‘Imperial psychopath’ – Ronan McGreevy on the troubling legacy of John Nicholson

An Irishman’s Diary


In May 1857 during the Indian mutiny, also known as the first Indian War of Independence, hungry British officers inquired of their superior Brig Gen John Nicholson as to when their food would be arriving.

“I am sorry, gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner,” he explained, “but I have been hanging your cooks.”

He was not joking. Nicholson had been told the Indian regimental cooks laced the soup with aconitum, known as the “queen of poisons”.

He confronted the cooks and asked them to taste the soup. When they declined he fed it to an unfortunate monkey, which expired on the spot.

The cooks were shortly “ornamenting a neighbouring tree”, a fellow British officer later recounted.

Nicholson was an Irish imperialist who was born in Dublin in December 1821 to a doctor who died when he was eight. The remaining Nicholsons moved to Lisburn, a town which adopted him as one of their own, though he spent little time there.

On January 19th, 1922, a statue commemorating Nicholson was unveiled in Lisburn to mark the centenary of his birth.

The unveiling was done by another Irish imperialist, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, in one of his last acts as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the professional head of the British army.

Wilson too was from a southern unionist background, Longford to be precise, and was one of the most vocal and persistent opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Arriving into Dublin a day after Dublin Castle was handed over to the Provisional Irish Government, Wilson mused that “no sane man can imagine that Collins and co. who none of them ever administered a typewriter, can be expected to keep law and order over three millions of people who have now no sense of either and this without either any army or police.”

It was the other fragile administration north of the Border that Wilson was ultimately visiting.

Northern Ireland needed a founding martyr in its own image and Nicholson exemplified many of the characteristics of Empire loyalty and steadfastness that unionists saw in themselves.

Nicholson’s reputation was burnished by his extraordinary appearance.

He was 6 ft 2ins tall with a long flowing beard and locks. “He looked every inch what he was, a fearless, self-reliant, fierce and masterful man, born for stormy times and stirring events,” one contemporary noted.

Nicholson was killed in September 1857 aged just 34 while leading his army to lift the siege of Delhi, which had been captured by rebels in May of that year. He was shot in the back while having his sword raised to exhort his men to keep going. He died nine days later.

The belief persisted well into the 20th century that Nicholson personified the best of empire.

“John Nicholson was one of the supermen of the 19th century and of all time,” the Belfast Newsletter suggested at the time of the statue’s unveiling, “one of Britain’s bravest and best ‘un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche’.”

The image of Nicholson as a redoubtable son of Empire bringing the “people of the Punjab, the most ignorant, depraved and bloodthirsty in the land”, as the Newsletter put it, had not dissipated.

The Newsletter continued that Nicholson would not “brook the faintest show of insolence towards an officer of the ruling race and his methods of punishment were as prompt as they were drastic”.

That’s one way of putting it. The other way is that he would often inspect Indian soldiers he believed to be rebellious and arbitrarily pick ones out from a line he suspected and have them executed.

Nicholson wasn’t just a man of his time. Many contemporaries baulked at his methods yet he was a hero in Victorian Britain.

He was worshipped among some hill tribes in India as Nikal Seyn and this seemed to burnish his reputation across the empire as, if not quite a god, an exceptional man.

The new prime minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, was present at the unveiling ceremony, which like all commemorations, was implicitly political in nature.

“Alas! at the present moment it was rather the ideal of politicians to tear down and dismember that Empire, that men like Nicholson, Rhodes, and others had died to build up,” noted Dr George St George, a local functionary who spoke at the unveiling. This was less than a subtle reference to those down South who repudiated the empire.

Nicholson’s reputation was never going to survive the contemporary critical scrutiny of imperialism.

Nicholson was an “imperial psychopath”, according to the British historian William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal.

He made a man who spat at him lick up his own spit. He flogged and executed those he considered as disloyal Indians on a whim.

It is not a surprise therefore when a list of 100 statues in the UK was drawn up by a group called Topple the Racists in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, that of Nicholson’s was among them.

Dalrymple suggested last year that Nicholson’s statue should be removed from the centre of Lisburn and put in a museum of British colonialism which would be similar to the National Museum of African American History and Culture which confronted the legacy of slavery in the United States.

It would be a fitting legacy for a man who is as loathed now in popular memory as he was admired 100 years ago.

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