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News - Date: 26 November 2010
Written by: Linda van der Westhuizen / Viewed: 571
Australia’s attempt to gain a royal pardon for three Australians who were court-marshalled in the Anglo Boer War was rejected by the British Government.
Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock fought for Britain in the Bushveld Carbineers (BVC) unit, also in the Soutpansberg area near Louis Trichardt. They were executed before a firing squad in 1902 after they had killed 12 prisoners of war and a German missionary, Rev Heese, who was a witness to the murders. A third BVC soldier, Lieutenant George Witton, was sentenced to death but his penalty was reduced to life imprisonment and he was freed in 1904. Witton’s book Scapegoats of the Empire contributed to giving Morant legendary status, especially after the film Breaker Morant, based on the book, was released in 1980.
After a visit to the Soutpansberg, Craig Wilcox of Australia wrote in 2007 about the “bogus legend of Breaker Morant”.
A killer’s tale murdered the truth was the title of his article, referring to Witton´s book that, according to him, contained many blatant inaccuracies. Local historian Charles Leach agreed with his view. Leach had done some intensive research on the Breaker Morant story over the past six or seven years.
Leach came up with damning evidence that the number of murders by the BVC soldiers was not 12 but at least 34. Children had been murdered in cold blood, as well as many black touleiers (camp attendants) who helped the Boer soldiers.
“From a South African point of view, I cannot see how officers and soldiers can be pardoned for the murder of at least 34 civilians. Does that make them innocent if there were flaws in the court marshal procedures? Does that warrant a pardon? Does Australia want to uphold self-confessed murderers?” Leach asked earlier this year, when the now famous Cdr Jim Unkles and author Nic Bleszynski visited the Soutpansberg on March 31 and April 1. They were accompanied by the renowned Australian Channel Nine crew.
Australian Naval prosecutor Commander Unkles was the driving force behind the attempt to get Britain to pardon the Australians. His action was also on behalf of the descendants of Morant and the others. Unkles said that Morant, Handcock and Witton were not tried in accordance with the law of 1902 and had suffered injustice.
“They were denied the right to communicate with the Australian government, refused an opportunity to prepare their cases and blocked from lodging an appeal,” Unkles said.
A British Ministry of Defence spokesman released a statement on the petition two weeks ago. He confirmed that Defence Secretary Liam Fox had received a petition seeking a review of the convictions and sentences of the three men.
"After detailed historical and legal consideration, the Secretary of State has concluded that no new primary evidence has come to light which supports the petition to overturn the original courts-martial verdicts and sentences," the statement said (www. Adelaidenow.com.au).
In April, Cdr Unkles told Ms Inga Gilfillan, who is responsible for the local Anglo Boer War museum at the Lalapanzi Hotel, that they would be back for the pardon party.
“We actually feel like throwing a non-pardon party and inviting all. We are pleased that Britain did not pardon Morant and the others. When you stand at the graves of the civilians and children that they murdered, you know that the Queen could not have decided to pardon them. Their execution was justified,” Gilfillan said. She added that they hoped that the Australians would still come and visit them and was happy to announce that an Australian military group has booked for July next year.
Charles Leach said this week that he was absolutely delighted that the pardon request had been rejected.
“After 108 years, truth has prevailed and we hope that the world will now listen to the South African side of the story,” Leach said.
In the meantime, Cdr Unkles is not giving up the fight and will be seeking a judicial review in the UK.
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Linda van der Westhuizen has been with Zoutnet since 2001. She has a heart for God, people and their stories. Linda believes that every person is unique and has a special story to tell. It follows logically that human interest stories is her speciality. Linda finds working with people and their leaders in the economic, educational, spiritual and political arena very rewarding. “I have a special interest in what God is doing in our town, province and nation and what He wants us to become,” says Linda.