Monday, August 6, 2012

Scapegoats of the Empire by George Witton



Why I read it: Saw the movie in college while taking a British history course.

Summary: The backstory behind the movie Breaker Morant, four officers from an Australian unit charged with murdering enemy prisoners during the Boer War.

My Thoughts: First, yes, like most others, I read the book after seeing the movie. I was taking a class at UMASS Amherst about British history, and the professor, a movie buff, showed us a few clips. I was hooked. I took the book out of the library and read pieces, but it got lost in the shuffle of college life and the ridiculous reading workload of a student taking five history courses simultaneiously.

This time I got it on Kindle.

The story is just as gripping now as it was in 1991. Witton is ordered to execute Boer prisoners - a previous commanding officer, Captain Hunt, savagely murdered by the Boers, ordered a "take no prisoners" situation - and is caught in military hell. Execute them, face court-martial. Disobey the order, face court-martial. In the end, with three others he is tried and convicted of numerous murders. Two of the men, including the infamous Lieutenant "Breaker" Morant, are executed. Witton is given the death sentence, which is then commuted by Lord Kitchener to life imprisonment.

The story reaches well beyond the wilds of South Africa, far past the blurred lines of the combat zone. With various nationalities involved - the countries of the empire, the natives of South Africa, the Dutch Boers, and a murdered German missionary - restitution is demanded. Scapegoat becomes the buzz word; someone has to pay. In the end, the executions of Morant and Handcock do the trick. While Witton sits in prison - for following orders - the Boers see that the British took the situation seriously, and decide to come to peace. The Boer generals are invited to England as guests of the nation as Witton petitions for his release from his 3x7x7 room.

Eventually, it is granted, and he returns home to Australia five years after he left it. He publishes this book, and it is quickly censored in the spirit of keeping relations between Australia and England on the up-and-up.

It takes a bit of suspension of ignorance to read through quickly. South African place names fly fast and hard through the first half of the book, and the stories of the incidents in question are told repeatedly, but the facts must be presented. Witton relied heavily on primary sources to tell the story, but if there's one thing the American people today have shown they like, it's a good courtroom drama. This was the real thing.

Beyond the movie is the story Witton tells of prison life in early twenty-first century England. Was he a scapegoat? It seems so, and in the end he lost three years of his freedom. Morant and Handcock, though, lost it all in the cause of empire.

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