It’s an almost ingrained idea in South Africa that ‘concentration camps’ were invented by the British during the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) and there is an equally ingrained idea in some circles in South Africa which holds that the Nazi holocaust styled concentration camp simply followed on the lead set by the British in South Africa.
However, both of these ingrained concepts are untrue – they are myths.
This is not to say the concentration camps did not happen, they did. It’s also not to say the concentration camp system in South Africa visited death to a civilian population on an unacceptably large and traumatic scale – they did. It’s also not to ‘Boer Bash’ by way of any sort of ‘deniability’, the Boer nation suffered greatly under the concentration camp policy – no doubt about that at all.
It is to say that historic perspective and facts need to come to the fore to debunk myths and in the ‘concentration camps’ legacy in South Africa there are certainly a couple of myths – and they arose because of political expediency and the cognitive bias generated by the National party’s ‘Christian Nationalism’ education policy over five very long decades – so they are strongly rooted and tough to challenge.
There are three basic myths at play surrounding the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) concentration camps.
- That Concentration Camps first came into existence during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the British invented them.
- That Hitler modelled the Nazi concentration camp system on the British system used in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
- That it was the Boer women and children in South Africa who experienced the indignity and tragedy of a concentration camp system, with no thanks to the British.
That’s a lot to take in for someone with an ingrained belief, so let’s start with each of these myths:
Did the British invent the ‘Concentration Camp’?
The straight answer is; No.
The actual term ‘concentration camp’ was invented by the Spanish (as campo de concentración or campo de reconcentración) in 1896 – three years before the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1904) started. It originated during The Cuban War of Independence (Guerra de Independencia cubana, 1895–98) was the last of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain.
A rebellion had broken out in Cuba, then a Spanish colony in 1895. The rebels, outnumbered by Spanish government troops, turned to guerrilla warfare (and here another myth which says the Boer’s invented ‘guerrilla warfare’ is debunked).
In response to guerilla warfare the Spanish commander Valeriano Weyler ordered the civilians of Cuba to be ‘concentrated’ in concentration camps under guard so they could not provide the rebels with food, supplies or new recruits.
Initial rebel military actions against the Spanish had been very successful and it forced Spain to re-think how to conduct the war. The first thing they did was replace their commander on the ground in Cuba, Arsenio Martinez Campos, who had for all intents and purposes failed to pacify the Cuban rebellion. The Conservative Spanish government of Antonio Canovas del Castillo sent Valeriano Weyler out to Cuba to replace him. This change in command met the approval of most Spaniards back home in Spain, who thought him the proper man to crush the rebellion.
Valeriano Weyler reacted to the rebels’ guerilla tactics successes by introducing terror methods: periodic executions, mass exile of residents, forced concentration of civilians in certain cities or areas and the destruction of their farms and crops. Weyler’s methods reached their height on October 21, 1896, when he ordered all countryside residents and their livestock to gather within eight days in various fortified areas and towns occupied by his troops.
Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes and were subjected to appalling and inhumane conditions in the crowded towns and cities.
Civilians interned into these concentration camps were in a perilous situation as poor sanitation quickly lead to deadly disease and combined with the lack of food an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the civilian population subjected to these concentration camps died during the three years of warfare.
In the end 225,000 ‘non combatant’ Cuban civilians died in just 18 months between 1896 and 1897. That is some number, nearly a quarter of a million Cubans, and its a stain of blood which sits with modern Spain and one for which there has been little by way of reparation or apologies.
It also means Spain holds the rather dishonourable mantle of inventing the concentration camp system and even the term itself, not the British.
Then was South Africa the 2nd place where Concentration Camps were used?
The straight answer is again – No.
The second country to operate concentration camps was the United States of America in September 1899 in the Philippines. At this point in the historic time-line the British had not yet engaged the ‘Concentration Camp’ system in its full-blown manifestation in South Africa (which started in earnest at the beginning of 1901).
By 1899, the United States of America had recently acquired the Philippines from Spain, only to be confronted by a rebellion by Filipinos who wanted independence rather than American rule. Known as the Philippine–American War or the Tagalog Insurgency 1899 – 1902 (same timing as the 2nd Anglo-Boer war more or less).
The Filipinos turned to guerrilla warfare and in response the Americans copied the Spanish solution used in Cuba earlier.
In September 1899, American military strategy shifted to suppression of the resistance, in coordination with the future president, William Howard Taft, then the U.S. civil administrator of the islands changed course. Tactics now became focused on the control of key areas with ‘Internment’ and ‘segregation’ of the civilian population in “zones of protection” from the guerrilla population which became defined as ‘concentration camps’.
Concentration camps were set up on the islands of Marinduque and Mindanao, and civilians from rebel-sympathising districts were forced to reside there. As in Cuba, the death rate in these concentration camps from disease was horrendous.
These “reconcentrados,” or concentration camps, were crowded and filled with disease; as the frustrations of guerrilla warfare grew, many U.S. fighters resorted to brutal retaliatory measures, one U.S. camp commandant referred to the concentration camps as the “suburbs of hell.”
The U.S. State Department estimates that around 20,000 Filipino and 4,000 U.S. combatants died in the fighting in the Philippines, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died as a result of violence, famine and disease, with most losses attributable to cholera. Stanley Karnow observers that the American treatment of Filipino citizens “as cruel as any conflict in the annals of imperialism.”
The concentration camps policy was highly effective to the American War effort , As historian John M. Gates noted, “the policy kept the guerillas off-balance, short of supplies and in continuous flight from the U.S. army, As a result many guerrilla bands, suffering from sickness, hunger and decreasing popular support, lost their will to fight.” America had won, but at what cost?
As with the Spanish in Cuba, the United States of America generally also does not view their use of concentration camps as a crime against humanity, but rather as an extreme measure to stop ‘guerrilla warfare’ by cutting off the civilian support of the guerrilla fighters.
So, no apology from the United States for their status as the second country to use a concentration camp system, it also is not the last time they would use a ‘concentration camp’ system – they would use it again during the Vietnam War (more of that later).
Then was South Africa the 3rd place where Concentration Camps were used?
This time, sadly – the straight answer is – Yes.
The third country to set up concentration camps was Britain, but they did not initially call them concentration camps, they called them ‘Government Laagers” and ‘Refugee Camps’.
The reasons were similar to that of Spain in Cuba and the USA in the Philippines; Britain was at war with the two Boer Republics of South Africa, which had turned to guerrilla warfare once their conventional field armies were defeated. This stage is known as ‘Stage 3’ – The Guerrilla Phase of the South African War 1899-1902.
Stage 1 (Boer Success) and Stage 2 (British Response) end the ‘Conventional Phase’ of the war in late 1900 with the capture of Pretoria – Stage 3 – the Guerrilla Phase starts in earnest from the start of 1901 and lasts a year and a half ending May 1902.
The decision taken by the British was to hasten the end of the Guerrilla Phase, in essence the policy was to concentrate civilians located in conflict zones into government run camps (concentration camps) and destroy stock, crops, implements and farm buildings so the Boer guerrilla forces would run out of supplies and their support network would be crushed. As with the two previous situations perpetuated by Spain and the USA before, these British camps soon became rife with disease and thousands of people died, mostly from measles, pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.
Why do the British refer to their ‘Concentration Camps’ as ‘Refugee Camps’ when they are clearly not?
The reason for the British sticking to the use of the term ‘Refugee Camps’ instead of ‘Concentration Camps’ is because these camps in South Africa actually started out as ‘refugee camps’: The first two of these camps (refugee camps) were established by the British to house the families of burghers who had surrendered voluntarily.
On the 22nd September 1900, Major-Gen J.G. Maxwell signalled that “… camps for burghers who voluntarily surrender are being formed at Pretoria and Bloemfontein.” As result of this military notice the first two ‘refugee’ camps were indeed established at Pretoria and Bloemfontein respectively.
The aim outlined by the British for these two refugee camps was supposedly to protect those families of Boers who had surrendered voluntarily. A proclamation was even issued by Lord Kitchener by 20th December 1900 which states that all burghers surrendering voluntarily, will be allowed to live with their families in ‘Government Laagers’ until the end of the war and their stock and property will be respected and paid for.
But (and its a big BUT), by 21st December 1900 (the very next day) Lord Kitchener comes up with a different intention completely, and this one does not the safe-keeping of people, property and stock in mind. In a stated memorandum to general officers Lord Kitchener outlined the advantages of interning all women, children and men unfit for military services, also Blacks living on Boer farms, as this will be;
“the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerrillas … The women and children brought in should be divided in two categories, viz.: 1st. Refugees, and the families of Neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Burghers. 2nd. Those whose husbands, fathers and sons are on Commando. The preference in accommodation, etc. should of course be given to the first class. With regard to Natives, it is not intended to clear (Native) locations, but only such and their stock as are on Boer farms.”.
With that memorandum now writ, effectively by January 1901, the camps stopped becoming ‘Refugee Camps’ and became ‘Concentration Camps’ governed by forced removal, in effect – displacement camps of civilians forcibly removed from their farmsteads.
The British, for the sake of politically sanitizing this policy from a public opinion perspective, continued to call these camps as ‘Refugee Camps’ and in many circles in the United Kingdom they are still referred as such even today, a good example of this is the Imperial War Museum – when they any publish picture showing Boer families being rounded up on their way to a concentration camp they are almost always (and incorrectly) tagged as ‘refugees’ in the caption.
So how is it that Nazi German Concentration Camps are linked to the ‘British’ Concentration Camps?
The answer is simply, because of Hermann Göring.
During a press interview Hermann Goring (the then spokesperson on behalf of Adolph Hitler), served to deflect a challenge from a British ambassador who protested about the Nazi concentration camps, and by using a ‘press stunt’ when he dramatically sprung up and quoted from a reference book that the British invented them in the first place (when in fact this is factually incorrect) and it just served as a skillful stroke of political deflection of which Hermann Göring was a past master.
Why a deflection? Because the German ‘Concentration Camps’ were fundamentally different from those initiated by the Spanish, and then the Americans and finally the British, their camps were all tactical responses to guerrilla warfare, whereas the Nazi ‘concentration camps’ started out for camps for political dissent in opposition to National Socialism (Nazism) as ‘re-education’ camps, as a central theme to them.
Socialist systems driven on nationalist lines, whether German Nazi or Russian/Chinese Communism all have in them this phenomenon to re-educate (and if necessary exterminate) anyone in their society not conforming to their idea of the ‘social hive’ or ‘community’. The Soviet system of ‘Gulag’ re-education camps are no different to the early German Nazi concentration camps in their purpose (and as deadly).
That the German ‘concentration camps’ later evolved into systematic pre-meditated murder with the idea of exterminating entire populations of specific races to solve an ideological problem, and it is an entirely different objective to those objectives behind the British concentration camps in South Africa.
In Nazi Germany and their occupied countries the ‘concentration camp’ evolved into the ‘extermination camp’ for people following the Jewish faith – primarily but not exclusive to Jews – the system also included other people not deemed Aryan enough within the confines of Nazi philosophy or conformist enough to their idea of socialism – gypsies (travellers), free-masons, homosexuals, communists and even the mentally ill all found themselves on the wrong side of Nazism.
But, for some reason, certainly in some circles in South Africa, Hermann Göring’s master class in deflecting a press junket is held up as Gospel, now, in the hindsight of history who would really believe anything Hermann Göring came up with?
What’s the big difference between a Nazi concentration camp and a British concentration camp?
The fundamental differences between a Nazi concentration camp (re-education/extermination camp) and a British concentration camp (forced removal/refugee camp) are massive.
For starters, unlike Nazi Germany, there is no historical document or any supporting record that the British embarked on the extermination of the Boer nation using systematic pre-meditated murder. Not one document or letter whatsoever, whereas in the case of Nazi extermination camps there is an entire undeniable record of premeditated murder.
Secondly, the concentration camps in South Africa were isolated and relatively unguarded, mostly unfenced and they were relatively porous affairs where people came in and out and aid workers came in and out – very different to the Nazi German idea of lining people up on a train platform under armed escort without a suitable aid worker in sight and marching them straight into gas chambers and/or mass graves in their tens of thousands.
The fundamental difference however is in the core thinking behind the military objective requiring concentration camps, for the British the military objective was to bring a quick end to a guerrilla campaign initiated in the final phase of the South African war, They did this by rounding up civilians in support of Boer guerrillas, placing them into camps and cutting off these ‘commando’ guerilla groups from their supply of food, feed, ammunition and recruits.
On the other hand, the objective of the German concentration camps of WW2 was not to put an end to any form of guerrilla warfare whatsoever, it was to systematic exploit and exterminate entire populations along ideological lines of race superiority.
What is common in respect of both forms of concentration camp is that many people died, and in both respects that single act qualifies a tragedy and a failure of the human condition.
Did the deaths in the camps come about because of a hatred for the Boer race?
The answer simply to this question is – No.
The argument that the British concentration camps were designed to systematically wipe the Boer population from the planet by way of extermination because of race hate for Boers falls apart when you consider the British did not target only the ‘Boers’ for deportation to concentration camps.
The truth is the British targeted everybody who they perceived to be involved in the supply of horse feed, ammunition, weapons and food to guerrilla Boer commandos. This included Black Africans in addition to the Boers themselves.
The unfortunate truth that central to the concept of concentration camps to South Africa is simply railway supply.
When the British marched into Pretoria, raising the union jack in victory of the conventional war – they found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.
On losing their capital cities, the Boer strategy switched and they moved their government ‘into the field’ to embark on a ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ phase – with the intention to disrupt supply to the British now based in Bloemfontein and Pretoria and isolate the British into pockets (mainly along the railway lines).
To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads or supporters surrounding their chosen targets. The relatively easy targets were trains and train lines (due to isolation and expanse), and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of Boer resistance after the war had been effectively ‘won’ in his eyes and he acted decisively.
Kitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.
Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into their ‘Government Laagers’ which were in effect – concentration camps.
Two different systems of concentration camps existed in South Africa, one specifically for Blacks only and one mainly for Whites (these also contained Black servants and staff to Boer families). Both were run very differently. The outcome was however tragically the same for both. Disease, mainly water-bourne ones took hold and in the Boer civilian’s camps the official death toll is 26 370 people, whereas in the Black camps it is estimated that 20,000 people died (the official records here were not accurately kept by the British – as they were in the Boer camps).
For a deeper history on the Black concentration camps of The South African War (1899 – 1902) click on this link; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps
Another point to consider as to the tragedy of the British Concentration camps in South Africa, is that some of the British staff working in the camps died from the same diseases that the killed Boer inhabitants of these camps – a sure sign of poor management and lack of proper medical understanding, medicine and aid – rather than a premeditated intention to murder. The sad truth here, disease is indiscriminate.
Did we learn the lesson not to use concentration camps again?
The answer to that sadly is … No.
As said earlier, the Spanish and the Americans found the Concentration Camp system highly effective in bringing guerrilla warfare to an end – a grisly, painful, barbaric end yes, but and end none the same. The British, rather sadly found the same – that despite the unacceptable damage to a civilian population, the tactic of concentration camps proved very succesful in bringing about a prompt end to what was proving to be a protracted war with an equally protracted affair of all round misery to civilian and combatant alike.
But at what price? Such a tactic of rounding up civilian groupings and containing them so they cannot supply guerrilla fighters in the field has time and again brought unacceptable death rates to civilians – along with fundamental setbacks in a culture or population’s wellbeing and evolution. The consequences of concentration camps, whether they are culturally, politically, economically or emotionally considered are far-reaching, highly negative and very deep.
Which brings us back to the United States of America, the second country to use a concentration camp system at the end of the 1800’s, because they were back at it again as late as the 1960’s – not even forty years ago – during the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam they would engage exactly the same system – create ‘firebases’ in ‘protected zones, whenever there was a ‘flashpoint’ of guerrilla activity they would starve the guerrillas of their means to fight by cutting off their supplies (food and weapons), and they would do this by burning suspected villages and homesteads to the ground and moving all the affected civilian population into government-run ‘Strategic Hamlet’ camps – concentration camps in effect.
The only saving grace in all of this is that by the mid 1960’s medicine had moved on and diseases which had killed civilians in their droves in concentration camps at the end of the 1800’s could now be easily cured and even stopped in the 1960’s – as simply put better medical understanding, vaccination, antibiotics and penicillin had all come a long way by the end of the 1960’s – so too had government agencies handling civilian affairs during wartime.
So instead of getting any form of admission to running ‘concentration camps’ and wholesale displacement and civilian death in the Philippines and even later in Vietnam – what we get from modern-day America are bland, soulless American military definitions outlining incidents when they the accidentally kill a bunch of citizens – and they now call it unavoidable “collateral damage.”
From a military strategic and tactical perspective, in many respects, the techniques used by the Americans for fighting ‘guerrilla warfare’ in the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and early 1970’s is almost no different to the techniques used by the British fighting the same type of guerrilla warfare in 1901 and early 1902. The Americans built ‘fire-bases’ to protect strategic points and fan out from to find Vietcong guerrillas, the British built ‘blockhouses’ next to protected strategic points and fanned out to find Boer guerrillas. The Americans rounded up Vietnamese civilians around flashpoints and burnt the farmsteads … the British did the same and burnt the farmsteads. During the Vietnam War the Americans and their proxy state ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘The Strategic Hamlet Program’ – in effect concentration camps, the British ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘Government Laagers’ – in effect also concentration camps.
So what’s the difference? It’s the concept of ‘Total War’ that has blurred the lines, it starts to become almost impossible to separate the idea of combatants and non combatants from soldier and civilian – when civilians aid the soldiers by maintaining their combat readiness. The ANC used the same excuse to bomb Southern Cross Aid offices, a civilian charity supplying the SADF with gift aid and the SADF even used the same excuse when a whole bunch of civilians came into the cross-fire at Cassinga in Angola during the Angolan Border War.
The impact of the British concentration camp policy in South Africa is far-reaching, deeply traumatic and still has bearing today as it’s an issue that requires national healing and international recognition. It is not a light matter. However, we have to be true to pursuing the facts and discarding the propaganda and politically motivated miss-truths.
So, we stand by the myth now debunked – the British did not invent the ‘concentration camp’, and certainly not the ‘concentration camp’ as we have come to know the system employed by the Nazis.
History however does show us that a policy to counter-act Guerrilla Warfare by herding civilians into concentration camps is generally a very bad idea from a purely humanitarian perspective, nothing of any good has come from it, its morally corrupt and the British (like the Americans and the Spanish before them) are complicit and guilty of using this policy, and it is to their eternal shame.
As to guerrilla warfare bringing on ‘total war’ and the consequences thereof it’s an American General, William Tecumseh Sherman whose comment rings so tragically true in this respect
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueller it is, the sooner it will be over”.
Written by Peter Dickens
Related work and links
The Black Concentration Camps of the Boer War; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps
Emily Hobhouse; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!
With sincere thanks to Tinus Le Roux for all the Boer War colourised images used in the article. References include The Spanish Reconcentration Policy by PBS. The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare by John M. Gates. Imperial War Museum.