Historian, Writer, Commentator, Consultant.

White Mutiny

Posted by on Jan 18, 2012 in Books | 0 comments

White Mutiny coverWhite Mutiny: British Military Culture in India, 1825-75, (Christopher Hurst, London, 1998)

As a teenager I had read Byron Farwell’s Soldiers of the Queen. (Farwell was an eccentric American writer who wrote a series of popular books on British imperial military history; thank goodness.) In about 1973, because of this book, I became intrigued by the shortish chapter on the ‘White Mutiny’ of 1859. Apparently, in the aftermath of the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’ tens of thousands of British soldiers (of the East India Company) protested at being handed over to the forces of the Crown (which from 1858 ruled British India). No one had done much on this, apart from an article in History Today. My first ‘research trip’ was arguably a week I spent in Adelaide in the summer of 1974-75, in which I hung about in the State Library reading books I could find on British Indian military history. It later dawned on me that I ought to have spent my time more productively getting to know my Adelaide-based pen-friend, Margaret (Margaret Moss: where are you now? Actually I had dinner with her in Adelaide recently – found through this website!) but I clearly displayed nerdish tendencies from an early age.

Apart from a brief flurry of interest in British imperial military history during John Ritchie’s ‘Victorian Britain’ course in first year at ANU in 1975 (a tendency Ritchie tolerated but did not encourage) I did nothing more to advance this interest until 1978. By then I was unhappily seeing out my year-long Grad. Dip. Ed. – a graduate diploma of education at what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education. There must have been a subliminal connection between the misery of my unruly classes and an intimidating associate teacher because I resurrected a dormant interest in the White Mutiny and bunked off to read, photocopy and note the Blue Book (a British Parliamentary paper) that Farwell had mentioned, dealing with the soldiers’ protest. This interest was soon supplanted by a more practical interest in the garrison of colonial Australia, and I did little more about the British army in India until in 1986 I made my first trip to India. (The reason for this was that I had planned to sail on the maiden voyage of the South Australian ketch One and All. The ship was late and the trip was cancelled. I decided to visit India instead and resurrected my interest in the White Mutiny. While in West Bengal I travelled to Berhampore to spend a couple of nights and to my astonishment found that the cantonment was virtually intact and as it had been in 1859.

Having completed my Litt. B. in 1984 I had been vaguely casting about for doctoral topics – my boss at the Memorial, Michael McKernan, had encouraged me to go on. I had begun to investigate the idea of a topic in Australian military history, and started serious preparatory work on ‘Australian staff officers on the Western Front’, a thesis that no one has yet done. In the end, though, I settled on the White Mutiny because it would involve trips to Britain and India and meant that I would use more than the collections of the Australian War Memorial. (In 1987, while visiting Britain on a Menzies Fellowship I had done some reconnaissance work in the British Museum and the India Office (as they then were) and realised that a thesis on British India would entail some months in Britain.)

In late 1988 I took the idea of a thesis to ANU, met Iain McCalman and was accepted as a part-time PhD candidate. I’m still astonished that I managed to finish the thesis in three-and-a-half years. My then wife Mary-Ann and I had our first baby, Claire, in late 1989, and we had our second child, Jane, just as I completed the thesis, in late 1992. Mary-Ann was very supportive, as was the Memorial. I travelled to Britain for three months in 1990, when Claire was just under a year old, and finished all of the archival research in one prodigious go. I then applied for and received the first (and perhaps the only) AWM Staff Post-Graduate Research Awards, which enabled me to write the thesis at ANU on my full salary (I must have been the best-paid PhD candidate in the country). But I played my part and wrote the thesis in what was then the shortest time for a part-time thesis at ANU to that date. The thesis was awarded in March 1993.

It took five years to revise the thesis and find a publisher (the admirable Christopher Hurst, represented by the energetic Michael Dwyer, who worked out of a tiny office in Covent Garden, but who produced – and still produce – a wonderfully fecund list of books dealing with central and south Asia in a grand scholarly manner.) The book wasn’t very different to the thesis; shorn of the slight historiography and theory, not pruned of enough detail, perhaps, but retaining the biographical notes in emulation of Charles Bean. It was reviewed favourably by the few specialist publications in the field of imperial and British studies and every now and then I meet someone who’d read it and even occasionally someone who admires it. I’ve never had cause to regret doing a thesis in something other than Australian military history, and am pretty sure that doing a thesis in another field has made me broader as an historian.


‘Peter Stanley has not simply selected a relatively under-developed topic, he has also set out to write about it in a new way …
International History Review, Vol. XXI, No. 4, December 1999

‘This is an absolutely absorbing book that uses source material to draw a rich and detailed picture of an institution that played a key role in the shaping of British India. Its analysis and conclusions are of wider relevance to all students of military sociology’
Russell Murray, Contemporary South Asia

‘The book badly needs an editor who would have told Stanley to contextualise his case study’
Maurice Dunlevy, Canberra Times, 7 November 1998

‘This book is one of the most successful I have read at developing an organic connection between British social and imperial history. This is an extremely significant contribution, which should be read by all who are interested in either field.’
John Cell, American Historical Review, June 1999

‘Stanley has successfully combined military and social history providing many insights into both British armies in India and armies in general. Reading White Mutiny will reward anyone interested in the interactions of military forces and their parent societies …’
Lorenzo Crowell, Albion,

‘This is a superb book, and proves just how fruitful an alliance between social history and military history can be … Its skilful interweaving of military, social and imperial history will hopefully inspire others … ‘
Douglas Peers, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 58, No. 3, Aug 1999

… a seamless piece of history … a much needed contribution to the study of the Indian Army and it is unlikely to be replaced in the foreseeable future. All students are greatly in his debt; one might, indeed, adapt Oscar Wilde’s famous remark to Whistler and say “I wish I had written that”’
Brian Robson, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Spring 1999


Hurst catalogue

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