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  • Writer's pictureBrianne Casey

Thoughts on Transcribing and Courts Martial

I found the process of transcribing these documents rewarding and the information revealed to be interesting and, sometimes, surprising.

There were a number of challenges involved with transcribing the documents; difficult to decipher handwriting, unknown short forms from Victorian British military and legal sentencing jargon, discontinued names of destinations. In doing these transcriptions, I developed a variety of methods that helped me respond to some of these challenges. The best method to deal with hard-to-read handwriting was to move on and then come back to the word later with fresher eyes. I found that, a lot of times, I could puzzle out the meaning of a scribble after having gone back. Another method that helped with indecipherable writing was to trace or attempt to write out the individual letters that stood out in what was, otherwise, a scribble. Attempting to figure out words this way sometimes turned into a game of ‘Hangman’ as I would be left with a couple of letters that I was trying to piece into a full word. With difficulties in figuring out the meaning of a short formed word, I would often highlight the illegible word and move on with my transcribing. Eventually, I would come across an entry where the full word had been written out. To find out the meaning of short form versions of ranks, titles, and military regiments, I would keep a tab open where I could search up the short form. Doing this was fairly successful as some of the short forms used in these documents were in common-use. I used a similar process to figure out place names. As the court martial documents for the British military in India were dated back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the place names have changed over time which would require me to search up the current name for that destination.

Outside of the challenges in completing these transcriptions, there were a number of things that surprised me regarding the information revealed within the documents. First, I was surprised by how often soldiers would be charged for threatening or striking their superiors. I had been under the assumption that British soldiers during that era would have a stronger adherence to rank and would have felt a stronger sense of hierarchical deference. From the documents, it does seem to be the case that discipline was harsh towards infractions of rank and instances of insubordination, often leading to court martial charges of penal servitude and/or hard labour. The court martial court could be fairly harsh in its sentencing as evidenced by a few occasions in which men could -potentially - be charged with five years penal servitude for ‘misbehaving before the enemy in a cowardly manner.’ One of the parts of doing these transcriptions that I found fascinating was the military court’s strictness towards mutinous behaviour. For example, there were a number of individuals who were charged for having knowledge of the planning for the mutiny yet failed to report this to their commanding officer. One area of interest for me was that, during my transcribing of the court martial documents, I came across a number of pages where many individuals were being charged for planning a somewhat large-scale mutiny. I found it interesting to read through these pages and see the type of charges and sentencing that mutinous planning could incur.

Something else that I found very interesting and surprising was the inconsistency of sentencing, even in response to the same charge. I noticed while doing the transcriptions that there were many instances in which the same charge would receive widely different sentencing, whether harsher or more lenient. The most common type of sentencing was penal servitude and hard labour, while sentences of fines and execution were a bit more rare. Interestingly, there were also a number of cases in which individuals would be demoted, unusually in cases where an officer was being court martialed. I wonder if factors like prior infractions had a hand in causing these differences in sentencing to occur. A similarly surprising and unexpected thing that I found in the documents were that insanity was being used and accepted as a plea deal during the courts martial process. I took note of this because it demonstrates a reasonable amount of understanding towards how mental illness could effect behaviour and that the Victorian British military were willing to withhold punishment in these cases.

In general, these documents were super interesting to read through and the process of transcribing them was fascinating and enjoyable for me. In doing this work, I found a great deal of surprising and unexpected information. Most notably, these records provided a lot of insight into the type of behaviour that could lead to courts martial, the type of sentencing that charges incurred, and the level of understanding that the Victorian British military had towards insanity pleas.

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