I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way! Emily Hobhouse and the concentration camps of the Boer War.

There are few times you see a balanced documentary on the 2nd Anglo Boer War when it comes to the issue of the British concentration camps, but this landmark documentary “Scorched Earth” is about the best you will ever see … a MUST watch.

As South Africa redresses its history from a holistic perspective,  the complete story of the 2nd Anglo Boer War starts to emerge – the scale of the concentration camps as not strictly a “white” issue, but a “black” issue too is now becoming highly apparent.  That the war is now been viewed in both contexts and in the context of its historical time opens up new questions on the deep scars of hatred, still not fully addressed, affecting all of South Africa’s ethnic groups.

That the concentration camps are a human tragedy on an epic level is not debatable, that within the history of the camps exist war crimes there is little doubt.   The key question to be addressed is the aspect of “blame”.

Can blame be put at one man’s feet – Lord  Kitchener under whose watch and policy this tragedy unfolded and a man with a disdain for the Boer nation and women in general, or does blame lie in cultural misunderstanding – actually going as far as blaming the women themselves for not following British heath regulations for tented camps, not trusting the nursing and hospital staff due to language and cultural barriers and using ancient remedies which accelerated the deadly social diseases instead?

Or, more to the point, does blame lie in the complete British maladministration of the camps, lack of medicine and lack of site and logistics planning by the British policy makers and proponents of the camp system?

Does blame lie with the Boer Commanders insistence on continuing a war after it had been “lost” through conventional war – fully in the knowledge that their kinfolk and entire nation’s survival was heading to complete annihilation?

Does blame lie in the sheer racism and lack of human respect to “non whites” and “lesser civilised” peoples by prevailing Victorian attitude and the subsequent attitude of the army officer and political elite, and by default the broad British public, to purposefully ignore an unfolding human tragedy?  Does blame even lie with men at war with one another and the propaganda to paint one another as somehow lesser human beings?

Does blame lie in the British initiating a medieval policy of putting to the crucible those women and children whose menfolk where still fighting and rewarding those whose men had stopped fighting with extra food by way of incentive?  And then the very thorny question – does blame lie in a system used knowingly by the British which would have had only one outcome, the decimation and effective genocide of a nation?

In essence, there is a strong case to argue that the concentration camps where a punitive measure to stop a phase of war which nobody really understood – the conventional war was lost when the Boer’s capital cities where taken, the decision by the Boer commanders and “government in the field” to take the war into a guerrilla one – supplied and fed by homesteads – simply brought the homesteads into the line of fire and war’s ravages – especially disease which proved the biggest killer.

But there is also a strong case to argue, that the targeting by the British of Boer nation’s most vulnerable – the old men, the women and children, to effect a victory – is simply a despicable act of barbarity, especially when considering the standing British conventional army in South Africa by far out-weighted the whole Boer nation population, let alone the combatants.

To the Victorian men and women such behaviour in South Africa was shielded for much of the war and when exposed in the media by the likes of Emily Hobhouse, the British government and media quickly regarded much of it as an “act of barbarism” and the backlash in Britain as to the conduct of the Boer war by British officers and the urgent need to help a nation in distress ultimately came, but it was too little and far too late.    In this respect Emily Hobhouse’s words to Kitchener are sharply poignant “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, and this isn’t our way”.

There is a very long way to go – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a “white” man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaans women and children, a much bigger story exists and which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too – which only now are becoming fully understood.

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood “black” history behind The 2nd Anglo Boer War.  Only by way of it be seen as a national issue, a common cause and a national healing process to be dealt with – will amends and long awaited apologies from the British be found.

7 thoughts on “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way! Emily Hobhouse and the concentration camps of the Boer War.

  1. My maternal ‘Ouma’ (Grandmother) on her death bed in the late 90’s told me she was born in a concentration camp (near) ‘Warrenton’ – she was one of about seven children. She told me “they” ground glass in some food given to prisoners (in hospital ?) and were given a small piece of red meat once a week {per family}. Given that the British ‘Kakhis’ burnt the homesteads (amongst other atrocities like rape) I don’t think one could blame the Dutch-Boers of their mistrust !! I believe Kitchner was to blame although his superiors and ‘the authorities’ (Cecil Rhodes) knew well of what was going on – history teaches me that between 25 -to 30,000 women and children perished (black and white). Certainly desperate measures by the British regime to crush 50,000 Boet Militia by Half a million soldiers from all over the Commonwleath. Jacques Slabber

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    • My maternal Grandmother was orphaned in a concentration camp, and at the end of the war was adopted by a family from the Western Transvaal. When they arrived back at the farm it had been razed. The farm workers had disappeared and as their homes had been left untouched, the family started out anew in the kraal.
      She grew up to support Jan Smuts and was viewed as a bit of a “veraaier” [traitor] in her home region and went on to marry my Grandfather, a Scot.
      I have often wondered at her capacity for forgiveness, that she didn’t carry the bitterness towards the British I came across so often while growing up.
      As for rape; I think the Afrikaans people have carried a silent and possibly very complex burden, [shame?], which adds a subtle and unspoken nuance to local relations. As well as rapes by British soldiers, many were also perpetrated by “Natives”, during the war and after, as refugees trod the byways homewards. In the old-fashioned way the situation was talked about “diplomatically”, along the lines of [letter from a Boer General to British Commander]; “We must also protest at the behaviour of British soldiers and those Natives who are helping the British, that they are molesting women and children…”

      My Father and his siblings were raised bi-lingual – English/Afrikaans, but the Mother tongue lost out due to perceived better English education and opportunities.I grew up English-speaking; A Rooinek, a Verdomde Kommunis [because our family opposed apartheid and the Nats and we’d been raised to speak up ;-]
      Now that I have grown much older, and read and delved into our family [and national] history, I realise I am more Boer than Brit [genetically, at least], and am appalled by what went on back then –

      All very much part of the jingoistic “What Ho, Jolly Good, Carry on” times.Followed by the Deutsche campaign of Genocide against the Herero a few years later… perfect mix to give rise to a Hitler, a bit later –

      We owe it to ourselves and our children’s children to never go that way again. Lest we forget.

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  2. I’m a South African of mixed British and Afrikaans decent , which is how we have felt best to deal with this painful past and move on.We remember that we too may not become guilty of similar indifference to our African counterparts.Along with immense human suffering came an inevitable current of inclusion into global developments .

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    • I am something of a post-colonial myself of largely northern European origins and, whilst I feel no guilt whatever over the misdeeds that any forebears of mine may have committed, firmly believe that as members of a now global community we owe it to others to both learn from and implement the many lessons of history that are placed before us.

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  3. Very few people will ever realize the true depth of hurt and harm that the concentration camps caused. At the end of the day, all that can now be expected is an official apology from the British government for the policy and yet this is the one thing that they will never do. An apology, along with a wider understanding of what it did to the South Africans (black and white) would go a long way towards unifying the peoples of this country.

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