Sunday, September 16, 2018

Concentration Camps of the Boer War

“...Lizzie van Zyl who died in the Bloemfontein concentration camp: She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care. Yet, because her mother was one of the "undesirables" due to the fact that her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations and so perished with hunger that, after a month in the camp, she was transferred to the new small hospital. Here she was treated harshly. The English disposed doctor and his nurses did not understand her language and, as she could not speak English, labeled her an idiot although she was mentally fit and normal. One day she dejectedly started calling for her mother, when a Mrs Botha walked over to her to console her. She was just telling the child that she would soon see her mother again, when she was brusquely interrupted by one of the nurses who told her not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance…”

Original Source:  Stemme uit die Verlede (Voices out of the Past) Sworn statements from Concentration Camp detainees. 
By late 1900, the Anglo-Boer War, or, more accurately, the South African War,  had descended into a campaign of resistance by Boer guerrillas against the now dominant British. Recently  installed commander of the British Forces in South Africa, the Earl Kitchener, intensified a number of initiatives designed to frustrate the Boer guerrilla fighters, known as commando.  A series of fortified structures, termed block houses, were erected in strategic locations to provide for the defense of essential infrastructure like bridges, railway lines and supply routes, as well as for the purpose of hindering free movement of the commando on the veld. Each blockhouse garrisoned a detachment  of soldiers, and they were generally around one thousand yards apart (within line of site); and with barbed, and later steel wire fences, zigzagging  between. Around 8 000 blockhouses were erected, guarded by 50 000 troops, and joined by 3 700 miles of wire fencing.
The British also enacted a scorched earth policy of burning farms, poisoning wells, salting fields to render them infertile, and killing livestock, with view to to essentially starving out any remaining resistance, and removing  any kind of  safe haven for the Boer fighters.   Around 30 000 farms were burned,  and tens of thousands of people, primarily women and children, were made homeless, their houses often burnt in front of their eyes.  They were then  forcibly moved into what had been hitherto referred to as camps of refuge, and originally intended for Burghers who surrender voluntarily. 

The camps became death traps for a number of reasons. Overcrowding soon became chronic, the health of internees was neglected and there was overwhelmingly  poor cleanliness and sanitation. With British supply lines under constant threat from the Boer commando, the availability of food and other essentials was intermittent at best. There was also blatant vindictiveness on the part of the camp administrators, with families, including children, of  undesirables - those still fighting - kept on short rations. Malnutrition and starvation; measles, typhoid and dysentery ravaged the camps, killing thousands, predominately children.  

Private Archie Bowers, a British soldier, later told the BBC:

“...The big battles were over, and it was a question of chasing the Boers over vast distances, but they were farmers, good horsemen and wonderful shots.  Lord Kitchener, who was then the Commander in Chief, thought the   the best way to bring to war towards an end was to starve the Boers out, so he gave orders that all the animals had to be driven in and destroyed.   On one particular night I was out with my bayonet, and we killed - a few of us -  we killed 800 sheep...

One occasion when we went into a small farm, there was a piano in there and a chap sat down and played the piano...As soon as we’d finished our little sing-song... with the butt end of our rifles, we smashed the furniture up, we piled it up in the middle of the room and put a match to it and burned the place down. That's what happened to thousands of farms all over South Africa.  There you are, warfare is an awful affair isn't it,  altogether…?

All the women and children, in that part of South Africa, the hostile part, were all taken out of the their farms...carried down to huge  concentration many Boer women and children died in the concentration camps…”

Having been given one hour’s notice that they were going to be evicted from their home, the experiences of the women of one farming family were described thus, in an interview with the BBC in 1960:

“...We just left our home and they burned it down.  They took us to a village and there were bell tents. It had been raining for about three weeks on end, it was mud wherever you walked.  And there we had to go into this tent, in the mud, and there my sister and myself, and her two little children had to live.  We had no food, they supplied us with flour and a little sugar and some coffee, but no means  of cooking it…” 

A Concentration Camp Near Bloemfontein

Listen to first hand recollections in full, or download the podcast, thanks to BBC Witness;


In the UK general election of October 1900, a Conservative-Liberal Unionist coalition lead by incumbent Prime Minister Lord Salisbury,  achieved a majority of 130 seats in the House of Commons.  Known as the khaki election, the result followed a number of British military successes, but the sense of national celebration following  an apparent victory over the Boers would prove to be premature. 

Information soon reached Emily Hobhouse, a 40 year old suffragist, political activist and humanitarian, of conditions in the camps.  Her opposition to the South African  War was already well known, and she had spoken at several public meetings denouncing the the government and its conduct in South Africa more generally. She duly founded the Relief Fund for African Women and Children, the objectives of which were to ;

Emily Hobhouse
“...Feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families, or other incidents resulting from the military operations…”

She spent several months in South Africa from the end of 1900, where she inspected  conditions for herself, against the objections of  Earl Kitchener, and began campaigning for reform.  As a result of her protests, the authorities reconsidered their ruling that soap was a luxury rather than an essential, and allowed  the supply of straw for flooring and bedding, and also kettles so that drinking water could be boiled. She later noted that any improvements that she managed to force through were soon negated by increasing overpopulation. 

During this time she also observed  the worsening  mental and physical health of individual inhabitants, so that she could hardly recognise them on subsequent visits.   

By June of 1901,  Emily Hobhouse  produced her final report,  under the title, To the S.A. Distress Fund, Report of a visit to the camps of women and children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies.  She wrote:

“...Numbers crowded into small tents: some sick, some dying, occasionally a dead one among them; scanty rations dealt out raw; lack of fuel to cook them; lack of water for drinking, for cooking, for washing; lack of soap, brushes and other instruments of personal cleanliness; lack of bedding or of beds to keep the body off the bare earth; lack of clothing for warmth and in many cases for decency…”
By the end of June, according to official statistics, there were  85 410 prisoners in the camps, 777 of whom had died during that month alone.  The British War Department agreed to an investigation, and by August, the overall camp population  had risen to  105 347 and the  fatalities for that month had spiked to 1 878.  By the end of November, the officially recorded camp population of the white camps was 117 974 and the deaths for that month  were 2 807.

Indigenous Africans also suffered terribly under the harsh regime of the camps.   An article in the Irish Times, commemorating the  centenary of the commencement of the war, argued that much of the black history had been ignored by emphasizing the almost 28 000 white deaths, although that figure has also been diputed. 

From the Irish Times, October 11th 1999:

“...The South African historian, Dr S.B. Spies, who has made a special study of the camps, puts the number of blacks who died in them at 14,000. Peter Warwick, author of the ground-breaking book Black People in the South African War, writes: “(British) scorched-earth tactics led to the uprooting of black as well as white families. By the end of the war 115,700 black refugees had been settled in 66 concentration camps. The black camps were used as a source of cheap labour for the British army and prevailing conditions were worse even than in the camps of white refugees…”

Read more about the black concentration camps by following the link:

Despite the assertion by the British Secretary of State for War, William St John Brodrick,  that the Boer prisoners were in the camps
voluntarily, and were content and comfortable,  radical Liberal MP David Lloyd George raised the issue in the House of Commons, referencing Emily Hobhouse’s observations as those of the English lady, and detailed inadequate, inappropriate and spoiled rations, noting the death rate from encamped civilians was far higher than that of combatants,  and warning of a barrier of dead children’s bodies rising between British and Boer in South Africa.  Meanwhile the Government propaganda machine was in full swing, blaming the high mortality on:
“...The dirty habits of the Boers, their ignorances and prejudices, their recourse to quackery and their suspicious avoidance of the British hospitals and Doctors...”

It appeared that there was little sympathy in parliament for the plight of the camp internees.  In one exchange, when Lloyd George was making a statement on the appalling state of rations, Hansard records another member interjecting sarcastically that the British authorities were being generous.

Emily Hobhouse later wrote

“...The picture of apathy and impatience displayed here, which refused to lend an ear to undeserved misery, contrasted sadly with the scenes of misery in South Africa, still fresh in my mind. No barbarity in South Africa was as severe as the bleak cruelty of an apathetic parliament…”

Facing questions in the House and the stirrings of  public disquiet, the Government did eventually concede to sending  suffragist Millicent Fawcett to South Africa to lead  a Commission of Ladies to investigate and report on conditions.  Although purported to be impartial, the South African perspective remains generally suspicious, pointing  out that Fawcett herself was a Liberal Unionist and had publicly criticised Emily Hobhouse.  Some other  members of the commission clearly had what would be described in modern terms as conflicts of interest; wives and daughters of currently serving senior officers, military nurses and government employees.

Emily Hobhouse, now continuing her crusade back at home,  addressed 26  public meetings and raised money to improve camp conditions.   She was also protesting her exclusion from the Ladies Commission, and petitioned the Secretary of State for War, who replied:

"...The only consideration in the selection of ladies to visit the Concentration Camps, beyond their special capacity for such work, was that they should be, so far as is possible, removed from the suspicion of partiality to the system adopted or the reverse..."
So; Emily Hobhouse was rejected on the grounds of her apparent lack of objectivity however, in late  1901, and despite suffering from  exhaustion and poor health,  she travelled back to South Africa on her own initiative, but was prohibited from disembarking at Capetown.

With Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain having  ordered  all possible steps be taken to reduce the rate of mortality within the camps, responsibility for the day-to-day running of the camps was being progressively transferred from military to civil jurisdiction, and rapid, if tragically belated, improvements were made.

Final official statistics, however, told the real story.  Twenty five percent of  (white) camp inhabitants died - a total of 27 927 occupants, of which 24 074 were children under the age of sixteen. Some historians argue that these figures underestimate the true number of fatalities, and also remind us  that these do not include the deaths in the camps for indigenous Africans. Eventually even Lord Milner, provisional administrator of the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies in spite of ongoing hostilities, seemed to be having reservations, and recognised the ill thought out longer term  consequences of the scorched earth campaign.  In a report titled, General Review of the Situation in the Two New Colonies, he wrote:

“...Even if the war were to come to an end tomorrow, it would not be possible to let the people in the concentration camps go back to their former homes. They would only starve there.  The country is, for the most part, a desert…”

Milner later also offered commentary on the death rate under his own jurisdiction,  in the Orange River  Concentration Camps. 

"...The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off, it is not so far borne out by the facts. I take it the strong ones must be dying now and that they will all be dead by the spring of 1903! ..."

As Christmas 1901 approached, it appeared that the full horror was just sinking in;  Milner seemed to  suddenly realise that people were dying on a grand scale, and that  the camps might not have been such a good idea after all.   He wrote to Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain:
“...The black spot - the one very black spot - in the picture is the frightful mortality in the Concentration Camps ... It was not until 6 weeks or 2 months ago that it dawned on me personally...that the enormous mortality was not incidental to the first formation of the camps and the sudden inrush of people already starving, but was going to continue. The fact that it continues is no doubt a condemnation of the camp system. The whole thing, I now think, has been a mistake....”
In further correspondence, Lord Milner wrote:
“...I am sorry to say I fear ... that the whole thing has been a sad fiasco. We attempted an impossibility, and certainly I should never have touched the thing if, when the concentration first began, I could have foreseen that the soldiers meant to sweep the whole population of the country higgledy piggledy into a couple of dozen camps…”
In another sign that the whole plan was unravelling in front of  the  eyes of the British command, and prompted by complaints from Boer Leaders, Kitchener  proposed, with not altogether good grace, releasing the prisoners into the care of the Commando.  Problem was, thanks to his own policies and actions, there was no place for them to go.

The British now found themselves  in a diabolical position of their own making.  The will to continue with the camps was failing, and the Fawcett Commission,  while critical of the administration of the camps, could not recommend their closure on the grounds that turning more than 100 000 people out into a destroyed countryside with poisoned water, burnt out ruins and infertile land, would be ensuring their starvation.

In March 1902, the Fawcett report was tabled in the House of Commons.  Many of Emily Hobhouse’s own observations were validated and the commission made a number of recommendations for improved medical care, and enhanced nutrition provided by  more and better rations.  The findings  still managed to lay at least some of the blame on the prisoners themselves, along with failings of camp administration, and the insanitary condition of the country caused by the war.

Thanks to Google archives, the report can be read in full, in its original form by following this link

In response to an Opposition motion deploring the mortality in the camps, Joseph Chamberlain countered by essentially  saying that it was the Boers’ own fault and that the camps were a measure to try and mitigate the horrors of war.
By May 1902, at the time of the treaty of Vereeniging, the single  month’s death toll from a total camp population of  116 572 was  196.   When Emily Hobhouse attempted to raise with the government the issue of the plight of the imprisoned indigenous Africans, she was dismissed as a busybody.
If Emily Hobhouse was persona non grata at home, the opposite was  the case in southern Africa.   In 1921 a public subscription  raised 2 300 pounds for her in gratitude for her humanitarian activism during the South African War and then afterwards, when she continued providing practical support and skills education  for South African women.   The money was provided to enable her to purchase a home, and following initial reluctance to accept, she later expressed her deep gratitude.
Emily Hobhouse died in London 1926, having continued  her humanitarian work for the relief of a starving women and children in central Europe following World War One, which she had also opposed. 
Her ashes were interred in the National Women’s monument, Bloemfontein.  A town in Free State is named for her, as is a residence on the campus of the University of the Free State, and later a Daphne class submarine in the South African navy.
She remained lifelong friends with the Rachel Stein, wife of Boer commando and Freestate President Martinus Stein.  Mrs Stein was at the forefront of raising funds for Miss Hobhouse’s  World War One charities,  and later for her home. 
In a further measure of gratitude, Emily Hobhouse was  granted honorary citizenship of South Africa.
In England, her death was largely ignored.

Although the modern definition of genocide did not emerge until 1948, Article II(c) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide is defined as deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to destroy a group.  A further explanatory note is provided;

"...Includes the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group's physical survival, such as clean water, food, clothing, shelter or medical services.  Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests, blockade of foodstuffs, detention in camps, forcible relocation or expulsion in the deserts..."   

Sources and Photographic Credits

Statistics and significant background from South African History Online 

Genocide definition and interpretation from

Additional background from

  • Hansard
  • Irish Times (1999 Boer War Centenary Feature) 
  • Spartacus Educational Online
  • BBC World Service (Witness)
  • BBC Radio 4 (Great Lives-Joseph Chamberlain)
  • Burning farm, Emily Hobhouse and Lizzie van Zyl are in the public domain.
  • Blockhouse photograph  by Rute Martins            Link to Source
  • Bloemfontein bell tent encampment - UK National  Archives      Link to Source

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