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Pardon me, but Breaker Morant was guilty

Pardoning Breaker Morant should not be a priority for the government. AAP Image/Australian War Memorial

Early in the New Year, while most of us were thinking about going to the beach or when it would be okay to consign those unwanted Christmas presents to a charity bin, Commander Jim Unkles of the Royal Australian Navy had something more important on his mind.

He announced to the media that he was tired of waiting for the federal government to press Britain’s Ministry of Defence to pardon three Australian soldiers punished for murdering unarmed captives. The previous Attorney General, Robert McClelland, seemed to get behind the case, but who could tell with his successor, the more dour Nicola Roxon? She should set aside her campaign for plain cigarette packaging, Jim Unkles boldly insisted, and get behind it too. After all, two of the soldiers had been executed, and their descendants were crying for justice.

It all sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? Our government setting aside an important reform to appeal to London for a pardon for two dead men who were executed so long ago we can talk about their descendants. But then you’ve heard of Harry Morant, or at least seen the beautiful, influential but hopelessly romantic film Bruce Beresford made about him in 1979, haven’t you?

In that case you’ve already had a brush with the legend of “Breaker” Morant — the one about the Byronic boozer and balladist, the bushman and Bushveldt Carbineer shot by the British army. Beresford and others hauled him from the grave and forcibly recruited him into their cultural war of independence against Australia’s former English masters. And it worked. “Next time I go to a cricket match”, one bloke vowed after watching the film, “I’m not going to throw empty beer cans at the Poms.”

But what was the real story of Breaker Morant? And what are his chances now, given a new attorney general, for a very belated pardon?

The Bushveldt Carbineers were garrison troops, not frontline soldiers, in the Boer War of 1899-1902. One of their duties was to escort white men and boys into town to hand in any weapons and sign oaths of loyalty to the new order. It was these men and boys whom some in regiment began to disarm and kill. At first they acted at the urging of a military intelligence officer called Taylor; only later did Morant take the lead. Taylor and Morant said there were orders justifying the murders but, as one soldier later said, only the “very green” believed them. If there were orders, why did another officer, Peter Handcock from Bathurst, kill a German missionary and one of his own men so word of what was happening wouldn’t get out?

But word got out anyway. Sickened by the bloodshed and worried they might take the rap, some soldiers eventually turned their officers in. Morant and the others were arrested, gaoled, hauled up before an inquiry, then court martialled. An English lieutenant was merely cashiered, and simply by denying everything Taylor escaped scot free. Morant and Handcock ended up in front of a firing squad — inside a gaol in a large town, not in the middle of nowhere as the film would have it. A third officer, George Witton from Gippsland, was gaoled.

Some Australians were uneasy that the British army had punished these men. Still, they’d belonged to a British regiment, not an Australian one, and Morant had never considered himself Australian anyway. As news came out about the murders a consensus grew — shaped by a noisy campaign by Witton’s family — that Morant and Handcock deserved their fate but Witton didn’t. He was soon out of gaol, and the affair was forgotten until that cultural war of independence.

Jim Unkles has been pointing to shortcomings in the court martial for several years now. He is hardly the first to do so. But the guilty verdicts were the consequence of real crimes that could not be denied. The arguments put by the accused — merely following orders, merely avenging enemy barbarities, merely doing what other soldiers were secretly doing — were as bogus as they were inconsistent. Just because Taylor and some others escaped punishment, how did that make Morant, Handcock and Witton any less guilty? Anyway, military justice was exemplary eleven decades ago, punishing some soldiers for the, well, let’s say edification of the rest of the army.

Still, Jim Unkles is pressing Nicola Roxon and Britain’s Ministry of Defence to focus on legal shortfalls alone. If the trial and preceding inquiry didn’t strictly follow the rule book, he argues, then Morant and the others must be pardoned, however belatedly. But with no known transcript of trial or inquiry, how can we be sure — to a legal standard — of exactly what took place and why? Anyway, what message does it send if a government ignores a war crime to promote official rehabilitation of the perpetrators?

And what signal would go out to our soldiers today? That taking out unarmed civilians isn’t so bad after all, if you can somehow pass the buck to the Brits, the Americans or whoever?

Will Nicola Roxon do as Jim Unkles asks? A politician from the left, who used to be a union organiser and associate to Justice Mary Gaudron might look somewhat askance at whitewashing war criminals. But don’t discount the lingering power of the Morant legend. Politicians are busy people, with too little time to read enough history to counter lingering lies about the past.

But they do glance at the polls, and Jim Unkles insists ordinary Australians are as impatient as he is to rehabilitate Morant. Not to mention the descendants, though there can’t be too many of them, given neither Morant nor Witton had children.

There’s another constituency to consider, even if it’s offstage at present. The real victims in the Morant affair were the thirty or more unarmed South African men and teenagers, black as well as white, killed by the Bushveldt Carbineers, whose descendants number in the hundreds.

Some are watching carefully to see how our attorney general reacts. If they can find a sympathetic television station or documentary maker, they might move to centre stage — with interesting consequences for everyone.

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