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First published in The Age on May 25, 1988
The ‘Breaker’ rides free from the Burra retrial
Harry “the Breaker” Morant was innocent, according to an unofficial “retrial” held in Burra in the mid-north of South Australia last night. The verdict caused wild celebrations in the town.
Australian Private Harry “Breaker” Morant, ca. 1900Credit: Australian War Memorial
Three country justices of the peace acting as judges in a rerun of Morant’s court-martial, rejected the official “guilty” verdict of one of British military history’s most controversial trials.
They said that as there was “an element of doubt” about whether Morant was acting on orders when he authorised the shooting of nine Boer prisoners, the verdict had to be not guilty. They also found two Australian soldiers who were convicted with Morant not guilty.
A crowd of about 500 gathered in Burra’s town hall for the retrial which organisers said was not a mere re-enactment. On a popular vote, the crowd also gave a verdict of not guilty, with less than a quarter favouring a guilty verdict.
The retrial, in which local citizens played the accused and witnesses, including Lord Kitchener, was run largely on normal court procedures, though there were touches of theatricality as the public responded with applause to some of the testimony.
The poet, horse-breaker and soldier Lieutenant Harry “the Breaker” Morant and Australian lieutenants Peter Handcock and George Witton, found guilty by a British court martial of murdering nine Boer prisoners in South Africa 86 years ago, gained their second chance thanks to a local farmer, Mr David Jennings.
An undated photo shows officers involved in the Breaker Morant case: left to right: Lieutenant Handcock, Lieutenant Morant, Surgeon Johnson, Captains Hunt, Taylor and Picton.
In 1902 Morant and Bandcock were executed while Witton was jailed for life, but later released.
Mr Jennings, who has long believed passionately in Morants innocence, acted as the defence counsel, and said that the three men were scapegoats of Queen Victoria’s empire.
Opening the retrial, with evidence not presented at the original court martial, Mr Jennings said that it was the first occasion on which all available evidence about the events on the Transvaal in 1901 had been presented in the same place at the same time.
Much of the testimony last night centred on whether Morant and his co-accused were acting with due authority when they authorised the shooting.
Opponents and supporters of Morant and Handcock have argued for years whether they were war criminals or whether Lord Kitchener, the British commander in South Africa, manipulated the trial so that the three soldiers could be used as scapegoats in a war that seemed about to end.
However, crucial new defence evidence — a statutory declaration from a retired colonel, Mr Allan (Leonard) Heron, of Kedron in Queensland, about statements by his late grandfather, Colonel George Heron – was ruled inadmissible because it did not bear a duty stamp. Colonel Heron was a member of Lord Kitchener’s staff.
A local police sergeant, Kevin Nitschke, who prosecuted last night, told the court it was clears that Morant had ordered the killings and that he was acting emotionally after the death, at the hands of the Boers, of his superior officer, Captain Hunt.
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