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Breaker Morant

Harry "Breaker" Harbord Morant was an Anglo-Australian drover, horseman, bush poet, military officer and convicted war criminal. While serving

with the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lieutenant Morant was arrested and court-martialed

for war crimes one of the first such prosecutions in British military history. According to military prosecutors, Morant retaliated

for the death in combat of his commanding officer with a series of revenge killings against both Boer POWs

and many civilian residents of the Northern Transvaal. He stood accused of the summary execution of Floris Visser, a wounded prisoner of war

and the slaying of four Afrikaners and four Dutch schoolteachers who had been taken prisoner at the Elim Hospital. Morant was found guilty

and sentenced to death. Lieutenants Morant and Peter Handcock were then court-martialed for the murder of the Rev. Carl August Daniel Heese,

a South African-born Minister of the Berlin Missionary Society. Rev. Heese had spiritually counseled the Dutch and Afrikaner victims

at Elim Hospital, indignantly vowed to inform Morant's commanding officer, and had been shot to death the same afternoon. Morant

and Handcock were acquitted of the Heese murder, but their sentences for murdering Floris Visser and the eight victims

at Elim Hospital were carried out by a firing squad drawn from the Cameron Highlanders on 27 February 1902. Morant

and Handcock have become folk heroes in modern Australia. Their court-martial and death have been the subject of books, a stage play,

and an award-winning Australian New Wave film adaptation by director Bruce Beresford. Upon its release in 1980,

Beresford's film both brought Morant's life story to a worldwide audience and "hoisted the images of the accused officers

to the level of Australian icons and martyrs." Many Australians now regard Morant and Handcock as scapegoats

or even as the victims of judicial murder. Attempts continue, with wide public support, to obtain a posthumous pardon or even a new trial.

According to South African historian Charles Leach, "In the opinion of many South Africans,

particularly descendants of victims as well as other involved persons in the far Northern Transvaal, justice was only partially achieved

by the trial and the resultant sentences. The feeling still prevails that not all the guilty parties were dealt

with the notorious Captain Taylor being the most obvious one of all."

Early life

Inquiries made in 1902 by The Northern Miner and The Bulletin newspapers identified the "Breaker" as Edwin Henry Murrant was born

at Bridgwater in Somerset, England, in December 1864, the son of Edwin Murrant and Catherine. Edwin and Catherine were master

and matron of the Union Workhouse at Bridgewater and after Edwin died in August 1864, four months before the birth of his son,

Catherine continued her employment as matron until her retirement in 1882. She died in 1899 when Morant was in Adelaide, South Australia, preparing

to embark for military service in South Africa. Despite his humble origins, Morant could easily pass for a member of the British upper class

and created a number of romantic legends about his past. He was often described as "well-educated" and claimed to have been born in 1865

at Bideford, Devon, England, and to be the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of the Royal Navy; a claim repeated as fact by later writers,

although the Admiral denied it.


According to The Northern Miner and The Bulletin, Murrant emigrated to Australia in 1883 and arrived aboard the S.S. Waroonga at Townsville,

Queensland. Although Morant has often been described as an Australian, his former defence counsel, Major J. F. Thomas later "reacted strongly"

whenever his former client was described as such. In a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald on 16 June 1923, Major Thomas wrote,

"Morant was not an Australian, he was an Englishman, who came to this country for 'colonial experience'." At the time, and until as late as 1948,

all 'Australians' were in fact, British subjects. After his arrival, Murrant adopted the name Harry Harbord Morant

and first settled in outback Queensland. Over the next 15 years, he drifted through Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.

He gained a reputation as a hard-drinking, womanising bush poet and an expert horseman. He was one of the few who managed

to ride the notorious buckjumper Dargin's Grey in a race that became a roughriding legend. Morant worked in a variety of occupations;

he reportedly traded in horses in Charters Towers, then worked for a time on a newspaper at Hughenden in 1884,

but there are suggestions that he left both towns as a result of debts. He then drifted around for some time until he found work as a bookkeeper

and storeman on the Esmaralda cattle station. He then worked for several years as an itinerant drover and horse-breaker,

as well as writing his popular bush ballads, becoming friendly with famed Australian bush poets Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, and Will H.

Ogilvie. The bond between Ogilvie and Morant was quite strong, and subject of a book Breaker's mate: Will Ogilvie in Australia. Ogilvie went

to write at various times:

South Africa

In many respects, the terrain and climate of South Africa is remarkably similar to that of outback Australia, so Morant was in his element.

His superb horsemanship, expert bush skills, and educated manner soon attracted the attention of his superiors.

South Australian Colonel Joseph Gordon recommended him as a dispatch rider to Bennet Burleigh, the war correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph;

the job reportedly provided Morant with ample opportunity to visit the nearby hospital and pursue dalliances with the nurses.

A letter written on 23 January 1901 was sent to Admiral Sir George Morant

by the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town alleging that Sergeant Morant had stayed there in November 1900, while claiming to be the Admiral's son.

"The Breaker" had further passed himself off as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and had "left without discharging his liability"

of 16: 13s. The letter concluded, "We shall esteem it a favour if you will let us know the course we had better adopt. We are adverse

to taking the matter to court till we had heard from you." According to his co-defendant, Lieutenant George Witton,

Morant served in the South Australian Second Contingent for nine months, during which time he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. In March 1900,

Sergeant Morant carried dispatches for the Flying Column to Prieska, under Colonel Lowe, 7th D.G. who was in the general advance to Bloemfontein

and took part in the engagements of Karee Siding and Kroonstadt, and other engagements with Lord Roberts until the entry into Pretoria. Morant was

at Diamond Hill and was then attached to General French's staff, Cavalry Brigade, as war correspondent

with Bennet Burleigh of the London Daily Telegraph. He accompanied that column through Middelburg and Belfast to the occupation of Barberton.

At this point, he took leave and returned to England for six months. Here, he befriended Captain Percy Frederic Hunt,

and the two of them became engaged to a pair of sisters. Captain Hunt, who was still "signed on", returned to South Africa

to take command of B squadron in the Bushveldt Carbineers,

whereas Morant followed him shortly after not having found the forgiveness he sought in England. Originally, he returned to South Africa

to take up a commission in Baden Powell's Transvaal Constabulary; he was convinced by Hunt

to instead accept a commission in the Bushveldt Carbineers. Lieutenant Morant enlisted as a commissioned officer in the on 1 April 1901.

The Bushveldt Carbineers

Following their defeats on the battlefield during 18991900, the Boer Commandos embarked on a guerrilla campaign against both British

and Commonwealth forces. In response, Lord Kitchener, the British commander in South Africa assembled and deployed a number of irregular regiments

to combat Boer commando units and protect British interests in the region. On his return from leave, Morant joined one of these irregular units,

the Bushveldt Carbineers, a 320-strong regiment that had been formed in February 1901 under the command of an Australian, Colonel Robert Lenehan.

Following his friend's lead, Captain Hunt joined the BVC soon after. The regiment, based in Pietersburg, 180 mi north of Pretoria,

saw action in the Spelonken region of the Northern Transvaal during 19011902. By the summer of 1901, rumours had reached the Officer Commanding

at Pietersburg "of poor discipline, unconfirmed murders, drunkenness, and general lawlessness in the Spelonken."

It was further alleged that a local woman had accused a British Army officer of sexual assault.

Further investigation revealed that the alleged rapist was Captain James Robertson, the commanding officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers' A Squadron,

based at Sweetwaters Farm. In response, Captain Robertson was recalled to HQ and given a choice between court martial and resigning his commission.

Robertson submitted his resignation and left the British Armed Forces. In response, Captain Percy Frederic Hunt, "an Englishman,

a former Lieutenant in Kitchener's Fighting Scouts, and a fine horseman" was ordered to the Northern Transvaal

and given command of the Bushveldt Carbineers "B Squadron". Before departing Pietersburg on the night of 11 July 1901, Captain Hunt successfully

"requested the transfer of certain officers and friends of his" to his new field of command. These men included Lieutenants Morant,

Charles Hannam, and Harry Picton.

Fort Edward

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 POWs and civilian non-combatants,

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 Edward, 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." Back at Fort Edward,

the seized livestock were collected and handed over to the proper authorities and the stills were broken up, but according to Witton,

these actions were resented by the perpetrators, and as a result Morant and Handcock were "detested" by certain members of the detachment.

Witton arrived at Fort Edward on 3 August with Sergeant Major Hammett and 30 men, and it was at this point that he met Morant and Handcock

for the first time.


At the end of July 1901, the garrison at Fort Edward received a visit from the Reverend Fritz Reuter of the Berlin Missionary Society

and his family. Rev. Reuter was assigned to the Medingen Mission Station and, despite later claims by his family, he "seems

to have been an exception" to the generally Republican sympathies "of the Zoutpansberg German population". In conversation with Captain Hunt, Rev.

Reuter reported that Veldcornet Barend Viljoen's Commando was present at Duivelskloof and had been "harassing local noncombatant farmers". Rev.

Reuter further alleged that his own mission station had been threatened. In response, Captain Hunt ordered a detachment under BVC Sergeant A.B.C.

Cecil to protect the missionary and his family on their return journey. After Rev. Reuter's intelligence had been confirmed by a Native runner,

Captain Hunt also learned that Sergeant Cecil's patrol had been ambushed near the Medingen Mission Station. In response,

the captain departed Fort Edward on 2 August 1901 with the intention of ambushing the Viljoen Commando. In addition

to service personnel of the Bushveldt Carbineers, the patrol included Tony Schiel, a defector from the Zoutpansberg Commando and Intelligence Scout

for Captain Taylor. It was to be Schiel's task to command between 300 and 400 irregulars drawn from the local Lobedu people. According

to South African historian Charles Leach, Captain Hunt had received "warnings and expressions of caution" regarding

"the wisdom of attacking an enemy position at night" without normal reconnaissance of the place. Deciding to proceed anyway, Captain Hunt led

"his patrol into a situation that would echo through the next 100 years."


According to the diary of BVC Trooper J.S. Silke, Rev. Reuter warned Hunt against attacking. The Viljoen farm, he explained,

was built on a rocky hillside and, "was unassailable". Furthermore, the nearby Botha farm contained more

than 40 armed men who could easily cut off Hunt's line of retreat. Despite the warning and the fact that it was a bright moonlit night, Hunt chose

to attack anyway. After planning a two-pronged attack, Captain Hunt ordered Trooper Silke to wait for a signal shot and rush the farmhouse

from behind with 50 Lobedu warriors. Then, Captain Hunt approached the farmhouse via the concrete steps terraced into the hillside. Meanwhile,

the Viljoen Commando knew, according to Burgher Hendrik Adriaan Jacobs, that an attack was coming. Many Commandos, however, were "feverish"

from the effects of malaria and fatalistically waited for the arrival of the Bushveldt Carbineers.

Jacobs later recalled how he saw Hunt's party through a window and opened fire. Possibly mistaking Jacobs's first shot for the signal, the BVC

and the Lobedu also opened fire and general pandemonium ensued. In an exchange of fire, Captain Hunt was shot through the chest.

Sergeant Eland was killed attempting to go to Hunt's aid, as was at least one Lobedu warrior. On the Boer side, Barend Viljoen, his brother J.J.

Viljoen, and G. Hartzenberg were killed. The dead of both sides were left behind by their retreating comrades.


When the surviving members of the patrol returned to Medingen Mission Station, Rev. Reuter asked them about their officers and,

"was told a confusing and contradictory story of what had happened". Decades later, Rev. Reuter's daughter recalled in a televised interview,

"My father roused on them, asking how they could leave their Captain like that." According to Leach,

Captain Hunt's broken neck would be consistent with a fall down the concrete steps after being wounded.

The mutilations found on his body were also found on the bodies of the three fallen Boers. Both sides blamed the other

for the disfigurement of the dead. Hendrik Jacobs, however, believed that Lobedu witch-doctors were responsible. According

to historian Charles Leach, the mutilations do fit with accounts, by French anthropologist Henri Junod,

of the traditional warfare practices of the Lobedu people. The body of Captain Percy Hunt was buried at the Medingen Mission Station,

where a cross was later installed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Sergeant Eland was buried at his family's homestead,

the Ravenshill Farm, after a burial service was read by Rev. Reuter.

Revenge killings

When news of Hunt's death reached the fort, it had a profound effect on Morant; Witton said he became "like a man demented".

Morant immediately ordered every available man out on patrol, broke down while addressing the men, and ordered them

to avenge the death of their captain and "give no quarter". Significantly, Morant did not see Hunt's body himself; according to Witton,

Morant arrived about an hour after the burial. He questioned the men about Hunt's death and,

convinced that his friend had been murdered in cold blood, he again vowed to give no quarter and take no prisoners.

Witton recounted that Morant then declared that he had, on occasion, ignored Hunt's order to this effect in the past,

but that he would carry it out in the future.


The following day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission, Morant led his unit back to the Viljoen farm. It had been abandoned,

so they tracked the retreating Boers all day, sighting them just at dusk. As the Australians closed in, the hot-headed Morant opened fire too early

and they lost the element of surprise, so most of the Boers escaped. They did, however, capture one commando called Visser,

wounded in the ankles so that he could not walk. The next morning, as Morant and his men continued their pursuit,

a native runner brought a message that the lightly-manned Fort Edward was in danger of being attacked by the Boers, so Morant decided

to abandon the chase. At this point, he searched and questioned Visser and found items of British uniform,

including a pair of trousers which he believed was Hunt's, but which was later proved to be of much older origin. Morant then told Witton

and others that he would have Visser shot at the first opportunity. When they stopped to eat around 11 a.m.

Morant again told Witton that he intended to have Visser shot, quoting orders "direct from headquarters" and citing Kitchener's recent alleged

"no prisoners" proclamation. He called for a firing party, and although some of the men initially objected, Visser was made

to sit down on an embankment, and was shot. After being shot, Visser was still alive, and Morant ordered Picton to administer a coup-de-grace

with pistol shots to the head. On the return journey to the fort, Morant's unit stopped for the night at the store of a British trader, a Mr Hays,

who was well known for his hospitality. After they left, Hays was raided by a party of Boers who looted everything he owned. When Morant

and his men arrived back at Fort Edward, they learned that a convoy under Lieutenant Neel had arrived from Pietersburg the previous day,

just in time to reinforce Captain Taylor against a strong Boer force that attacked the fort. During the encounter, one Carbineer was wounded

and several horses were shot. It was at this time that Taylor had a native shot, for refusing to give him information about the Boers' movements.

Neel and Picton then returned to Pietersburg. Other killings followed. On 23 August, Morant led a small patrol

to intercept a group of eight prisoners from Viljoen's commandos who were being brought in under guard; Morant ordered them to be taken

to the side of the road and summarily shot. The South African born German missionary Reverend Predikant C.H.D. Heese spoke to the prisoners prior

to the shooting. About a week later, reports began to circulate that Reverend Heese had been found shot along the Pietersburg road about 15 mi

from the fort on his way to Pietersburg to report the activities of Morant and his group to the British authorities. Shortly afterwards,

acting on a report that three armed Boer commandos were heading for the fort, Morant took Handcock and several other men to intercept them

and after the Boers surrendered with a white flag, they were taken prisoner, disarmed and shot. Later the same day, Major Lenehan arrived

at Fort Edward for a rare visit. Morant persuaded Lenehan to let him lead a strong patrol out to search for a small Boer unit led

by Field-cornet Kelly, an Irish-Boer commando whose farm was in the district. Kelly had fought against the British in the main actions of the war,

and after returning to his home he had become a commando rather than surrender. Morant's patrol left Fort Edward on 16 September 1901 with orders

from Lenehan that Kelly and his men were to be captured and brought back alive if possible. Covering 130 mi in a week of hard riding,

they left their horses 2 mi from Kelly's laager and went the rest of the way on foot. In the early hours of the next morning,

Morant's patrol charged the laager, this time taking the Boers completely by surprise; Morant himself arrested Kelly at gunpoint

at the door of his tent. A week later, they returned to Fort Edward with the Kelly party and then escorted them safely to Pietersburg.

The British commandant, Colonel Hall, sent Morant a message congratulating him on the success of his mission,

after which Morant took two weeks' leave.

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