Harry 'Breaker' Harbord Morant was an Anglo-Australian drover, horseman, poet, soldier and convicted war criminal whose skill with horses earned him the nickname "The Breaker". The bulk of his published work appeared in The Bulletin magazine.
During service in the Second Boer War, Morant participated in the summary execution of several Boer (Afrikaner) prisoners and the killing of a German missionary, Daniel Heese, who had been a witness to the shootings. His actions led to his controversial court-martial and execution for murder.
In the century since his death, Morant has become a folk hero to some in Australia. His story has been the subject of several books, a stage play, and a major Australian feature film.
Accounts of Morant's life before the Boer War vary considerably, and it appears that Morant fabricated a number of these romantic legends. Morant is often described as being 'well-educated' and claimed to have been born in 1865 at Bideford, Devon, England and to have been the illegitimate son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of the Royal Navy; a claim repeated as fact by later writers, although the admiral denied it. Morant entrusted his cigarette case and other personal belongings to Major Bolton, the prosecuting officer during the later courts martial with the words "see that my family gets them". Years later, when Bolton's daughter tried to hand them to the family of Sir George, she was sent away and told Morant was not related to them. It has been suggested that the young Morant came into the care of a wealthy Scottish author, soldier, hunt-master and golfer, George Whyte-Melville. Like other stories there is no evidence for this theory.
The results of enquiries made in 1902 by both The Northern Miner and The Bulletin newspapers identified him as Edwin Henry Murrant who had arrived at Townsville in Queensland on the SS Waroonga in 1883. Murrant was born at Bridgwater in Somerset, England in December 1864, the son of Edwin Murrant and Catherine (née Riely). 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 leave for South Africa.
Morant settled in outback Queensland, and over the next 15 years, working in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, the charismatic roustabout made a name for himself as a hard-drinking, womanising bush poet and gained renown as a fearless and expert horseman. Harry Breaker Morant was one of the few horsemen who managed to ride the notorious buckjumper, Dargin's Grey, in a battle 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.
On 13 March 1884, Morant married Daisy May O'Dwyer, who later became famous in Australia as the anthropologist Daisy Bates, but the couple separated soon after and never formally divorced; Daisy reportedly threw him out after he failed to pay for the wedding and then stole some pigs and a saddle. 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 poets Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and William Ogilvie.
At the time Morant volunteered for military service (in 1899), the formal federation of the Commonwealth of Australia was still two years away. Australia consisted of separate self-governing colonies, each of which was still subject to the British Crown. Because the population included many British immigrants, most Australians still had strong ties to "The Mother Country". Consequently, thousands of Australian men volunteered to fight for Britain in the Second Boer War, which pitted British colonial forces against the Boers in South Africa.
Evidently, seeing this as a chance to return to England and redeem himself in the eyes of the family he had left 16 years before, Morant enlisted with the Second Contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles. While in Adelaide, Morant was reportedly invited to visit the summer residence of the South Australian governor, Lord Tennyson. After completing his training, he was appointed lance corporal and his regiment embarked for the Transvaal on 27 February 1900.
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 the debonair Morant with ample opportunity to visit the nearby hospital and dally with the nurses.
The statement of service Morant tendered at his trial is quoted, apparently verbatim, in the book written by his friend and colleague, George Witton. According to that account, Morant was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) on 1 April 1901. Prior to that, he had served in the South Australian Second Contingent for nine months. During that duration, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Subsequently, he returned to Devon, England for a period of time.
In March 1900, 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 Devon, England for six months. Here he became close friends with Captain Hunt, and the two of them became engaged to a pair of sisters. Hunt, who was still 'signed on', returned to South Africa to take command of a regiment in the Bushveldt Carbineers, whereas Morant (who had intended that his military service come to an end) followed him shortly after not having found the forgiveness he sought in England. Originally returning to take up a commission in Baden Powell's Transvaal Constabulary, he was convinced by Hunt to instead accept a commission in the BVC.
Boer guerrilla campaign, 1901–1902
Following their defeats on the battlefield during 1899–1900, the Boer rebels embarked on a guerrilla campaign against the British. 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 R.W. Lenehan. Following his friend's lead, Captain Hunt joined the BVC soon after.
The regiment, based in Pietersburg, 180 miles (290 km) north of Pretoria, saw action in the Spelonken region of the Northern Transvaal during 1901–1902. The region was remote, wild and dangerous and was also in a particularly unhealthy malarial area. Because of this, the British had difficulty in finding troops and as a result, many colonial soldiers enlisted.
About forty percent of the men in the BVC were Australians, but the regiment also included about forty surrendered Boers ("joiners") who had been recruited from the internment camps, and according to Witton, their presence was greatly resented by the Australians. The garrison was soon divided into two columns; one, under the command of Lieutenant Morant, operated in the Strydpoort district, about 30 miles (48 km) south-east of Pietersburg.
Morant's unit was very successful in eliminating roving bands of enemy commandos from their area, forcing the Boers to transfer their activities to the Bandolier Kop area, on the northern fringe of the Spelonken. In response, the BVC moved north under the command of British Captain James Huntley Robertson and established a command post in a farmhouse about 90 miles (140 km) north of Pietersburg, which they renamed Fort Edward.
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 a free hand and the power of life and death; he was known and feared by them from the Zambesi to the Spelonken, and was called by them 'Bulala', which means to kill, to slay.”
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.
Events leading to Morant's arrest
This section relies on references to primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject, rather than references from independent authors and third-party publications. Please add citations from reliable sources. (October 2011)
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 prisoners-of-war and others, 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 Edwards, 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 was 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 Edwards 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.
Death of Captain Hunt
The pivotal event of the Morant affair took place two days later, on the night of 5 August 1901. Captain Hunt led a 17-man patrol to a Boer farmhouse called Duivelskloof (Devil's Gorge), about 80 miles (130 km) south of the fort, hoping to capture its owner, the Boer commando leader Veldtcornet Barend Viljoen. Hunt also had some 200 armed native African irregulars with him, and Witton claimed that although "those in authority" denied the use of African auxiliaries, they were in fact widely used and were responsible for "the most hideous atrocities".
Hunt had been told that Viljoen had only 20 men with him. The Boers surprised the British as they approached. During the ensuing skirmish, both Barend Viljoen and his brother Jacob Viljoen were killed. Witnesses later testified that Captain Hunt was wounded in the chest while firing through the windows and Sergeant Frank Eland was killed while trying to recover his body. Witnesses later testified that Hunt was still alive when the British retreated.
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.
Reprisals in Hunt's name
The following day, after leaving a few men to guard the mission (which the Boers threatened to burn in reprisal for harbouring the British), Morant led his unit back to the Viljoen farm. It had been abandoned, so they tracked the retreating Boers all day, sighting them just on 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 that of Hunt's, but was later proved to be of much older origin; he 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 (he could not stand), 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 and 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 commando 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 miles (24 km) from the fort on his way to Pietersburg to report the activities of Morant and his group to the British authorities. At his later court-martial, it was proved that Morant himself had shot Heese in an effort to prevent him from disclosing the murder of the Boer prisoners-of-war, which would be alarming considering he was acquitted of this crime at that court-martial. 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 Edwards 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 miles (210 km) in a week of hard riding, they left their horses 2 miles (3.2 km) 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, personally sent Morant a message congratulating him on the success of his mission, after which Morant took two weeks leave.
Then, in mid-October, the Spelonken detachment was suddenly recalled to Pietersburg and Fort Edward was abandoned until March 1902. On 24 October 1901, Colonel Hall ordered the arrest of six members of the Carbineers. Four were Australians: Major Lenehan and Lieutenants Handcock, Witton and Hannam; the other two, Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Picton, were English. When Morant returned from leave in Pietersburg, he too was arrested, although no charges were laid at the time. A Court of Enquiry into the affairs of the Bushveldt Carbineers followed. The War Office subsequently stated that on 8 October 1901, some members of the BVC who had been discharged at Pietersburg on the expiration of their service had reported the irregular actions of the officers at Fort Edward over the preceding months.
The men were held in solitary confinement within the garrison, in spite of vigorous protests by Lenehan; he even wrote directly to Kitchener to ask that he be allowed to inform the Australian government of his position, but Kitchener ignored the request. Meanwhile, the Court of Enquiry held daily hearings, taking evidence from witnesses about the conduct of the BVC. Two weeks later, the prisoners were finally informed of the charges against them; in December, they were again brought before the panel and told that they were to be tried by court-martial. The panel found that there were no charges to answer in the cases of Hannam and Sergeant Major Hammett.
On hearing of the arrests, Kitchener's Chief of Police, Provost Marshall Robert Poore remarked in his diary, "... if they had wanted to shoot Boers they should not have taken them prisoner first" — a view later ruefully echoed in his book by George Witton. While it is certain that Morant and others did kill some prisoners, their real "mistake" in terms of their court-martial was that they killed the Boers after capturing and disarming them after they surrendered with a white flag. As Poore noted in his diary, had they shot them before they surrendered, the repercussions might well have been considerably less serious, since they could have claimed (truthfully or otherwise) that they had been killed in battle, rather than murdered after being taken prisoner.
Just before the court-martial, Colonel Hall was removed from his post at Pietersburg and transferred to India. The BVC were disbanded and replaced by a new regiment called the Pietersburg Light Horse. On 15 January 1902, the accused were finally given copies of the charges against them and informed that they would be defended by Major James Francis Thomas (1861–1942), who in civilian life had been a solicitor in Tenterfield, New South Wales. The court-martial began the following day.
The court-martial of Morant and his co-accused began on 16 January 1902 and was conducted in several stages. Two main hearings were conducted at Pietersburg in relatively relaxed conditions; one concerned the shooting of Visser, the other the 'Eight Boers' case. A large number of depositions by members of the BVC were made, giving damning evidence against the accused. For example, a Trooper Thompson stated that, on the morning of the 23rd (1901), he saw a party of soldiers with eight Boers: "Morant gave orders, and the prisoners were taken off the road and shot, Handcock killing two with his revolver. Morant later told me that we had to play into his hands, or else they would know what to expect." A Corporal Sharp said that he "would walk 100 miles barefoot to serve in a firing squad to shoot Morant and Handcock."
Soon after the second hearing, the prisoners were suddenly thrown in irons, taken to Pretoria under heavy guard and tried on the third main count, the killing of Reverend Heese. Although acquitted of killing Reverend Heese, Morant and his co-accused were quickly sentenced to death on the other two charges. Morant and Handcock were shot within days of sentencing, while Witton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener. Kitchener personally signed Morant and Handcock's death warrants. The Field Marshal was absent on tour when the executions took place.
During the day of 26 February, Morant and Handcock were visited by a distraught Major Thomas; Witton says that news of the impending execution had "almost driven him crazy".Thomas then rushed off to find Kitchener and plead with him, but was informed by Colonel Kelly that the Commander-in-Chief was away and was not expected back for several days. Thomas pleaded with Kelly to have the executions stayed for a few days until he could appeal to the King, but was told that the sentences had already been referred to England — and confirmed — and that there was "not the slightest hope" of a reprieve; Morant and Handcock "must pay for what he did".
When asked if he wanted to see a clergyman, Morant replied indignantly, "No! I'm a Pagan!" On hearing this, the unfortunate Handcock asked, "What's a Pagan?" and after hearing the explanation, declared "I'm a Pagan too!" As the afternoon wore on, all the prisoners could clearly hear the sound of coffins being built in the nearby workshop. At 16:00 hours, Witton was told he would be leaving for England at five the following morning.
That night, Morant, Picton, Handcock and Witton had a "last supper" together; at Morant's request, he and Handcock were allowed to spend their last night in the same cell. Morant spent most of the night writing and then penned a final sardonic verse, which Witton quotes in its entirety.
26 February 1902 The 'Confession'
The 'Confession' written on the back of photograph A05828 addressed to the Reverend Canon Fisher was written by Lieutenant (Lt) Harry Harbord Morant and signed by Morant and Lt Peter Joseph Handcock, it reads:
To the Rev. Canon Fisher
The night before we're shot
We shot the Boers who killed and mutilated
our friend (the best mate I had on Earth)
Harry Harbord Morant
Peter Joseph Handcock
At 05:00 hours on 27 February, Witton was taken away and was allowed to say a brief farewell to Morant and Handcock, but was only allowed to see them through the small gate in the cell door and clasped hands.
Shortly before 06:00 hours, Morant and Handcock were led out of the fort at Pretoria to be executed by a firing squad from the Cameron Highlanders. Both men refused to be blindfolded; Morant gave his cigarette case to the squad leader, and his famous last words were: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!". A contemporary report (from The Argus 3 April 1902) however has his last words as "Take this thing (the blindfold) off", and on its removal, "Be sure and make a good job of it!". Witton wrote that he was by then at Pretoria railway station and heard the volley of shots that killed his comrades. However Poore, who attended the execution, wrote in his diary that he put Witton and Lieutenant Picton on the train that left at 17:30 hours. Thus Witton would have been several miles on the way to Cape Town when the execution occurred.
Aftermath of the execution
Due to British military censorship, reports of the trial and execution did not begin to appear in Australia until the end of March 1902. The Australian government and Lieutenant Handcock's wife, who lived in Bathurst with their three children, only learned of Handcock and Morant's death from the Australian newspapers weeks after their executions. After learning of his sentence, Lieutenant Witton arranged to send two telegrams, one to the Australian government representative in Pretoria and the other to a relative in Victoria, but despite assurances from the British, neither telegram was ever received. The Australian government demanded an explanation from Kitchener who, on 5 April 1902, sent a telegram to the Australian Governor-General, and which was published completely in the Australian press. It reads as follows:
"In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of these crimes which Handcock carried out in cold-blooded manner. The murders were committed in the wildest parts of the Transvaal, known as Spelonken, about eighty miles north of Pretoria, on four separate dates namely 2 July, 11 August, and 7 September. In one case, where eight Boer prisoners were murdered, it was alleged to have been done in a spirit of revenge for the ill treatment of one of their officers - Captain Hunt - who was killed in action. No such ill-treatment was proved. The prisoners were convicted after a most exhaustive trial, and were defended by counsel. There were, in my opinion, no extenuating circumstances. Lieutenant Witton was also convicted but I commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life, in consideration of his having been under the influence of Morant and Handcock. The proceedings have been sent home."
News of the executions excited considerable public interest in the UK and a summary of the trial was published in The Times on 18 April 1902, but the British government announced in the House of Commons that, in keeping with normal practice, the court-martial proceedings would not be made public. The official transcripts of the court-martial reportedly disappeared soon afterwards.
The Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.
George Witton was transported to naval detention quarters England and then to Lewes prison in Sussex. Some time later he was transferred to the prison at Portland, Dorset and was released after serving twenty-eight months. His release was notified to the British House of Commons on 10 August 1904. On his release he returned to Australia and for a while lived in Lancefield, Victoria, where he wrote his controversial book about the Morant case. He published it in 1907 under the provocative title Scapegoats of the Empire. The book was reprinted in 1982 following the success of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. Witton died in Australia in 1942.
Alfred Taylor became a Native Commissioner in Rhodesia and a Member of Parliament and died in 1941.
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" . 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.
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.
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.
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. In South Africa, Morant is regarded as having been a murderer, marauder, womaniser, and a man generally without morals or remorse. The BVC are generally regarded as war criminals, rogue soldiers and cold-blooded murderers.
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.
The graves of Morant and Handcock were left unattended for many years, but after the release of Beresford's film it became a popular place of pilgrimage for Australian tourists. In June 1998 the Australian Government spent $1,500 refurbishing the grave site with a new concrete slab. The marble cross which stood over the grave had been vandalised, as had many other gravestones nearby.
In 2002, a group of Australians travelled to South Africa and held a service at the Pretoria graveside to commemorate the execution on the morning of the 100th anniversary. The service was also attended by the Australian High Commissioner to South Africa. The group left a new marker on the grave.
A petition to pardon Morant and Handcock was sent to Queen Elizabeth II in February 2010. The petition has been severely criticised in South Africa, specifically by descendants of the Viljoen brothers who were killed in the skirmish with Hunt and Eland, and the descendants of the family of Rev. Heese.
Hamish Paterson states: "I don’t think they [the Australian supporters of a Morant pardon] have actually considered what Morant was convicted of. Let’s start off with the laws of war. If for example, we have a surrender. You want to surrender and I don’t accept your surrender, so I choose not to accept it, that I’m entitled to do. [...] However, the situation changes dramatically once I accept your surrender, then I must remove you from the battlefield to a POW camp and keep you safe. If, for example, Kitchener said, “take no prisoners,” that was very different from “shoot prisoners!” So Morant and Handcock made two very basic errors: Once you’ve accepted the surrender, you take them to the railway line and get them shipped off to Bermuda, or wherever. At that point, the sensible thing to do was to ship them off to a POW camp. The next error was to shoot these guys in front of a neutral witness, and then you kill the witness. These are a series of terrible errors of judgement. Because they killed a German missionary, the Kaiser (became) involved. [...] Technically, the two “Aussies” were British officers. The problem was you were dealing with an unstable set-up in the BVC . It had just been formed. I don’t see a regular Australian unit behaving that way. I rather suspect why no British guys were shot was that they were either regular army or militia, or yeomanry, all of which are very unlikely to actually shoot prisoners. I think no British were shot because they hadn’t made the mistake of shooting prisoners who’d already surrendered."
Jim Unkles, an Australian lawyer, submitted two petitions, one to Queen Elizabeth II, and the other to the House of Representatives Petitions Committee in October 2009 to review the convictions and sentences of Morant, Handcock and Witton. The petitions were referred to the British Crown by the Australian Attorney General. A public hearing conducted by the Petitions Committee on 15 March 2010, described in part as the case for pardons as "strong and compelling".
In November 2010 a statement from the Ministry of Defence in the UK said that the appeal had been rejected.
"After detailed historical and legal consideration, the Secretary of State has concluded that no new primary evidence has come to light which supports the petition to overturn the original courts-martial verdicts and sentences," the statement said. The decision was supported by Australian military historian Craig Wilcox and by South African local historian Charles Leach, while Jim Unkles continues to campaign for a judicial inquiry