A petition has been forwarded by the Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland to The Queen seeking the posthumous pardon of a British soldier who was charged with murder and executed during the Boer War more than a century ago.( “Queen petitioned for posthumous pardon for Harry 'Breaker' Morant” The Times OnLine, Sophie Tedmanson in Sydney 11 February)Harry “Breaker” Morant is described in the report as a bush poet, horse breaker and womaniser who became part of folklore for the events that led to his execution by firing squad in Pretoria in 1902.
Along with Peter Handcock, Morant was found guilty by a British court martial of killing prisoners of war in the final days of the war.
The Attorney-General Robert McClelland sent the petition, which called for pardons because of legal errors, from Commander James Unkles to the British Defence Minister. Commander Unkles, a lawyer in the Royal Australian Navy, was watching the film Breaker Morant when he concluded that the soldiers did not get a fair trial.
…myth of Morant the digger…
A letter was published in The Sydney Morning Herald 11/2 under the headline” Break the myth of Morant the digger”
In it, Christopher Jobson of Monash in the Australian Capital Territory asks:
“Can we for once get our history correct? Harry Morant and Peter Handcock were not Australian soldiers at the time of their relevant actions, and the subsequent courts martial and executions."
" Morant was a lance corporal in the South Australian Mounted Rifles when he went to South Africa, but there he joined a British unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, as an officer. The Carbineers was a unit on the British order of battle, not an Australian Army unit.”
“No Australian soldiers have been executed by the British; Morant and Handcock were tried and executed as British Army officers.”
Craig Wilcox, author of Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa, says Morant and Handcock should not be honoured with a pardon for their war crimes.( “ Historian says Morant does not deserve pardon” The Age 11 February 11, 2010)
"I've got a gloomy view of the man himself and his elevation as a folk hero. Those who don't share that view are blind to his crimes," the historian told The Age."Lining up civilians by the roadside and killing them, that's just not right."My gut reaction is that they shouldn't be pardoned."
No one is questioning the fact that both Morant and Handcock's killed prisoners. The petitioners argue that the convictions were unjust, partially because the soldiers' right to plea for mercy from an execution was denied and the recently created Australian government was not told of the trial until after they were both executed.
But Mr. Wilcox questions using today's legal analysis to understand court cases over 100 years old. Mr. Jobson points out they were not serving in an Australian unit.
Nick Bleszynski, who prepared the petition with military lawyer Commander James Unkles, says the pair were used as scapegoats by the British army and were only following orders."The issue isn't what he did or didn't do, but even a murderer in a democracy deserves justice," Mr Bleszynski told AAP.
"If you're going to condemn Morant and Handcock, then you have to condemn many others as well."According to Mr Bleszynski, Morant refused to kill prisoners until one of his friends, Lieutenant Percy Hunt, was killed and mutilated.
"Morant at that point decided, 'If that's how they want it, that's how they are going to get it'," he said.Morant was later arrested with Handcock and Lieutenant George Witton, whose sentence was commuted, for the murder of a missionary and 12 Boer prisoners.
The missionary was killed because he witnessed what the Bushveldt Carbineers were doing. Several federal politicians are supporting the petition, including the Senator Julian McGauran and David Hawker MP.