Monday 21 April 2014

Who Killed Rev. Daniel Heese?

Despite over 4 months of zealous investigation by the prosecution, Peter Handcock was court-martialled for this crime and found not guilty. Harry Morant was charged as an accessory and also acquitted. This verdict is not surprising if we look at all the evidence pointing to their innocence and the lack of any proof that they were guilty.

The decision to proceed with this trial even though the prosecution knew there was no possibility of a guilty verdict supports retired Colonel Barry Caligari’s claim that “There was insufficient evidence to guarantee a conviction in the Heese case, so to ensure a successful outcome, Kitchener cobbled together several cases of shooting Boer prisoners, which had previously been ignored.”[1]

This trial was the last one held. Ten days before the trial commenced the deputy judge advocate-general, Colonel James St Clair, wrote:

"If no more evidence can be procured, I do not think a conviction will be obtained. But I advise the prosecution of Lt Handcock being proceeded with."[2]

Why the recommendation to proceed and why was this trial “heard privately in the garrison, and not publicly in the town, as the others had been”?[3] Obviously the authorities believed that by taking them to trial their guilt would be sealed regardless of the outcome, because they had already obtained guilty verdicts in the previous trials. The secrecy surrounding this one would ensure that the general population would believe that Morant and Handcock had been executed for shooting the missionary, "the only one of the crimes charged which really excited any moral indignation."[4]

What evidence was presented at the court-martial? In the absence of the transcripts we are forced to rely on the report published in The Times on 17 April 1902. In 2002, when responding to Barry Caligari’s unsuccessful submission seeking pardons for the BVC officers, the British Judge Advocate General, the late Judge J.W. Rant C.B., Q.C., was happy to rely on it and wrote  “It has all the appearances of a piece of accurate and objective reporting … an extremely useful near contemporary document.” [JAG/D09 12 February 2002].  Others such as journalist W.B. Melville disagree[5] but we can be fairly certain that any evidence favourable to the prosecution was included in the report.

The prosecution witnesses, as reported in The Times were:

  1. Trooper Phillip “Trooper Phillip deposed that on 23rd August last he was on duty at Cossack Post when a Cape cart containing the missionary and a Cape boy was going in the direction of Pietersburg. The missionary showed a pass signed by Captain Taylor. He was greatly agitated, saying there had been a fight that morning and several had been killed, but he did not say whether they were British or Boers.”
  2. Corporal Sharp“Corporal Sharp said that he had seen Morant addressing Hesse [sic], and had afterwards seen Hancock [sic] riding in the same direction as the missionary. It was about 10 or 11 a.m. when the missionary went past, and Hancock went about 12. The latter had a carbine. He did not take the same road as the missionary.”
  3. Two witnesses“Two witnesses said that Hancock had left the fort that day with a rifle. He was on a chestnut horse. It was not unusual for an officer to carry a rifle.”
  4. A native“A native deposed to having seen an armed man on horseback following the missionary. The man was on a brown horse. The witness afterwards heard shots, and then saw the dead body of a coloured boy. He took fright and fled. This was about 2 p.m.”
  5. H. van Rooyen“H. van Rooyen gave evidence as to having spoken to the Rev. Mr. Hesse on the road about 2 p.m. The witness trekked on with his wagon till sundown, when he saw a man on horseback coming from the direction of Pietersburg. The man turned off the road. Afterwards a man came on foot to the witness. He could not say if it was the same man that he had seen on horseback. The man on foot was Hancock, who advised the witness to push on, as Boers were about.”

Trooper Phillip
The testimony of Trooper Phillip merely establishes that Rev. Heese left for Pietersburg on the morning in question with a pass signed by Captain Taylor and in a state of agitation because there had been a fight that morning and several had been killed. According to Phillip’s testimony Heese did not say whether those killed were British or Boers nor did he say that he had witnessed the shooting.

Corporal Sharp
Under cross examination Sharp admitted “He did tell Hodd that he would walk barefooted from Spelonken to Pietersburg to be of the firing party to shoot Morant. He admitted that Hancock had issued an order against soldiers selling their uniforms in consequence of the witness’s having done so.” This is highly relevant in view of the fact that, as I will show later, the man who almost certainly shot Heese was wearing a corporal’s jacket – was it the same one that Corporal Sharp sold?

Two Witnesses
The two unnamed witnesses testified that Handcock was riding a chestnut horse. (Not a bay as described by the native witness, Silas – see below).

A Native
The Times doesn’t give a very detailed report of his testimony – only what was shown above.

This man’s name was Silas Juno. He gave a very thorough statement to Rev. O. Krause shortly after the incident and Krause sent this to Colonel Hall at Pietersburg on 9 September 1901. This statement is reproduced in full in both Closed File, Kit Denton [p111-112] and Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, Arthur Davey [p39-41].

In the statement he reported seeing the armed man on horseback who passed him dismount and lead his horse into the bush just prior to his witnessing the encounter between Rev. Heese and van Rooyen up ahead. He gave the following description of the armed rider:
  • Khaki clothing
  • A light-coloured hat with a cloth of motley colours (red, blue, white and black)
  • Stripes like a corporal
  • A young, stocky man
  • Clean shaven except for a moustache
  • Two cartridge belts crossways over his shoulders
  • Horse was a bay colour and not particularly well-conditioned.

Apart from the moustache and the khaki clothing, none of the other details match Peter Handcock. In the statement Silas also reported that when he came upon the dead body of Heese’s driver, the armed rider’s horse was tethered nearby but there was no sign of either the rider or Heese and, fearing for his life, he fled. This would tend to confirm that the “armed rider” was the killer.

Another missionary, Rev. J. Wedepohl, interviewed Silas some time after the trial and Silas informed him that he was called as a witness but he was unable to recognise the rider in court although he did see his horse among many others tethered outside. i.e., he was unable to identify Handcock as the killer. The Wedepohl document [PR83/120] is contained in the Kit Denton collection in the Australian War Memorial.

Although The Times report of his testimony is very terse it is safe to assume that the prosecution would have asked Silas if he could identify the rider in court but, as he reported to Rev. Wedepohl, he was unable to do so. Why have historians ignored his testimony? He didn’t even rate a mention in Arthur Davey’s list of witnesses.[6]

It is puzzling that, in 2002,  Craig Wilcox wrote in “Australia’s Boer War”[7] “The trial for the murder of Heese collapsed for lack of a white witness”  and “black ones would not do in a white man’s court a century ago”.[8] In an article titled “Contemptible case for pardon” in the Canberra Times dated 8 March 2010, another former Australian War Memorial historian, Peter Stanley, wrote “They were acquitted of the murder of the missionary Daniel Heese … for lack of white witnesses. (Morant was outraged that “this nigger’s word is taken alongside that of British officer”.)”

I’m not sure what they are both getting at here – are they suggesting that Silas’s testimony was invalid because he wasn’t white? It certainly appears to me that the court was prepared to accept the testimony of a “black” witness. In addition, Stanley’s quote of Morant is entirely out of context. Morant was writing to a friend about an accusation by a native chief that Captain Hunt had not paid him for an animal skin – it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Heese shooting. In the same article, referring to James Unkles,  Stanley complained that “this sort of amorality is why lawyers have such a poor reputation.” I wonder if he really meant historians.

H. van Rooyen
H. van Rooyen’s testimony coincides with Silas’s in establishing that the shooting of Heese occurred around 2pm. He didn’t see Peter Handcock until he had travelled on until sundown, which would have been some 4 hours later (i.e. 6pm in that region at that time of the year) and hardly indicative of any involvement on Handcock’s part.

Failure to Establish a Motive
The Times report said that “The prosecution stated that witnesses would be called to prove that on August 23, 1901, Missionary Hesse left Fort Edward for Pietersburg, and the motive for killing him was that he had got to know of the killing of eight Boers, and was on his way to Pietersburg to report the occurrence when he was shot by Hancock under orders from Morant.”

No witnesses were produced to testify that Heese had witnessed the shooting of the Eight Boers or that he was even aware that it had taken place. None of the available depositions from prosecution witnesses state that he saw the shooting. The Cochrane letter merely speculates that he must have doubled back when the shooting started. Any sane unarmed person would keep going to get away from any fighting! In any case we have the Annual report 1901 by the neutral Swiss Doctor Liengme of the Elim Hospital. In it he writes
“On the day of Rev. Heese’s departure from Elim a convoy of 8 Boers (prisoners) passed the hospital. Rev. Heese knew one of them and he talked to him trying to comfort him … Rev. Heese returned to the hospital and prepared to leave immediately for Pietersburg.

The 8 Boers were massacred on the road. Reverend Heese – did he know of it? We don’t know.”[9]

The emphasis is mine. Surely if Heese had witnessed or was aware of the shooting he would have mentioned it to the staff of the hospital when he returned.

Trooper Phillip’s testimony is meaningless. Either Captain Taylor or Lieutenant Morant could have told Heese that there had been a fight that morning when they warned him to be careful on his return to Pietersburg.

Defence Testimony
As well as testimony by the two defendants, The Times reported:  Further witnesses proved that Hancock was at Schiel’s and Bristowe’s when the missionary was shot.

According to ex-Trooper J.A. Heath, who was detained as a witness during the trials, the witnesses for the defence were “Mrs. Schiels (wife of a Dutch commander, who was a prisoner), Mr. and Mrs. Bristow, and Mrs. Schiels’s two sons”[10]

The Times writer’s choice of the word “proved” says a lot. It implies that, after hearing the testimony and the cross-examination, he was satisfied Handcock was nowhere near the scene of the shooting when it occurred at 2pm. This is particularly significant when, in his entire report of the trials, the writer could hardly be described as favouring the accused. Given that the time of the shooting had already been established, the prosecution would surely have cross-examined the witnesses in an effort to establish that Handcock could still have carried out the crime but plainly the witnesses’ testimony cleared him. It defies belief that five members of two local families would commit perjury for men they had known for such a brief period.

It is not surprising that the court returned a not-guilty verdict and that the Pietersburg military chaplain, Rev. Joshua Brough, was moved to write “never, I should think, has a feebler charge been brought before a court”.[11]

So Who Did Shoot Rev. Daniel Heese?
Unfortunately we will probably never know who shot Rev. Daniel Heese but it most certainly was not Peter Handcock. Several writers choose to ignore this verdict and all the testimony associated with it in favour of a letter written almost 30 years later by someone who was not an eye-witness to the shooting. To take that letter at face value without any critical analysis, particularly when it is the complete antithesis of what the writer said 22 years earlier in his book, is both naïve and ridiculous. I will deal with that letter in another paper.

Richard Williams

1. Bleszynski, Nick, Shoot Straight You Bastards!, RANDOM HOUSE AUSTRALIA 2nd Ed 2002, p530
2. Davey, Arthur, Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, VAN RIEBEECK SOCIETY CAPE TOWN 1987, p123
3. Witton, George,Scapegoats of the Empire,MELBOURNE 1907, p144
4. Rev. Brough to Mrs. Handcock, Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 3 January 1903, p3
5. Witton, George, op cit., p223
6. Davey,Arthur, op cit., p125
7. Wilcox, Craig, Australia's Boer War: The War in South Africa 1899-1902,OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 2002,p294
8. Wilcox, Craig, op cit., p476 no.36
9. Davey,Arthur, op cit., p44
10. The Advertiser,(Adelaide SA), Thursday 8 May 1902,p3
11. Rev. Brough to Mrs. Handcock, Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 3 January 1903, p3

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