Breaker Morant

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Breaker Morant : biography

9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902

The Australian government demanded an explanation from Kitchener who, on 5 April 1902, sent a telegram to the Australian Governor-General, which was published completely in the Australian press. It reads as follows:

"In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of these crimes which Handcock carried out in cold-blooded manner. The murders were committed in the wildest parts of the Transvaal, known as Spelonken, about eighty miles north of Pretoria, on four separate dates namely 2 July, 11 August, and 7 September. In one case, where eight Boer prisoners were murdered, it was alleged to have been done in a spirit of revenge for the ill treatment of one of their officers – Captain Hunt – who was killed in action. No such ill-treatment was proved. The prisoners were convicted after a most exhaustive trial, and were defended by counsel. There were, in my opinion, no extenuating circumstances. Lieutenant Witton was also convicted but I commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life, in consideration of his having been under the influence of Morant and Handcock. The proceedings have been sent home."

News of the executions excited considerable public interest in the UK and a summary of the trial was published in The Times on 18 April 1902, but the British government announced in the House of Commons that, in keeping with normal practice, the court-martial proceedings would not be made public. The official transcripts of the court-martial reportedly disappeared soon afterwards.

The Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.

George Witton was transported to naval detention quarters England and then to Lewes prison in Sussex. Some time later he was transferred to the prison at Portland, Dorset and was released after serving twenty-eight months. His release was notified to the British House of Commons on 10 August 1904., HC 4ser vol 140 col 19. On his release he returned to Australia and for a while lived in Lancefield, Victoria, where he wrote his controversial book about the Morant case. He published it in 1907 under the provocative title Scapegoats of the Empire. The book was reprinted in 1982 following the success of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. Witton died in Australia in 1942.

Alfred Taylor became a Native Commissioner in Rhodesia and a Member of Parliament and died in 1941.

Events leading to Morant’s arrest

The exact sequence and nature of the events leading up to Morant’s arrest and trial are still disputed, and accounts vary considerably. While it seems clear that some members of the BVC were responsible for shooting Boer prisoners-of-war and others, the precise circumstances of these killings and the identities of those responsible will probably never be known for certain. The following account is drawn mainly from the only surviving eyewitness source, and the 1907 book Scapegoats of the Empire by Lieutenant George Witton, one of the three Australians sentenced to death for the alleged murders and the only one to escape execution.

With Hunt now commanding the detachment at Fort Edwards, discipline was immediately re-imposed by Lieutenant Morant and Lieutenant Handcock, but this was resisted by some. In one incident, several members of a supply convoy led by Lieutenant Picton looted the rum it was carrying, resulting in their arrest for insubordination and for threatening to shoot Picton. They escaped to Pietersburg, but Captain Hunt sent a report to Colonel Lenehan, who had them detained. When the matter was brought before Colonel Hall, the commandant of Pietersburg, he ordered the offenders to be discharged from the regiment and released. In his book, Witton explicitly accused these disaffected troopers of being responsible for "the monstrous and extravagant reports about the BVC which appeared later in the English and colonial press."