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Cult of a Dark Hero: Nicholson of Delhi, by Stuart Flinders

30 November 2018

John Pridmore on the life of a ruthless British hero

“And they fared out from the gloom of the mango tope, the old man’s high, shrill voice ringing across the field, as wail by long-drawn wail he unfolded the story of Nikal Seyn (Nicholson) — the song that men sing in the Punjab to this day.”

MOST modern readers of Rudyard Kipling’s immortal novel Kim, who are unacquainted with the legendary, will wonder whom Kipling is talking about. Nikal Seyn was, in fact, one of the countless thousands of minor divinities in India. But, besides being a god, Nikal Seyn was a historical figure: a soldier whose courage was matched only by his brutality.

John Nicolson was a Brigadier-General in the Indian Army. His exploits and almost psychopathic savagery on the wilder frontiers of the British Raj are the subject of this superb new biography by Stuart Flinders.

Nicholson’s military adventures began in Afghanistan, in 1840. His contempt for the rebellious Afghans was boundless. “They are”, he said, “without exception the most bloodthirsty and treacherous race in existence.” We learn that “scarcely a day passed in which he did not bag some half-dozen” of them. Nicholson, at this point, was scarcely out of his teens.

His subsequent career on the north-west frontier, in Kashmir, Peshawar, the Punjab, and — climactically and heroically — before the gates of Delhi, at the turning-point of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, is the riveting story of an utterly fearless, utterly ruthless soldier who struck terror and devotion in equal measure. The cult of Nikal Seyn, the incarnate god, survived into the 21st century.

Flinders’s fascinating study of this fearsome figure draws on a wealth of previously unpublished material. His quest is to probe beneath the Boy’s Own magazine tales of the derring-do of a Victorian warrior to explore the roots of an exceptionally complex personality. What made Nicholson who he was? Was his dedication to soldiering a sublimation of his repressed homosexuality? Flinders thinks not.

What drove him, he suggests, was an unwavering sense of duty to his country. Nicholson had no doubt of Britain’s right to rule. More problematically, he had no doubt of John Nicholson’s right to rule. On one occasion, he arrived a little late for lunch because — so he told his guests at the table — he had paused to hang the cooks who were planning to poison him.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Cult of a Dark Hero: Nicholson of Delhi
Stuart Flinders
I. B. Tauris £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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