Episode 68 - Throw Another Princess on the Barbie (Lies Week)
Tom's Notes; Anglo -Sikh Wars
I wanted to introduce a bit of variety this week with the time and place of my historical event. So I challenged myself to find a bit of good old fashioned British Empire betrayal. I use the word ‘challenge’ as in the sentence, “the world champion heavy weight boxer challenged himself to knock out a pensioner”, or “the French prisoners of war challenged their German guards to a backwards running contests”, or “the members of the Order of the Bathroom challenged a tramp to see who had the rosiest whiffing underarms”. It turns out it wasn’t that difficult.
Anyway, because I’m British, and it denial when it comes to British nastiness in the past, preferring to interpret history like a 19th century Eton history teacher, I was magnetically drawn to an example of deception, betrayal, and by extension lying (right on topic), in the ranks of a British enemy! Get in!
So I’m taking listeners back 180 years (say like darts commentator), well, 175 to be exact, (darts voice) he’s going to need a 1 and a double 2 to take the win; his favourite finish. Back 175 years to the First Anglo-Sikh War between the British East India Company, basically the British Empire and the Sikh Empire.
Let me set the scene. The British East India Company is in control of the majority of India, we’re a bit before the British Raj (i.e. India being under the direct control of the British crown) in a period known as Company Rule. The Sikh Empire held land in modern day North West India, some would call this area Punjab but the name is confusing because it has been used to describe areas of very varied size throughout history, and also modern day Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. The British East India Company were very interested in making sure that neighbouring states were not a threat, so where possible, they interfered to ensure that states were favourably governed, or I suppose just unstable. This is a classic tactic but doesn’t always pay off! Only 3 years before the events I’m going to describe, the British had been humiliated in Afghanistan when they had been driven out of Kabul and massacred under the inept leaderships of William Elphinstone. See episode 39.
Let me introduce Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, Lord of the Five Rivers. He was a very successful Marahaja who founded the Sikh Empire. Here’s an interesting fact, Punjab actually means land of the five rivers. In fact, the Sikh Empire was Ranjit Singh and Ranjit Singh was the Sikh Empire. The Empire only lasted 10 years after his death, and he reigned for 38 years.
Here’s an interesting asides about Ranjit Singh; four of his Hindu wives and seven of his Hindu Concubines volunteered to be burnt alive on his funeral pyre; and act of devotion called suttee, because these women would be dressed in their finest fluffy yellow onesies, wand in hands, whilst onlookers dressed up as Sweep.
On a serious note, he is also well known for his work improving the Golden Temple in Amritsar; the most important site for Sikhs.
Ranjit Singh dies in 1839. It’s never a good idea for very successful statesmen to die, it often tends to go tits up after they die. (American Hick voice) May Trump live forever, God bless Murica. Here’s where we start getting shit loads of deceit, lies and treachery. The Sikh Empire was built on foundations of rhubarb and custard. It was ethnically and religiously diverse, incredibly young (and age fortifies political entities) and very factional. Throw into the mix a successful, hard to follow leader with a crap succession plan and boom! Here goes…
His successor, Kharak Singh, lasted 1 month before he was removed from power and 1 year before was poisoned to death. He sounds like a trust child. He spent most of his time with dancing girls, drinking and consuming copious amounts of opium. A number of his wives committed suttee too.
Next comes Nau Nihal Singh who lasted about a year before having massive block of rock fall on him as he passed through a gate after the cremation of his father. With all the sootys and sweeps around, I’m thinking this was Scampi up to no good. This was exceptionally suspicious because a British eyewitness states that he wasn’t actually severely injured by this, although a man next to him died on the spot. He was then escorted by 5 soldiers to a tent for a precautionary medical check, like a conscious protocol at a rugby match, and was found dead with a crushed skull.
Sher Singh is next, he lasts 2 years before he is killed.
We then get Jind Kaur who acts as regent for her on Duleep Singh. Jind Coooooor was called Jind Cooooor because he was a bit of hot stuff and also a very charismatic women. Her and her son managed to last until the British ousted them, so 6 years. She actually ended up dying in Kensington. I won’t say any more though because I think I’ll come back to this lady at some point in the future. Women are undoubtedly underrepresented in history so it would be good to tell her story another time.
As mentioned earlier, the British liked neighbouring states that would sit and do as they were told. Instability was good, as it stopped neighbouring states from becoming too strong. But there was an optimum level of instability. In addition, the British were always alert to opportunities to expand. So, with all this chaos in the Sikh Empire, The British began to build up their forces on the border with the Sikh Empire.
As war breaks out, the treachery and betrayal on the Sikh side became quite comical. As war breaks out, the British are led by Sir Hugh Gough Army (or is it Hoff Gooo? Or Hoff Goff? Or Hugh Gooo?) who is in charge of the Bengal. This guys had seen some action; he’d fought in the French Revolutionary Wars, Peninsular War and the First Opium War. He was also a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath; a second-rate establishment for loooooooosers. He was supported by Sir Henry Hardinge, who was basically representing the British Empire in Bengal.
The Sikh Empire’s forces were commanded by Lal Singh, he was Jind Kaur (the regent)’s Wazir; so political advisor, and Tej Singh, who was the Commander in Chief of the Sikh Empire’s armies.
As it turns out, all three of those people mentioned wanted to lose the war because they thought that it would weaken a rival faction and cement their position in power. So what followed was a farce. Lal Singh was feeding the British intelligence information and it would appear that Tej Singh was just doing enough.
Early in the war, Tej Singh’s army was within striking distance of a very vulnerable British division in Ferozepur. Rather than attack, Tej Singh sat back and allowed the division to be joined by forces led by Gough and Hardinge. In the evening of the 21 December, the British attacked with mixed results, the battle seemed to ebb and flow indecisively, helped by Lal Singh not deploying his cavalry. In the early hours, Hardinge ordered that state papers in a neighbouring town be burnt expecting a defeat, however, in the morning the British infantry rallied, Lal Singh made no effort to organise his army and Tej Singh arrived with his army and refused to get stuck in, despite the British being in a desperate position.
A few months later at another crucial moment, The Battle of Sobraon, Tej Singh deserted his troops, burnt a crucial escape bridge which led to the Sikh forces being trapped. Meanwhile, Lal was twiddling his thumbs not deploying his forces. The Sikhs were defeated and the war was won by the British.