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November 16, 2019

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Short Rounds

Mama’s Boy

In A.D. 982 Shengzong came to the throne of Liao, a kingdom established by the Khitan Tatar “barbarians” in northern China. The fact that the new Emperor was only eleven might have proven a handicap. At the time the Northern Sung Dynasty controlled most of China. Relations between Sung and Liao were never very good, as the latter often raided across the border. As a result, the Sung Emperors had several times made war upon Liao, although always with no great success. For example, in 979 the Sung Emperor Taizong had undertaken a major campaign against Liao. An inept commander, Taizong was soundly defeated and forced to return to his kingdom.

Three years later, with the throne of Liao now in the hands of a mere boy, Taizong thought he might try again, believing that Liao would be able neither to engage in complex diplomatic maneuvers, mobilize a substantial army, nor develop an effect war plan. Despite his belief that his youthful opponent would not be able to put up much of a fight, Taizong proceed with some caution, perhaps because of his earlier experiences against Liao. He attempted to get the Koreans and the barbarian Bohai to join in the war, but his diplomatic efforts were discovered and the proposed alliance was frustrated by some adroit politicking by Liao; the Emperor Shengzong might have been a mere boy, but his mother, the Empress Dowager, who was serving as regent, was one formidable woman.

Despite his lack of allies, Taizong mustered a large army and in 986 undertook a three pronged offensive into Liao, with the columns to converge on the “Southern Capital”, known today as Beijing. Since the Emperor was unable to accompany the army – political infighting kept him at home – each of the columns was commanded by a veteran general, which gave the expedition an excellent chance for success. The initial onset of the Sung armies proved very successful, as understrength Liao garrisons in frontier posts either surrendered or withdrew. But in June the Liao counterattacked. An army of Khitan horsemen swarmed out of the steppes with the Emperor Shengzong at their head. And right alongside the young man – he was by then about 15 – was his mother, the Empress Dowager.

The Dowager Empress, a most formidable Khitan woman named Xiao – or Xiaotaihou – was the true power behind her son’s throne. Not only had she frustrated Taizong’s efforts to form and alliance with the Koreans and Bohai, but she had provided the organizational and political skills to mobilize an army and appointed the right man to command it, one Yelu Xiuge, with whom she develop an effective plan of campaign. As the Khitan army closed in, the Sung columns attempted to unite, only to be soundly defeated in the Battle of Qigou Pass. As the Sung retreated in disorder, the Khitan pursued, chasing them back across the border. There followed a series of Khitan raids into Sung lands, with the latter suffering a number of defeats. Many of the Khitan generals urged a campaign of conquest, to annex to Liao all lands north of the Yellow River, some 150,000 square miles. But the Empress Dowager vetoed the proposal, mindful of earlier unsuccessful attempts by Liao to acquire these lands. Meanwhile, Sung found itself beset by problems on other fronts, as several provinces attempted secession. Although the rebels appealed to Liao for aid, the Empress Dowager wisely avoided supporting them. This forced Taizong to make peace on terms most favorable to Liao, in order to deal with the uprisings.

As a result, Liao was left in peace to deal with its own problems, a direct result of the wise leadership of the Emperor Shengzong, or rather, that of his Mama, the Dowager Empress Xiao.

 

Con Job?

During the Revolutionary War, American sailors captured by the British were often lodged in Forton Prison, in Gosport, England. Apparently the conditions under which they were held, while not luxurious, were nevertheless no worse than those they normally experienced when at sea. Naturally, this did not prevent some men from seeking to escape. And many escapes did indeed occur. Getting out of prison was in some ways the easy part. After escaping, a man had to make his way to the coast, where he might secure covert passage to France, a long and risky process. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles, a surprising number of men managed to make it all the way to France, where they could sign on to American warships and privateers.

Needless to note, most prisoners didn’t manage to escape, often despite repeated attempts. For example, one American sailor, Thomas Kinsey, actually escaped at least sixteen times, only to be recaptured each time. Now this might suggest that Kinsey was either extremely unlucky or not too bright, perhaps both. But in fact, he was neither. For Kinsey was actually involved in a rather clever little scam to defraud King George III.

It seems that George rewarded guards who recaptured escaped prisoners rather well, with the princely sum of £5 a head; nearly a third of a common soldier’s annual pay. Now, of course, in order to collect the reward, the guards had to be able to capture prisoners. This was not as easy as it may seem. After all, before an escapee could be captured, he had to try to escape. And a man trying to escape might be rather determined, and it might be dangerous to try recapturing him. But greed has a way of sparking clever schemes. Soon, some of the guards began making mutually profitable arrangements with some of the prisoners.

A guard would arrange for a prisoner to escape, a feat often accomplished by tunneling through the prison’s not terribly sturdy walls. The prisoner would then enjoy a day or two of liberty in a nearby town, where, thoughtfully provided by the guard with a few shillings, he could have a few drinks, a good meal, and, of course, the company of a woman. He would then return to the prison, to be “recaptured.” The guard would then claim his reward, and split some of it with the prisoner.

The scheme seems to have been very widespread. Eventually the British authorities concluded that most of the escapes from Forton were the result of collusion between guards and prisoners. In 1781 the Crown drastically reduced the reward for recapturing fugitives, and the escape rate at Forton Prison quickly declined.

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