1900-1919 | Concentration camps

Lord Kitchener deceives South African Boers with empty promises

Kitchener (public domain via Wikimedia) and Lizzie van Zyl, a child, who died in Bloemfontein Concentration Camp. (Public domain via Wikimedia.)

20 December 1900

On 20 December 1900, General Lord Kitchener issued a propaganda proclamation in which he promised South African Boer insurgents, who surrendered voluntarily, that they would be allowed to live in government run camps along with their families ‘until such time as the guerrilla warfare now being carried on will admit of their safely returning to their own homes.’ It added that ‘all stock and property brought in at the time of surrender… will be respected, and paid for if requisitioned by the military authorities.’1

An editorial in The Scotsman lauded Kitchener’s generosity, reassuring its readers that those who surrendered would ‘live with their families, under restraint it is true, but in comparative comfort.’ The paper disparaged the suggestion of unpatriotic ‘pro-Boers’ that the plan might be compared to Spain’s use of concentration camps in Cuba. ‘In Cuba,’ the editorial declared, ‘the people were driven into the camps under military compulsion and when they were half starved,’ but in South Africa ‘the camps will be open to those who desire to come in and the British government will not be troubled with Spain’s misfortune of impecuniosity.’2

The reality, however, was to be rather different.  On 21 December, Kitchener issued an internal army memo recommending that Boer women, children and men ‘unfit for military duty’ be interned in concentration camps so as to isolate the civilian population from the rebels.  Although, families who did not have members known to be fighting against the British were to be given priority to what shelter and food was available, this was limited.3 The camps lacked sufficient supplies of food, drinking water, blankets, bedding, clothing, fuel for cooking and adequate medical facilities. As a consequence, 28,000 Boers and 14,000 Africans would die while in detention, some from starvation and others from diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery resulting from a combination of malnutrition and the overcrowded unsanitary conditions.4


  1. ‘Proclamation of Lord Kitchener,’ St James’s Gazette, 27 December 1900, p. 9.
  2. Editorial, The Scotsman, 28 December 1900, p. 4.
  3. ‘Women and Children in White Concentration Camps During the Anglo-Boer War 1900-02,’ South African History Online, accessed online at url  https://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/women-children-white-concentration-camps-during-anglo-boer-war-1900-1902
  4. Simon Webb, British Concentration Camps: A Brief History from 1900 – 1975, Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2016, p. 29.

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