THE trial and ensuing execution of Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock in February 1902 in the heat of the Boer War has remained a tender point in both Australian and British military history.
Jim Unkles will bring six years of research to the School of Arts this Saturday.
The circumstances of the case, in which Morant, Handcock and George Witton were accused and tried for the killing of at least eight Boer prisoners, and that of Reverend Heese, would later become the source of one of Australia’s earliest military scandals.
More than a century later, recognised military historian and legal advocate James Unkles took up the case in 2009 as a point of research leading to last year’s moot court hearing in the Victorian Supreme Court in which senior Victorian barristers agreed the case would be deserving of an acquittal.
Mr Unkles said he has unearthed new evidence of considerable intrigue in the case and will be bringing his six years of research experience to Tenterfield’s Henry Parkes School of the Arts theatre this weekend.
“I’ve uncovered evidence that these men were not tried according to law,” he said.
“There is new evidence that I have uncovered about orders given by senior British military officers to shoot prisoners and I have uncovered other evidence of other instances where prisoners were shot by other Australian and British troops, but these people were never prosecuted.”
Unkles will arrive in Tenterfield this weekend for the screening of his new documentary featuring Tenterfield’s Major JF Thomas, a country solicitor and one-time owner of the Tenterfield Star who defended Morant, Handcock and Witton during the court martial.
“It is about focusing attention on the courageous work done by a small town country solicitor, 5000 miles away from home at the turn of the 20th Century, alone, with no assistance and no support,” Mr Unkles said.
While the incidents that constitute the case occurred over a century ago, Mr Unkles said it is critical that further investigation be undertaken.
The historian and legal advocate, who has petitioned the Queen to pursue the case, said until there is a formal and independent inquiry into the incident, it will remain a contentious issue in both Australian and British military history.
“For the documentary I interviewed very senior QCs, including Geoffrey Robertson and others, and they all agree that the case is deserving of review,” Mr Unkles said.
“It has messages from that incident that are relevant to the present about celebrating Australian values of a fair go and abiding by the presumption of innocence, judicial process— which was just as relevant in 1902 as it is now—so there are important jurisprudential issues about respect for the law and due process.”
Mr Unkles said, while he has extensively researched the case he has not yet visited Tenterfield and is looking forward to getting feet on the ground in the home of Major Thomas.
He said he will be attending the screening and hosting a Q&A session for film-goers on the night.
With new evidence anticipated as part of Mr Unkles research, he said the documentary is not a rehash of the Australian classic ‘Breaker Morant’, but is rather a call for renewed interest in the case and for an independent review.
“I believe that these men weren’t tried according to law and denied appeal, denied various rights according to the law of 1902 and suffered a fatal penalty.” Mr Unkles said last week.
The film will be shown from 2pm at the Henry Parkes School of the Arts on Saturday.
Inquiries to be directed to Tenterfield School of Arts on 6736 6100.
This event was a highlight and explored the history of Tenterfield and its connection with home town lawyer and community leader, Major James Francis Thomas, counsel for Morant, Handcock and Witton