During the second phase of the conflict variously known as the Boer War, the Second Anglo-Boer War or the Second War of Independence, the British army defeated their Boer adversaries and occupied the capitals of Pretoria and Bloemfontein, thus bringing the war to an end. Or so they hoped. As it happens the Boer commando regarded the British occupation of the Transvaal and Orange River republics as simply an inconvenience and began fighting a guerilla war.

In order to counter these guerilla tactics, the commander of the British forces in South Africa, Lord Kitchener1, instituted what was known as the Blockhouse system. This involved constructing a series of concrete blockhouses linked with barbed wire across the country, thereby inhibiting the movement of guerrillas. The British army then conducted a series of 'drives' across the country between these barriers with the intention of either capturing or killing any Boer fighters they came across or persuading them to surrender. As it happens these drives were not that successful at achieving these primary aims, but they were particularly effective in clearing the country of livestock. Coupled with a scorched earth policy, whereby farms and crops were routinely burned, the British essentially cleared the land of any sustenance.

Having adopted such tactics in order to starve the Boer guerilla army into submission, the British could hardly leave the civilian population to suffer. Since they had already set up a number of camps to house and protect the families of the Boers that had surrendered and taken an oath of neutrality, they decided to expand the camp system and took to herding any civilians they came across to the nearest railway station and transporting them to a refugee camp.

It as at this point that we need to get one thing clear. Despite what you may have read (for example in Concentration Camps, A British Idea), the British did not invent the concentration camp. That particular accolade goes to the Spanish, in particular one General Valeriano Weyler who, when faced with a rebellion in Cuba in 1895, began removing the Cuban peasants from their land and placing them in 'reconcentrados'. In English 'reconcentrado' became concentration camp, and earned a certain odious reputation for ill-treatment. When the British army first began constructing camps during their South African war, no one called them concentration camps, they were simply called refugee camps or laagers. It was not until March 1901 that the term 'concentration camp' was first used to describe the British refugee camps in South Africa by the Liberal MPs Charles Prestwich Scott and John Ellis, who were engaged in a piece of (fairly justifiable) political mud slinging directed against the government. The designation of concentration camp stuck, and quite rightly, since it was clearly the intention of the British to concentrate the Boer civilian population in a number of distinct and controllable locations.

It is also worth noting in this context that at same time the British were building their concentration camps in Africa, the United States of America was doing much the same thing in the Philippines for much the same reasons.

"When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism."2

These concentration camps were set up by the British military with the best of intentions, simply as a means of preventing the civilian populations of the Boer republics from starvation. But as always, the devil is in the detail and unfortunately Kitchener was not a man who cared to much about the detail of policy. Having established the camps he paid little attention to the day-to-day business of running them. Thus the camps were inadequately supplied and supervised, the prescribed rations were on the skimpy side and little attention was paid to sanitary conditions within them. As might be expected concentrating large numbers of people in makeshift accommodation without worrying too much about sanitation provides a perfect breeding ground for disease and it wasn't long before people began dying.

The death toll might well have been catastrophic were it not for the efforts of a forty-one year old Cornish spinster by the name of Emily Hobhouse. Emily, who had spent much of the early period of her life looking after her sick father until his death in 1895, came from a family with a tradition of favouring radical causes, and seems to have been on the lookout for a cause of her own. Having tried her hand at temperance campaigning in Minnesota, she became concerned about the treatment of civilians in Southern Africa and in October 1900 she set up the South African Women and Children Distress Fund. Not long afterwards on the 27th December 1900 she arrived in South Africa, approached the High Commissioner Arthur Milner3 and received permission to conduct a tour of the refugee camps in order to distribute the aid that had been collected by her fund.

She first visited the Bloemfontein camp on the 24th January 1901 and found that the camp was overcrowded, with poor sanitation and that the water supply was inadequate. Emily recommended some improvements and then went on a tour of other camps which she found were all just as bad if not worse than Bloemfontein. When she returned to Bloemfontein in April she found that conditions had deteriorated even further as the camp had been swamped by waves of new arrivals. But what shocked her most of all was the extent to which disease was taking hold in the camps and causing "a death-rate such as had never been known except in the times of the Great Plague". Thoroughly alarmed at what she now saw as a humanitarian disaster in the making she decided to return to Britain.

Once Emily was back home, she began to tell her story to any one who would listen, spoke at a number of public meetings and wrote a report on the South African camps. The report was formally addressed to the committee of the Distress Fund, but its true audience was the House of Commons; when it was published in June 1901 she circulated copies to all members of parliament. Emily managed to speak to the Liberal Party leader, Henry Campbell-Bannerman who was suitably outraged but disinclined to press the matter. (His party was split between Liberal Imperialist and pro-Boer factions, and he had no wish to rock the boat.) There were however, more radical Liberals such as David Lloyd George and John Ellis who were prepared to raise the matter in Parliament and harass the government on the issue, which they duly did.

St John Brodrick4, the secretary of state for war, first defended the government's policy by arguing that the camps were purely 'voluntary', and when that position proved untenable, stated that they were simply a military necessity and that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps. The publication of Emily Hobhouse's report in June 1901 rather contradicted Brodrick's claim that 'everything possible was being done', and Lloyd George openly accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. Brodrick fell back on the old military necessity argument, but although the government comfortably won the debate by a margin of 252 to 149 it was stung by the criticism and decided that something needed to be done.

So the government appointed a commission of inquiry to go out and investigate conditions in the camps. The Fawcett Commission as it became known was, uniquely for its time, an all-woman affair and headed by Millicent Fawcett who, despite being the leader of the women's suffrage movement, was a Liberal Unionist and thus a government supporter and considered a safe pair of hands.

Between August and December 1901 the Fawcett Commission conducted its own tour of refugee camps in South Africa. Whilst it is probable that St John Brodrick expected the Commission to produce a report that absolved the government of any fault, in the end it confirmed everything that Emily Hobhouse had said. Indeed, if anything the Commission's recommendations went even further than Emily had asked for; they insisted that rations should be increased, that additional nurses by sent out immediately, and included a long list of other practical measures designed to improve conditions in the camp. Millicent Fawcett was quite blunt in expressing her opinion that it was all down to a simple failure to observe elementary rules of hygiene. Her message got through to the government and in November 1901 Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary ordered Arthur Milner to ensure that "all possible steps are being taken to reduce the rate of mortality". Thus the civil authority took over the running the camps and by the spring of 1901 the mortality rate in the camps had fallen to 2%, which was a lower rate than pertained in many British cities at the time.

It is however worth noting that Emily Hobhouse and the Fawcett Commission only ever concerned themselves with the camps that held white Boer refugees. No one paid much attention to what was going on in the camps that held native refugees.

In total some 26,730 Boers died in the concentration camps, and of these at least 20,000 were avoidable deaths. Although official government figures showed almost 15,000 deaths in the native camps, the current view is that a truer figure was in excess of 20,000.

In the end the Blockhouse system worked, and the Boer guerilla armies were eventually starved into surrendering, although the eventual terms of the peace agreed at Vereeniging turned out favourably for the Boers, as by then the British were becoming tired of the war. At the time, curiously enough many Boers bore little resentment towards the British as regards the concentration camp policy. Louis Botha is even on record as saying of the camps that "one is only too thankful nowadays to know that our wives are under English protection". The point being that conditions for those women and children who hadn't been rounded up and interned by the British were much worse. However such feelings were not universal and resentment against the British continued in some quarters for many years thereafter. As recently as 1999, certain Afrikaners were calling for Queen Elizabeth II to issue a formal apology for the camps.


NOTES

1 That is Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener although he was only the Baron Kitchener at this time.
2 According to Henry Campbell-Bannerman.
3 Alfred Milner, later Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner was the high commissioner for South Africa and governor-general of the Cape Colony.
4 St John Brodrick, as he was known at the time, later became the 9th Viscount Middleton in 1907 but was afterwards created the Earl of Midleton and is thus known to posterity as William St John Fremantle Brodrick, 1st Earl of Midleton.


SOURCES

  • Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1997)
  • Ed Vulliamy Concentration Camps http://www.crimesofwar.org/thebook/concentration-camps.html
  • Imperialism in the dock - the Boer War Wednesday, November 10, 1999 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/513944.stm
  • Hennie Barnard The Concentration Camps 1899-1902 http://www.boer.co.za/boerwar/hellkamp.htm

The Hennie Barnard source takes a particularly extreme view of the camps, to be expected from a website that proclaims the Boers as "the only White indigenous tribe in Southern Africa".

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