Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 34

Noel Crusz, The Cocos Islands mutiny, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA, 2001, 208 pp., photographs, illustrations, maps, tables, notes, bibliography, soft cover, rrp A$24.95.

Reviewed by: PETER STANLEY, Principal Historian, Australian War Memorial

On the night of 8-9 May 1942, a handful of gunners of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery attempted a mutiny against their officers on Horsburgh Island, one of the Cocos Islands group. The unit held the outpost at a time when the Imperial Japanese Navy had turned the Indian Ocean into a Japanese lake. During a few hours of confusion, a man died―accidentally shot as he responded to the alarm. By morning order had been restored. Three of the mutineers were executed; they were the only British Commonwealth soldiers to be executed for mutiny during the Second World War.

Military authorities confronting mutinies traditionally look for "ring leaders". On Horsburgh Island, Bombardier Gratien Fernando was in fact the instigator, persuading his comrades that Asia should be for "Asiatics". He incited them to attempt to turn the island over to the Japanese who, ironically, had no idea of the plot. At the same time, such protests take root only in what might be regarded as "dysfunctional" units and in circumstances in which protest can flourish.

The Ceylon Garrison Artillery embodied the impact of colonial rule on Asia. It was a mixture of ethnicity and religions: European and Eurasian officers commanding Eurasian Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant gunners with names such as de Silva, Gauder and Porrit―men of various ancestries including Sinhalese, Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch and English. A relic of the bonds of empire, the unit fractured under the stresses to which that empire was subjected in 1942.

The fall of Singapore brought European imperialism dramatically into disrepute, even among those who had volunteered to defend it. Captain George Gardiner, the focus of the mutineers' actions, appears to have been a man out of tune with the aspirations of the once-enthusiastic young volunteers he commanded. They expected to be handled with dignity and respect: Gardiner failed to do so. Fernando's pan-Asiatic rhetoric played upon that tension.

Crusz's detailed account of the events of the night of 8-9 May, and the court martial that ensued, is difficult to follow. His treatment of the mass of complex, contradictory and self-serving evidence is often obscure. He knows too little about the context of the event and tells us too much about its course. It seems clear, though, that while the mutineers were guilty as charged, haste and procedural flaws weakened the authorities' case: Gardiner himself presided at the Field General Court Martial which convicted them.

Still, stripped of hyperbole ("an extraordinary story, one that the military had sought to keep secret"), The Cocos Islands mutiny exposes an intriguing episode in the social and military history of the Second World War. The author has, through diligent archival research, and by locating individual participants, performed a valuable service. Others may place this otherwise neglected episode more effectively into the context of the military culture of Britain's empire in south Asia, and connect it with the themes of―as he writes―racialism, colonialism and justice. Despite its breathless style, confusing narrative, factual errors and dubious assumptions and stereotypes, Noel Crusz's The Cocos Islands mutiny has at least rescued the event from obscurity.