The central concern of the play Breaker Morant, written by Kenneth Ross in 1979 are the courts martial of three Australian Army officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers serving in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton who are accused of the murder of one Boer prisoner and the subsequent murders of six more. In addition, Morant and Handcock are accused of the sniper-style assassination of a German missionary.
During the time the play was written, Australian’s had grown to develop their own national identity, a set of proud and courageous values that recognised the essence of being an Australian, which was regarded to be truly unique from the British society and their way of life, thus the necessity for Australia’s independence from the British was becoming increasingly radicalised. As a result the play is based on real life events to raise awareness of Australia’s right for independence.
Ross effectively uses the techniques of plot development, characterization and additionally has carefully crafted the courtroom context in order to position the audience to reject the dominant discourse by clearly exposing the non impartiality of the British and miscarriage of justice that occurred during the trial of the three Australians. The Australian volunteers went to Africa to help their “mother” country; so it’s rather astonishing to the audience that Britain, Australia’s supposed Allies are charging the three Australians with murdering of the enemy.
Ross uses the context of the play to highlight the difference in values and attitudes between the Australians and the British. He exploits the Australians disempowered statues to position the audience to feel they are not given a fair trial. The British have employed their most talented lawyer, Major Bolton, “You’re the best Solicitor we have” (Pg. 19), whilst the Australians have had no choice but be defended by an inexperienced country lawyer, Major Thomas who openly admits he has had no prior experience with court-martials.
In addition, the preparation time for the case is also unfair; the prosecution has had three months, while the defence had to prepare their case overnight. Ross reveals the president of the court-martial, Lieutenant Colonel Denny, as an arrogant and certainly not an impartial judge. He did not even have the courtesy to remember Major Thomas’s name (Pg. 31). In one scene during the court martial, Ross portrays the animosity between the British and the Australians through the discourse of the judge. Who repeatedly allowed Major Bolton’s objections whilst arrogantly rejecting the valid objections of Major Thomas (Pg. 6). Through the courtroom, Ross achieves a number of things; he is able to position the British and Australians as antagonists. He effectively positions the audience to feel sympathy for the Australians as disempowered underdogs and depicts the whole judicial process as being biased and a miscarriage of justice, discrediting the British imperialism. Despite the unjust treatment by the British, however, the Australian soldiers are shown strong, disallowing themselves to be seen as being weak and without hope. Lieutenant Harry Morant is seen as a hero through his dealings which are portrayed in the context of the play.
He symbolizes a typical Australian hero through acts of mateship and courage. “I was the Commanding Officer after Simon Hunt’s death, not Peter Handcock, not George Witton but I, and I take the blame. ” (Pg. 62) Here the character reinforces the true qualities of a hero by courageously taking responsibility for his actions. Morant’s patriotic verses reinforce his love of the country and coming as an outsider it seems more valid. Morant’s fellow inmates, Handcock and Witton, symbolize typical Australian characteristics by showing a sense of humour and mateship. Both offer differing aspects of Australian identity.
Whilst Handcock is brash and earthy, the youthful Whitton is naive and idealistic. But Morant is more than a sentimental poet, he understands the situation “No, it is not we who are on trial here but the bloody war…these murdering tradesmen of hers, can go on believing as they must, that they belong to an honourable profession. ” (P. 55) He is critical that the British Empire needs to act like a bully to maintain power. Ross’s characterisation of the Commander in Chief of the British Forces, Lord Kitchener, is in a sense parallel to the President of the court Col.
Denny. Kitchener is being pressured by Whitehall, as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany has threatened to join the war, following the shooting of the German missionary. These factors combine to influence the court to disadvantage the Australians. The author uses stereotype in the characterization of these characters to show the audience a clear message of unjustness. Therefore Denny and Kitchener represent the dominant discourse of militarism and imperialism and the audience is positioned to reject them as self-seeking, unfair and unjust.
The character of Lord Kitchener’s haughtily accuses the three Australian army officers as “Damned colonial scoundrels who showed no regard for duty, for the common decencies of war. ” This is ironic as he is himself not showing any decency to his allies either. Kitchener reveals that he is not blameless either: “You realize, of course, it was a complete military necessity that I authorise the destruction of all crops and farms…there being no choice. ”(Pg. 68). His aide camp Col. Hamilton’s meek and obedient reply to him “Yes, sir” shows he lacks courage.
Kitchener then further adding on, “If it shortens the war by a week then it’s worthwhile, isn’t it? ” (Pg. 68) Ross demonstrates that Kitchener is totally arrogant, hypocritical and cowardly, he failed to attend the trial, instead, he sent Col. Hamilton, because he was too much of a coward to face the Australians himself. The prosecution of the three Australians is revealed to be a diplomatically strategic tactic, used to settle the tensions between the Boers and prevent the interference of Germany, by showing that Britain is taking the necessary procedures to ensure that justice is served.
For this reason, it can be considered that the courtroom’s ruling and final decision was significantly influenced by factors outside the courtroom and therefore proved to be a miscarriage of justice. Ross’s use of the context and characterisation persuade the reader, that the courts martial are unfair, portraying the cruelty and bias of the British towards the three Australian soldiers, who were exploited by high ranking British military officials in order to serve their own political needs, rather then showing the soldiers dignity and honour for their loyalty and bravery in voluntarily serving the British military away from home.