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The Second Boer War and the concentration camps, Episode 71 - 22/05/06


Boer prisoners in concentration camp, 1901(Mary Evans Picture Archive)

Boer prisoners in concentration camp, 1901
(Mary Evans Picture archive)
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The second Anglo-Boer War (1889-1902) was almost inevitable after the Afrikaners, discovered gold at Witwatersrand in the Transvaal, a territory the British had given them after the first Boer War (1880-81). The British wanted a share of the gold as well as it being dealt on the London bullion market. Secondly, the British felt gold would make the Afrikaners wealthy and with their potential German allies they could threaten other British territories in southern Africa.

By January 1900 the Afrikaners had beaten the British at four battles and had Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking under siege. A new British command under Roberts and his chief of staff Kitchener reversed the defeats and relieved the besieged towns and garrisons but the Boers continued a successful guerrilla war. Kitchener applied a scorched earth policy so that the Boers and local people had no cover and no food. The British also set up some 50 concentration camps. More than 26,000 women and children died in the camps.

When the Liberal campaigner Emily Hobhouse visited the Bloemfontein camp in January 1901 she was appalled at the conditions for the nearly 2,000 prisoners. In other camps south of Bloemfontein - Aliwal North, Kimberley, Norvalspont, Springfontein - she recorded hungry women and children.

The British set up concentration camps and applied a scorched earth policy because they couldn't cope with guerrilla warfare. Yet, the songs, newspapers, illustrated volumes such as To Pretoria With The Flag and seemingly acres of photographs of successful British troops and those from other parts of the Empire, suggested otherwise. The spin was as elegant as it is today. The public's whole mindset was tempered with the invincible imperial image. When Mafeking was relieved and the war turned the British way, Salisbury was able to go the country in October 1900 and win another term of government for the Conservatives - they called it the Khaki Election.

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Historical Figure

Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926)

)Emily Hobhouse was born in Cornwall, the sister of Leonard Hobhouse 1864-1929, the social philosopher. When her father, a retired vicar, died in 1895 she went to Minnesota as a social worker. She became engaged but broke it off and in 1899 as the secretary of the women's branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, she went to South Africa to distribute funds and supplies for the concentration camps. She was appalled by conditions and said so publicly but not always popularly. Her book on the Boer War was written in France. During post-war visits, Hobhouse set up schools to help young people learn practical skills. After her death her ashes were placed in the Women's Memorial at Bloemfontein and a town in Eastern Free State was named Hobhouse.

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Did You Know...

So unprepared were the British that they had to enlist perhaps 20,000 black Africans. The black soldiers could infiltrate enemy territory more easily than white soldiers.

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Contemporary Sources

The Concentration Camps
Emily Hobhouse describes her visit to a camp

"The population had redoubled and had swallowed up the results of improvements that had been effected. Disease was on the increase, and the sight of the people made an impression of utter misery. Illness and death had left their marks on the faces of the inhabitants. Many that I had left hale and hearty, of good appearance, and physically fit, had undergone such a change that I could hardly recognize them.....

The picture of apathy and impatience displayed here, which refused to lend an ear to undeserved misery, contrasted sadly with the scenes of misery in South Africa, still fresh in my mind. No barbarity in South Africa was as severe as the bleak cruelty of an apathetic parliament."

The death of a British Spy
Denys Reitz, a Boer soldier, describes the final moments of Lemuel Colaine, British spy

"Colaine was taken to a little smithy behind the dwelling house, and when I looked in I saw him and the clergyman kneeling side by side deep in prayer. We sent some Hottentot servants to dig a grave out of the sight of the house, to spare the feelings of its inmates, and, ordering three men who had off-saddled in the garden to fetch their rifles, we went to the workshop door. The clergyman touched the kneeling man on the shoulder and said 'Brother be a man, your time has come.' Colaine took the news calmly; he rose from his knees, shook the parson by the hand, and bidding goodbye to the guards, said that he was ready.

We led him to where the grave was being dug. He said he knew he deserved to die, but he was a poor man, and had taken blood-money to keep his wife and children from starving. The Hottentots were just completing the grave when we came up, and the unfortunate man blanched when he looked into the shallow pit. Perhaps he had still hoped for a reprieve until he saw it. We thought that the sooner it was over the better, so de Wet blindfolded him and placed him at the head of the grave.

Realizing this was the end, Colaine held up his hands and in a low tone recited the Lord's Prayer while the firing party silently ranged themselves. As he came to the final Amen they fired. With a convulsive jerk he pitched backward into the grave and the frightened Hottentots quickly covered him with earth."

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