British concentration camps in South Africa

Looking into the camps set up during the Boer War

A conversation the other evening sparked my history nerve: the concentration camps set up by the British Army in South Africa during the Second Boer War of the 1890s.

Concentration camp is one of those trigger phrases which brings to mind the worst attrocities of Nazi Germany, and is generally used with that subtext, and I realised I didn’t know as much as I should about the Boer camps to put my own perspective on the subject. So I did what every curious but lazy person does these days, and turned to Wikipedia.

Essentially, as far as I can understand, Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces, set up the camps to house Boer families and black Africans displaced by the scorched earth strategy he used against the Boer guerilla fighters. The camps were badly run, leading to appalling conditions, with bad sanitation and starvation leading to epidemics of desase with dreadfully fatal consequences. A contemporary government enquiry established that there were over 100 camps and over 150,000 internees. Over 28,000 people died in them, of whom 25,000 were children under 16. Half of the entire Boer child population at the time. Such shocking figures are difficult to comprehend.

Some believe that it was Kitchener’s indifference to the plight of the people, rather than a deliberate policy of genocide, that led to the tragedy. Nevertheless, when Kitchener made the decision to force civilians off their land and into camps administered by the British Army, he also took on the responsibility for feeding them and caring for them; which he signally, and criminally, failed to do.

The full horror of the situation was well known to people at the time, with notable Victorians such as Arthur Conan-Doyle writing on the subject (opinions from the past are always alarming to contemporary eyes).

But for me the fascination of research is the discovery of people I hadn’t heard of before, and in this case it was the remarkable Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman who travelled to South Africa and saw the suffering in the camps for herself, leading to the establishment by the government of the Fawcett Commission to investigate. Incidentally, the Fawcett Commission (under Dame Millicent Fawcett) itself is interesting, since it seems to have consisted entirely of women – uniquely for a British government commission at the time.

So, the story is a horrific one without doubt, with the British Government to blame for appalling suffering. But should these camps be considered in the same way as the Nazi camps of the 1940s? I don’t believe so, since the scale and – more importantly – the intended purpose, are not remotely the same.

I’d relish the opportunity to discuss this further. Use the link on the left to comment.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


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