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A Ballad of John Nicholson -- Sir Henry Newbolt

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."
-- Sir Henry Newbolt
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

  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

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 + +

29 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

jpbrown said...

I was interested to find the Ballad of John Nicholson on the Internet. You are probably aware of the biography entitled "The Hero of Delhi", by Hesketh Pearson. The many books there quoted as Authorities should be useful for those now learning about Afghanistan.

There is one error which could easily be corrected - the Royal School, Dungannon is in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

randon243r said...

You may be taken aback by the reported acts of Nicholson and, ....
[Full comment and reply from Suresh quoted below. -- ed.]

Suresh Ramasubramanian wrote:
> +++ randon243r [02/01/02 16:49 +0000]:
> > You may be taken aback by the reported acts of Nicholson and, of
> > course we are all working on second-hand accounts but can I
> > offer another opinion.
> Second hand is right - and over 150 years old at that.
> > The country of his origin (the North) is much less lighthearted
> > than Southern Ireland and religious strife is a way of life.
> > People rarely smile. This produces severe introverts like
> > Nicholson.
> This too, is quite correct.
> > Also he survived the bitter defeat of the E.I.C. army in
> > Afghanistan (1842). He was in Ghazni fort when it surrendered.
> > Indeed the treachery
> This is also quite possible.
> > he observed in that country, before and during his captivity,
> > tainted his view of Afghans for the rest of his life although he
> > found them cultured and charming. Laurence of Arabia, in the
> > film, you will recall, changes after his unpleasant captivity
> > ('no prisoners'), and a similar change seems to have happened to N.
> Funny, I was seeing that movie just the other day .. what you say
> _is_ rather possible.
> > Bear in mind the Mogul way of justice which immediately preceded
> > the British rule. Surely the British way was an improvement, as
> > was the land
> See, I don't have any particular beef about the british ... what
> they did - they did. Both good (like welding a country together
> out of several hundred tiny states ruled by royal families - the
> Mughal empire covered about 30..35% of India, FYI, and then giving
> us a set of laws and an administrative framework that is still
> retained in large parts in modern India, giving us the English
> language ...) and bad (treating India as a huge source of natural
> resources - but suppressing industry, passing fairly repressive
> laws on occassion - such as the Rowlatt act which allowed people
> to be detained indefinitely without benefit of lawyer, appeal or
> court, etc).
> > reform when properly applied by sensible and sensitive people.
> > Nicholson was extremely flawed as a person but he was a man whom
> > others could respect and follow. It is possibly best that he
> > died when he did.
> As I said, Nicholson and his ilk were vast improvements over
> several thousand other people both John Company and the Crowd sent
> over to India.
> > Too many British people 'went native' in India for them to be
> > just dismissed as conquerors and exploiters, indeed I believe
> > that the love affair of the British with India contributed to
> > your difficulty in dislodging us. I visited Delhi with my son 2
> > years ago and loved every moment.
> I do know that, thanks :) Plus, I don't dismiss the British as
> just conquerors and explorers.
> You might want to send your comment to
> as well, for publication on the
> site. Or if you allow me, I'll forward your mail - and mine - to
> , the minstrels discussion list, where
> poems are discussed every once in a while :)
> > Kind Regards
> > Keith Randon
> >
> --
> Suresh Ramasubramanian + suresh <@>
> + [broken link]
> It's not so hard to lift yourself by your bootstraps once you're off
> the ground.
> -- Daniel B. Luten

Ronnie Irvine said...

Sir John Nicholson was educated at Dungannon Royal School in Co.Tyrone ,
Northern Ireland - not Scotland . His statue stands at the front of the old
part of the school .

Kindest Regards,

Ronnie Irvine

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