Captain John Nicholson was a cranky, humorless, God-fearing, self-proclaimed clairvoyant Irishman who commanded regiments of hardcore kukri-swinging Gurkha, did battle with ferocious Afghan tribal warriors, crossed swords with blood-raging Sikhs and rampaging Indian mutineers, kept the severed head of a convicted outlaw on his desk as a warning to criminals, and used to hunt Bengal Tigers on horseback using only a cavalry saber. Between riding down apex predators and crushing the skulls of all who opposed him in a bloodsplosion of gruesome vengeance, Captain Nicholson was so damned effective as the ultimate paragon of Victorian English colonial badassitude of diplomatic iron-fistedness that he was worshipped as a god in some rural sections of the Punjab until the mid-1980s, is forever remembered by the British history texts as the "Hero of Delhi", and is equal parts respected and despised by roughly everyone on the Indian subcontinent.
And you know that when contemporary 19th century writers make extra-special care to sing praises about a guy's beard when they write stories about him, he's probably about as badass as they come.
|"He was a man cast in a giant mould, with massive chest and powerful limbs, and an expression ardent and commanding, with a dash of roughness; features of stern beauty, a long black beard, and a deep sonorous voice. There was something of immense strength, talent and resolution in his whole frame and manner, and a power of ruling men on high occasions which no one could escape noticing."
Nicholson was born in Lisburn, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland, on December 11, 1822. Aside from him attending some school I've never heard of before there isn't much to say about his early life, since on the day that Nicholson turned sixteen, his uncle – a Member of Parliament and a prominent lawyer for the British East India Company – bought Nicholson a commission in the British Army, enlisted him in the Bengal Infantry, and put him on a boat to India on a mission to go spread death and destruction and Christianity and cups of tea and other civilized things to the savages in the name of the Pax Britannia.
So, at a time when most kids his age were wearing out Pac-Man arcade machines and feathering their mullets up so they'd look totally sweet in their driver's license photos, Ensign John Nicholson of the 27th Native Infantry Regiment was charging across a bullet-riddled battlefield, sword raised high above his head, leading a ruthless platoon of battle-forged hardcore Indian Sepoy soldiers in a non-stop uncontrollable deathmatch against the ferocious tribal warriors of rural Afghanistan. Participating in the First Anglo-Afghan war from 1839 to 1842, the young Ensign was decorated for bravery during the Ghazni Campaign, when he was part of a column that force-marched 147 miles through the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, captured Kandahar from the enemy, then personally led his daring Sepoy soldiers on a frontal assault against the city of Ghazni, using ladders to cross a moat and scale 70-foot walls while tens of thousands of Afghans hurled musket fire, arrows, and cinderblocks violently towards his dome. Once he and his men breached the walls, they forced their way to the city center, where they were cut off, surrounded, and forced to engage the enemy hand-to-hand with bayonets and swords until more troops could be brought up to help them exploit the breakout.
The assault on Ghazni.
Shortly after the battle, Nicholson's battalion was attached to a unit that was sneak-attacked by the enemy, surrounded, and captured fierce battle. Never one to bow down in the face of obscenely-overwhelming odds no matter how redonkulous the situation, the enterprising Irishman escaped by simply bribing his guard to unlock the gate, then walked out of an Afghan prison and fled on foot across Afghanistan to regroup with his men. No problem.
By the time Nicholson got back to British lines the war was over, but just a few years later Nicholson got the chance to prove himself yet again, this time in the Anglo-Sikh War of 1845. Fighting in a unit alongside Neville Chamberlain, Nicholson was a rampaging enemy-smiting bastard and the only thing this motherfucker was interested in appeasing was his foot up the asses of anyone who stood opposed to him on the field of war (ok, it wasn't THAT Neville Chamberlain, it was a different one, but still). In yet another display of his gigantic raw testicular gigantitude, Nicholson assaulted and captured the city of Multan and defended it against a withering Sikh counter-attack despite taking a nasty kirpan dagger wound to some unspecified part of his anatomy. Fighting these worthy adversaries was such a fulfilling experience for Nicholson that he couldn't stay away from it, and he earned even more military honors for capturing the city of Attock during the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848 when he bluffed the city into surrendering even though he was dying of cholera and was outnumbered three-to-one by the defenders. His successes and victories against these valiant warriors were so impressive that after the British East India Company finally annexed a huge portion of the Punjab from its Sikh rulers, Nicholson was appointed administrator of the most lawless, toughest, most inhospitable province they had: Northern Kashmir – a half-Sikh, half-Muslim region in present-day Pakistan that at the time shared a tenuous border with Afghanistan.
Now the Punjabis are a tough group of people, but Nicholson – a stern, unflinchingly-badass Irishman who knew a thing or two about cracking skulls – somehow won their respect. He learned to speak Urdu. He learned their culture and their code of honor – a code of honor that demanded that no offense go unpunished – and he took it to heart. Sure, he was known for his foul temper, his authoritarian practices, and his propensity to whip out a cast iron club and beat people with it when they took too long to explain something, but Nicholson was also universally respected as fair, just, and honorable, and he brought food, medicine, aid, and order to the people of Punjab, personally adjudicating most disputes and punishing everyone from corrupt politicians to violent criminals with sentences ranging from public flogging to summary execution without trial. And he didn't have any time or interest in bullshit bureaucratic red tape, general fucking around, or anything else that required him to suffer fools. One time a psychotic religious fanatic charged him with a dagger in the middle of the street, so Nicholson flung the dude to the ground, grabbed a rifle off a British sentry, and capped the guy point-blank in the back of the head with a .577-caliber minie ball. Another time he heard a rumor that his cooks were planning on poisoning his soup, so he stormed into the kitchen and ordered them to taste it. They refused. He fed some to a monkey he found somewhere. It died. He had every cook on staff hanged from a post outside the mess hall, then went back and ate dinner. One yet another occasion, he put a huge price on the head of a notorious outlaw, but when it took bounty hunters too long to bring him in Nicholson personally rode out to the dude's village, by himself, killed the bandit leader in a sword fight, decapitated his corpse on the spot, brought the head back to Multan, and displayed it on his desk for months as a warning to everyone about what happens when they fuck with the Queen's representative in Punjab.
It took John Nicholson five years to take the most lawless, wildest region of present-day Pakistan and to not only render it completely free of crime, but to make himself so well-respected, feared, and beloved in the process that the Cult of Nikal Seyn was formed to worship "The Lion of Punjab" as a living god. As of a book I read from the 1980s, this cult was still in existence in some remote mountain regions on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. That's like Augustus Caesar shit right there.
The Ango-Sikh War
Everything was going pretty great with regards to decapitations and things until 1857, when roughly two-thirds of the Indian Army suddenly rose up, revolted against the East India Company, overthrew their British overlords, and demanded Indian autonomy and freedom from Victorian bullshit. Now, I can kind of see where some of the mutineers were coming from, because who the fuck wants to be ruled by a faceless evil global corporation based halfway around the world, but when the mutineers started massacring British prisoners of war and executing their wives and children you can probably see what Captain John "Eye for an Eye" Nicholson wasn't too interested in any sort of negotiation that didn't involve ramming a bayonet into someone's fucking throat and then headbutting their corpse into a ditch.
The 34 year old Captain, already an 18-year veteran who had survived three of the British Empire's most vicious wars, was brevetted a Brigadier-General and dispatched to ride 300+ miles to Delhi to crush the revolt at its source and personally overthrow the last Mughal Emperor of India. Under his command were three cavalry regiments and seven battalions of Punjab infantry, as well as his personal bodyguard of 200 fanatically-loyal Muslim Multani tribesmen – hardcore motherfuckers who received no pay for their service, took orders from no man except Nicholson, and slept every night outside the door to his private quarters so that nobody could enter. This detachment hauled ass 40 miles a day through the brutal heat and 110% humidity of the Indian summer, stopping only to wipe out disorganized regiments of mutineers, crush them in battle, and execute their leaders by strapping them back-first to the business end of cannons and blowing them apart with point-blank canister shot.
When Nicholson and his wild army of madmen reached the outskirts of Delhi they found a demoralized, beaten down army of Brits, loyal Sepoy Indian troops, and Gurkhas camped along a ridge overlooking the fortress-city. Nicholson walked right up to the commanding officer, a no-nuts, overly-cautious, ridiculously-old douchebag who was only in charge because the unit's three highest ranking officers had all died of cholera in the last calendar month, and demanded that he attack the city at once. General Douchebag was like, "Whatever chump including your assholes there are only 8,000 dudes here and there are like 35,000 motherfuckers entrenched behind 120-foot alls and a moat so why don't you fuck off?", but Nicholson wasn't about to take that as an answer. When he pressed the General for info, the guy was like, "Oh well we have like 13-mile long train of artillery-toting elephants coming to help out, so let's just chill until that gets here." Nicholson was like, "How the hell are you defending it?" and when the General responded with, "Uhhhh…" Nicholson got his men together, ran out with 2,500 troops, charged straight-on into the center of a 6,000-man unit that had been sent to destroy the supply train, crushed it without mercy while only losing 800 of his own troops, then personally escorted the siege guns to the front so they could blast the walls of Delhi at point-blank range.
Assault on Delhi.
The morale of the defenders changed immediately, and the once-weary troops now started referring to Nicholson as "The General" even though he was technically only a Captain and not at all in charge of the operation. Nicholson demanded that General Douchebag attack, and when that asshole still refused, Nicholson sent a request that he be removed from power. When it looked like that would be a possibility, the General, fearing for his job, finally ordered the assault, and in the early hours of September 13, 1857 Captain John Nichols personally led the column that charged towards Delhi's Kashmiri Gate. Supported by siege artillery, Nicholson's men – Brits, Indians, Punjabis, and Gurkhas – ripped through the walls, battling the enemy hand-to-hand with rifle butts and bayonets, refusing to back down or give ground despite being outnumbered 4-to-1 in some crazy Mogadishu-style street warfare madness. After scaling the outer walls, capturing the parapets, breaching through two gates, and creating a solid entry point for more British troops to pour in, Nicholson urged his troops to keep fighting, and press the attack while the enemy was reeling. His men, exhausted from hours of nonstop battle, then watched in awe as their commanding officer personally led the charge down a crowded street, revolver blazing, sword fighting a swarm of enemy troops while snipers took shots at him from rooftops and windows. Nicholson, battling to the end, was hit in the back by a sniper's bullet and fell in the street. He knew the wound was mortal the moment it hit him.
It took Captain John Nicholson nine days to die. He only allowed himself to go after he knew the battle was over, that Delhi had fallen, that the Mughal Emperor had been captured, and the rebellion crushed. He was so resolute in his determination that at one point, on his death bed, he heard a rumor that General Asshead was considering calling off the attack, and his only response was, "Thank God I have yet the strength to shoot him if necessary." At his funeral, his loyal Multani horsemen – brave, fearless, gigantically-badass warriors whose code of honor mandated that any man who shed a tear was to be punished by being flogged by women – threw themselves son his grave and wept.
|"Brigadier-General John Nicholson is now beyond human praise and human reward. But so long as British rule shall endure in India, his fame can never perish. He seems especially to have been raised up for this juncture. He crowned a bright, though brief, career by dying of the wound he received in the moment of victory at Delhi. The Chief Commissioner does not hesitate to affirm that without John Nicholson Delhi could not have fallen."
Britannica 1911 article
Victorian Blogs Bio
Holmes, Richard. Sahib. HarperCollins, 2011.
James, Lawrence. Raj. Macmillan, 2000.
Perrett, Bryan. At All Costs!. Arms and Armour, 1993.