Fifty Australians - Breaker Morant

A poet and soldier, Morant was executed for murdering Boer prisoners. Debate over the fairness of the trial and execution was revived in 1980 by the popular film Breaker Morant, and still continues.

Lieutenant Harry Harbord Morant (1864–1902)

Breaker Morant is famous for the manner of his death, but little is known of his birth. He claimed to be the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of Devon but it is likely that he was Edwin Murrant, who married Daisy May O’Dwyer at Charters Towers, Queensland, in 1884. Murrant’s wife soon left him; as Daisy Bates she went on to achieve her own fame for her work among Aborigines.

A charming but reckless man, Morant established a reputation as a rider, polo player and writer. He submitted ballads to the Sydney Bulletin that were published under the name “The Breaker”. One popular poem was “Who’s riding old Harlequin now?”

A demon to handle! A devil to ride!
Small wonder the surcingle burst;
You’d have thought that he’d buck himself out of his hide
On the morning we saddled him first.
I can mind how he cow-kicked the spur of my boot,
And though that’s long ago, still I vow
If they’re wheeling a piker no new-chum galoot
Is a-riding old Harlequin now!

When appeals were made for horsemen to serve in the war in South Africa, Morant joined the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles. After a year’s active service he went to Britain before returning to the war, where he was commissioned in a South African irregular unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers.

Eventually Morant and two other Australians, Lieutenants Peter Handcock and George Witton, were arrested and tried for the murder of 12 Boer prisoners. Found guilty at their court martial, Morant and Handcock were executed in February 1902. Defenders of the two men still claim they acted on orders, that they were made scapegoats by the British Army, and that they did not receive a fair trial.

Morant has sometimes been depicted as an Australian hero. But while he may have been brave, he was guilty of a war crime and so offers a poor model for a hero; shooting prisoners is not heroic.

Breaker Morant, 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles

Officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers in South Africa. Lieutenants Handcock (far left) and Morant (with dog) were executed together in 1902.