Death in the Concentration Camps.

Bloemfoentein Concentration Camp, seen from a distance. Photo Credit: National Archives UK
Bloemfoentein Concentration Camp, seen from a distance. Photo Credit: National Archives UK

As the situation outside the camps devolved, a combination of neglect and evil intent were creating an altogether different kind of war crime inside of them.[1] By the end of 1901, 45 camps for white Boers and 64 for African natives had been established, ostensibly, according to Kitchener, to keep the white populace safe from native unrest. Although publicly Kitchener and the rest of the military staff insisted that the camps were supposed to be safe, warm, and well supplied, in private Kitchener viewed the camps as a way to horrify the Boers into submission. In his correspondence in 1900, Kitchener outlines a plan to weaponize the starvation of children:

“the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerrillas… The women and children brought in should be divided in two categories, viz.: 1st. Refugees, and the families of Neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Burghers. 2nd. those whose husbands, fathers and sons are on Commando. The preference in accommodation, etc. should of course be given to the first class.”[2][3]

While in theory this punishment was to be meted out only to the families of resisting commandos, in practice bad supply lines and a malicious apathy on the part of the British meant that everyone in the concentration camps began to suffer as well. Compounded with the poor design of the camps which left internees exposed to the elements and unsanitary conditions; the Boers began to die. Although records are incomplete, by the end of the Second Boer War almost 28,000 women and children had starved or died from disease in the camps. Of these, an estimated 22,000 were children. Another 14,000 black internees were also killed by this mix of neglect and calculated tactics, or more than one in ten of the total interned population.

Reflecting why she came to help when so few did: "I came quite naturally, in obedience to the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood ... it is when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and that a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself." Photo Credit: Peter Venter
Reflecting why she came to help when so few did: “I came quite naturally, in obedience to the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood … it is when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and that a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself.”
Photo Credit: Peter Venter

As 1901 wore on, it was hard for some reporters and human rights activists to ignore the stench of death wafting from the camps. The British government initially defended the camps as “voluntary”, which seemed like an odd choice when the alternative was simply getting shot or starving outdoors, then finally as “military necessity”, but the activist Emily Hobhouse finally threw back the curtain.

When the Second Boer war had begun, Hobhouse had taken an active role protesting the war, and by summer of 1900 she had focused in exclusively on helping the women and children of the Boers caught in the war. By December of that year she moved to Cape Colony to administer a relief fund she had personally founded. It didn’t take her long to catch rumors of what was actually happening inside the concentration camps. In January she obtained permission to visit one of the first ones set up outside Bloemfontein. Appalled by the conditions she found, Hobhouse continued to visit the camps, and observe the policy of mass deportation carried out in the countryside. With some difficulty, her dispatches began to appear in Britain. In one of the most wrenching passages:

“Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing.”[4][5]

Lizzie van Zyl, one of the victims of the tiered ration system. Photo by Emily Hobhouse
Lizzie van Zyl, one of the victims of the tiered ration system. Photo by Emily Hobhouse

In Hobhouse’s conclusion, the whole system was one of systemic abuse, and there were many in Britain who shared this view after reading her work.[6] Future Prime Minister and liberal politician David Lloyd-George warned that: “A barrier of dead children’s bodies will rise between the British and Boer races in South Africa.” As the outcry grew, the British government promised to launch their own investigation into the situation in the camps. As the resulting Fawcett Commission began to take shape though, Kitchener seemed more interested in simply moving the Boer civilians further out of the public eye. As the months dragged on, the only concrete action that seemed to happen was Hobhouse’s forcible removal from South Africa. Writing bitterly to Milner in late 1901, “Your brutal orders have been carried out and thus I hope you will be satisfied. Your narrow incompetency to see the real issues of this great struggle is leading you to such acts as this and many others, straining [staining S.K.] your own name and the reputation of England…”[7]

Milner had assumed civil control of the camps in March 1901, but he was beginning to feel sick with the entire project. The death toll was appalling, and in addition to the political damage they were causing, there was no sign they were doing anything to bring the commandos to the negotiating table. Christiaan de Wet’s own wife and children were in one, as was Koos de La Ray’s mother, but both men persisted in carrying on the fight from the countryside. By December, Milner wrote in his diary,

“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.”

A French expose on the concentration camps in Transvaal. Photo credit: Jean Veber
A French expose on the concentration camps in Transvaal. Photo credit: Jean Veber

While Milner was busy telling anyone who would listen that he wouldn’t have agreed to this project if “I could have foreseen that the soldiers meant to sweep the whole population of the country higgledy piggledy into a couple of dozen camps”, he couldn’t find a way to end the system. The Transvaal and Orange Free State had been scorched by the war, and even when he offered to open the camp doors, the commandos had refused to take their relatives. No more than the British, the Boers didn’t want to be responsible for watching their friends and family slowly starve to death. Even as the Fawcett Commission bore out Emily Hobhouse’s writing in full, the commissioners couldn’t recommend emptying the camp. It would be a death sentence for more than a hundred thousand women and children to do so. Instead, as the war’s final guerrilla units were stamped out, the Boer families remained interned and dying. However, even today the final death toll remains unclear. Within the camps themselves Milner seemed to have a genuine change of heart, and from his writings clearly struggled to actually supply the camps and improve conditions. However, outside was another story. Although Kitchener couldn’t relocate the camps, in the final months of the war he changed his orders to leave the women and children in the field during subsequent drive hunts. Better in his eyes that they starved away from the prying cameras of the public press.

[1] Boer commando Jan Smuts sums up Kitchener’s strategy well: “The basic principle behind Lord Kitchener’s tactics has been to win, not so much through direct operations against fighting commandos, but rather indirectly by bringing the pressure of war against defenseless women and children. … This violation of every international law is really very characteristic of the nation which always plays the role of chosen judge over the customs and behavior of all other nations.

[2] SAHistory.org, quoting Kitchener’s internal correspondence.

[3] The idea was also implemented in a haphazard way. Many of the Transvaal camps stopped the two tiered system after just a few months, though that did little to address the underlying problems that killed so many.

[4] Incidentally, Hobhouse’s wrenching dispatches were published in the Manchester Guardian. Then as now, the paper’s decision to shine a light on the dark heart democracies plunge into during wars of choice was a deeply unpopular one with many. Journalists for the paper received death threats for publishing the expose.

[5] In contrast to Hobhouse, Morant’s comrade Witton blames conditions in the concentration camps on their occupants, as they “had lived all their lives without even knowing what sanitation and cleanliness meant.”

[6] Though not all. Reverand John Knox Little called the concentration camps “Among the unexampled efforts of kindness and leniency made throughout this war for the benefit of the enemy,”

[7] SAhistory.org

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