This text retells the story of a brotherhood of young men who together laid claim to one of the most notorious frontiers in the world: India's north-west frontier, which in the late 1990s forms the volatile boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Known collectively as Henry Lawrence's Young Men, each had distinguished himself in the East India Company's wars in the Punjab in the 1840s before going out to carve out names for themselves as politicals on the frontier.
Drawing extensively on the men's diaries, journals and letters, Charles Allen weaves the individual stories of these Soldier Sahibs together with the tale of how they came together to save British India, ending climatically on Delhi Ridge in 1857.
The less-than-politically correct subtitle (should we think of populaces as being "tamed"?) of this book is bound to raise hackles, as will its unapologetically imperialist perspective. As the back flap proclaims, Allen "was born in India, where six generations of his family served under the British Raj, and now lives in London," where he has written such books as Plain Tales from the Raj and The Search for Shangri-La. This book centers around Allen's forebear John Nicholson (" 'Nikkal Seyn' to the native inhabitants he subdued," says the front flap), who arrived in Calcutta in 1839, serving as a cadet in the East India Co.'s Bengal Native Infantry. The company was at this time a managing agency for British rule in India, and Nicholson & Co.'s mission was to secure the Northwest frontier, including the Khyber Pass and approaches to Afghanistan. Allen follows Nicholson's rise in the ranks and service in the Sikh Wars via letters, diaries and other accounts, and details his eventual shared governorship of the area. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 almost destroyed the tenuous British hold on India, as native soldiers rose up against European civilians and soldiers, but the Northwest remained loyal and helped in no small way to contain the rebellion, though the book ends with the death of Nicholson during the capture of Delhi. British subjects may have found a lot to like in this book when it was published in the U.K. last year (the Sunday Times called it "an excellent guide through this fascinating territory"), but U.S. readers unfamiliar with the era, area and prejudices will find it tough going.