On this date in 1902, two Australian officers were shot in virtual secrecy at Pretoria for atrocities they committed in service of the crown during the Second Boer War.
Harry “Breaker” Morant — he got the nickname from his aptitude with horses — was the famous one of the pair and the reason the date is so well-known to posterity as to merit its own cinematic treatment (review):
A colorful son of the Commonwealth’s hardscrabble strata, Breaker Morant led a life that has been improved into mythology, not least by his own efforts. Impoverished but educated, he migrated in 1883 from England to Australia where he carved out a larger-than-life profile as a bush poet, married the (subsequently) famous anthropologist Daisy Bates and eventually — fatefully — volunteered for service in South Africa.
The Second Boer War, Britain’s (ultimately successful) fight to corral the Dutch-descended Boer republics into the empire, started sunnily enough for the English, but as the Boers abandoned a conventional war they could not win and adopted guerrilla tactics, it descended into an exceedingly dirty conflict — notable for Britain’s pioneering use of concentration camps.
It was also notable for savagery between combatants. When Morant’s best friend in the unit was tortured and mutilated by Boer guerrillas, the poet went on a rampage, ordering a number of prisoners’ summary executions over a period of weeks. It was for this that he and his confederate were shot this day. The fact of his confinement was not communicated to the Australian government; Peter Handcock’s wife only learned of his execution weeks later, from press reports.
The defendants maintained that there was a standing order from the top to kill any Boer caught wearing British khaki, a tactic the Boers were known to employ, and that the order was frequently enforced. Though the prosecution strenuously maintained otherwise at trial, the existence of that (unwritten) directive has become accepted to posterity.
What remains murky is the matter of why — why these two, why now? And is Breaker Morant a hero or a villain? Those questions are also prisms for the many currents of Morant’s case so strikingly prescient for the century that lay ahead.*
Asymmetric warfare and the legal status of guerrillas. Human rights and war crimes. Corruption and plausible deniability. The moral culpability of subordinates for the orders of the brass. And certainly all the contradictory forces of empire and resistance entailed by an Australian adventurer shot by a Scottish detachment for killing Dutchmen in Africa at the behest of London.** It was an old-time colonial war in a world becoming, for we of the early 21st century, recognizably modern.
Hard-living to his dying breath, Morant stayed up the night before he was shot scribbling his last poem — piquantly titled “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday”.
In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit – unhappy!
It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matter what “end” they decide –
Quick-lime or “b’iling ile,” sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen!
If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!
And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: “ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!”
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, –
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: “The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.”
His last words were hurled at his firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”
* It is no coincidence that the Australian film excerpted in this post was released while the Vietnam War was still a fresh memory.
** Breaker Morant’s memory would develop into a point of Australian suspicion towards the British military, especially after Morant’s persecutor helped author World War I’s infamous hecatomb of Australian (and New Zealand) troops at Gallipoli. Morant and Handcock turned out to be the last Australians executed by the British military.