Grievance Debate: Harry 'Breaker' Morant

 Monday, March 15

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (8.28 pm)—I rise in this parliament today to use the time allotted to me to speak about the myth, the legend and the grievance of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and his compatriots who were executed under British courts martial about 108 years ago in the Boer War.

Today in the Petitions Committee of the parliament we had the opportunity to examine these matters. We had witnesses who were direct descendants of the fellows who were executed and we had expert witnesses all speaking in relation to a petition brought before the House recently. I will briefly read the key requests of that petition.

The petitioners are asking the House to make representations to the British Crown and seek a review of the convictions and sentences of Morant, Handcock and Witton, seek a British Crown pardon for Morant, Handcock and Witton with respect to the offences of which they were convicted and seek commutation of the death sentences imposed on Morant and Handcock.

That is a serious set of requests from people who have explored, researched and thoroughly delved into this controversial and often difficult issue for historians and people alike. However, I want to rise tonight to record my sympathy for these petitioners and my sympathy for some form of redress of the events that happened 108 years ago in South Africa.

On 26 February 1902, Morant and Handcock were convicted under a British courts martial system for killing Boer prisoners and consequently sentenced to death. They faced a firing squad on 27 February. George Witton, who was convicted of the same crime, had his death sentence commuted to life in prison. He was released from prison in 1905 without a pardon after the British House of Commons overturned his sentence. Witton subsequently released a controversial book in 1907 entitled Scapegoats of the Empire.

I want to come back to this notion shortly about a pardon and the British House of Commons overturning sentences. The questions I want to raise tonight include: how do we judge historical figures and their actions from our own contemporary values and morality? I believe that with any examination of our history we often have to look beyond our own preconceptions. We have to accept that what we have learned as myths or folklore might not pass a critical examination of the facts. We must also ask whether all of the facts are available to us—do we all know enough to judge a person? Are we indeed judging the conduct of someone according to their own standards or the standards of their time or our time?

I think in an examination of this issue the current debate regarding a pardon for Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton stirs passion amongst many Australians one way or the other, throughout our community and my community of Mitchell. There is in my view serious and compelling evidence that some form of redress should be given all these years later to those men executed by the British.

In recent times the Australian Parliament has passed a law confirming that no state or territory can provide for the death penalty in this country, which I think is a proper and worthy piece of legislation. I think that we all stand united against the use of the death penalty in civilised society. Certainly in relation to the Defence Act 1903, which was passed into law shortly after this incident with Breaker Morant, the Australian government and the Australian parliament took the view

that no Australian could be executed without reference to the Governor-General and therefore the Prime Minister.

So since this incident there has not been a case of an Australian military service person being executed. The 1903 Defence Act was very important in preventing the deaths of many Australian service personnel in World War I, unlike the many soldiers from other countries, such as Ireland, Canada and indeed the United Kingdom, who were shot and executed for desertion and other matters that have subsequently been the subject of pardons from the British government in recent years.

Without going through all the background of the case itself, there are certainly some conflicts in relation to the facts. Today’s popular image of Breaker Morant is that of a charismatic figure, as portrayed by Edward Woodward in the film of the same name, Breaker Morant—an expert horseman, a soldier of the empire who was caught up in not only a conflict against a ruthless enemy in the Boers but also a conflict of orders and a conflict of morality in warfare. Certainly many people have said that the Boer War was one of the first examples of guerrilla warfare in Western experience.

Indeed, as a young officer in the Army Reserve myself, in the 1/15th Lancers, I know that troopers in my regiment were on their way to and from England and jumped ship and the joined the Boer War, without permission as well, so I certainly have a lot of sympathy for young Australian people in the theatre who were of course struggling with a very difficult war in which guerrilla tactics had become common, in which the Boers had obtained a supremacy over the English over a period of time and in which of course, as in all wars, there was brutality on both sides and much death and conflict.

What stands out about this case and where I think this comes into focus for the Australian parliament and indeed for us as a nation is that without any reference to the Australian government or any Australian legal process, the two men, Morant and Handcock, were executed by the British, without appeal. There has been much contention about the trial and many of the circumstances surrounding the trial. Since the Defence Act 1903, of course that has not been the case and so, looking back at the facts of this case, there are only three ways that pardons can be obtained at military law and they are as the result of the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, by statutory pardon and by a term called condonation. The royal prerogative of mercy is of course a power vested in the Queen, and indeed in this petition that has been presented to us there is a request for the exercise of that power to overturn the convictions completely.

Some standards are applied to the granting of pardons. Those standards include that the responsible minister has to be satisfied that the convicted person was morally and technically innocent of the offence and there is no remaining avenue of appeal against conviction, or that the convicted person was morally and technically innocent of the offence and there are exceptional circumstances justifying the grant of the pardon, despite the failure to meet the first ground, taking into account the need to respect the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.

Statutory pardons have been more common in the UK parliament. On 18 September 2006, the UK Secretary of State for Defence confirmed the UK government’s plan to seek statutory pardons for service personnel executed for a range of offences during the First World War. This has been the common mechanism to redress foreign powers’ complaints about the treatment of their soldiers by the British in the First World War. Indeed, many were executed by the British, even though there were well-documented cases of shell shock and other legitimate reasons that a person might have sought to leave a battlefield. The British pardoned a number of Irish, Canadian and British personnel.

A statutory pardon does not overturn the original conviction, which I think is important and significant in relation to this petition and this case. The parliament can issue the statutory pardon, but the conviction is not overturned. It will not rewrite the events of 108 years ago, but the stigma and dishonour of the original offence and execution will be removed.

The third avenue for a pardon is that of condonation, which is a military term. There is some argument that it could be applied in this case, as two of the people, Breaker Morant and Handcock, were let out of prison to fight against the Boers while they were on trial. That is what condonation relates to—if the subsequent activities of the person on charges ameliorate the original circumstances, whatever they might be.

It was compelling today to listen to the direct descendants of these men and hear all the different arguments for and against a pardon. I think there is something in this petition and there is something in this legend. All those years ago, these Australians, who were very low level in the military, were in one sense made scapegoats for a broader policy. There is no doubt that activities went on in the Boer War that were undesirable, unpleasant and, by modern standards, unacceptable. But I am certain they were not only performed by lieutenants Morant and Handcock of the Australian colonial forces. I am certain that there were other people who committed those acts and were not prosecuted. I am also certain that the last words of Breaker Morant, ‘Shoot straight, you bastards—don’t make a mess of it,’ will continue to echo across the era, because Great Britain did make a mess of the trial. And the fact that the trial was not conducted properly means there is an avenue for redress of those convictions.