Guest poem sent in by Suresh Ramasubramanian
(Poem #731) A Ballad of John Nicholson
It fell in the year of Mutiny, At darkest of the night, John Nicholson by Jalndhar came, On his way to Delhi fight. And as he by Jalndhar came, He thought what he must do, And he sent to the Rajah fair greeting, To try if he were true. "God grant your Highness length of days, And friends when need shall be; And I pray you send your Captains hither, That they may speak with me." On the morrow through Jalndhar town The Captains rode in state; They came to the house of John Nicholson, And stood before the gate. The chief of them was Mehtab Singh, He was both proud and sly; His turban gleamed with rubies red, He held his chin full high. He marked his fellows how they put Their shoes from off their feet; "Now wherefore make ye such ado These fallen lords to greet? "They have ruled us for a hundred years, In truth I know not how, But though they be fain of mastery They dare not claim it now." Right haughtily before them all The durbar hall he trod, With rubies red his turban gleamed, His feet with pride were shod. They had not been an hour together, A scanty hour or so, When Mehtab Singh rose in his place And turned about to go. Then swiftly came John Nicholson Between the door and him, With anger smouldering in his eyes, That made the rubies dim. "You are over-hasty, Mehtab Singh," -- Oh, but his voice was low! He held his wrath with a curb of iron That furrowed cheek and brow. "You are over-hasty, Mehtab Singh, When that the rest are gone, I have a word that may not wait To speak with you alone." The Captains passed in silence forth And stood the door behind; To go before the game was played Be sure they had no mind. But there within John Nicholson Turned him on Mehtab Singh, "So long as the soul is in my body You shall not do this thing. "Have ye served us for a hundred years And yet ye know not why? We brook no doubt of our mastery, We rule until we die. "Were I the one last Englishman Drawing the breath of life, And you the master-rebel of all That stir this land to strife -- "Were I," he said, "but a Corporal, And you a Rajput King, So long as the soul was in my body You should not do this thing. "Take off, take off, those shoes of pride, Carry them whence they came; Your Captains saw your insolence, And they shall see your shame." When Mehtab Singh came to the door His shoes they burned his hand, For there in long and silent lines He saw the Captains stand. When Mehtab Singh rode from the gate His chin was on his breast: The captains said, "When the strong command Obedience is best."
This is from Newbolt's "Admirals All, and other verses". Nicholson was a British brigadier who was killed storming Delhi during the Sepoy Mutiny (aka The first war of Indian Independence) in 1857. Nicholson's statue stood at the Kashmiri Gate in Delhi till the 1960s, when it was removed to Dungannon in Scotland - where it stands outside his old school. Nicholson was idolized by the Indian troops (mostly Sikhs) he commanded (and according to Kipling, there was a cult of "Nikulseyn-ites" who in fact worshipped him as a kind of demi-god). There's a bit of doggerel in his 'Kim', which begins `Nikal-seyn is dead, ....' (sung by the old soldier Kim and the Lama meet on the Grand Trunk Road). George MacDonald Fraser, in his "Flashman" books, describes Nicholson as something of a Bible thumping puritan with more than his usual share of religious zeal (of course, in far more irreverent words). This seems to be borne out by these quotes from Hibberts' "The Great Mutiny" (dont have a copy of Kaye and Malleson around right now, that'd have produced a lot more). Let us propose a Bill for the flaying alive impalement, or burning of the murderers of the women and children at Delhi. ... I would inflict the most excriutiating tortures I could think of on them with a perfectly easy conscience. -- Brigadier John Nicholson, in a letter to Herbert Edwardes, Commissioner at Peshawar. Few courts martial were held by Nicholson; his dictim 'the punishment for mutiny is death' obviated any necessity for trial ... Nicholson issued an order that no native should pass a white man riding, without dismounting and salaaming. -- Ensign R. G. Wilberforce, 52nd Light Infantry, on Brigadier John Nicholson. I'm both attracted and repelled by this poem. Attracted because of the sheer bravery of this man, who, alone, apparently overawed a huge crowd of people thirsting for his blood. Repelled because, of course, I'm an Indian and see a few more sides than what Kipling or Newbolt saw, but with the dispassionate - and jaundiced - eye of someone who's over a hundred and fifty years removed from the situation, and has nothing to rely on except rather skewed versions from both sides (who were equally guilty of the cruelest atrocities. It's the same reaction I get when reading several of Kipling's books with their simplistic assumption of white supremacy (which unconsciously show a great love for India). Kipling (and others of his generation) often compared the Pathans (for example) to the scottish highlanders, who were equally savage and feud-happy. Nicholson (and several others of his generation) were, however, a great improvement over their peers and successors, who came to India to rake in profits, not caring for the Indians they were supposed to rule. Nicholson's extreme cruelty towards the mutineers (during which he still retained the respect of his Sikh soldiers) is explained in part by his rigid puritanism, in which hellfire and eternal torture was the just dessert of a sinner. -- Suresh Ramasubramanian + + http://kcircle.com