Old Maps

16/12/2013 at 2:43 am (Reference) ()

A excellent site that not only provides old maps but does it in a new way. The maps are imposed over modern maps, simply zoom in and set the year.


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The Woman Who Ruled the World

20/06/2013 at 6:09 am (Ancient, Articles Short)

Click the image to open in full size.

Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca, these queens echo down to us from history, they ruled, they became legends, they left their nations utterly destroyed in their wake.

Female rulers being so rare these women usually have the luxury of not having to be remotely as successful to enter legend, however this is not true of all female rulers, some don’t enter legend, even if they don’t destroy the country they ruled, Livia’s controlling of her husband Augustus in his later life and if that’s too much of a rumour there’s Agrippina’s influence on Nero or Theodora’s on Justinian. Though admittedly these women were not recognised rulers just the power behind the throne. However by later Rome outright female rulers existed such as in the 5th century when both the Western and Eastern halves of the Empire were openly ruled women Galla Placidia and Aelia Pulcheria, but even these two highly competent Empresses only ruled as regents for their sons and brothers but not in their own names.

And while it is true to say each of the above women held great power one women held even greater power, in fact perhaps the greatest power of all, Irene… Yes, I did say, Irene. If you’re are scratching your head and wondering who the hell this Irene is, relax, you certainly aren’t alone, but it probably won’t make you feel any better if I tell you Irene held more power than Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca combined.

To put you out of your misery Irene was the first female Emperor of Rome. While Irene was certainly not the first woman to rule Rome she was the first to rule in her own name, but remains largely forgotten by history compared a lot of other female rulers, when at this moment by rights there should be a caretaker at the local research library shouting would all feminist authors writing a book about Irene please form an orderly queue.

* * * *

So it was to Irene the honour fell of being the first women to rule Rome in her own name as Emperor not Empress-Regent and what a reign it was to be matching the reigns of the most famous household name male Emperors. Unfortunately these household name male Emperors are not Diocletian, Hadrian or Augustus but Nero and Commodus, it fact to call her Caligula or Elagabalus would be to flatter her legacy, as through a combination of utter selfishness, murder, treachery and complete incompetence her reign was one of the most unmitigated disasters Rome suffered in its 2000 year history, Hannibal did less damage, and most likely this is the women Margaret Thatcher was a reincarnation of.

Now it wasn’t all roses for Irene at the beginning she didn’t inherit a Rome at the height of its power rather a Roman Empire that was down but far from out and needing a competent hand to nurture it back to health, instead she left it face down in the dirt and then sent a herd of elephants to trampling its face into a cow pat. So female writers then have not exactly flocked to inform the world about this sister’s accomplishment of becoming the most powerful person in the ancient world, here in the name of feminism I hope to correct this omission in female literature and let the world know about this un-mitigating female disaster.

* * * *

Helen of Troy may be a myth, but Irene of Constantinople unfortunately for all the citizens of that city is a historical fact, unlike Helen though Irene didn’t hail from Sparta but its great rival Athens. She was of noble birth but also an orphan so had little going for her except her looks, being rated as one of the beauties of her age. These looks got the note of the heir to the Roman Empire Leo. It was quite unusual for Roman Emperor to marry for anything but politics, the odd lucky one got to marry for love, and a few later ones tried to, often with a concubine or serving girl and quickly got the chop, the great unwashed being rather snooty about who they tipped their caps to. One Emperor Theodosius II when forced to marry by his sister Aelia Pulcheria had demanded that he wanted the most beautiful girl to be found, but he seems to be the only Emperor prior to Leo to marry for looks. So when Leo then the son of the reigning Emperor told his father he wanted to marry a young and pretty girl of his choice rather than have an arranged political marriage it was quite unusual for his father to consent. So 17 year old Irene of Athens, the face that sank a thousand ships, was brought before the son of the Emperor of Rome and on looks alone he chose her from many candidates as his bride. Leo settled down with his trophy wife becoming Emperor Leo IV six years later and reigning for just 5 years before dying in 680 leaving their 10 year old son Constantine as Emperor and the 28 year old Empress Irene as his regent. In effect a footballer’s wife had now become the most powerful woman on Earth.

At first Irene was only Empress-regent for her son but her later in her reign was to get this changed and herself declared senior Augustus and her son Junior formally making her Rome’s first official female ruler. The duel senior/junior Emperor relationship was very common in ancient Rome and either lasted harmoniously or the junior Augustus would bump off the senior to seize power. In this case with the relationship being that of mother and son surely she wouldn’t torture him to death at a time he wasn’t even trying to usurp her power?

However before we start discussing family shenanigans there’s even more pressing matters at hand for a megalomaniac seizing absolute power for herself to deal with. Rome wasn’t to healthy at that time, Spain had been invaded, North Africa was on its last legs, Italy was being pressured by Lombards and the Pope calling to the Empress for aid, worst of all the Arabs had retaken Egypt, this was bad but even worse the Arab army that was marching on the Middle East burning villages and farms and making it impossible for the Empire to feed itself, but you see mass death by starvation the loss of territory didn’t really bother her, what was really important was starting a religious purge, just to unite your people as your being invaded by foreigners. And what better way to organise a religious purge than remove 70% of the leadership of the army, because it’s the last thing you need when enemy armies are rampaging your countryside. However one can marvel at the competence and efficiency of Irene’s religious persecutions of the army, so effective was it she utterly destroyed the entire Roman army’s capabilities as a fighting force for two decades. However on the bright side despite the destruction of the army and famine throughout the Empire there was a happy ending as more importantly she did get her way on whether pictures of God where allowed in churches or not.

Now with all the important issues in the city settled, it was time to turn her attention to those pesky Arabs invaders and who better to deal with than he army she had just terrorised and the territories in the Empire under Arab threat? The army magnificently marched out of Constantinople and straight into the Arab camp and joined them followed by the province of Sicily.

Unsurprisingly at this point there was a little discontent in the Empire with Irene’s rule and when her son Constantine reached the age of 17 the provincial army declared him Emperor and revolted, with few willing to defend Irene the revolt was over almost as soon as it started with her imprisoned in a country palace. So happy days returned to the Empire under Constantine, that was until it turned out he really wasn’t a soldier in the mould of Trajan or Alexander, having more acutely attuned personal survival instincts and a fast horse. So Constantine adopted the policy of Danegeld to stop the Arab invasion which of course proved scandalous to middle class tax payers who undoubtedly complained ‘why should I pay for a lazy Arab to sit and do nothing, he should get a job, like attacking our Empire,’ and as this happened Irene was able to manipulate palace politics and get herself restored to the throne.

With the Danegeld payments ceasing now Irene was back in power the Arabs sent a fresh army to invade the Empire. Constantine perhaps sensing he needed to save face, and perhaps the Empire after his failed attempt at rule immediately gathered and army and headed to fight the Arabs but as he reached Anatolia news reached him from his mother the Arab army had turned back and returned to Egypt. Constantine returned to Constantinople expecting the gratitude of the city but instead met with derision and cries of cowardice as Irene’s message to him had been a lie and the Arab army hadn’t turned back. Irene had her son seized and dragged back to the palace where she had his eyes torn out after which he died. Ok she totally undermined the war effort, helped the enemy invade her country, but on the bright side she did get to torture her only child to death.

With half her empire occupied, her son murdered, her army betrayed, Irene now turned her attention to the economy it was still too healthy. She had always encouraged and even mix of corruption, factionalism and Social Darwinism among her palace advisors, a government based on the philosophy if they’re killing each other, they’re not killing me served her well. However with much of the city shocked by her brutal treatment of her son she started she had maybe gone a stage too far so some serious divde and rule was needed, playing off faction against faction with graft and bribes. Soon the economy was bankrupt and just as she had spent the last penny from the royal coffers the Arabs started getting shirty again. This time Irene took a leaf out of her son’s book and opted for Danegeld. However the city had no money, so she made the Arabs an exceptionally huge offer based on the principle what does it matter whether you promise someone a million or a billion when you haven’t got a penny to pay them. To her this seemed perfectly logical, however the citizens of Constantinople failed to see this logic and were getting very worried the Arabs may get a miffed when they found out they weren’t going to get a single payment.

Now Irene had ignored the Lombard threat to Italy and the Pope’s pleas for aid, and when they finally invaded the treacherous Pope decided to undermine her rule by actually protecting the people of Italy and worse still without any consultation of the Empress. The Pope did a deal with Charlemagne to protect the citizens of Italy and crowned him Holy Roman Emperor, so 400 years after the last Western Emperor the Empire was divided into two again. The situation became even more intolerable when the Pope suggested to Charlemagne he might do a better job at ruling the Eastern half than Irene. Irene acted quickly and offered to marry Charlemagne, an offer he apparently private laughed at deducing she just wanted to lure him the Constantinople to murder him, but in public entered polite negotiations. At this point the citizens of the Eastern Empire ungrateful for the years of fine rule Irene had given them rose up, not at the fact they were broke, starving, the Empire was divided and what’s left taken piece by piece, I mean that’s bad, but and uncouth, unwashed trouser wearing barbarian on the throne, now that’s beyond the pale. The revolt spread quickly, the forces loyal to Irene didn’t defect to the rebel’s camp though, because their weren’t any forces loyal to Irene and she was hauled out the palace and sent captive to Lesbos where she died or was murdered a year later.

* * * *

Irene often takes a lot of stick from many historians and it is sometimes be argued that Irene was the worst female ruler in the whole of history surpassed only by Britain in the 1980’s and at the beginning of this article I contrasted Irene’s fame with that of other female rulers such as Cleopatra, Zenobia and Boudicca and made the suggestion that she was deliberately forgotten by female writers who write books on the others obsessively. However there is a historical convention that when judging the reign of a rule you look at the state of the country at the beginning of their reign and the state at the end and judge them on the difference. If I use this convention Irene’s reign was undoubtedly bad but not terminal, she inherited an ailing empire and drove it to wrack and ruin, but not irreparably and the Empire was restored again under her successors to its full might. Whereas Cleopatra and Zenobia both inherited healthy countries and lead them to total annihilation by the end, so perhaps Irene can even be compared favourably to them.

Irene of Athens ruled the Roman Empire for 22 years, as Empress-Regent, Senior Augustus and then Empress, she was the first women to rule Rome in her own name in its history and her rule and unmitigated disaster, under her reign the Empire was once again divided into two, lost half its territories, was economically broken, collapsed as a military force, within she promoted corruption and treachery, riddled it with religious persecution and inflicted it with famine.

Oh yes, and was made a Saint.

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Binge Thinking

11/04/2013 at 6:12 pm (Podcasts)

This excellent podcast on British history is a cut above most on the web. There’s an excellent complete history of the Royal Navy, the South Sea Bubble but I would really recommend the Putney Debates podcast.


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Cromwell’s Conquest of Ireland

25/01/2013 at 5:01 pm (War of Three Kingdoms)

Having read God’s Executioners which sadly fell short of addressing any of the issues I would raise. I thought I would create this table. It’s not designed to clear or condemn  Cromwell, more to spell out to Cromwell’s critics and supporters the area the debate must fall in.

Also having chatted to the Irish author of this book, I would definately recommend this as a read. Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy


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Heroin Cough Mixture

29/12/2012 at 5:08 pm (Wow!)

advertisement for Heroin

From the History of Opioids site.

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Prehistorics British Flint Knapping Website

20/12/2012 at 1:47 am (Prehistory)

Always had an interest in the stone tools that come from Britain however there seems to be a huge glut of information, not so now. So a quick shout out to this site for providing the first of what is to be a series of free guides.


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Swiss Caveman Knife

14/11/2012 at 3:57 am (Prehistory, Wow!)

Only 44 shopping days until Christmas, the UK Flint Knapping Forum http://uk-knapping.forumotion.co.uk seems to have the ideal gift for every man.

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Heraclius WTF?

01/11/2012 at 2:06 am (Ancient)

When we list the greatest Roman generals, names like Scipio Africanus, Aurelian, Belisarius, Caesar and Heraclius leap out from the page…….. Hang on a minute, Heraclius! Who? When we list the great Roman leaders, Marius, Augustus, Diocletian, if we tried to add Heraclius, most people would respond Heraclius WTF?

In 608 the Roman Empire was at its lowest point ever, the Visigoths were swallowing Spain, the Lombards had virtually conquered Italy, the Balkans and even Greece had been lost to the Slavs and Avars and the Sassanid Persian Empire at the pinnacle of its power under its greatest ruler, Khosrau II, swept into Mesopotamia sacking Antioch, taking Jerusalem capturing the true cross, killing the entire Christian population and then advancing to Cappadocia in sight of Constantinople and even worse, capturing Egypt and denying the empire it supply of grain.

Things got worse, plague hit Constantinople causing famine and trade dropped to nothing. The few last remaining corners of the empire ignored the emperors call for troops and declared for rebel generals, Constantinople didn’t even have an army, uncontrollable rioting broke out in the city, the emperor all but giving up ceded power to the blues and greens who far from improving things immediately began to battle each other on the streets. The empire was at an end…………..

However as always with Rome, one of the rebel generals was eyeing the Imperial Purple, Heraclius the Elder, controlled Africa, the only stable Roman province and its last major field army that wasn’t fighting for its life. Considering himself too old for the throne the aged governor sent his 36 year old son also Heraclius the Younger to take Constantinople. As he arrived a mob seized the old emperor and brought him the Heraclius’s ship, where the about to die emperor Phocus taunted Heraclius “do you think you’ll be able to do any better?”

If the citizens of Constantinople had felt any hope at the arrival of the new young usurper emperor they were in for a shock. Heraclius immediately said he was abandoning the city and heading for Africa making Carthage his new capital. Most likely he didn’t genuinely plan to do this but was making a gambit to show the city who need who the most, it work it unified the city of Constantinople for the first time in memory………….. in collective terror. Heraclius was able to extort almost any concession he wanted out of the city to get him to stay, and what concessions he got. With all infighting in the city stopped and opposing factions dissolve, non-corrupt official would levy taxes and even the rich would pay them instead of bribing their way out of them. Heraclius then unleashed his second bombshell, he had no plan to attack anyone. Instead he and his army stayed in the city leaving the empire to its fate.

For the next 12 years Heraclius sat behind the Antonine Walls as the empire disintegrated, but far from idol. For the last three hundred years Rome had struggled to recruit soldiers. At first Romans had grown a reluctance to join the legions so left it to other Italians, then Italians and finally all citizens across the empire got fat and lazy.  Rome ever looking farther afield for soldiers had at first settled Germans to fight for them, then paid German mercenaries and finally in the west Roman emperors had become the puppets of the Germans defending them, until the Germans saw no need for these puppets at all. In the east protection money and payments not to invade was the only thing keeping the empire alive. Heraclius changed this and began doing something not seen in memory, he began recruiting and training a Roman army.

In 622 Heraclius took his new army out of the city, using naval power he surprised the Persians bypassing their armies landing behind them as Issus. The first Roman emperor to lead his troops into battle for 200 years at the command of a green army and outnumbered spent the next few days looking for ground to face the Persian army on that he felt would give him victory. When the battle finally happened he was facing the Sassanid’s finest general Shahbaraz who chronicles say tried to tempt Heraclius to advance and ambush his forces in a harbinger of Mongols tactics, instead Heraclius feigned an advance and then a retreat tricking Shahbaraz to advance into his ambush. The scale of the victory is unrecorded but the Persians retreated from Anatolia unable to fight a second battle.

Heraclius then advanced into Azerbaijan to the great fire temple of Taxte Soleymān, where he heard the Persian King Khosrau II was wintering with 40,000 men. He destroyed the temple and the nearby town, the birthplace of Zoroastra, avenging Jerusalem, but Khosrau II escaped. He then pushed on to Ctesiphon the old Persian capital. Once a Roman general’s right of passage to sack in the Assyrian days when it was unfortified, but now a major undertaking as Julian the Apostate had discovered as he faltered at its walls. After wintering there Heraclius them marched deeper into Persia than any Roman army commander, two of the three Persian field armies marched to engage him and a race ensued as they tried to unite before Heraclius arrived and he tried to get between them before and beat them one at a time. The worse possible outcome came for Heraclius as he found himself in front of one army with the other arriving the same day, he had to destroy one army before the other arrived and then face the other fresh army to avoid being in a pincer movement. Little details of the battles remain but both the Persians armies were destroyed as effective field forces.

The remnants of the two destroyed Persian armies made their way to the third to make a united stand against the unstoppable Heraclius. Now outnumbered Heraclius utterly destroyed the combined Persian force in a surprise night attack, capturing the Persian baggage train, the Royal Harem and catching the general so unaware he fled the field naked. The next year Heraclius pushed on to the Persian capital defeating another Persian army on route.

The now desperate Persian King made one last Gambit to save his Empire. Calling every remaining force he had in left to converge into one great army. He then paid every barbarian tribe in the Balkans to attack Constantinople and soon the mighty siege engines of the Avars were at the city walls. Heraclius now had the dilemma abandon the campaign and defend Constantinople or stay and fight and risk the troopless city falling. What he did defied every military convention, he split army into three. 12,000 cavalry rushed to defend Constantinople, another 12,000 went of to fight the huge Persian army almost 60,000 strong and a third smaller force under himself began ravaging a Persia left defenceless by Khosrau II’s rallying of every troop left in the country.

Everything went wrong for the Persians, the 12,000 Romans under his brother Theodore ambushed the 60,000 Persians in a hailstorm and annihilated the huge Persian field army. The Persian commander Shahin committed suicide, when Persian king Khosrau II heard of this he had the body packed in salt and brought to him where he had it flogged. The Constantinople fleet ambushed the Avar and Persian fleet and destroyed it, the 80,000 Avars breaking off the siege. Heraclius then marched on the kings palace personally aiming to end the war, what was then left of the Persian empire then rallied to make  one last stand where Heraclius in an 11 hour battle killed a Persian army that almost died to man rather than see their country fall.

Heraclius then showed himself capable of the same intrigue as Khosrau II had been in bringing the Avars into the war. He intercepted a letter from Khosrau II to his last remaining force under Shahbaraz, ordering him to come to the palace and defend it, replacing it with a letter saying stay put. Heraclius captured and sacked the royal palaces and then in emulation of Alexander the Great burned it. Khosrau II like Darius was now a fleeing fugitive in his own country and what forces he had left now consisted of mostly women and children. However instead of pursuing Khosrau II potentially for years, Heraclius intercepted another letter from Khosrau II to Shahbaraz this time ordering Shahbaraz’s execution for disobeying the last order. Heraclius added the name of the 400 highest ranking military men in Persia to the list and sent the letter to Shahbaraz. In the ensuing revolt, Khosrau II’s family was executed before him and he was shot slowly to death by arrows.

On his return to Constantinople Heraclius was awarded the title Scipio by the senate. Crassus and Marc-Anthony and Julian the Apostate had been humiliated the Persians, Trajan had defeated them while weakened by a civil war, Galerius and Belisarius had given them good lickings, these commanders had lead armies sometime over 100,000 strong against smaller Persian armies. Heraclius with just 40,000 men had destroyed the Sassanid Empire at the pinnacle of its power under its greatest king. This should have guaranteed the Carthaginian Emperor immortality, but unlike Caesar who had the good sense to get assassinated before it all went pear shaped, Belisarius who comfortably retired to see in fall apart from a bath chair and Trajan who sensibly kicked the bucket before his conquest vanished in a puff of realism, Heraclius lived to see everything he had achieved unwind.

The war had left Rome on its knees and Persia at death’s door at the precise moment a new invader was sweeping into both territories, the Arabs. Easily overcoming the Persian Empire they moved into the near east taking Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Heraclius suffering from the disease he contracted in Persia which was to eventually kill him was too ill to lead the army personally, instead the army marched under subordinates and was defeated. In Constantinople the emperor paralysed in his deathbed seeing everything think he’d achieved in his life undone received news from the Pope condemning his religious toleration laws in the city as heresy. He died in agony, believing his life a failure and that he was damned to burn in hell for forever.

Many people ask the question what if Alexander had lived to see it all fall to pieces, would he still be called the great, the answer is Heraclius. It’s a great irony that had Heraclius not destroyed the Persian Empire Islam would not have taken Persia. However had he not saved Constantinople Rome would have been overran by the Arabs. It was a reinvigorated Constantinople that barred the Arabs way to Europe forcing the Arabs to North Africa instead and by the time they reached Europe and Tours the gravitas of their early conquests era gone Europe was in state to resist them. When he took over Rome was at the end of a three hundred year old slow death. He reformed the empire, gave it a military back after centuries without one to match the legionaries of Caesar, reformed the decrepit and corrupt civil administration, effectively he alone ensured the empire would survive another 900 years, he destroyed its greatest foe and he more than the Battle of Tours halted Islam from entering Europe. Despite all this his epitaph is, Hera…who?

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Project A119

18/10/2012 at 6:30 am (Modern, Wow!)

Ask yourself, what’s the dumbest plot a science fiction movie can come up with? If you came up with the idea nuke the moon, but then said “no that’s just too stupid” think again because in the 1950’s the US Airforce planned to do exactly that.

Project A119 also known as “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”, although it had no scientific value, was designed as a propaganda response to Sputnik 1. It was thought the exploding of a nuclear weapon on the lunar surface would calm public fears of the Russians taking the lead in the space race because the explosion may just be visible from Earth, the warhead exploding on an unlit part of the moon and then the dust cloud being lit by the sun.

The project wasn’t just a pipe dream and actually got under way, it even had a few notable names on board including Gerald Kuiper and Carl Sagan who seem to have spent the rest of their lives avoiding mentioning it, out of embarrassment perhaps. The project was binned in 1959 for the sober reasons of the nuclear fallout may make moon colonisation impossible in future.

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Match Fixing and The First Sikh War

01/09/2012 at 12:01 am (British Empire, Mysteries)

After the death of Ranjit Singh the Punjabi Empire was in disarray, his three successors were all murdered in months of taking power, and the army, the Kalsa, split into factions. The Sikh Empire wasn’t so much a state with an army as an army with a state. In the scene from the movie 300 it’s pointed out Spartans are full time warriors not farmers and artisans in peacetime like the other Greeks. The same was true of the Kalsa, and the only way to finance the Sikh Empire was conquest of new lands to provide new revenue to pay the troops. In 1843 Maharani Jindan, the widow of Ranjit Singh, took the Sikh throne and proved more wily than her predecessors. She appointed her brother head of the army which had now reached 80,000 in number and the state no-longer had the abililly to maintain without new conquest. In 1845 not having the funds to pay the army Maharani Jindan’s brother was hacked to death at a parade, 2 months later the Kalsa invaded British India promised by its leaders all the gold in Delhi.

The invasion of India by the Kalsa has always been difficult to explain by history. The Sikh and British Empires had always been strong allies and had a demilitarised border. Indian historians site the British conquest of the Sind (South Eastern Pakistan) and the building of fortifications on the Sikh border in a response to the unrest in the Punjab before the war as a potential cause. British historians tend to favour the fact that Britain had just suffered a humiliating defeat in the First Afghan War and that British forces in western India numbered less than half the Kalsa, Delhi must have seemed an easy rich prize.

However Sikh historians offer a third and quite interesting alternative, Maharani Jindan after her brother’s murder and fearing imminant military coup and her death needed rid of her army sent it into India with the intent of Britannia destroys it for her. Sikh historians claim she was in constant contact with British agents giving away positions and plans of her army during the war. The claim the Sikhs threw the war on the surface at least does seem plausible, after all how could they lose? The Kalsa outnumbered the British army by over 2/1, its infantry was as well equipped, disciplined and trained as the British, its artillery the most numerous and heaviest outside Europe and its cavalry the finest on Earth. Just before the war began Maharani Jindan replaced the leaders of the army with two of her cadre, Vizier Lal Singh and Commander Tej Singh, who were either the two of the most incompetent commanders in military history or trying to lose. As the war began the actions of the Kalsa get quite mystifying, instead of heading to Delhi they simply crossed the border, divided their forces then sat at two emcampments allowing the British to concertrate their forces. When the British arrived, still outnumbered by each half of the Sikh army they attacked each half one at a time. Despite being well within range on both occasions the other half of the Kalsa failed to march to their comrades aid by falling on the British flank.

No evidence has ever emerged rom British records of the allegded collusion between the Sikh Queen and the British and at the time the British wrote off the idea. Another possible interpretation is the Sikhs a proud warrior people, when they had an army both so superior in numbers and quality of the opposition just couldn’t believe how they could have been ligitimaty beaten so needed to invent one of the first known conspiracy theories out there to save face.

So was the First Sikh War match fixed?

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