Breaker Morant

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Breaker Morant : biography

9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902

Primary sources

In the absence of the original trial records, three primary sources remain. The first is the report of the trial printed in The Times in April 1902; the second is George Witton’s account of the events of 1901–02, contained in his book Scapegoats of the Empire. The third and most recent is a letter about the case, written by Witton to Major Thomas in 1929, which was kept secret at Witton’s request until 1970. In it, Witton suggests that although Handcock broke down and confessed to the crimes, he did so under duress.

Other accounts

Wilcox states the next important book in creating the Morant myth was Cutlack’s Breaker Morant (1962), a short book as much a cartoon version of reality as The Bulletin once presented. (Wilcox, p. 363.) Cutlack’s story, said Wilcox, was based on Witton’s Scapegoats and Frank Fox’s Breaker Morant.

The 1976 book The Australians At The Boer War by Australian writer R.L. Wallace gives a concise, and reasonably detailed account of Morant’s military career, trial and execution although it contains almost no information about Morant’s earlier life and omits a number of significant details contained in Witton’s account of the events leading up to Morant’s trial. However, Wallace was writing an overall account of the Australians role in South Africa, not the life of Morant, Handcock or Witton.

The most widely known book is the best-selling Australian novel The Breaker by Kit Denton, first published in 1973 and inspired by Denton’s meeting and conversation with a Boer War veteran who had known Morant. Wilcox suggested this book is a follow-on from Cutlack’s book and helped establish the myth. (Wilcox, p. 363.) However, Denton claimed that Morant and Handcock were executed in Pietersburg and buried near that spot. This mistake appeared in his book as late as 1981 (7th edition, p. 268), and is a possible reason as to why there is confusion around the location of the execution, i.e. Pretoria or Pietersburg.

Kenneth Ross’s 1978 highly successful and widely acclaimed play Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts (ISBN 0-7267-0997-2), was adapted by Ross and Bruce Beresford into Beresford’s 1980 film Breaker Morant. The film was nominated for the 1980 Academy Award for the screenplay adapted from another source.

Legacy

Although it is generally accepted that Morant and/or others in his regiment were responsible for the deaths of a number of Boer commandos, historical opinion is still divided over the central questions of the case — how many Boers were killed, by whom were they killed, and on whose orders? In his book, Born to Fight, Speed has photos of a number of Canadian Scouts wearing black feathers (pp. 105 & 119.), a symbol that they would shoot any Boer captured under arms.

Morant’s supporters, on the other hand, argue that he and Handcock were unfairly singled out for punishment even though many other British soldiers were known to have carried out summary executions of Boer prisoners. In their view, the two Australians were made scapegoats by the British, who were intent on concealing the existence of the "take no prisoners" policy against Boer insurgents — a policy which, they claim, had been promulgated by Kitchener himself.

However, Hamish Paterson, a South African military historian and a member of the Military History Society, has pointed out that the Bushveldt Carbineers were a British Imperial unit, not an Australian one: technically, the two "Aussies" were British officers.

Australian author Nick Bleszynski is a leading proponent of the ‘scapegoat’ argument. He argues that while Morant and the others probably committed some crimes and may well have deserved disciplinary action, there is now persuasive evidence from several sources to show that the Kitchener ‘no prisoners’ order did indeed exist, that it was widely known among both the British and Australian troops and was carried out by many disparate units. He also argues that the court-martial was fundamentally flawed in its procedures.