Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Despite its Boys Life subtitle, “Soldier Sahibs: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed Indias Northwest Frontier” is a serious, historically sound account of portions of the First Afghanistan War, the Sikh War and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The author, Charles Allen, is a sixth-generation Indian-born Britisher who has written 10 previous books on India and his skill shows here. His account is loaded with derring-do but he does not make up dialogue or “popularize” his work, instead quoting from personal correspondence and official reports. Nevertheless, a literate male teenager will love this book, and anyone interested in the convoluted history of British India should find it rewarding.
Mr. Allen tells his story by focusing on the lives of eight young men who ventured out to India to serve God and their country, and also to make their fortunes. They were all members of the gentry but not wealthy. They were for the most part either Scottish or Irish Protestants as were the majority of their colleagues.
Up until the Mutiny, India was won and administered by the East India Co., a trading firm that had been obliged to take up the chores of government. The governor-general resided in Calcutta, a very long way from the Northwest Frontier, and reported to the directors of the company in London. The company fielded three armies, with the Bengal army the largest. These young men were all commissioned there and were posted to units or political offices in the Punjab, where most of the action was then taking place. The author tells us that the ratio of British officers to the men under their command (all native Indians) was one to 90.
Fortunately there was an equivalent officer corps of native Indians who normally had much more experience than the young men named to lead them. In India, accustomed to centuries of rigid hierarchies, this kind of anomaly did not present problems. In addition to the companys armies there was also the Queens Army, which contained regular British officers and British troops. But here, also, native levies made up two-thirds of the total.
Perhaps the most famous of the young men the author writes about was John Nicholson, a large, taciturn individual with explosive energy. An early example of his dynamism was when he left a sick bed to lead a force of 60 Pathans (only three of whom he actually knew) to seize a fort from rebellious Sikhs. He rode so swiftly that only half the force could keep up, and after 50 miles arrived at the fort at daybreak. By surprise and force of personality, Nicholson was able to secure the fort without firing a shot. Thus began the “Nekal Seyn” legend that grew throughout the Punjab.
It seems the British nearly always won despite the odds against them. They led a limited number of Hindu troops against larger Muslim or Sikh armies and conquered; they led small detachments of Sikhs against larger elements of Pathans and won, and small detachments of Pathans against larger elements of Sikhs and won. There was no technological edge. The Pathan rifle had a range four times greater than the British musket, while Sikh artillery could match any European force in accuracy and rate of fire. The author also points out that the top British generals were not of exceptional brilliance. What did serve the British well was their reputation for fair dealing.
There was a prevailing myth that because of a malformation of the mouth, an Englishman could not lie (why else did he always tell the truth?). This fair dealing, however, lay much in the eye of the beholder. The story goes that as Nicholson was negotiating with some Pathan chiefs, one of them hawked and spat directly in his path. Nicholson immediately had the man seized, and forced him to lick the spittle from the ground. This aroused admiration rather than resentment from the Pathans who saw in Nicholson a man as concerned with honor as they themselves were.
These young British officers, whether authoritarian like Nicholson or otherwise, were all convinced that their presence in India was for the common good; they brought the rule of law, modern medicine, respect for women and the true religion to the subcontinent. To the modern eye they all seem, with the exception of a few scoundrels, incredibly naive and idealistic. One officer cut down in battle quoted Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (how sweet and proper it is to die for ones country) while actually dying. All sought out battle because it was through battle that one rose in honor, rank and wealth.
A modern psychologist viewing this collection of aggressive young males might suggest they all needed counseling. Perhaps. But without them there would have been no British India.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who has spent five years in the Indian subcontinent.

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