Famine in British concentration camp for South African Boers
24 January 1901
By January 1901, British troops had been engaged for over a year in a prolonged military campaign in South Africa to quell an insurgency by elusive Boer rebels who were demanding greater independence. General Lord Kitchener, who had taken over command of British forces in South Africa in November 1900, was ruthlessly determined to deprive the Boer guerrilla forces of support and undermine their morale. His chosen method: burning down the farms and homes of their families and locking up tens of thousands of women and children in concentration camps.
On 24 January, Emily Hobhouse, a British social welfare campaigner, visited a camp at Bloemfontein, where 1,800 women and children and men of non-military age were being confined. In a report which provoked public outrage, when it was published in June in the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian, she described emaciated and dying children ‘just exactly like faded flowers thrown away’, the flies ‘lying thick and black on everything,’ and the sick sleeping on saturated blankets on wet ground at night with no shade to shelter from the sun during the day besides the thin single canvas of the overcrowded tents.1 She also revealed that;
‘soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate… Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.’2
As Hobhouse visited other camps over the following three months she noted the growing desperation as tens of thousands of additional women and children, driven away from their burned down homes, were added to the numbers of internees. Mortality figures continued to mount even after her report was published, peaking at 3,205 in the month of October. By the time the war ended and the camps were dismantled in 1902, 26,251 Boer women and children, about a quarter of all those held in detention and representing 15 per cent of the entire Boer population, had died as a result of disease and hunger. However, at the same time and virtually unnoticed in the British press, about 14,000 black people are also estimated to have died in separate camps, where even tents were deemed an unnecessary luxury. 2,831 black internees died in the month of December 1901 alone, the mortality exceeding even the peak level in the white camps.3
- Report by Emily Hobhouse in The Daily News cited in ‘The Boer Refugees – As Seen by an Eye Witness – Horrible Conditions of Camps,’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 19 June 1901, p. 4 and in The Manchester Guardian, 19 June 1901, accessed via The Guardian archive blog at url https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2011/may/19/guardian190-south-africa-concentration-camps
- Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp January 1901, cited in John Allen, Apartheid South Africa: An Insider’s Overview of the Origin and Effects of Separate Development, iUniverse, Lincoln, 2005 p. 331
- Simon Webb, British Concentration Camps: A Brief History From 1900 – 1975, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, 2016, pp. 22-23.
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