From the Archives: Breaker Morant remembered, by Banjo Paterson

Morant lived in the bush the curious nomadic life of the Ishmaelite, the ne’er-do-well, of whom there are still many to be found about north Queensland, but who are very rare now in the settled districts: droughts and overdrafts have hardened the squatters’ hearts and they are no longer content to board and lodge indefinitely the scapegrace who claims their hospitality; even yet in Queensland it is quite common for a young fellow to ride up to a station with all his worldly goods on a packhorse and let his horses go in the paddock and stay for months, joining in the work of the station, but not getting any pay — except a pound or two by way of loan from the «boss» now and again — and leaving at last to go on a droving trip; but in New South Wales the type is practically extinct.

Morant was always popular for his dash and courage, and he would travel miles to obtain the kudos of riding a really dangerous horse. He revelled in excitement and boon companionship, and used to weary of the monotony of the bush and would constantly come to town to «see life»; as he had no money, and no means of earning any beyond a few pounds gained by very fitful work with his pen, these trips involved borrowings and difficulties that would have driven differently constituted men out of their minds. But Morant used to manage to keep his place among his friends — and they were many — but how he managed it was always a problem. Such then, was his life — hard and dangerous labour in the bush, given for nothing to avoid having to work, flashes of enjoyment in town so dearly bought that they were worthless. In character he was kindhearted and good-natured to the last degree, an enemy to no man but himself.

Lieutenant Morant and a friend boxing somewhere back of Bourke in an undated photograph

Lieutenant Morant and a friend boxing somewhere back of Bourke in an undated photograph

Money he never valued at its true worth; he was a spendthrift and an idler, quick to borrow and slow to pay — as many literary and other Bohemians have been from time immemorial. He would buy a young colt on credit, and ride him till he had knocked the nonsense out of him, and would then sell him and spend the proceeds -instead of paying his debts — in a visit to an orchestral concert or in the expenses incident to a day’s hunting.

He never saved a penny in his life, and the idea that he would take or order the taking of the life of an unarmed man for the sake of gain is utterly inconsistent with every trait of his character. Those who knew him best say that he would sooner have given a sick Boer the coat off his back than shot him for any money — especially Transvaal paper money — that he might have about him.

Morant had one peculiarity, which perhaps arose from his literary propensities — he was always very untidy in his dress; and though he claimed to be the descendant of a leading English family he never affected the «swell» in his manner, and he never tried to dress himself up to act the part of the well-connected «adventurer». Such as he was, he was the same to all men. With a good commander over him he might have made a fine soldier. As it turned out he got into exactly the worst company that a man of his temperament could have met — it was always so with him. He gambled with his chances all through life, and the cards ran against him. What is it that such men lack — just a touch of determination, or of caution, maybe — to turn their lives from failures to successes?

His death was consistent with his life, for though he died as a criminal he died a brave man facing the rifles with his eyes unbandaged. For him Gordon’s lines would make a fitting epitaph:

An aptitude to mar and break
What others diligently make
That was the best and worst of him.
Wise, with the cunning of the snake;
Brave, with the sea-wolf’s courage grim;
Dying hard and dumb, torn limb from limb.

* The Sydney Mail (1860-1938) was the weekly illustrated edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.




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