History of the Anglo-Boer War

1st Batch of POW's

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The Exiled by Danie de Jager, 1980 - War Museum of the Boer Republics

The first sizable batch of Boer prisoners of war taken by the British consisted of those captured at the battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October 1899. No camps had been prepared and by arrangement with the Naval authorities these prisoners (approximately 200 men) were temporarily housed on the naval guard ship HMS Penelope in Simon’s Bay. Several ships were used as floating prisoner of war camps until permanent camps were established at Greenpoint, Cape Town and Bellevue, Simonstown. The first prisoners were accommodated in Bellevue on 28 February 1900. Wounded prisoners were sent to the old Cape Garrison Artillery Barracks at Simonstown which had been converted into the Palace hospital. The first wounded arrived on 2 November 1899.

Towards the end of 1900 with the first invasion of the Cape Colony the prisoners at Cape Town and Simonstown were placed on board ships. At the end of December 1900 some 2550 men were placed on board the Kildonan Castle where they remained for six weeks before they were removed to two other transports at Simons’ bay.

The camp at Ladysmith, Natal was in use from 20 December 1900 until January 1902. It was mainly used as a staging camp although it had some 120 prisoners of war. Another staging camp was also established at Umbilo in Natal.

Prisoners of war repatriated to South Africa after the cessations of hostilities were sent on arrival to Simonstown or Umbilo. Here they were provided with blankets and clothes before being sent of by train to their final destinations. As the war developed the number of prisoners increased and the provision of accommodation raised some serious problems for the British authorities. This was particularly so after the surrender of General P A Cronje and approximately 4000 burghers at Paardeberg. To keep large camps supplied while conducting a war over large areas would only have imposed intolerable strains on already overburdened supply lines. Not only this, but there was the very real danger of insurrections in the neighbourhood of the camps and the risk of the release of the captives. The solution to the problem was found in the shipment of the prisoners overseas.

POW Camps Overseas

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The first overseas camps were opened in St Helena.The SS Milwaukee arrived off St Helena on 11 April 1900 with 514 prisoners on board. This was the first batch of some 5000 prisoners housed in the two camps on the island namely Broadbottom and Deadwood. Six loads of prisoners of war from South Africa were landed in the Bermudas during the period 28 June 1901 to 16th January 1902. The camps were situated on islands in the Great Sound namely:

  • Burts (400 men)
  • Darrell’s, (1100 men)
  • Hawkins (1300 men)
  • Hinson’s (120 men)
  • Morgans (850 men)
  • vi Tuckers (800 men)
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Smoking Pipes made by Boer POW's - War Museum of the Boer Republic

The first batch of prisoners arrived in Ceylon on 9 August 1900 and subsequently others followed until some 5 000 prisoners had landed. Diyatalawa was the main camp. Mt Lavinia was the convalescent camp while dissidents and irreconcilables were housed at Ragama. A camp for prisoners on parole was also opened at Urugasmanhandiya in September 1901. Hambantota was also a parole camp. Camps were established in India at the following places:

  • Abottabad
  • Ahmednagar
  • Bellary
  • Bhim Tal
  • Dagshai and Solon
  • Fort Govindgarh
  • Kaity-Nilgiris
  • Satara
  • Shahjahanpur
  • Sialkot
  • Trichinopoly
  • Umballa
  • Upper Topa

The young Joubert Reitz gave expression to the feeling of grief and longing of the approximate 26000 Boers who were sent to camps, forts and goals in Natal, the Cape coast, St. Helena, Bermuda, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India as prisoners of war in the following poem:

The Searchlight

When the searchlight from the gunboat
Throws its rays upon my tent
Then I think of home and comrades
And the happy days I spent
In the country where I come from
And where all I love are yet.
Then I think of things and places
And of scenes I’ll ne’er forget
Then a face comes up before me
Which will haunt me to the last
And I think of things that have been
And happiness that’s past
And only then I realize, How much my freedom meant
When the searchlight from the gunboat
Cast it`s rays upon my tent

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A display of handcraft made in a Boer prisoner-of-war camp at St Helena - War Museum of the Boer Republics

British Prisoners of War

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British POW's depicted on a plate by the Dutch firm of Petru Regout & Co, Maastricht

The hospital at the Racecourse was used for wounded and sick prisoners until the fall of Pretoria. The officers remained at the Staats Model School until 16 March 1900 when they were moved to their new quarters known as the Birdcage at Daspoort.

The welfare of the prisoners was controlled by a board of management consisting of four persons. They were Louis da Souza, Commandant Opperman, directly responsible for the safe custody of the prisoners, Dr Gunning, who was Opperman’s assistant and Hans Malan. Opperman was replaced by a Mr Westerink in March 1900.

The 129 officers and 36 soldiers detrained at the Staats Model School were released on the 5th of June 1900. On the 6th of June Colonel T C Porter’s Brigade was ordered to affect the release of the men confined at Waterval. A squadron of Greys under Captain Maude finally released some 3187 men.

It was found that 900 prisoners had been removed by the Boers from Waterval on the 4th of June. These men were now detained at Nooitgedacht. They were eventually released by the Earl of Dundonald on the 30th of August 1900.

When General French entered Barberton in September 1900, he released the final group of prisoners namely twenty-three officers and fifty-nine soldiers whom the Boers had removed from Nooitgedacht. Most of them had been confined in a barbed wire enclosure while some were housed in the local goal.

Cape Rebels

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Cape Rebels

These were Afrikaans speaking Colonials from the Cape Colony who joined the Boer Forces because of familial and cultural ties. They came from all over the Cape Colony e.g from Cradock, Graaff-Reinet, Somerset East and Middelburg.

Once captured they were tried for high treason. Some of them were executed either by hanging or the firing squad like:

  • Commandant Johannes Lotter (12 October 1901))
  • Willie Louw (23 November 1901)
  • Gideon Scheepers (18 January 1902)

Some of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment on Hawkins Island, Bermuda and St Helena. In Bermuda they worked in the stone quarries. In January 1903 a Royal Commission sat in Bermuda and their life sentences were reduced.

The rebels returned to South Africa on board the SS Sunda in 1903 to await their final fate. They were lodged in the Tokai Goal until general amnesty was granted on 22 March 1903 by the Cape Colonial Parliament.