I reviewed this book for the Pakistani magazine “Herald” 22 years ago. We had a podcast about the East India company yeseterday and it reminded me of this book, so I dug up my old review (posted unedited):
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 woke 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.
13 thoughts on “Soldier Sahibs-Review”
‘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’. ‘
I think Punjabis and Pakthuns are singled out because they dont really fight back the ‘traitor’ tag. In my view there were far more ‘traitorous’ ethnicities who enjoyed far more privilege , but mostly kept their head down and toiled for the Brits. Its only later when the Brits started to discard these ethnicities in favor of Pakthuns and Punjabis, that these ethnicities rebelled.
We all know which ethnicities we are talking about.
You do know the bengal army which mutinied and was ruthlessly put down by the punjabis+ British, was in fact made of purbiya (eastern up + bihar) soldiers right. Religiously it had both Hs and Ms. Among Hs, UCs were present but not sure about the peasant castes. The bongs were paper pushing bureaucrats and clerks.
The Bengal army was the first army which fought for the brits in the Maratha and Sikh wars, for that they were appropriately compensated. Nobody gives a damn if they suddenly grew a conscious and started rebelling.
‘The bongs were paper pushing bureaucrats and clerks’
As i said, ethnicities who enjoyed far more privilege , but mostly kept their head down and toiled for the Brits.
The British were just another competing force in the early days of EIC but after 1857, by the late 19th century, and early to mid 20th century, most people were well aware of what British colonialism was doing to their lands and their societies. By this logic, the Punjabis by and large definitely sided with the British and were definitely the biggest collaborators of the Brits, even when rebellion was brewing elsewhere in the country. The Pasthuns by and large did not collaborate with the Raj, their nominal support to the British was mostly to retain their own independence and neither did they consider themselves Indian or identified with Indians.
I would not say ”traitorous” since Punjabis were generally happy with British rule, especially Muslim Punjabis who neither liked the Mughals nor the Sikhs, so their support to their British overlords was justified in their minds. There are no ethnicities in India that generally were anti-British, but the Purbiyas are the only ones that actually rebelled and would have ended British rule were it not for Punjabis.
I dont even get why Punjabis are even apologetic about siding with the Brits. Again, they did nothing more or less than what other Indian ethnicities did. Its only because there was a high contingent of Punjabis during WW1/2 and their role in 1857 , that they are singled out. What other ethnicities paid for their loyalty to Brits through trade etc , Punjabis just paid by blood. There were ethnicities smarter and essentially ‘non martial’ who just paid their dues through other means. And one could argue paid more than Punjabis did. And rebelled not even once.
On the rebellion front, i disagree that Purbiyas could have ended Brits rule. Its much like how Indians perceive that had Brits not come, India would have had Maratha rule. Large swathes of Indian land in East and South had no impact during 1857. Even in North, places like Sindh and Kashmir weren’t impacted. Every ethnicity in India ‘rebelled’ only once they were removed from their privileged position. And the one who weren’t removed, never rebelled.
The responses to the British rule in India mainly depended on how much a particular region or community lost because of it. Before the arrival of the British, Marathas and Sikhs were the dominant powers, and Bengal was the richest part of South Asia. So these three regions suffered the most and they were more active in the freedom movement compared to others. More than 75 percent of the freedom fighters who received life sentence or death penalty were Hindus from from Punjab, Bengal or Maharashtra. On the other hand people like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan saw the concept of Independent India as a Bengali idea that every Muslim should oppose, and openly supported the British rule.
‘ So these three regions suffered the most’
Suffering is a relative term . Of course the ethnicities who were the biggest enablers of British rule, also suffered because they were ruled the ‘longest’
If Brits made number of canals, increasing agriculture output (Punjab) or build a brand new city from scratch and make your people administrators in far flung areas(Bengal), or make your city the trade hub (Mumbai) , and then you decide to back stab them, of course you gonna ‘suffer’ the most.
The real traitors were the Purabiyas of the Bengal army who collaborated with foreigners to defeat the last remaining free ‘Indian’ kingdom. The Punjabis were absolutely right in supporting the Brits against a Purabiya revolt. Punjab meant nothing to the Purabiyas and the Purabiyas meant nothing to the Punjabis, or to the Dogras, who under Maharaja Ranbir Singh also fought for the British.
Punjabis have been good servants of the Brits, this is a fact even many Punjabis now recognize. The ”last free kingdom” in India happily provided the largest amount of soldiers for almost a century to keep Indians under the boot and at the behest of those who apparently ‘took away their freedom away’.
The Purbiyas were simply mercenaries of the Company, like many during this period. To their credit, they actually revolted when oppressive British policies and plunder started to become apparent to them. They are the only Indian group to stage a mass revolt, otherwise Indians are generally a peaceful and docile race/culture. After 1858, the curtains of colonialism came off.. There is a reason why nobody cares that the Indians provided more than 2 million soldiers in WW2 or over a million in WW1. They are neither celebrated in the West nor in the East.
‘To their credit, they actually revolted when oppressive British policies and plunder started to become apparent to them. ‘
I am grateful that Qureshi holds my ancestors to such high standards, but i have to acknowledge the whole mutiny has less to do with oppressive British policies and more to do with their place getting threatened in food chain. We are very similar to other Indian groups in that respect.
‘The real traitors were the Purabiyas of the Bengal army who collaborated with foreigners’
Well everyone collaborated, but the ethnicities who cry the loudest against Brits colonialism were the biggest collaborators. And we all know which ethnicities populate the Subcontinental and South Asia studies here in the West.
the ethnicities who cry the loudest against Brits colonialism were the biggest collaborators. And we all know which ethnicities populate the Subcontinental and South Asia studies here in the West.
Saurav, you often tend to make stuff up (as I’ve opined in the past) so I don’t know if what you say above is correct on the facts. I have no personal knowledge of the demographics of those academic departments. In any case, we are talking about people of different generations and eras; it is by no means hypocritical for 20th century Bengalis or Marwaris to deplore British rule even if their 18th century ancestors benefited from collaboration.
When I think about my own people (Tamil Brahmins), I have absolutely no idea what they thought about the Company’s conquests and rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, but by the beginning of the 20th, they were quite happy to get a modern English education and participate in the economy and professions the British had set up in India (a fair number of my forebears were railway officials in the early part of he century). From what I can glean, relations with white people were cordial but at arm’s length.
Talking about collaborations with imperial overlords, there’s a fun fact from a different part of the world: one of the people who tried to help the Ottoman sultan Mehmed conquer Constantinople was named Orban, whereas Viktor (one of his tribe’s descendants) is considered to be quite the Islamophobe. The Orbans of Hungary were also Protestants, it seems, and preferred Ottoman rule to Austrian rule. Identities and affiliations change over time.
‘it is by no means hypocritical for 20th century Bengalis or Marwaris to deplore British rule even if their 18th century ancestors benefited from collaboration.’
Its collaboration in the 18th century in the first place, that helped them reach the privilege, where they can now sit comfortably and deplore British rule. People who collaborated later or for a shorter period of time do not cry horse from time to time over British rule.
‘From what I can glean, relations with white people were cordial but at arm’s length.”
I mean sure if u say so, because the genesis of the Dravidian movement is that the TamBrahm is THE white guy on the streets. I mean how much arms length were you folks really..
Many Maharajas collaborated. Jaipur did as did J&K. The Southies didn’t lift a finger, nor did any Gujrati I know of. This was a mainly Hindustani revolt against beef and pork cartridges. Religion was the propellant as it still is in India. In the later phase in Delhi the Muslims had become openly fundamentalist, attacking Hindus as well.
Expecting Punjabis, especially Sikhs to fight restoration of the Mughals is a perverse twist in post independence nationalist historiography.
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