Academic journal article Film & History

Say Who Made Her So: Breaker Morant and British Empire

Academic journal article Film & History

Say Who Made Her So: Breaker Morant and British Empire

Article excerpt

In the early morning of February 27, 1902, on a windy, barren hill in the Transvaal region of South Africa, Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter J. Handcock, serving in what is now known as the South African War,1 were shot by a British firing squad. The third convict, Lieutenant George Witton, was also sentenced to die, but he was given a last-minute commutation to life imprisonment and was then released five years later. What reads like fiction accurately describes the historical military execution of Morant and Handcock, officers in the British Imperial fighting unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers. Less than 24 hours earlier, the officers had been found guilty by the British Military court of fatally shooting 14 Boer prisoners.

Over the last century, the court-martial2 many people know today simply as the case of Breaker Morant has become one of the most contested in modern military history, despite its having occurred in a remote area of Africa during the tail end of a mostly unremembered war. This relatively insignificant episode has inspired more than a dozen books and articles, and served as the subject of a play and of Bruce Beresford's 1980 docu-drama classic, Breaker Morant.

Why do historians and other interested parties continue to challenge the facts and issues of this case? Most likely because the courts -marti al of Morant and two of his fellow Carbineers remain compelling detective stories, full of lingering questions concerning the true identities of the parties involved, the guilt of the accused, and the conduct and motives of British officialdom in the case. Moreover, national identities on several sides play a significant part in the complex scenario. The most cogent, accurate, and wide-ranging article on the subject is Hallman B. Bryant's '"Breaker Morant' in Fact, Fiction and Film." But in the more than 12 years since research for Bryant's article was completed, new and important scholarship on Breaker has appeared, by Elizabeth J. Birmingham, Larry Bridges, and Adam Henry, in addition to several documents issued by the Australian War Memorial and the premier booklength treatment of the subject, Arthur Davey's Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers. The twists and turns of the labyrinthine case prove too numerous to encapsulate within a single article. But, using the most recent scholarship, this article offers a new synthesis of the available historical data, explaining how and why the events unfolded as they did. The article also explains why Beresford's film continues to present a relevant and compelling portrait of the perennial challenges of leadership in counter-guerrilla warfare.

To some degree, the intrigue and the cloudiness of the event stem from the conflicting portrayals of Morant and the Boer War. Beresford, perhaps not wanting to deal with thorny character issues, skips over Morant's earliest roots and begins the story in media res, just as the court martial opens. The director then flashes back to incidents pertinent to the trial. But Morant's background is more relevant than the film suggests. Harry Morant - nicknamed "Breaker" in Australia because of his preWar reputation for breaking wild horses - proved in life to be as mysterious as he has become since his death. He was born Edwin Harry Murrant, the son of a workhouse master, in Bridgewater, Somerset, England.3 Yet neither a birth certificate nor baptismal records of Morant in and around Devon, where Breaker claims to have been born, can be located. Of course, the county holds no records of concealed births (if the birth had been illegitimate, for example), and Morant may not have been baptized. In any case, Morant's writings, as well as several other narrative accounts, reveal a man who, at minimum, possessed enough formal education to have elevated his mannerisms, language, and stature. Kit Denton, in his book Closed File, notes that Morant's poetry, letters, and other writings "show a command of the language which surely. …

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