storming of Delhi in the Indian Mutiny, and instantly joined Nelson and Wolfe in that special niche in the hearts of Britons reserved for those who are unlucky enough to be killed in their hour of greatest triumph. Now his name is mainly forgotten, except by old soldiers who served in India and by the people of the Frontier whose fierce ancestors fought against him and with him.

Nicholson reached India in 1839 as an East India Company cadet in the Bengal Infantry. By the time he was 20, he had written some very pious letters home to Ireland, had nearly fought a duel, and had been captured and imprisoned by Afghans when the fortress of Ghanzi fell. Conditions varied from nightmarish to bearable, depending how near possible relief was. Soon after his release his brother was butchered by Afghans and he endured the horror of finding the body by accident.

In 1848, the North-West Frontier exploded with action. Though the Punjab was not yet part of British India, British troops and administrators were stationed in it as a result of the First Sikh War, which, despite the utter incompetence of General Sir Hugh Gough, the British had won. A first-rate young team was sent to the Punjab, which included John Nicholson.

Through no fault of theirs the Sikhs decided to start another war. The key to the situation was the fortress of Attock on the Indus. If the Sikhs captured it, or if the garrison mutinied, Peshawar, the main British base on the Frontier, would be cut off and hordes of Afghan tribesmen could be expected to erupt through the Khyber Pass.

At this desperate moment John Nicholson was in bed in Peshawar with a raging fever. Hearing the news he leapt out and was soon riding through the night at the head of 60 picked Pathans. It was 50 miles to Attock. Behind them came 150 infantrymen on a forced march.

Nicholson outstripped most of his men. Only 30 were with him when he reached the main gate of Attock. He roared to the sentries to open it and they were so startled by the bearded apparition below them that they did so.

The mutinous Sikhs in the town were even more startled as Nicholson and his escort galloped in. He ordered the garrison to arrest its leaders. It was a tense moment. The Sikhs could have swooped down and massacred the tiny force. At this moment Nikal Seyn the legendary hero, the Lion of the Punjab was born. He stalked about among the Sikhs like an avenging god: moments later the rebel leaders were being marched out of Attock.

In the Sikh War which followed Nicholson’s most spectacular feat was when he stormed a fortified tower in the Margalla Pass. He led a handful of men through a hail of bullets, then, finding there was no ground entrance to the tower and the ladder to the upper entrance had been raised, he set to work to tear uncemented blocks of stone from the walls, as rocks rained down on him from above. Only when more enemy troops appeared did he retreat with what was left of his party. The Nicholson legend was growing. Now it seemed that bullets did not touch him.

After the war the Punjab was annexed to India and Nicholson became one of the administrators. The moment had come to observe the rules of the Book, but that was not his way.

The Pathans, one of the most warlike races on earth, found him a man after their own hearts. In the province of Bannu, which he ruled for several years, robberies, raids and murders almost ceased.

It is hard to believe that Nicholson ever had that love of India and the Indians which characterised so many of his compatriots, yet his men’s devotion cannot have been solely because of his bravery, incorruptibility and striking personality. Once a would-be assassin rushed up to him with a drawn sword, calling for his blood. Nicholson was dressed in a long Indian pelisse made of fur and was standing with a group of his men. The assassin was not sure for a moment where his victim was. “Where is Nikal Seyn?” he shouted. One of the soldiers stood in front of Nicholson and answered: “All our names are Nikal Seyn here!” Nicholson grabbed a musket and shot the assassin dead.

That he was right for his period was proved by events on the Frontier. When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857. Nicholson was stationed at Peshawar as second-in-command to Herbert Edwardes when news of the mutiny reached the Frontier on May 11th. The situation was brutally simple. There were some 50,000 Pathans in Peshawar. If the 2,000 British troops there could not control the Indian regiments, these Pathans would almost certainly rise. And if the Frontier went up in flames, the Afghans would seize the chance to pour through the passes. All northern India might be lost, perhaps forever.

Despite precautions, news of the Mutiny soon reached the Indian troops. One regiment was rapidly marched away for distant garrison duty. Unrest was increasing hourly. A chief told Nicholson that the Sahibs had best look to their own salvation. With Delhi already in rebel hands, it was fair comment.

Edwardes and Nicholson now asked Brigadier Cotton to disarm all native troops. He agreed, but their British officers were appalled. They could not believe their men were on the point of mutiny until they saw documentary evidence proving it.

A dramatic, dismal scene followed. One Indian cavalry and four infantry regiments were paraded in front of British troops backed up by artillery. The order was given to “ground arms”. The startled men obeyed, laying down their rifles. The British officers threw down their swords and tore off their spurs in shame. But the result was no mutiny. Edwardes reported Peshawar as being as quiet as a Bayswater tea-garden.

There were mutineers beyond Peshawar, however. Nicholson, mounted on his great grey charger, and leading a squadron of loyal Multani Horse and some wild Afridi tribesmen, set out to ride them down. Many were killed, 120 were made prisoner. 40 were condemned to the dreadful fate of mutineers – being blown from the mouths of guns. The thousands of Pathans who watched the bloody ritual saw who was in command.

But the rebels still held Delhi. Leaving Edwardes in command of their substitute army, Nicholson took command of the Punjab Movable Column. He was now a Brigadier-General, leading a force of British and loyal Indian troops at a breakneck speed and fighting all the way. He commandeered horses, ponies, carts and even camels to keep his men moving. He also commandeered en route some European gunners, whom he had found in a fort.

Reaching Delhi, he and his men instantly transformed the situation. Nicholson had to bully the commanding general, a dodderer called Wilson, into action, and on September 12th, led the final assault on the city. He was mortally wounded, but survived nine days, just long enough to hear that Delhi had fallen.

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