My next project in the “Law and Theater” series is Kenneth G. Ross’ play “Breaker Morant.” The play was also the basis for the 1980 film of the same name. The play is long out of print in the United States. It took me a long time to track down a used copy that wasn’t outrageously priced (go back and look at the link again).


As always, this post will give a brief introduction to the historical background to the play. Next week, I’ll discuss the play itself and some of the legal issues it brings up.


Brief Overview


The play is based on an event from the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). As the Wikipedia article on the trial states:


The court-martial of six officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC), an irregular British force in the Boer War, was based on charges asserting that, between July and September 1901, a Lieutenant Harry Morant had incited the co-accused, Lts. Handcock, Witton and others under his command to murder some twenty people, including the Boer commando Visser, a group of eight Boer POWs, Boer civilian adults and children, and the German missionary Heese.


The three main accused were Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton. Other officers charged were Major Robert Lenehan, Captain Alfred Taylor and Lieutenant Henry Picton.

Harry "Breaker" Morant (1864-1902). From Wikipedia.

Morant and Handcock were acquitted of killing Heese, but were sentenced to death on the other two charges and executed within days of sentencing. Their death warrants were personally signed by Lord Kitchener.


Origins of the Second Boer War


The origins of the Second Boer War date back to 1806, when British forces defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Blaauwberg and took control of the Cape Colony. As more British colonists arrived over the next few decades, many of the Dutch colonists (the Boers) began migrating northward to Natal. After the British annexed Natal in 1843, the Boers continued migrating northward and westward into the interior, eventually establishing two independent Boer republics, the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State.


The British attempted to annex the Transvaal in 1877, leading to the First Anglo-Boer War in 1880-1881. As a result of this conflict, the two Boer republics regained their independence, but tensions between the British and the Boers remained.


In 1871, diamonds were discovered in the Orange Free State. This was followed by the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886. Unfortunately, the Transvaal Republic lacked the infrastructure or manpower to fully develop these gold reserves. As a result, they were forced to accept an influx of foreign workers (“uitlanders”), further exacerbating the tensions between the British and the Boers.


Finally, in 1899, the governments of the United Kingdom and the Transvaal exchanged ultimatums. The British demanded full equality for the uitlanders in Transvaal, who by this time outnumbered the Boers. Transvaal demanded that the British remove all troops from the Transvaal border, or else both Boer republics would declare war. Both sides ignored the ultimatums, and Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war.


Guerilla War


The war went through three stages. In the first phase, from September 1899 through January 1900, the Boers launched pre-emptive strikes into Natal and the Cape Colony, besieging Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. Boer forces also won decisive victories over the British at Colenso, Magersfontein and Spionkop.


In the second phase of the war, from January to June 1900, reinforced British forces under Lord Roberts launched new offensives to relieve the sieges and invade the Transvaal. These offensives were successful, and Praetoria, the capital of Transvaal fell to the British in June.


The third phase of the war began in March 1900, while Lord Roberts’ offensive was still underway. Boer commandoes launched a protracted guerilla war. Lord Roberts retaliated by launching a “scorched earth” policy, burning Boer farms and crops, and placing Boer civilians in concentration camps. The goal of this campaign was to deprive Boer soldiers of their support and supply base.


In November 1900, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener succeeded Lord Roberts as commander of British forces in South Africa. Lord Kitchener expanded the “scorched earth” policy and the concentration camps. He also created a number of irregular units designed to fight the Boer on their own terms. One of these units was the Bushveldt Carbineers.


This phase of the war lasted for two more years. The war finally ended with Boer forces surrendering on May 31, 1902 and Boer delegates from both republics voting to accept the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under the terms of the treaty, the Boers agreed to lay down their arms, and the two republics were absorbed into the British Empire, with the promise of eventual limited self-government in the future.


Harry “Breaker” Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers


It was during the long third phase of the war that the court-martial and execution of Harry Morant took place. Morant (1864-1902) was a drover, horseman, and poet. It was claimed that he was the son of Admiral Sir George Digby Morant of the Royal Navy, but Sir George and his family denied this claim. Morant arrived in Australia in 1883, and over the following years made a name for himself as a fearless horseman and a hard-drinking bush poet.


In 1899, Morant volunteered for the Second Contingent of the South African Mounted Rifles. He eventually rose to the rank of sergeant in the Mounted Rifles, and served as a dispatch rider and war correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. After a six month leave in Devon, he returned to South Africa and accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers, at the urging of his friend, Captain Percy Hunt.


The Bushveldt Carbineers were one of the first “special forces” units, created by Lord Kitchener to engage in counter-insurgency operations against the Boers. It was a multinational force; approximately 130 of the regiment’s 320 men were Australian, another 40 or so were Boers recruited from the concentration camps. The regiment operated in the northern Transvaal between 1901 and 1902.


Discipline problems appear to have plagued the Carbineers, and attempts by Captain Hunt, Lieutenant Morant and Lieutenant Handcock to restore discipline at Fort Edward created a significant number of disaffected members of the unit. According to Lieutenant Witton, these disaffected soldiers were the source of many of the inflammatory stories about the unit published after the court-martial.


Captain Hunt’s Death and Morant’s Reprisals


On August 5, 1901, Captain Hunt led a force of 17 Carbineers and approximately 200 armed native African irregulars on a raid against a Boer farm. The intention was to capture the owner of the farm, a Boer commando leader named Barend Viljoen. The Boers surprised Hunt and his men as they approached the farmhouse. In the ensuing skirmish, Captain Hunt and Sergeant Frank Eland were killed. Viljoen and his brother Jacob were also killed.


Captain Hunt’s body was recovered the next day. It had been stripped and mutilated. Hunt’s death had a profound effect on Morant. According to Lieutenant Witton, Morant became like a man possessed. He vowed that the Carbineers would avenge his friend’s death.


At dusk on August 7, a force led by Morant engaged a force of Boers. Although most of the Boers escaped, the Carbineers captured one wounded Boer named Visser. Visser was wearing British khaki trousers, which Morant (wrongly) thought belonged to Hunt. Following what he believed to be Lord Kitchener’s standing orders that all Boers caught wearing items of British uniforms were to be executed, Morant held a drumhead court-martial, after which Visser was shot.


On August 23, 1901, Morant and a patrol from Fort Edward intercepted a group of eight Boer prisoners being brought in under guard. Morant had the prisoners taken to the side of the road and summarily executed. Prior to the execution, an African-born German missionary, Reverend (“Predikant”) C. H. D. Hesse spoke with the prisoners. Reportedly, he then left for Pietersburg to inform British authorities about Morant’s actions.


Approximately a week later, reports began to circulate that Hesse had been killed while on the road to Pietersberg. Morant dispatched a trooper from Fort Edward to search for the body. The trooper found the body two days later. Reverend Hesse had been shot from the front, apparently while driving his cart.


Lieutenants Handcock and Witton, and four other members of the Carbineers were arrested on October 24, 1901. Lieutenant Morant was arrested when he returned from leave shortly thereafter. Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with the murders of Visser and the eight unnamed Boers. Morant and Handcock were also charged with the murder of Hesse.


The court-martial began on January 16, 1902. Two hearings (in the Visser and “Eight Boers” cases) were held in Pietersburg. The defendants were then taken to Praetoria in irons for the Hesse case. Although Morant and Handcock were acquitted of Hesse’s murder, the three men were convicted on the other two charges and were sentenced to death. Lord Kitchener commuted Witton’s sentence to life imprisonment (he was released 28 months later), but signed the death warrants for Morant and Handcock personally. The two men were executed on February 27, 1902.


NEXT WEEK: A discussion of the play and the treatment of prisoners of war.

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About W. Lewis Black

W. Lewis Black is an associate attorney at Dunn & Dunn, P.C., located in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice focuses on personal injury, employment law, workers compensation, and Social Security Disability claims. He is a past member of the Ensemble at Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale, Utah. He can be contacted at
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  1. james unkles says:

    a very interesting review of the issues rasied in the play. For real life drama, have a look at the web site, and my work to have the convictions and sentences of Morant, Handcock and Witton reviewed on petiton to the Queen and by judicial inquiry through the Australian government.
    Lots of political intrigue as the British squirms under the revelations that I have made of orders given by the British to take no prisoners. The case for pardons that I have mounted contains serious legal issues, and details how these men failed to get fair trials according to military law of 1902

  2. Pingback: Law and Theater: "Breaker Morant" Part II (Trial Irregularities) | Black's Blawg

  3. Pingback: Law and Theater: "Breaker Morant" Part III (Treatment of P.O.W.s) | Black's Blawg

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