Defin­ing Mo­ments

‘ Breaker’ Mo­rant ex­e­cuted

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

Just be­fore the Boer War ended, lieu­tenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Mo­rant and Peter Hand­cock were ex­e­cuted for mur­der­ing pris­on­ers of war.

Bri­tain re­luc­tantly shared do­min­ion of south­ern Africa with Dutch set­tlers called Bo­ers through­out the 1800s. Ten­sions were ev­i­dent from the out­set, but height­ened be­tween the 1860s and ’80s when di­a­monds and gold were found in Boer-oc­cu­pied ar­eas. Bri­tain sought to con­trol these re­sources, but the Bo­ers re­sisted, and de­clared war in Oc­to­ber 1899 af­ter a Bri­tish raid on their ter­ri­tory.

At first, the Bo­ers had the ad­van­tage and be­sieged cities such as Lady­smith and Mafek­ing. But from late 1899, the Bri­tish brought in large num­bers of troops and mounted a suc­cess­ful counter-of­fen­sive. More than 500,000 sol­diers fought for the Bri­tish against just 50,000 Bo­ers, who turned to guer­rilla tac­tics. Un­der Lord Kitch­ener’s com­mand, the Bri­tish fol­lowed suit, cut­ting Boer com­man­dos off from food and their fam­i­lies.They de­stroyed Boer farms and in­terned civil­ians in con­cen­tra­tion camps where, weak­ened by mal­nu­tri­tion, 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 Africans died.The bru­tal strat­egy was ef­fec­tive: the Bo­ers sur­ren­dered in May 1902.

As part of the Bri­tish Em­pire, Aus­tralia pro­vided 16,000 troops, in­clud­ing Ed­win Henry Mur­rant, who was born in Eng­land but moved, aged 19, to Aus­tralia in about 1883. Rein­vent­ing him­self as Harry Har­bord Mo­rant, he built a rep­u­ta­tion as a drover and wom­an­iser and con­trib­uted bush bal­lads to The Bul­letin mag­a­zine un­der the name of ‘the Breaker’.

When war broke out, he en­listed in Ade­laide and ar­rived in South Africa in Fe­bru­ary 1900. Later that year he sailed to Eng­land, where he be­friended Cap­tain Percy Hunt, who’d also served in the war.The pair re­turned to South Africa in March 1901. By then, to counter the Bo­ers’ guer­rilla tac­tics, the Bri­tish had formed ir­reg­u­lar units such as the Bushveldt Car­bi­neers (BVC), which in­cluded many Aus­tralians.

Af­ter join­ing the BVC, Hunt and Mo­rant were posted to Fort Ed­ward in the north­ern Transvaal, where fight­ing was es­pe­cially bit­ter. In Au­gust 1901, a group of Bo­ers killed Hunt and mu­ti­lated his body. Mo­rant as­sumed com­mand of Hunt’s de­tach­ment, which then pursued his friend’s killers.

Back in Fort Ed­ward, Mo­rant or­dered eight sur­ren­der­ing Bo­ers to be ex­e­cuted. Soon af­ter­wards, Mo­rant and two oth­ers killed three more Bo­ers. A pass­ing mis­sion­ary, Rev­erend Heese, was also shot af­ter leav­ing Fort Ed­ward. It was al­leged Mo­rant or­dered Lieu­tenant Peter Hand­cock to kill Heese be­cause he’d wit­nessed these mur­ders.

Mo­rant, Hand­cock and four other BVC of­fi­cers were ar­rested on 7 Septem­ber 1901 and charged with mur­der. Ma­jor J.F. Thomas, a so­lic­i­tor from Tenterfield in NSW, was or­dered at short no­tice to rep­re­sent them and the trial be­gan on 17 Jan­uary 1902.

Cen­tral to the de­fence was that the of­fi­cers had acted on orders from su­pe­ri­ors, right up to Lord Kitch­ener, to take no pris­on­ers. But Thomas failed to sub­stan­ti­ate such an or­der. Mo­rant, Hand­cock and an­other Aus­tralian, Lieu­tenant Ge­orge Wit­ton, were con­victed of 12 pris­on­ers’ mur­ders but not of Heese’s mur­der.Wit­ton was given a life sen­tence but re­leased af­ter four years.With Kitch­ener’s ap­proval, Hand­cock and Mo­rant were ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad on 27 Fe­bru­ary 1902.

The ex­e­cu­tions of Mo­rant and Hand­cock have long di­vided pub­lic opin­ion. At the time, Aus­tralians were both shocked that our of­fi­cers could com­mit such crimes and that Bri­tain would ex­e­cute them. The Bul­letin pub­lished ed­i­to­ri­als de­fend­ing Mo­rant and many felt the Aus­tralians were seen as ex­pend­able be­cause they were ‘colo­nials’.Why had Kitch­ener sanc­tioned the trial and hasty ex­e­cu­tion of of­fi­cers car­ry­ing out what was com­mon prac­tice on both sides?

His imag­ined mo­tives in­cluded ap­peas­ing the Ger­man govern­ment over the death of Heese and, ahead of a treaty, de­flect­ing at­ten­tion from Boer civil­ian deaths in con­cen­tra­tion camps.

Ruth­less aris­to­crat Kitch­ener and charis­matic lar­rikin Mo­rant seemed to em­body the dif­fer­ences be­tween Bri­tain and Aus­tralia, as the lat­ter tried to es­tab­lish its na­tional iden­tity in the wake of Fed­er­a­tion, which had taken place mid­way dur­ing the war.

This por­trait was taken in 1900, just be­fore Mo­rant left for the Boer War with the 2nd Mounted Ri­fles from SA.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.