These were camps where Boer women, children and men unfit for service were herded together by the British army authorities during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).Many of these people had become homeless as a result of the destructive tactics, which the British army adopted in the Transvaal and Orange Free State after the last months of 1900, in order to deprive the Boer commandos of the means of subsistence and thus force them to surrender.
Attempts had first been made to burden the combatant burghers with these dependents in the hope of breaking the morale of the commandos. When this proved unsuccessful, it was decided to house the non-combatants in camps. The first two of these were established, as a result of a military notice of 22 September 1900, to protect the families of burghers who had surrendered voluntarily.
As the families of combatant burghers were also driven into these camps, they ceased to be ‘refugee’ camps and acquired the name of ‘concentration’ camps, as did the other camps established later. Eventually there were 50 of them, in which about 136,000 people were interned. So inefficiently were they organised and managed that they soon became notorious throughout the world.
The families were conveyed to the camps by ox wagon, trolley or railway train – usually in open coal or cattle trucks without any sanitary arrangements – or they were even marched in on foot. They were swept together ‘higgledy-piggledy’, to use Lord Milner’s word.
No proper provision had been made for their housing. Numbers of them had at first to make shift in the open until tents – many almost useless – were provided, or were held in hutments in the camps. Those who did not receive tents were, according to the report of the British commission of inquiry, placed ‘in every conceivable kind of dwelling, from a church vestry, hotel and store to a blacksmith’s forge’.
In the opinion of the commission, some of the places were hardly suitable for pigs. As there were insufficient blankets, clothes and other means of protection, and sometimes not even beds or mattresses, the internees were exposed, especially on the Highveld of the Transvaal and the Free State, to extreme privations which undermined their strength, more especially in the case of the large numbers of small children.
The food supply in the camps, which were often established on badly chosen sites and were dangerously overcrowded from the start, was, moreover, wretched. Not only was the fare inadequate, but also the quality, especially of the meat, sugar and flour, was at first very poor, while vegetables, fruit and other essential food were not supplied at all; consequently the inmates, especially the children, wasted away to become living skeletons within a few months.
A British camp doctor felt compelled to report that ‘on account of the deficiency in diet, the children especially become emaciated and have very little resisting power to disease’.
The sanitation, too, was most inefficient. No adequate provision was made for the disposal of garbage, and the latrines were so primitive that they became the breeding grounds of disease germs and areas of infection. So disease, particularly measles, broke out in the camps during 1901 and, as there were not enough doctors or other medical care, the death rate became appallingly high.
The climax was in October 1901, when the figure was 326 per 1,000 per year for the Transvaal camps and 401 per 1,000 per year for those in the Orange Free State. The reports of camp superintendents as well as those of Emily Hobhouse showed that this was due to the bad conditions, and there was an outcry of protest from the whole civilised world, including England itself. This forced the British government to order a full investigation by a committee of ladies, and sweeping changes were made in accordance with their recommendations.
As a result of these changes, introduced toward the close of 1901, and which included great improvements in housing, sanitation, food supply, medical attention, and protection against cold, the death rate immediately dropped and by March 1902, was back to normal.
Altogether 27,927 people died in the camps – 1,676 men, mainly greybeards, 4,177 women and 22,074 children under 16. ‘The terrible prospect … that the continuation of the war would in that manner eradicate our whole generation’ was one of the main reasons why the Boers ceased fighting and acknowledged defeat. It left a deeper impression on the Afrikaner’s mind than any other event in his history and strengthened his determination to strive for national self-preservation and the recovery of political independence. The following concentration camps were established:
For the Transvaal, during 1900:
Barberton, Heidelberg, Johannesburg, Irene (near Pretoria), Klerksdorp, Krugersdorp, Mafeking, Potchefstroom, Standerton and Vereeniging; during 1901
Balmoral, Belfast, De Jager’s Drift (in Natal), Middelburg, Nylstroom, Pietersburg, Van der Hoven’s Drift (Pretoria). Volksrust and Vryburg (in the Cape Colony); during 1902:
Meintjieskop (Pretoria), established for ‘families of burghers serving us as scouts’ – the only true ‘refugee’ camp.
For the Orange River Colony (Orange Free State), during 1900: Bloemfontein, Heilbron, Kroonstad, Norval’s Pont and Vredefort Road (now Dover); during 1901:
Aliwal North, Bethulie, Brandfort, Harrismith, Kromellenboog, Kimberley, Ladybrand, Orange River, Springfontein and Winburg. In Natal, during 1900: Pietermaritzburg; during 1901: Howick, Isipingo and Merebank (near Durban); during 1902:
Colenso, Eshowe, Jacobs and Wentworth (Durban), Ladysmith, Mooi River and Pinetown.
For the Cape Colony, during 1900: Port Elizabeth; during 1902:East London, Kubusi and Uitenhage.
Photograph: Hospital Ward at Norval’s Pont concentration camp.
Source: SESA (Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa)
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