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Beatson’s Mutiny: The Turbulent Career of a Victorian Soldier by Richard Stevenson

On 15 July 1856, Frederick Peel, Under-Secretary of State for War in Lord Palmerston’s Liberal administration, rose in the House of Commons to answer a question criticizing the Government’s handling of the case of William Beatson. During the recent war against Russia, Beatson had been commander of the notorious Bashi Bazouk irregular cavalry which the Turkish army had stationed in the Dardanelles:

Beatson’s Mutiny: The Turbulent Career of a Victorian Soldier by Richard Stevenson
Beatson’s Mutiny: The Turbulent Career of a Victorian Soldier, Richard Stevenson (IB Tauris, March 2015)


The charges brought against General Beatson were connected with this transfer of his command to the officer who succeeded him. They were to this effect—that he had instigated some of the commanding officers of the regiments under him to decline to serve under any other officer than himself, and had sought to induce the natives of the force to prefer remaining under his command rather than that of any other person [...] From what had taken place he apprehended there would be no further proceedings in the matter.


Indeed, there were to be none, but this half-hearted vindication following a charge that might have carried the death penalty did not satisfy the fiery Beatson, who, once he had returned home having taken part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny—which had broken out after the parliamentary session—promptly sued the British diplomat James Skenem, the man who had made the allegation, for libel. The case was decided against Beatson in 1860 at a cost to him of the then enormous sum of £3000, but he lost only because the Government covered Skene by refusing to release as “privileged” the document in which he had made the allegations, thus leaving the jury to sadly state that they wished:


To express their strong opinion of regret that, on discovering how unfounded the reports were, the defendant [ie Skene] had not thought proper to withdraw his statements.


While the case was underway, Beatson strutted around town in a gorgeous uniform of gold-braid, Mameluke sword and turban which he had himself designed while commanding Beatson’s Horse in the state of Hyderabad. His extraordinary character coupled with his—even for the high days of Victorian imperialism—exotic career made him a celebrity and a darling of the press, but when in due course they forgot him, he sank into the obscurity in which he remained until freelance writer Richard Stevenson rescued him with his biography Beatson’s Mutiny.


It is fortunate that Stevenson has done so. General Beatson’s is a career worth resurrecting from the dusty files of the India, Foreign and War offices in which his many battles with authority still gather dust. If not fighting natives somewhere, he was always fighting authority. It seems that from early in his career, Beatson had no intention of being anything as boring as a regular soldier. Although throughout almost all his service he was actually an officer of the Honourable East India Company, he wangled his way into every foreign entanglement that was going. 

Like many of his brothers in arms at the time, Beatson came from a family of not-so-rich Scottish gentry that habitually sent many of their kin out into the Empire to make their fortunes. He reached India in 1820, and fought in the first Burma War four years later. His first home leave coincided with a civil war that broke out in Spain, and he was permitted to leave, temporarily, the Company’s service to enlist in the British Auxiliary Legion, which went to the peninsula in a semi-official guise to support the army of the Queen of Spain against her Carlist enemies. Here Beatson won renown as a dashing and brave officer with remarkable military skill and energy, and when he got back to India four years later he soon received accelerated promotion to command a new irregular force, the Bundelcund Legion. He personally recruited the troops of this brigade to bring order to the disturbed states of Bundelkhand in Central India. Much “Boys’ Own”-type derring-do ensued there before Beatson took his men to join Sir Charles Napier in the conquest of Sindh.

Until now, Beatson had been an infantryman, but his next posting, to the Hyderabad Cavalry, made him into an irregular horseman, and it was as such that he earned enough fame to be the Foreign Office’s pick to raise and lead a force of Bashi-Bazouks as part of Britain’s aid to Turkey in the campaign that culminated in the Crimean War. Most did not believe that anyone could control a force of what was generally regarded as a highly explosive mix of Albanian, Bulgarian and Arab riff-raff (so much were they abominated that Lord Raglan, the British commander in the war, refused to have them under his command). Beatson (largely) managed the to keep them in hand, but even he could not keep his men out of all trouble, and the cases of ill-discipline that arose led to his supersession and the accusation that led to his court case. This did not, in typical fashion, prevent Beatson joining in the British attack on the Crimea, and he emerged unscathed from the charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava in which he rode totally of his own volition.

After his notoriety died way, Beatson was still in India, where, during the Indian Mutiny, he raised another force of irregular cavalry, Beatson’s Horse, in Central India. At the conclusion of more harum-scarum adventures, and by now well into his sixties, he went home on sick leave to New Swindon, in Wiltshire. Here the Great Western Railway had appointed his son-in-law Vicar of the church they had built for their workers, and this time atypically, Beatson died quietly in the vicarage. 


Stevenson brings this story vividly to life, often in the pugnacious words of his hero. While he is often inclined to slow the narrative by including overmuch incidental detail, Stevenson has managed to bring to life a man about whom almost everyone has long forgotten one who, to even the Victorians, was an old-fashioned eccentric. His research is exhaustive and his judgments are balanced. Publisher I.B. Tauris have done an excellent job in producing an attractive hardback of over 400 pages with a full academic apparatus and beautifully produced illustrations and maps.

In sum, thanks to them and to Richard Stevenson, General Beatson may very well be said to ride again.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released.