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Morant, Harry Harbord (Breaker) (1864–1902)

by R. K. Todd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Harry Harbord Morant (1864-1902), by unknown photographer

Harry Harbord Morant (1864-1902), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, A05311

Harry Harbord (Breaker) Morant (1864?-1902), horseman, balladist and soldier, was born probably on 9 December 1864 at Bridgwater, Somerset, England. He arrived at Townsville, Queensland, on 1 April 1883. He later claimed to be the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of Bideford, Devon, and to have entered the Royal Naval College.

On 13 March 1884, at Charters Towers, Edwin Henry Murrant, son of Edwin Murrant, and his wife Catherine, née O'Reilly, married Daisy May O'Dwyer. It is almost certain that he was Morant, then a groom at Fanning Downs station, and that she was Daisy Bates. After being acquitted of a charge of stealing pigs and a saddle, he separated from her and went to Winton, later overlanding cattle south.

Acquiring a reputation as horse-breaker, drover, steeplechaser, polo player, drinker and womanizer, from 1891 he contributed bush ballads to the Sydney Bulletin as 'the Breaker'. When the South African War broke out in 1899 he enlisted in Adelaide in the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles, as Harry Harbord Morant.

In South Africa Morant's skill as a horseman was soon well known, and having qualities of education and manners he was engaged as a dispatch rider by General French, and later worked with Bennett Burleigh, a British war correspondent. At the end of his one-year enlistment he received good reports and accepted but did not take up a commission in Baden Powell's South African Constabulary. He went to England, and is supposed to have been welcomed into society and to have become engaged. Becoming close friends with Captain Percy Hunt, who had also served in the war, he followed him back to South Africa in March 1901. In changed conditions, irregular units were formed to counter Boer guerillas. One such, the Bush Veldt Carbineers, formed at Pietersburg, north of Pretoria, was composed largely of time-served colonials, but was not an Australian formation. Its commander, Major R. W. Lenehan, commissioned Morant and sent him into the Strydpoort area south-east of Pietersburg where he served with distinction.

To the north, known as the Spelonken, the British commander, Captain Robertson, was weak, and Captain Taylor, an intelligence officer from Rhodesia, a man of sadistic brutality. When six Boers came into Fort Edward wishing to surrender, they were shot by the B.V.C. Not long afterwards a B.V.C. patrol led by Lieutenant P. J. Handcock returned with one of its number, Van Buuren, a turncoat Boer, mysteriously shot. There was also insubordination and looting by some troopers and Robertson was recalled. Hunt was posted to Fort Edward, to be joined by Morant and Lieutenants Picton and Witton. On patrol on 4 August 1901 Hunt was mortally wounded. Some mutilation was done to the body, and clothing taken. There is evidence that Africans, not Boers, may have been responsible for the atrocities, but Morant, now in command, morose and incensed, encouraged by Taylor, became bent on vengeance. He led a patrol after the Boers, and caught up with them late in the evening.

Because of his premature order to attack, all but one, Visser, wounded in the ankle, got away. Morant wanted to shoot Visser immediately, but was dissuaded. The patrol next morning returned some distance towards Fort Edward, and on 11 August Visser was shot. Morant had alleged that Visser was wearing some of Hunt's clothing, but the evidence is to the contrary. Then eight Boers approaching Fort Edward to surrender were met by a patrol led by Morant and including Handcock. The Boers were spoken to by a passing missionary, Rev. C. A. D. Heese, a British subject of German extraction who attempted to reassure them, but on 23 August Morant had them shot. Heese left, rejecting Morant's advice not to go on to Pietersburg alone. Morant then spoke to Taylor, and Handcock rode out.

Later, Heese was rumoured killed, and Handcock reported finding his body. On 7 September Morant, Handcock and two others shot three Boers coming in to surrender. Morant then led a successful patrol to capture alive an Irish-Boer leader, Kelly. After leave in Pretoria he returned to the Spelonken but on 22 October was, with Lenehan, Taylor, Picton, Witton and others, arrested.

A court of inquiry dragged on until on 15 January 1902 when charges were laid. Morant was charged with inciting various persons to kill Visser, the eight Boers, the three Boers, and Heese. Major J. F. Thomas, a solicitor from Tenterfield, New South Wales, was ordered at short notice to represent the accused and on 17 January the trial in relation to Visser began. On 23 January Boers attacked the blockhouses at Pietersburg where the court martial was taking place. Morant, Handcock and others were recalled to service and helped to beat off the attack. The hearing then continued. The existence of orders to take no prisoners, and the difficulties of guerilla warfare, were pleaded.

On 1 February the case of the eight Boers commenced. As in the first case, no finding was pronounced, nor was it after the next hearing, in relation to the three Boers. At the trial in relation to the missionary, Handcock, who was charged with and had originally confessed to the murder, gave an alibi. He claimed to have visited two Boer ladies at their farms on the day in question, and they corroborated his story. But other evidence leaves an irresistible inference that Heese was murdered at Morant's instigation. In 1929 Witton informed Thomas that Handcock had confessed the murder of Heese to Witton, and had implicated Morant as the instigator of 'a most premeditated and cold blooded affair'. The alibi was, however, accepted and acquittals pronounced on this charge.

Morant was convicted on each other charge, and sentenced to death, although the court recommended mercy on the grounds of provocation, good service and want of military experience. On 26 February Morant and Handcock were informed that they would be shot in the morning. Thomas in desperation sought to see Lord Kitchener, but he had gone out on trek. The sentences were duly carried out, and bravely endured, Handcock and Morant being shot by firing squad on 27 February in Pretoria. After Morant's execution Admiral Morant denied he was his father. The Defence Act (1903), limiting the offences for which sentence of death could be imposed by court-martial, and requiring such sentence to be confirmed by the governor-general, perhaps reflected public concern over the executions.

Probably the charge of which Morant was acquitted was the impetus for his execution. The acquittal, while certainly open on the evidence, is with hindsight and in the light of additional evidence best supported by the defence of condonation, based on the call to service during the attack on Pietersburg. That defence would not have had to deny what is now virtually undoubted, namely Morant's reprehensible incitement of the homicide of an innocent civilian. The defences put in the other cases were rightly rejected. Even if an order to take no prisoners had been lawfully given, the deaths of the Boers, who had ceased to resist and been taken prisoner, did not occur in pursuance of such an order. As folk hero he should be rejected, but he may be accepted as a man of many talents who, under the influence of weak or sadistic peers, was corrupted by the brutality of war.

The film Breaker Morant was released in 1980.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Renar [Fox], Bushman and Buccaneer (Syd, 1902)
  • G. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire (Melb, 1907, 1982)
  • R. Kruger, Goodbye Dolly Gray (Lond, 1959)
  • G. Jenkin, Songs of the Breaker (Adel, 1960)
  • F. M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant (Syd, 1962)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • M. Carnegie and F. Shields, In Search of Breaker Morant (Melb, 1979)
  • K. Denton, Closed File (Syd, 1983)
  • Northern Miner, 14 Apr 1902
  • personal records, 83/120 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

R. K. Todd, 'Morant, Harry Harbord (Breaker) (1864–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morant-harry-harbord-breaker-7649/text13377, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 4 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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