Saturday, January 23, 2010
Harry 'Breaker' Harbord Morant (9 December 1864 – 27 February 1902) was an Anglo-Australian drover, poet, and soldier whose misadventures in the Boer War of South Africa earned him a niche in Australian folklore and history.
The Boer War (1899-1902) was the final episode of the protracted guerrilla struggle of the Afrikaaner*-speaking Boer people against the Imperial British forces. A bitterly fought conflict featuring organized guerrilla warfare, the Boer War introduced several concepts of modern warfare: concentration camps, the term commando, and an occupying force conducting war crimes trials on their own soldiers (this conflict preceded the Hague and Geneva Conventions, which codified our modern Law on Land Warfare.)
* a dialect of the Dutch language
Morant participated in the summary execution of several Boer (Afrikaner) prisoners and a German missionary, Daniel Heese, who had been a witness to the shootings. His actions led to his controversial court-martial for murder. Although acquitted of killing Rev Heese, Morant and his co-accused were quickly sentenced to death on the other two charges; his death warrant was personally signed by the British commander in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, although Lord Kitchener subsequently denied the issuance of it.
Major-General Lord Kitchener, Chief of the Staff in South Africa during the Boer War.
The events leading to Breaker Morant's trial and execution were complex. Lord Kitchener ordered the trial in hope of bringing the Boer War to an end with a peace conference. To that end, he used the Morant trial to show that he was willing to judge his own soldiers harshly if they disobey the rules of war.
The excellent 1980 film Breaker Morant explores these themes:
Morant had executed Boer prisoners in revenge for the killing and mutilation of his friend and commanding officer, Captain Hunt. Enraged, Morant led an attack on a Boer camp, where a Boer guerrilla was captured wearing Captain Hunt's khaki battle jacket. Morant had him executed on the spot. Morant also executed by firing squad six other Boer prisoners for the same reason after they had surrendered under a white flag. He later said of the incident, "You know the orders from Whitehall. If they show a white flag, we don't see it. I didn't see it."
Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were executed by firing squad in Pretoria jail on 27 February 1902. Lt. George Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener; he was transported to England and was released after serving twenty-eight months, his life sentence overturned by the British House of Commons on 11 August 1904. On his release he returned to Australia and for a while lived in Lancefield, Victoria, where he wrote a controversial book about the Morant case, Scapegoats of the Empire published in 1907.
The graves of Morant and Handcock have become a popular place of pilgrimage for Australian tourists in South Africa.
Breaker Morant's legacy as an Australian folk hero has much to do with Australia's relationship with the UK; unlike America, there never was a protracted series of wars for independence from the British 'Mother Country'; there is no Australian counterpart to George Washington or Andrew Jackson. At the time during the Boer War, Australia was transitioning from British Colony to Federation and the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, in 1901.
Although Morants' status as a convicted war criminal is acknowledged, it is felt that he served as a scapegoat for the British - an easily disposable Colonial - in a conflict that featured widespread British war crimes, endorsed by Lord Kitchener himself.*
A published poet, Morant was already a well-known figure in Australia at the time of his death. The Morant case added fuel to the growing public resentment of the British military and British rule in general — a feeling which, a decade later, grew into a major anti-British backlash as a result of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign - planned by Kitchener along with Winston Churchill - in which thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops perished. Largely as a result of the Morant case, the Australian army never again accepted British Army justice in cases involving its soldiers.
* Modern historians acknowledge British war crimes against Boer insurgents, particularly the original 'concentration camps' — in which over 28,000 people died. Kitchener responded to the Boer's blowing up of trains by ordering the placing of Boer civilians in flatcars in front of locomotives. Kitchener also ordered 'Boer rebels found wearing British uniforms might be shot without trial'; a claim central to Morant and Handcock's defence at their court-martial.