Updated: Jan 13
In 1857, a member of an Indian cult killed himself when he heard that the man he worshipped as a God had departed this life.
The Nikal Seynis cult had first appeared in the 1840s. They wore garments the colour of faded leaves and followed Nikal Seyn wherever he travelled in a remote part of what is now Pakistan. Nikal Seyn was, in fact, an Irish soldier called John Nicholson. Even more remarkably, the cult lived on into the 21st century. John Nicholson responded to the adulation by having his followers whipped. His family were hardly more likely to have approved of the cult, as they were devout Christians.
John was born in Dublin in 1822 to Alexander and Clara Nicholson. Alexander was a doctor in one of the city’s hospitals and, while John was still a boy, he contracted a disease from one of his patients and died. Clara’s wider family was in Lisburn in Co Antrim, and she headed north with her children as she looked for help from her relatives.
One of them, her brother, James Weir Hogg, had made a fortune in India. He paid for John to attend the Royal School Dungannon, and secured him a cadetship in the Indian Army. Over the next two decades in Asia, John Nicholson would not only earn the adulation of his religious followers, but become a hero of the British Empire.
Britain was expanding its territory in India at the time and Nicholson was given a remote area on the Afghan border to run as a “political”. This meant he was a policeman, judge, tax collector and diplomat rolled into one. Still in his 20s, he was expected to deal with hill tribes who resented any interference with their ancient way of life.
But Nicholson’s very presence made a deep impression on those around him. At 6’2” and with a long, black beard he was a tall, imposing figure, fierce and fearless.
On one occasion, after the offer of a reward had failed to lead to the capture of a notorious bandit, Nicholson saddled his horse and headed off to hunt him down. He found him in his own village, surrounded by family and supporters. Undeterred, Nicholson fought with him, killed him and took his body back into town. He cut off the head and displayed it on his office desk as a warning to others.
When Indian troops mutinied in 1857, Nicholson led the British response in Punjab. But his methods of dealing with civilians unsettled even some of his contemporaries. Men would be paraded before him and he would use his own intuition to decide who were enemy soldiers in disguise and who were innocent, who should die and who should live. Nor did he shrink from enforcing the perceived superiority of the European. He issued an order that no Indian was to ride by any white man. He was to dismount and salaam, bending his body in an act of subservience.
But his effectiveness as a soldier cannot be doubted, and when the time came to attack Delhi, which had been occupied by rebels during what the Indians call their First War of Independence, it was Nicholson who was chosen to lead the assault. After successfully entering the city, he was shot and fatally wounded. He was buried under a slab of plain granite in a cemetery that now bears his name in Delhi.
By the time of his death, John Nicholson had become a hero to the British. His death was described as a national misfortune. His mother paid for a monument to be installed at Lisburn Cathedral. The artist was John Henry Foley, the man who immortalised Daniel O’Connell in Dublin and Prince Albert in his London Memorial. It can still be seen on the wall of the cathedral.
The statue of Nicholson in Lisburn’s Market Square was erected in 1922 on the centenary of his birth, but it was a divisive occasion. Those speaking at the grand unveiling - in the year the Irish Free State came into being - used him as a symbol of the defence of the Empire in Ireland as well as India.
As for the Nikal Seynis, the cult lived on long after Nicholson’s own death. Nikal Seyn assumed the status of a Muslim saint. Stories were told of him dispensing rough justice on those who terrorised the poor. According to legend, he once mistakenly chopped off a man’s head, but, realising his mistake, stuck it back on again.
Remarkably, the last of the Nikal Seynis died only in 2004 in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, the last link with the life of a remarkable Irishman 150 years after his death.
‘Keenness for flogging’
Even in his lifetime, Nicholson had his critics. Sir John Lawrence, later governor general and viceroy of India, found him difficult to work with and far too keen on confronting and humiliating Indian leaders. Others found his keenness for flogging Indians on almost any grounds – sometimes even when he did not have the authority to do so – deeply disturbing.
For Nicholson, as for all the British in India, the supreme challenge came in 1857, when a military mutiny among the sepoys of the East India Company led to a full scale rebellion, which quickly spread across northern India. Nicholson seized the military opportunity with relish, leaping into action and openly expressing his contempt for any commander who did not measure up to his own demands for a speedy resolution.
He was, of course, an enthusiast of flogging, torturing and executing captured rebels. Like many of the British that year, he was incandescent with rage against the Indians – partly because of the revelations of atrocities committed against British women and children, who were murdered and their bodies mutilated.
However, his vengeful hatred sprang also from outrage that Indians should dare to challenge British rule at all. He died of wounds received while leading an assault to lift the siege of Delhi.
Few Victorian imperial hero figures survive the scrutiny of the post-colonial age but his lust for blood has made Nicholson particularly reviled. These “Soldier Sahibs” of British India were men of remarkable energy and drive, firm believers in the benefits of British rule and genuine in their desire to rescue India from what they saw as its backward and oppressive rulers. These attitudes no longer hold sway, of course, but no career encapsulates the deep chasm that separates modern attitudes towards colonialism from those of the Victorians quite as well as that of “Nikal Seyn”, the living God John Nicholson.
Sadistic bully and racist
Nicholson’s life was told in patriotic popular fiction and verse, including by Sir Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling. But to modern eyes these military upholders of the empire are problematic figures. The steely determination the Victorians so admired looks more like cruel victimising to modern eyes. The historian Charles Allen, himself related to Nicholson, tells of the difficult feelings he experienced when he first realised that his illustrious forebear was being denounced as a sadistic bully, a racist and a religious bigot.
Nicholson’s tough, uncompromising character was formed partly by his background in the north of Ireland and partly by his experiences as a prisoner during Britain’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the First Afghan War, 1839-’42. Already quick-tempered, Nicholson emerged from this experience with a reputation, even among the hardened East India Company officer corps, for his unforgiving attitude towards Indians.
When one Indian leader spat on the ground in front of him, Nicholson, correctly perceiving it as a serious insult, had the man manhandled to the ground and forced him to lick up his own spittle. Passing a mosque one day, Nicholson noticed an imam who, engrossed with other things, had not greeted him with the customary “salaam”.
He had the unfortunate man brought before him and, with his own hands, shaved his beard off – a deep humiliation for a Muslim, as Nicholson well knew.
In one of the most famous tales told of him, during the 1857 Indian uprising and mutiny, Nicholson personally ordered and oversaw the hanging without trial of a whole set of regimental cooks, when poison was found in the soup they had been preparing for his fellow officers.
Such stories were well calculated to please the Victorian public but they are far more problematic for people today. Where the Victorians saw a manly character embodying the virtues of the British Empire, a modern audience is more likely to see a violent bully, contemptuous of Indian life and dignity. The personification of the worst aspects of colonialism.
It does not fall to many of us to be worshipped as a living god, but that was the fate of John Nicholson, a 19th century British army officer in the service of the East India Company. Nicholson – the subject of a new book covering his life and times – served for much of his career on the disputed and perilous northwest frontier of India and it was there that his fearsome reputation led to the creation of a religious cult dedicated to the veneration of the great god “Nikal Seyn”.
Although his colleagues were understandably amused at the spectacle, Nicholson himself – a stern Victorian Christian who read a chapter of the Bible every day – took a dim view of this idolatry and set about his devotees with a whip. This, however, merely strengthened their conviction that he was a god and the cult lingered on, long after his death and into the 21st century.
Nicholson is forgotten today but at the time he was one of a celebrated band of British officers in India, like Herbert Edwardes, James Abbott, Reynell Taylor and the Lawrence brothers whose adventures made them national heroes. Their deeds and deaths are recounted in memoirs, biographies, statues and memorials, both in India and at home.
It does not fall to many of us to be worshipped as a living god, but that was the fate of John Nicholson, a 19th century British army officer in the service of the East India Company.
Although his colleagues were understandably amused at the spectacle, Nicholson himself – a stern Victorian Christian who read a chapter of the Bible every day – took a dim view of this idolatry and set about his devotees with a whip. This, however, merely strengthened their conviction that he was a god and the cult lingered on, long after his death Nicholson is forgotten today but at the time he was one of a celebrated band of British officers in India, like Herbert Edwardes, James Abbott, Reynell Taylor and the Lawrence brothers whose adventures made them national heroes. Their deeds and deaths are recounted in memoirs, biographies, statues and memorials, both in India and at home.