It’s Time That Nicholson’s Statue Was Also Pulled Down
The death of George Floyd in the United States has triggered a new wave of anti-racism protests in the UK, prompting a demand for a re-think of the country’s colonial past.
Edwards Colston, a Bristol-born slave trader, was the first one to go as a result of the anti-racism anger when his statue was pulled down and thrown in the harbour on Sunday. The statue has since been retrieved from the harbour by the Bristol council for shifting it to the museum.
The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands on Tuesday. There is a growing demand for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford University College while a plaque is being added to a Henry Dudas monument in Edinburgh to reflect the city’s link with slavery.
But one wonders if slave trade is the only skeleton in Britain’s colonial cupboard. There are many characters from the Kingdom’s colonial past who are celebrated with statues, plaques and street names in the UK but are abhorred by various sections of the country’s BAME community.
John Nicholson is one such character who had a commemorative statue in Lisburn, Northern Ireland but, due to atrocities he committed during his colonial service, many in British-Pakistanis from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province would feel extremely angry on mere a mention of him.
Atrocities committed by John Nicholson are not any kind of guarded secrets but well-known to those who deal with South Asian colonial history, like Willian Dalrymple who describes him as “the great imperial psychopath”.
Nicholson was quite open for his hatred for the people he ruled. “I dislike India and its inhabitants more every day and would rather go home on £200 a year than live like a prince here”, he once wrote to his mother in the UK.
Nicholson came to Punjab well before its annexation as one of Henry Lawrence’s assistants, who was appointed as Resident in the Lahore Darbar after the defeat of Sikh army in 1946. He was first posted in Kashmir as a military advisor to Maharaja Gulab Singh “to help him modernize” his army when the state was sold to him to recover the war cost for the Honourable East India Company (HEIC).
John Nicholson was in action shortly before the Second Sikh War in suppressing the disquiet in Hazara and Rawalpindi which was the bastion of Chattar Singh Attariawala, the Governor of Hazara, who vowed to offer every sacrifice to restore the Sikh fortunes by defeating British-led forces. Nicholson helped Edwardes maintain the control of Attock fort which was under pressure from the Afghans who had joined hands with the rebel Sikh army against the British authorities. He was in Hassanabdal when he heard about the kidnapping of Mrs Lawrence and her two children in Chakwal. He rushed to the area to learn that she had already been taken back to Kohat. Instead of going back to Hassanabad, he encouraged his forces to resort to large scale loot and plunder in Chakwal to punish the local population for their role in the kidnapping of the English lady. Many villages were destroyed, houses of notables and mosques were burnt to stage a collective punishment without any role for the judge or the jury.
The account above is not based on merely hearsay but well documented in the primary sources of South Asian history. This is how the Resident at Lahore (Henry Lawrence) described the situation in a letter to the Secretary with the Governor-General on 28 January 1849:
“Captain Nicholson was thus employed, keeping all along with such distance of Attock that, if the siege or investment of the place were threatened, he could at any time throw himself into the fort, when he received an urgent letter from Mrs Lawrence, describing herself to be in great danger at Chuckowal, stating that she intended to march towards him, begging him to move to Chuckowal to her aid. Captain Nicholson immediately set off with the followers he had collected towards Chuckowal, marching night and day, till he learnt that Mrs Lawrence’s escort, instead of bringing her towards him at Futteh Jhung, had conveyed her back towards Kohat. He made a long, forced march in the direction of Kohat, in the hope of overtaking her; but, finding that impossible, he moved on Chuckowal, to seize, and punish, the parties who were said to have stopped, and demanded money from Mrs Lawrence, and to have closed the road against her further advance”.
Nicholson didn’t stop here. As Deputy Commissioner of Jhelum district soon after the annexation in 1849, he further Punished the Mair/Minhas clan of Chakwal by confiscating all their land blaming them for the alleged kidnapping of Mrs Lawrence in a summary settlement.
But more glaring atrocities by John Nicholson are recorded by writer Charlers Allen in his book Soldier Sahib pertaining to his tenure as Deputy Commissioner of Bannu District during the period of 1852 to 1857, when he left to quell the 1857 Mutiny in Delhi and was killed there.
The way he ruled Bannu could be gauged from a remark by his friend Herbert B Edwardes who served as Bannu’s Deputy Commissioner before him. “I only knocked down the walls of the Bannu forts. John Nicholson had since reduced the people”, he wrote.
Nicholson was highly critical of what he regarded as the lax control over the district exercised by his predecessor, and was determined to impose new standards.
At a jirga held soon after his arrival which was attended by a deputation of Afghan chief from the trans-border area. Nicholson listened to what they had to say. At last one of them hawked and spat out between himself and Nicholson. He considered it a dire insulted and had his orderlies seize the man and force him to kneel. He was then ordered to lick up his spittle from the dust, and, once that had been done to Nicholson’s satisfaction, bundled out of the camp.
Nicholson followed this by publicly humiliating a Muslim religious leader who he though didn’t pay him respect. The unfortunate man was sitting quietly outside his village mosque when Nicholson rode past with a few local maliks and his usual escort of mounted police. Instead of say greetings to the new deputy commissioner as he liked everybody to do, the cleric just sat there and looked at him with what Nicholson interpreted as contempt. On his orders, the cleric was brought to the Deputy Commissioner’s camp and questioned for showing disrespect. His punishment was to have his beard shaved off – a grave offence to a pious Muslim.
It is not that he was just a rogue officer serving in the middle of nowhere. He was being rebuked and reprimanded when it involved British officers but they were not bothered when the subject of his mindlessness was local population. “I know that Nicholson is a first-rate guerrilla leader, but we don’t want a guerrilla policy”, Punjab’s Governor-General Sir John Lawrence once remarked when he had a disagreement with a British army officer posted in neighbouring Kohat district.
At another time, Sir Henry Lawrence warned him for showing temper. “My dear Nicholson, Let me advise you, as a friend, to curb your temper…Don’t think it necessary to say all you think to everyone. The world would be a mass of tumult if we all gave candid opinions of each other. I admire your sincerity as much as any man can do, but say this much as a general warning. Don’t think I allude to any specific act; on the contrary, from what I saw in camp, I think you have done much towards conquering yourself, and I hope to see the conquest completed”, Henry Lawrence wrote to him in one of his letters as Resident at Lahore Darbar before the annexation.
Sajid Iqbal is a senior broadcast journalist at BBC News based in London, UK. He can be reached @BBCSajidIqbal