May 25, 2020
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Frontier Males

More empire-building from the Raj writer, who casts a romantic eye on Nicholson & Co

Frontier Males
Soldier-Sahibs: The Men Who Made The New Frontier
By Charles Allen
John Murray, distributed by Rupa & Co. Rs 710, Pages: 368
In the closing passage of Allan Sealy's Trotter Nama, the narrator Eugene Trotter furnishes a precis on how to do a Raj book. Among the ingredients: ...a chhota peg, a tent peg...a measure of justice, gunpowder, equal portions of law and order, a greased cartridge, a tamarind seed or else a cavalry regiment, a moist eye, some high intentions, two pax of ounce of valour, something in the middle...a sharp sword..., a boy of British blood unsullied, a locket.

"It matters little if one or another be wanting, nor is the order of essence," says Eugene. "Introduce them as you please and as often. Let the pot boil of its own."

It just boiled over again. Soldier Sahibs is the 11th of Charles Allen's Raj books. Plain Tales from the Raj; A Glimpse of the Burning Plain; Lives of the Indian Princes; A Mountain in Tibet, he wrote them all. He virtually owns this genre-it's his little empire. This time he takes us to the top left hand corner, where we follow the adventures of a small clique of dashing mid-19th century companywallahs who 'made the frontier': "Effectively, they drew lines with their sabres along the mountain tops that mark today's border between Pakistan and Afghanistan." Henry Lawrence was the leader of the pack but in Allen's telling, John Nicholson is the alpha male, and of course, the hero.

Soldier Sahibs would have been a Nicholson Nama except that that book had already been published as The Life of John Nicholson (1897) by, yes, Lionel Trotter-no relation. ("The indefatigable Trotter," as Allen puts it. He should talk.) In fact, it's all been done before, but Allen's forte lies in distilling an acceptably contemporary blend of understated romance from the imperial mash.

In this case, he's also running a small rearguard action in defence of his protagonist-who happens to be a distant ancestor: "I can still recall the frisson of shock I felt when I first opened a popular history of British India written in the mid-1970s and saw my family paragon described as a bully, a racist, a religious bigot, and, to cap it all, a homosexual sado-masochist."

In setting the record straight Allen more or less resorts to Eugene's recipe. We have Nicholson's justice. ("I have a man who taunted my police on the line of march...May I hang him?") There's a moist eye when Nicholson finds his younger brother's body in the Khyber: "In accordance with Afghan custom, his genitalia had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth."

There's plenty of valour, and even a treasured locket (held prisoner in Ghazni, young Nicholson is stripped of a locket containing a strand of his mother's hair but he throws such a "head-endangering" fit that the bloodthirsty Afghans relent).

There is 'something in the middle' too, and it's not bad. Allen is at his best in building up a picture of the complex relationships and rivalries of a generation of imperialists, which includes the three Lawrence brothers, Neville Chamberlain, William Hodson, Herbert Edwardes, Harry Lumsden, James Abbot, and several minor luminaries besides.

Allen is an earnest researcher and numerous extended passages from unpublished sources, official and private correspondence, bring many of the soldier sahibs to life. Unfortunately he also has this irritating apologist tendency, invariably winding up his archival vignettes with pleas for historical relativism and understanding. A fragment from a letter of Lady Edwardes about the mutual "tenderness" between her husband and Nicholson is followed by an extended caveat lest we sniff a homosexual bond. It gets really peculiar when Allen explains that "they were in some respects closer to Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban than to ourselves". And this is supposed to reassure us that Nicholson and Co were not a bunch of bigoted, bullying, sado-masochists?

The fact is that for the early Victorians the imperial frontier was charged with sex and violence. In the Terminal Essay of the Thousand and One Nights Richard Burton-himself a junior contemporary of Allen's Sahibs (he was a regimental interpreter with the 18th Bombay Native Infantry in Sind) went so far as to delineate an extensive Eurasian frontier of perversion and transgressions he called the 'Sotadic Zone'. But Allen tends to romanticise this encounter into a tale of manliness and ineffable high intentions.

The narrative of Soldier Sahibs is framed by the figure of a young ensign named Quintin Battye, an emblematic "boy of British blood unsullied". We find him in the prologue scrawling the immortal words 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' on the walls of a cavalry officers' mess. Then we meet Battye again at the climactic siege of Delhi: "Shot through the groin, he died murmuring those same seductive words." Allen would probably accuse me of what he calls "post-Freudian worldliness" but I think he thinks this is better than sex.

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