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 addresses 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 of a nation’s fountain of youth?
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 were 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. For more on the ‘Black’ concentration camp history do visit this Observation Post link for a fuller story: To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps
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 if it is a national issue, a common cause and a national healing process implemented to dealt with it – will amends and long-awaited apologies from the British be found.
Written by Peter Dickens. Image copyright, Imperial War Museum. ‘Scorched Earth’ documentary, Director Herman Binge, produced for M-Net by Pearson Television, copyright 2001.