Review: Soldier Sahibs

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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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