Thursday, October 19, 2023



The Austral 'light'

- Harry "The Breaker" Morant


Back in 2012 I posted a Bytes item about Harry “Breaker” Morant, an Australian soldier born in England and executed by the Brits during the Boer War for murdering prisoners and civilians. You can read that post by clicking on:

It makes interesting reading and is worth a visit.

Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant
(1864 – 1902)

Some brief facts:

Born in England, Morant arrived in Australia in 1883 and became a roustabout, his skill with horses earning him the nickname “The Breaker” or just “Breaker”.

Fearless, hard-drinking, womanising, a bush poet and a larrikin, he worked at various times as a roustabout, horse trader, newspaper writer, and a bookkeeper and storeman on a cattle station.

In 1884 Morant married Daisy May O’Dwyer. The couple separated soon after the marriage but they never formally divorced. Known subsequently as Daisy Bates by virtue of a secret but bigamous marriage, Daisy later became a well known anthropologist and activist for aboriginal rights. Daisy reportedly threw Breaker out for not paying for the wedding and for stealing some pigs and a saddle.

After the marriage, Morant worked as a drover and horse-breaker for 5 years. He continued submitting poetry to the Bulletin magazine and was acquainted with Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson.

In 1899 Morant enlisted to take part in the Second Boer War in South Africa, Britain being at war with the Boers, the Dutch settlers of the two independent Boer republics. He was appointed a lance-corporal and sailed to South Africa in 1900. His horsemanship, bush skill and educated manner saw him rise in the ranks to become a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers (“BVC”).

Boer strategy was to strike in guerrilla raids. The word “commando” comes from the Afrikaans word “Kommando”, meaning “mobile infantry [at that time by horse] regiment”. In response to commando raids and attacks, and to counter them, Lord Kitchener, the British commander in South Africa, deployed irregular units including the BVC.

Following the death of his commanding officer, Captain Hunt, in a Boer engagement at which Morant was not present, Morant reportedly became upset and disturbed. When setting out to hunt down the Boers responsible, he vowed to avenge the death and to take no prisoners.

Morant was arrested and court-martialled for committing murder on active service – one of the first such prosecutions in British military history. According to military prosecutors, Morant retaliated for the death in combat of his commanding officer with a series of revenge killings against both Boer POWs and civilian residents of the Northern Transvaal.

Morant's defence attorney, Major James Francis Thomas, demanded the acquittal of his clients under what is now called the Nuremberg Defence, alleging that his clients could not be held legally or morally responsible because they only followed orders.

Morant and Lieutenant Peter Handcock were found guilty of the murder of a wounded POW, a further eight victims at Elim Hospital, and three others. They were executed by firing squad in 1902.

Both men refused blindfolds at their execution. Morant’s last words were "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!" A contemporary report (from The Argus 3 April 1902) however has his last words as "Take this thing (the blindfold) off", and on its removal, "Be sure and make a good job of it!"

Morant and Handcock have become folk heroes in modern Australia, representing a turning point for Australians' self-determination and independence from British rule.

The story has been the subject of a 1980 Bruce Beresford film

Some modern Australians regard Morant and Handcock as scapegoats or even as victims of judicial murder. They continue to attempt, with some public support, to obtain a posthumous pardon or even a new trial.

Read more about Breaker Morant in other Bytes posts by clicking on:



The following 1897 poem by Breaker Morant is from The Bulletin and predates his participation in the Boer War.

The Austral 'light'

We were standing by the fireside at the pub one wintry night
Drinking grog and 'pitching fairies' while the lengthening hours took flight,
And a stranger there was present, one who seemed quite city-bred---
There was little showed about him to denote him 'mulga-fed'.

For he wore a four-inch collar, tucked up pants, and boots of tan---
You might take him for a new-chum, or a Sydney city man---
But in spite of cuff or collar, Lord! he gave himself away
When he cut and rubbed a pipe full and had filled his coloured clay.

For he never asked for matches--although in that boozing band
There was more than one man standing with a matchbox in his hand;
And I knew him for a bushman 'spite his tailor-made attire'.
As I saw him stoop and fossick for a fire-stick from the fire.

And that mode of weed-ignition to my memory brough back
Long nights when nags were hobbled on a far North-western track;
Recalled campfires in the timber, when the stars shone big and bright,
And we learned the matchless virtues of a glowing gidgee light.

And I thought of piney sand-ridges---and somehow I could swear
That this tailor-made johnny had at one time been 'out there'.
And as he blew the white ash from the tapering, glowing coal,
Faith! my heart went out towards him for a kindred country soul.

Harry Morant (The Breaker)

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