History of the Anglo-Boer War

Concentration Camps

In early March 1901 Lord Kitchener decided to break the stalemate that the extremely costly war had settled into. It was costing the British taxpayer 2,5 million pounds a month. He decided to sweep the country bare of everything that can give sustenance to the Boers i.e. cattle, sheep, horses, women and children.

Scorched Earth Policy

Image 5 1

W H Coetzer triptych depicting the Scorch Earth policy

This scorched earth policy led to the destruction of about 30000 Boer farmhouses and the partial and complete destruction of more than forty towns.. Thousands of women and children were removed from their homes by force. They had little or no time to remove valuables before the house was burnt down. They were then taken by ox wagon or in open cattle trucks to the nearest camp.

Conditions in the camps were less than ideal. Tents were overcrowded. Reduced-scale army rations were provided. In fact there were two scales. Meat was not included in the rations issued to women and children whose menfolk were still fighting. There were little or no vegetables, no fresh milk for the babies and children, 3/4 lb of either mealie meal, rice or potatoes, 1 lb of meat twice weekly, I oz of coffee daily, sugar 2 oz daily, and salt 0,5 oz daily (this was for adults and children who had family members on commando).

Children who were under six years of age received 0,5 lb of meal daily, 1/2 meat twice weekly, 1/4 tin of milk daily, 1 oz sugar daily and 1/2 oz of salt daily. This very poor diet led to the rapid spread of diseases such as whooping cough, measles, typhoid fever, diphtheria, diarrhoea and dysentery, especially amongst the children.

There was a chronic shortage of both medical supplies and medical staff. Eventually 26 370 women and children (81% were children) died in the concentration camps.

The visit of the British humanitarian, Miss Emily Hobhouse, a delegate of the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund to the camps in the southern Orange Free State led to an improvement in the conditions.

On her return to Britain the story she told of the conditions under which the women and children had to live shocked everyone not committed to believe in the inevibility of the war and the harsh measures that was to end it.

Her fifteen page report to the Committee of the Distress Fund was first circulated to MP’s and published in late June. From August to December 1901 the Fawcett Commssion visited the different camps and presented their report in December confirming in all essentials the accuracy of Emily Hobhouse’s account.

Image 7 1

A memorial slab dedicated to the women and children who died in the Winburg Concentration Camp - Women's Memorial, Bloemfontein

Sculpture group 1

The sculpture group of the Women's Memorial by Anton van Wouw

They berated the camp authorities for the red tape which complicated the running of the camps, the spread of diseases that should have been foreseen, elementary rules of sanitation that had been forgotten, the vegetables that should have been provided; and the fact that medical staff should have been rushed to the scene as soon as the epidemics broke out.

Their recommendations led to improvements within the camp system. By February the annual death-rate in the camps were to drop to 6.9 percent and soon to 2 percent.

Black Camps

Black Concentration camps 1

Some 30000 Boer farmhouses were destroyed and the Boer women and children were removed to concentration camps. Of necessity the Black servants and workers also had to be removed, to prevent them from helping their employers on commando with food and information.

Furthermore nobody was left on the farm to feed them. Thirty-seven Black concentration camps are recorded in Transvaal (the former South African Republic) and twenty-nine in the Orange River Colony (the former Orange Free State).

These camps held an estimated total of 115 000 people at the height of their existence. The camps were mainly sited along the railway lines from Bloemfontein northwards to Pretoria and then eastwards to Nelspruit. From Johannesburg the camps were established south eastwards down the line to Volksrust and some along the line from the Orange River to Taung in the Northern Cape.

Local camps not on main railway lines were those at Thaba Nchu, Winburg, Heilbron and Harrismith. The locality of the camps in Natal, have as yet not been established. Initially the camps were under the control of the military but after June 1901 the control was passed on to the newly established Department of Native Refugees.

Half of the recorded Black deaths occurred in the three months between November and January 1901 – 2831 deaths were recorded in December 1901. Some 81% of the deaths were children. Officially 14154 deaths were recorded but as the records of the camps are unsatisfactory the number could be as high as 20000.