Scapegoats of Empire?

No chance had he to win the cross of honour
No mighty empire echoed with his name
He did not leave a record, kindly, helpful,
A pure untarnished name

– Poem on gravestone of Gnr. L. M. Juster who died of wounds in France on 16th July 1917, aged 20 years.

Title page of George Witton’s account held in Fryer Library UQ

I acknowledge the frontier wars and my grandfather’s uncle Montague Curr’s role in war crimes in far north Queensland in April 1881. Montague Curr (b 1837) murdered five aboriginal people near ‘Kamilleroi Station’ on the Leichhardt River in the Gulf.

Like my ancestor Montague Curr, Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was a drover, bushman and war criminal.  They both lived around the Charters Towers district in the 1880s. Morant was a groomsman at Fanning Downs Station and Montague lived at Merri Merri Wah and Gilgunyah stations not that far away. Morant married the famous Daisy Bates who left her new husband not long after their marriage. Daisy Bates took up journalism as a career and spent a lot of her life championing the cause of aboriginal people.

Some worrying signs of Harry Morant’s character appeared early on in his travels around Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Those who knew him well, however, revealed darker aspects of the Breaker’s nature. Two young sons of a rancher for whom Morant had worked in Australia later recalled their fear of him, claiming he regularly abused aboriginal ranch hands. One close friend observed that when sober, the lieutenant presented a polished manner, but when drunk, he repelled polite society.

After appeals were made for horsemen to serve in the war in South Africa, Morant joined the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles to fight for empire against the Boer farmers who had trekked to the Transvaal and settled on land that Britain wanted.

Map of Curr Family properties 1865-1925. The family had interests in the following stations: Miranda Downs, Vena Park, Iffley, Rutland Plains, Delta, Maggieville, Kamilleroi, Midlothian, Gilgunya, Merri Merriwah and Abingdon Downs.

Over 16,000 Australians served in that war, including a great uncle, Hubert Curr, who was an army volunteer in 1902.  Family history says Hubert ‘was in forty engagements and never sustained an injury’*.  Nevertheless there were about there were about 600 Australian casualties and deaths in that war.

Hubert served as a sergeant in the New South Wales Citizen Bushmen whereas Morant served in the Bushveldt Carbineers.

Both Morant and Curr were excellent horsemen and good shots. Both served as irregular troops under British command which was generally resented both then and in the first world war where Hubert’s cousin Julius Montague Curr was killed in France. Another relative, Ted Curr, from Murrumbogie (big water hole) station near Parkes in NSW was shot and gassed in the first war.

In 1902, a court martial found Morant, Handcock and Witton guilty of war crimes. Harry Morant and Peter Handcock were summarily executed. Lord Kitchener ordered their death by firing squad probably because Morant had incited a younger George Witton to murder a passing missionary, a witness to earlier revenge killings of Boer prisoners by the Bushveldt Carbineers. Both Morant, Handcock and Witton were acquitted of the murder of the Rev. C. A. D. Heese, a British citizen of German descent. Some Boer women had given them false alibis.

Witton later wrote Scapegoats of the Empire. Over a quarter later, in 1929, Witton informed their former defence counsel, Major J. F. Thomas, that Handcock had confessed the murder of Heese to Witton, George told the solicitor from Tenterfield that Morant was the instigator of ‘a most premeditated and cold blooded affair‘. Scapegoats was the basis for a film by Bruce Beresford, Breaker Morant. Beresford sought to question if three Australians, Lieutenants, Harry “BreakerMorant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton were justly accused and tried of the murders of at least 12 Boer prisoners seeking to surrender. Only Witton was spared the firing squad. He was given a life sentence.

The British Under Secretary for War, St John Broderick, wrote privately to Lord Kitchener who ordered Morant and Handcock’s execution:

It is a most deplorable performance and, if it gets out, as I fear it will, even the strong measures we are taking will not undo the disgrace it inflicts on our Colonial Forces. I should myself have been inclined to shoot all these officers.

In October 1902, a petition for Witton’s release was signed by 100,000 Australians (out of 4 million) and forwarded to King Edward VII.

George Witton wrote about his trial and quoted Harry Morant’s defence to the crimes:

Was your court of the trial of Visser (one of the Boer prisoners Morant had shot) constituted like this?,” asked the president of the courts martial, “and did you observe the King’s Regulations?”

“Was it the same as this?” fiercely answered Morant. “No, it was not half so handsome. As to rules and sections, we had no Red Book; and knew nothing about them (rules of engagement). But remember this. We were out fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind barb-wire entanglements; we got them and shot them under rule 303.” Were these the actual words uttered in the trial? There appears to be no reference to these words in defence counsel’s (J.F. Thomas) notes. Rule 303 may have started out as a myth but there are plenty of soldiers using it as justification for murder i.e. the SAS in Afghanistan.

After his release and book published, Witton moved from Victoria to the Burnett district of Queensland in 1908 and settled into pineapple and dairy farming.

George Witton died on 14 August 1942 at the age of 68. Members of the Gayndah, Biggenden and Coalstoun Lakes in the Burnett organised the erection of a memorial plaque to Witton and other Boer war veterans from the district. Mark Cryle, a research fellow and former manager of the UQ Fryer library, wrote this:

The plaque at Coalstoun Lakes remains the only monument to Witton whose ashes are interred in the grave of his wife, Mary, at Lutwyche Cemetery in Brisbane although his name does not appear on the headstone. Ironically, the street adjoining the cemetery is “Kitchener Road”, doubtless named after the man who signed the death warrant for Witton’s mates and was “pleased to commute his sentence to penal servitude for life”.

On Feb 13, 2018, Scott Buchholz (NP, Qld) asked the Australian parliament to excuse Harry Morant, George Witton and Peter Handcock for their crimes on the basis that they were unfairly tried and that the men should be given the benefit of the Nuremberg defence (i.e. that they were following orders).

However Morant did appear to be making the claim of following orders. His argument appears to be that it was a guerrilla war where rules of engagement did not apply. I wonder what claim my great uncle Montague Curr would make of Morant’s defence. For his part Montague Curr killed five aboriginal people as he poached on their land near the Leichhardt River in the Gulf. There certainly was no suggestion of legal excuse by using Terra Nullius in the 1880s.

On 20 July 2013 Rule 303 was put under legal scrutiny in Victorian Supreme Court and the moot court found Harry Breaker Morant did not receive fair trial. I wonder how the descendants of families of the Dutch settlers who were killed feel about that?

After the war crimes of South Africa and Queensland, both states (South Africa and Qld) practiced apartheid. In South Africa it lasted till 199os when Mandela was released. In Qld apartheid lasted till the 1980s when the notorious Acts were overturned.

But the resistance to its aftermath is still alive and well.

Always was …

Ian Curr
7 Dec 2020

Robert Grey gave this account of an aboriginal attack on the Curr’s property Merri Merriwah circa 1864.

The Curr’s, who had a station thirty miles farther up the river, experienced a very formidable attack, which might have easily been disastrous. Montague Curr lived with his brother, Marmaduke, and his wife. The latter, who used to milk the cows, told me his brother was out one morning after some horses, but for some unaccountable reason on this particular occasion he himself was late in turning out, a most exceptional occurrence. The blacks were almost at the door when the servant girl rushed in from the detached kitchen exclaiming, ‘Blacks, Blacks.’

He had barely time to seize a firearm before the leading darkies were at the door, and spears came rattling in. He and Mrs. Curr opened upon them with effect. Mrs. Curr, however, was grazed on the wrist by a passing spear. The brother returning about this time and coming to their assistance with his firearms, the blacks retreated to the river. They were followed up and did not renew the experiment of attacking Curr’s station, one of the neatest and tidiest little places to be seen anywhere, not a thing out of place, and no bones or unsightly debris lying about, as there often are on a cattle station, and on a sheep station also sometimes.” – from Reminiscences of India and North Queensland by Robert Grey London 1913.

The  history  and  potential  future  of  Cape  York  peninsula  [by  Clem  Lack,  B.A.,  Dip. Jour.]  (read  at  a meeting  of  the  society  on  26  April  1962.) (Read  at  a meeting  of  the  Society  on  26  April  1962.)

Morant, Harry Harbord (Breaker) (1864–1902) by R. K. Todd.

George Witton and the Breaker Morant Affair Scapegoat of the Empire by Mark Cryle

Rule 303: Moot appeal in Victorian Supreme Court finds Breaker Morant did not receive fair trial on You Tube.

Reminiscences of India and North Queensland by Robert Grey London 1913.

One thought on “Scapegoats of Empire?

  1. 'Rule 303' & 'Shoot straight ...." is a myth says:

    I guess the point that I tried to make in my article in Fryer Folios, and perhaps not forcefully enough, was that Witton’s “Scapegoats” account was subject to the mythologising of the event that had already begun years before he even put pen to paper.

    He didn’t just draw on his own experience but on accounts by Frank Fox in particular which were, I believe, quite fanciful.

    The “Rule 303” stuff has no real basis in hard evidence – it’s certainly not in J.F. Thomas’ notes, but it makes for good copy so Witton included it.

    Likewise Morant’s “Shoot straight you bastards” line was likely never uttered.

    Mark Cryle
    Fryer Folios
    19 Dec 2020

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