Breaker Morant

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Breaker Morant : biography

9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902

The other ranking officer at the fort was Captain Alfred Taylor, a special officer with the Army’s Intelligence Department. He had been selected and sent to Spelonken by Kitchener himself because of his knowledge of "the natives". In his book, Witton wrote that as far as the Africans were concerned:

Taylor had the power to order out patrols and, according to Witton, it was generally understood that Taylor was the commander at Spelonken, and that Taylor admitted as much in evidence at the court-martial. Taylor was, as Bleszynski notes, implicated in some of the killings in the case, yet was acquitted of all charges. His role is one of the most problematic aspects of the case.

By all accounts, Captain Robertson had great difficulty in maintaining discipline, and some of his troops ran wild — they looted a rum convoy, kept seized Boer livestock for themselves, and appropriated liquor and stills from the Boer farms they raided. According to George Witton’s account, the situation was bordering on mutiny by mid-year.

On 2 July 1901, Captain Taylor received word of a disturbing incident; a few days earlier, a group of six Boers had approached the fort, apparently intending to surrender, but they were intercepted by a British patrol led by Sergeant Major Morrison, and on his orders they were all disarmed, taken prisoner, and subsequently shot dead.

When this news reached Pietersburg, the Fort Edward detachment was recalled; after an enquiry, Robertson and Morrison were allowed to resign unconditionally. His squadron was replaced by a new one under the command of Captain Hunt and it included Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton.

Literature on Morant: conflicting theories about the case: Facts and fiction

The story of Morant’s life, exploits, trial and execution have been examined in several books and numerous press and internet articles, but as noted above, each account varies very considerably from the other in both the facts presented and their interpretation. There are facts intermingled with fiction.

The most important primary source, the official records of the court-martial, vanished following the trial and their location remains a mystery. A report on the case from Kitchener to the Australian Governor-General (published in the Australian press on 7 April 1902) quotes Kitchener as saying that "the proceedings have been sent home" [i.e. to England]. Whatever their actual fate, the transcripts have not been seen since the trial and evidently not even the Australian government was granted access to them.

In the ‘Afterword’ to the 1982 reprint of Witton’s book, G.A. Embleton states that:

" .. the British authorities have been approached by many researchers eager to examine the transcripts thought to be held by the War Office. Invariably these requests have been met with denials that the documents exist or pronouncements to the effect that they cannot be released until the year 2002 … It now appears that the papers never reached England … (it was) recently announced that the court-martial papers had been discovered in South Africa…"

A comprehensive record of the trial of Morant and Handcock, complete with a large number of depositions by members of the BVC and other witnesses of the deeds of Morant and Handcock, appears in Arthur Davey’s "Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers" (Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town 1987).

Charles Leach, a well-known South African historian, published his book "The Legend of Breaker Morant is DEAD and BURIED" in March 2012, with the subtitle "A South African version of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Zoutpansberg, May 1901 – April 1902" after extensive research, including access to unpublished South African sources and documents of the Viljoen and Heese families. Joe West, a British Bushveldt Carbineers researcher describes the book as follows: "Charles Leach’s impressive research has revealed that the crimes of Morant and his associates were worse than originally thought. In today’s day and age Morant and Handcock plus several others would be arraigned before a War Crime Tribunal."