skip to page content | skip to main navigation
summary
 SOCRATES  E-JOURNALS  SITE SEARCH  ASK US  TEXTONLY SULAIR HOME  SU HOME
 Catalog and Search Tools  Research Help   Libraries and Collections  Services  How To ...  About SULAIR

African Collection
Find African Studies Information

Printer-Friendly Printer-Friendly     



Concentration Camps during the South African / Boer War,
1899-1902

An example of classes and types of British official documents in the Stanford libraries for the study of primary sources.

The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy's army, and then causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.
(U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan, advice to Otto Von Bismark, 1870)

[Re: Union Army, house burning etc.,: C.O. Confidential Print Africa (South) no. 653 pp. 28-29, 35, 39-40, 42-44. Nov. 1901 = Hoover Library MFILM DT32.A258, reel 115]

"At Vereeniging [May 1902] Botha stated that he had tried to send [Boer] families in to the British, but they had Cover of a report on the refugee campsrefused to receive them," writes S.B. Spies, who then quotes a Boer Commandant referring to Boer women and children made refugees by Britain's scorched-earth policy, "Our families are in a pitiable condition and the enemy uses those families to force us to surrender." Spies adds, "and there is little doubt that that was indeed the intention of Kitchener when he had issued instructions that no more families were to be brought into the concentration camps." (1) [W.O. 108/9 file no.1] [W.O. 108/9 file no.3]

Thomas Pakenham writes of Kichener's policy turn, "No doubt the continued 'hullabaloo' at the death-rate in these concentration camps, and Milner's belated agreement to take over their administration, helped changed K's mind [some time at the end of 1901]. By mid-December at any rate, Kitchener was already circulating all column commanders with instructions not to bring in women and children when they cleared the country, but to leave them with the guerrillas. . . . Viewed as a gesture to Liberals, on the eve of the new session of Parliament at Westminster, it was a shrewd political move. It also made excellent military sense, as it greatly handicapped the guerrillas, now that the drives were in full swing. . . . It was effective precisely because, contrary to the Liberals' convictions, it was less humane than bringing them into camps, though this was of no great concern to K." (2)

What then were the facts of British policy towards Boer and African civilians during the Boer War of 1899-1902 that leading Boers can complain, in May 1902 (during the meeting of Boer delegates at Vereeninging to negotiate a peace settlement), that the British no longer would take their women and children in to the concentartion camps? Seven months earlier Boer leaders (Burger and Reitz) had protested directly to the British government in a letter sent to K. and addressed to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, about the farm clearing and camp conditions. [Cd. 902 p. 121-22]. Six months earlier still in June, 1901, Liberal opposition party leader Campbell-Bannerman, could answer the rhetorical "When is a war not a war?" with "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa," referring to those same camps and the policies that created them.

Even prior to K's order to stop bringing Boer women and children in to the camps (and this order didn't apply to black Africans, caught in British sweeps, who had their own camps and story of death, neglect and war-related suffering), there had been debates among military and Conservative government officials on the efficacy of the camps and the desirability of returning "refugees" to the guerrillas -- aside from the moral debate waged in Britain and in Europe by opposition M.P.s, reformers, and Pro-Boers in and out of Britain. The director of Military Intelligence had reported as early as July 1901 of evidence that leaving women and children on the veldt would necessarily shorten the conflict. [C.O. 417/334, 29838, Henderson to Altham, July 26, 1901]. Milner and Chamberlain also disagreed over whether women and children in the camps should be given the option of leaving the camps. and Milner informed Chamberlain in November 1901 that "even if the war were to come to an end tomorrow, it would not be possible to let people in the concentration camps go back home . . ." [Cd. 903 p. 135 Nov 15 1901, Milner to Chamberlain] K, on the other hand, responding to the above-mentioned November indictment by Burger and Reitz, informed Boer leaders that he presumed this meant that they were prepared to take care of their own, and that he was prepared to send back the women and children as soon as the commandos told him where they would like them. [W.O. 32/871, 7972] K also wrote at this time to Brodrick defending his policy of sweeps, and emphasizing that no new Boer families were being brought in unless they were in danger of starving. [Cd. 902, no.12, p.119-20] About the same time and supporting Milner's viewpoint, the Fawcett Commission report, December 1901, stated:

to turn 100,000 people now being held in the concentration camps out on the veldt to take care of themselves would be cruelty . . . [p.4] (3)

The private and public responses of Milner and Chamberlain to the growing debate in England over treatment of the internees recorded in their own papers and official documentary sources form an instructive study in political decision-making, face-saving (who knew what when), and moral rationalizing in a liberal democracy. They also show that moral niceties can frequently be more easily overlooked, both at the individual and governmental levels, so as long as political goals are being met. During this same time, though, Spies writes, "There can be little doubt that Milner and Chamberlain were responsible for injecting the administrative staff of the camps with this sense of urgency" [after the camps were transferred to civilian control in November 1901]. Both the secretary of state and the high commisioner had become extremely concerned about conditions in the concentration camps, and about the consequent unfavorable publicity. Their correspondence shows concern with all aspects of camp administration including such matters as the availability of milk and the nutritional value of rations; remarkable concerns for two of the most prominent figures of the Empire. [Cd. 902] Chamberlain, in the first week of November, impressed upon Brodrick (secretary of war) how serious the matter was . . ." (4) And Chamberlain soon thereafter placed a call for medical officers for the camps and, somewhat later, additional nurses. [C.O. Confidential Print 672, 673]

An example of the above in Milner's case compares statements made in December 1901 and January 1902 that K's policy of concentartion camps as a "mistake," "blunder," and "sad folly," with the high commissioner's statement to the Cabinet of June 26, 1901 proposing alternatives to K's overall policy where he argues, "The purely aggressive and destructive policy will, sooner or later, have done all it can do. It may yet prove completely successful. " [Cab 41/26 June 21 & 28 1901 = SUL MTXT microfilm n.s. 942]. Spies states that Milner knew first-hand what K was up to prior to the high commisioner's English holiday, May, 1901. (Spies, p. 255-256). When the war continued to drag on, or so at least it seemed to the Cabinet, so they pressed K in October on "the reason which had led Lord Kitchener to a policy of sweeping instead of a policy of reserving protected areas," the latter approach the one emphasized by Milner. (Spies, p. 247). [Cab 41/26, 22 Oct. 29 1901 = SUL MTXT microfilm n.s. 1500]

Public opinion and political opposition to government civilian policies in South Africa emerged for the first time in Parliament in February 1901 in the instance of an attack on the policy, the government, and the Army by radical Liberal M.P. and leader of the "pro-Boer" pack, Lloyd-George. [Hansard LXXXIX, 397-406, Feb. 18, 1901] Kitchener had succeeded Roberts as commander-in-chief in South Africa November 29, 1900, and though his systematic sweeps of the countryside would not get underway in full-swing until March of the next year, Roberts policy of farm burning had already brought thousands of Boers and black Africans into "refugee camps" established by the Army to hold them.

In March 1901, just as Kitchener's troops begin to bring tens-of-thousands of "refugees" into the camps, Liberal members of Parliament C.P Scott and John Ellis took up the attack on the camp system and first used the term "concentration camp." [Hansard XC, March 1 1901]. Secretary for war Brodrick replied that the camps were "voluntary" and that inmates went as refugees (which was in some cases true, but not most). Pakenham describes the events in South Africa and this moment: in order to break the stalemate K. initiated plans to "flush out guerrillas in a series of sytematic drives, organized like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly 'bag' of killed, captured and wounded, and to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children. . . . It was the clearance of civilians -- uprooting a whole nation -- that would come to dominate the last phase of the war." Brodrick cabled K for information on March 18; K replied by cable on March 22. [Cd. 819, p. 2-3]

Responding to these attacks on the Government, secretary of war Brodrick insisted that the interned Boers were "contented and confortable", but still had no firm statistics from Kitchener. [Hansard XC, col. 1026, March 8, 1901] Also: [Hansard XCVI, col. 148, June 27, 1901] In April the Government gave the House of Commons the first statistics on the camps, provided by Kitchener. [Hansard XCII, col. 895-896, April 22, 1901] Also: [Hansard XCIII, col. 407, May 2 & col. 929, May 7, 1901] Extensive statistical tables were published in the Parliamentary Papers [e.g., Cd. 939, 942, 1161], which were picked up and used in anti-British pamphlets on the Continent. [F.O. Confidential Print 7720/39]

On May 8, 1901, Lord Milner, High Commissioner, South Africa, boarded the Saxon for holiday in England. Emily Hobhouse was also on board, and would from this time on play a key role in the camp question. Milner, unfortunately for both the Boer women and children and the British government, had no time for Miss Hobhouse, a Boer sympathizer and "trouble maker." (Pakenham, p. 531-32, 536+.) On May 24, 1901 the Saxon arrived in England, and Hobhouse got to work: The first week of June 1901 she met with St. John Brodrick at the War Office; and the following week with opposition party leader Campbell-Bannerman. She also talked to anyone else who would listen to her, and many listened to perhaps the only person in England, not in the Army, who had been in the camps. Radical M.P. Ellis is among those that paid attention, and sent a relative out to South Africa on a fact-finding mission. When his representative was refused entry to the camps by Kitchener, "Ellis' instincts were arroused." [Hansard XCV, June 17, 1901] During this time, Hobhouse's 15 page Brunt of War report was distributed to M.Ps. This report and her personal testimony led to C-B's "Methods of barbarism" speech, mentioned above, of June 14, 1901; and to another attack on the Government in the Commons by Lloyd-George on June 17, 1901. Lloyd-George asked, "Why pursue this disgraceful policy, why pursue war against women and children." Six other radicals and one Irish Nationalist joined in his denunciation. [Hansard XCV, 573, June 17, 1901]. During this time C-B showed his own new-found radicalism concerning the War. [Hansard XCV, 583-622, June 17, 1901] Brodrick replied for the Government. [Hansard XCV, 590-597] LG's motion condemning the camps was defeated 252 to 149. [Hansard XCV, 622]

Then in July complete statistical returns from camps were sent by K., and by August it was clear to Government and Opposition alike that Miss Hobhouse's worst fears were being confirmed (93,940 whites and 24, 457 blacks in "camps of refuge" and the crisis was becoming a catatrophe as the death rates appeared very high. [Cd. 608, Cd. 694]

Brodrick hoped to defuse the situation by constituting a commission of inquiry, an all-ladies commission, which was quickly selected, and sent out to South Africa in August. The ladies remained in South Africa through early December, at which time they returned to England and quickly issued their findings, which Pakenham calls "constructive and pungent. If B expected a ladylike white wash he was in for a surprise." [Fawcett Report: Cd. 893/1-2]

Pakenham sums up the affair:

Of course, they [Fawcett report findings] were of no confort to the government. But Chamberlain had at long last got the message . . . Milner was in theory the man responsible for the camps, but the main decisions (or their absence) had been left to the soldiers, to whom the life or death of the 154,000 Boer and African civilians in the camps rated as an abysmally low priority.

. . . the terrible mortality figures were at last declining. The commonsense of the Fawcett Commission had a magical effect on the annual death-rate, which was to fall by February to 6 per cent. and soon to 2 per cent., less than the average in Glasgow.

Ten months after the subject had first been raised in Parliament, Lloyd-George's taunts and CB's harsh words at the Holborn Restaurant had been vindicated. In the interval, at least twenty thousand whites and twelve thousand coloured people had died in the concentration camps, the majority from epidemics of measles and typhoid that could have been avoided.(5)

Colonial Office official H.W. Just summarized the events, from the government's viewpoint, in a memorandum dated January 16, 1902. It was printed in the C.O. Confidential Print. [C.O. Confidential Print 676]


Notes

1) S.B. Spies. Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900 - May 1902. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1977, p. 260-261. For Sheridan quote see Spies, p.296 and note 76. Return to text
2) Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York: Avon Books, 1979, p.581. Return to text
3) For a detailed account over the debate on the release of internees, see Spies, p. 257+. Return to text
4) Spies, p. 255-56. Return to text
5) Pakenham, p. 549. Somewhat higher figures for total deaths are given by Spies, p. 265. Return to text

Compiled by John Rawlings, rawlings@stanford.edu

 

Last modified: June 27, 2005

     
© Stanford University. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use | Copyright Complaints
[an error occurred while processing this directive]