Review: Soldier Sahibs

By Omar Ali 8 Comments

This was written way back in 2002 for the Pakistani newsmagazine Herald (which just closed down unfortunately). Lets see how it holds up.

Soldier Sahibs is an old-fashioned and unapologetically imperialist book. And writer Charles Allen makes sure you know what you are getting into by giving it the flagrantly politically incorrect subtitle: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed India’s Northwest Frontier. But imperialist does not necessarily mean inaccurate and Allen has taken a good deal of trouble to get his facts right. The book claims to tell “The astonishing story of a brotherhood of young men who together laid claim to the most notorious frontier in the world, India’s North-West Frontier,
which today forms the volatile boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The men in question include John Nicholson, Harry Lumsden (founder of the Guides), Herbert Edwardes, William Hodson, James Abbot and Neville Chamberlain. Protégés of Sir Henry Lawrence, these men were responsible for laying the foundations of British rule in the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier. The author’s intent is to tell the story of these young men and through their adventures, give the reader an idea of how the British conquered – or, as he would prefer, “pacified” – the ‘wild’ Northwest Frontier of India.
But while Soldier Sahibs gives a very readable account of the adventures of these (surprisingly) young men, it is not possible to piece together the broader history of those times from his book. Why the British were here in the first place and what were the factors that made a small island in Europe more powerful than any kingdom in India do not form any part of Allen’s concerns. Nor does he waste much time explaining the situation in the Punjab or of the East India Company at that time. In fact, the author does not even provide a map of the vast area over which his protagonists established their rule. If you are totally at sea about those times, then you may have to read a few other books to fully appreciate the goings-on in this one. But if you are one of those enthusiasts who cannot get enough of the Raj, the mutiny and all that jazz, then you will definitely enjoy this book. Its written in authentic ‘Flashman’ style, with wit and verve and loads of ‘local color’.
The English heroes may appear larger than life but by all accounts some of them indeed were larger than life. And being Englishmen, they left us a veritable storehouse of laconic and understated wisecracks. These include Nicholson walking into the mess to tell his fellow officers: “I am sorry gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks.” (The cooks had apparently poisoned the food but were detected and hanged, and dinner was served half an hour late).
Though Nicholson gets the most lines in the book, the stories of Edwardes of Peshawar and Bannu and Abbot of Abbotabad are also told in some detail. William Hodson, the villain who executed Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons, also gets a sympathetic hearing. We are told surprisingly little about Sir Henry Lawrence, who is supposedly the godfather of this fraternity. And it is not always clear why certain officer’s lives are described in detail and others get only cursory mention. Lack or availability of sources may be the explanation for that .
In these times, it is impossible to read such a book and not look for parallels with the current efforts at “pacifying” Afghanistan. But these British adventurers and their peculiar code of life are poles apart from the westerners who are now coming to bring us into the civilised world. Occasionally, Madison Avenue will try to create a suitable heroic image for some American colonel or diplomat but the substance of this new empire is very different from the last one and so are its agents.
Nicholson and company may have been bigoted, male chauvinist psychopaths, yet they also had undoubted personal courage and their own peculiar brand of love of justice. In the Pakhtuns and the Punjabis, they found not just enemies, but also friends and fellow adventurers. It is fashionable these days to describe their local supporters as ‘traitors’ who took the side of a ‘foreign power’. But to the Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims and Pakhtuns who fought under Nicholson to reconquer Delhi, the capital was also a foreign power and one they did not remember fondly. And these British officers had always respected their honour and treated them fairly. They provided an administration that was in many ways a big improvement over the ‘locals’ they had replaced. In fact, it would not be remiss to say that the Punjabis and Pakhtuns who fought for the British may have been men of higher character and personal courage than most of their current detractors. Many things have improved since Nicholson rode across the plains of the Punjab blowing mutineers from canons but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that some things have also deteriorated.

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8 Replies to “Review: Soldier Sahibs”

  1. “In fact, it would not be remiss to say that the Punjabis and Pakhtuns who fought for the British may have been men of higher character and personal courage than most of their current woke detractors.”

    To me what’s even more ironical that the woke detractors are very same people who fought for the Brits. Look around u and check the ethnicities of the people who cry imperialism at drop of hat, and it will map neatly around the very same regions where the Brits consolidated their power first in the subcontinent.

    1. By the way, i took the word “woke” out again. The original review just said current detractors (which is what I put on goodreads), but when i posted it here I added the word woke.. now I think the original is OK. And yes, your point stands 🙂

      1. People who use the word “cucks” are not to be taken seriously. This kind of misogynistic language is not acceptable in the 21st century.

  2. History repeats twice fist time as tragedy …….
    Present day western do-gooders like Khalilzad in AfPak are a far cry from Her Imperial Majesty’s soldiers

  3. The other day the woke crowd was complaining about the cultural appropriation of … coconut oil. What a joke

  4. a ton of literature exists on the colonial british experience with pakhtuns, but it’s a shame that there is nearly zero material that tells the story of the other side. it is a classic story resembling asterix and his indomitable gauls versus the might roman empire. it’s a pity that because of pakhtuns’ weakened political position in the current times, they have not been able to capitalize on it. had the americans had such a fascinating history behind them, we would have seen two dozen overly romanticized hollywood movies based on it.

    it is important because while we have loads of books to read about countless tirah campaigns and mehsud expeditions and mohmand expeditions from the british point of view, we know next to nothing about the experience of tribes fighting off these expeditions. no wartime stories of from the pakhtun side. no gone-with-the-wind novels from them.

    after all their must be outstanding military commanders who devised the strategies and planned the operations on the pakhtun side too. they fought the british to a standstill for a whole century. it is a cliche, but amazing fact that for most of the period of british empire, the british had more military personnel stationed in waziristan alone than the rest of the subcontinent.

    pakhtuns were not only first rate fighters, they were brilliant tacticians too. they could think on their feet and devise their strategies quickly to deal with the changing nature of warfare. case in point – during the waziristan campaign of 1936-39, british used bomber aircrafts against the tribes for first time. this was the first time in history these tribes had seen any aircraft, and didn’t have any collective knowledge to deal with these new weapons of war. however, they quickly figured out that the pilots looking down from these aircrafts could only see the top of the head of a standing man, and not his complete figure. so next time when they saw bomber aircrafts approaching, they would lay down their turbans on the open ground and hide in the hillsides. next they would amuse themselves with the sight of fireworks as the pilots emptied the their bomb loads on the turbans lying on the ground mistaking them for massed fighting men.

    pakhtun resistance to british empire, and even to the modern american intervention in afghanistan can be legitimately characterized as a freedom struggle. after all the pakhtuns didnt draw the durand line that divided them in two haves. they are a single nation by any definition of nation, and as a result are fully within their right to fight on either side of durand line as a single people.

    1. I wont’ necessarily stress much on Pakthun’s fighting ability, if for centuries ur economy is driven by loot and plunder of neighborhood, coupled with living off the land and acting as mercenaries to sustain one, of course u would over time become better at that one trade. Not necessarily different from the Gurkhas,Ladakhis,Dogras who were excellent in the Himalayas terrain where the Gangetic plains Indians can’t survive for a week. Over time the Marathas and Sikhs also become better in that due to the repeated invasions, and scant resources at their disposal. Its only at the advent of the Brits and firearms and such that turned almost every ethnicity into an able soldier as the next.

      We do see that “master of the trade” part in mercantilism of the Gujjus, or the amount of investment on education by Tam-Brahms, of emphasis of culture/performing arts in Bhadralok Bengalis etc. So not entirely surprising when it comes to Pathans.

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