I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

There are few times you see a balanced documentary on the The South African War (1899-1902) a.k.a. the Boer War when it comes to the issue of the British concentration camps and this landmark documentary “Scorched Earth” is another in a line up that gets it right and wrong all at the same time.

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.

Apportioning ‘Blame’ 

That the concentration camps are a human tragedy on an epic level is not debatable. 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, 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?


White Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

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 ‘Blacks’ by prevailing Victorian’s considering them ‘less civilised’ in need of white patronage and the even harsher racist attitudes and laws in the two Boer Republics to purposefully ignore an unfolding human tragedy in the ‘Black’ camps? Does blame even lie with men at war with one another and the propaganda to paint one another as somehow lesser human beings?


Black Concentration Camp of the 2nd Anglo Boer War

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 by the British which had the potential to decimate a nation’s 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.

To the Victorian men and women the unfolding tragedy in South Africa was shielded for much of the war and when exposed in the media by the likes of Emily Hobhouse it only really highlighted the plight of the ‘whites’. 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”.

Or is the blame as simple as blaming a virus. The biggest killer in the Boer War was measles, a child’s disease which killed 30% of the white camp population, most of whom were children. It was also not this first or the last time a measles epidemic killed Boer children – epidemics existed in Voortrekker lagers log before the Boer War, with the same devastating consequences. The simple truth – the biggest killer of British soldiers in the Boer War was Typhoid, more died of disease than bullets – the same is true of the civilian populations – the British ones under Boer siege at the opening of the war, and the Boer ones under British camp oversight at the end of the war.

In Conclusion

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 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.

16 thoughts on “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

  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


    • 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.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I believe historian Elizabeth Van Heyningen, who, in a refereed article in a respectable journal, says the ground glass story is a myth that only appeared in the 1930s.

      ‘Costly Mythologies: The Concentration Camps of the South African War in Afrikaner Historiography’

      Journal of Southern African Studies
      Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 495-513 (19 pages)

      British historian Thomas Pakenham also calls the ground glass story a lie.

      “forced Boer women and children into concentration camps. There, 28,000 people died of hunger, disease, and from eating the ground glass that the British were alleged to have put in their food.

      The propaganda value of this tale was enhanced by the fact that it is all true (apart from the bit about the ground glass, a later embellishment).”


  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 .

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.


  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.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My mother now in her 80’s still carries the hate with her…. even though she was never directly affected being born in the 1930’s.
    It just goes to show how the hate prejudice and distrust is carried from one generation to the next. We have to make a concerted effort to stop the hate or it burdens our kids and their kids thereafter.


  5. The Women’s Monument in Blomfontein was erected in memory of the women and children that died in the British camps in the Boer War. Emily Hobhouse fought for those women to be seen as universal, not parochial, and dedicated the memorial in 1913. The speech she gave was finally published by the British government in 1963 – but in edited form. The excised portion reads:

    “We in England are ourselves still dunces in the great world school, our leaders are still struggling with the unlearned lesson, that liberty is the equal right and heritage of every child of man, without distinction of race, colour or sex…
    We too, the great civilized nations of the world, are still Barbarians in our degree, so long as we continue to spend vast sums in killing or planning to kill each other for greed of land and gold. Does not justice bid us to remember today how many thousands of the dark race perished also in Concentration Camps in a quarrel which was not theirs?”


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  9. My grandfarther was a “Cape rebel” (the “rebels” were Boers living in the Cape Colony who sided with their people in the Boer republics simply because of “loyalty to family”). But my grandfather’s one “rebel” brother was caught by the British and eventually killed by a firiing-squad so as to fall into an open grave at the back of him. His body was covered up. He was only a teenager, so to speak. There were quite a number of “Cape rebels” who were executed by firing squad, probably to serve as examples to discourage the rebellion.
    Even a commander, born Free Stater I think, was shot with them.
    All in all this could be considered another war-crime by the British which should not be allowed to be forgotten until the British show the lfaintest bit of “sorry for what we have done”.


  10. The British will never accept blame or have remorse about what they did. the Boers took the fight away from their farms and families. The British brought the Boer families into war.
    It has come to light that kids were buried alive in certain concentration camps. So where does the inhumane blame go to?


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