Tag Archive: Concentration camps

Concentration camps


Inside Britain’s concentration camps: Harrowing photographs reveal the plight of thousands of Afrikaners detained in disease-ridden tents during the Second Boer War

  • Most of the victims herded into the concentration camps in South Africa were women and children 
  • Unlike the Nazi camps in the Second World War, few executions took place at the British camps in South Africa
  • Instead, what ended up killing most of the Afrikaners was disease and malnutrition from inside their tents
  • Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902 by Britain and her Empire against the Boers in South Africa 

These are the harrowing photographs of Britain’s concentrations camps during the Second Boer War show the disease-ridden tents where more than 48,000 innocent people lost their lives.

Most of the victims were women and children who were herded into the camps where disease and hunger ran rampant.

The British concentration camps took the lives of almost ten per cent of the Boer population at the time although  – unlike the Nazi camps during the Second World War – there were no executions of innocent people.

Instead, what ended up killing thousands, was malnutrition and disease. The Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902 by Britain and her Empire against the Boers in South Africa.

The Boers comprised of the combined forces of the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State.

When the Boers refused to surrender to the Anglos in 1900, the British rounded-up thousands of Afrikaners (Boers) and forcibly took thousands of women and children from their farms and placed them in concentration camps.

A large group of children gathered for a Cocoa Party at the Nylstroom Camp, circa 1901. Between June 1901 and May 1902, 115,000 people were brought into the concentration camps

Native South Africans raising railway lines, singing as they lift each one. The exact date of the picture is unclear, but it is thought to have been taken around 1901. The Second Boer War (1899 – 1902) was fought by Britain and her Empire against the Boers. The Boers comprised of the combined forces of the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State

Boer men and women seated at the Nylstroom Camp for an open-air service, circa 1901. A total of 544 lives were lost at the camp.

Women and children sitting outside a grass-roofed hut at the native Klerksdorp Camp in 1901. When the Boers refused to surrender to the Anglos in 1900, the British rounded-up thousands of Afrikaners (Boers) and forcibly took thousands of women and children from their farms and placed them in concentration camps

Refugees at Merebank Station, near Durban, at around 1901. People’s entire belongings are seen piled up in bags on the side of the railway line as scores of refugees flee the war

The Barberton Camp in a picture taken in 1901. There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 camps for black Africans. Generally, they were poorly administered from the outset and thousands of people died due to the unspeakably terrible conditions

Civilians’ farms were burnt or ravaged by the British under their ‘Scorched Earth’ policy. Crops were destroyed and herds of livestock wiped out in a bid to undermine Boer survival.

Between June 1901 and May 1902, 115,000 people were brought into the concentration camps. There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 camps for black Africans.

The camps were poorly administered from the outset and thousands of people died due to the terrible conditions.

The internees received hardly any rations or medical support and were expected to grow their own crops.

The inadequate shelter, poor diet, bad hygiene and overcrowding led to malnutrition and endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery to which the children were particularly vulnerable.

A boiling water tank and oven at the Johannesburg Camp. Children watch on as four men work on the giant contraption. One man, on the left, can be seen filling what looks like a pot or a kettle with water from a tap while another man carefully places something inside the water tank using a long pole. A third man, right, is seen poking another pole into the oven. Those contained in the camps were expected to grow their own crops

A tent camp in Johannesburg in a picture taken in around 1901. Dozens of rows of tents can be seen stretching back for hundreds of yards. Common in the camps were inadequate shelter, poor diet, bad hygiene and overcrowding led to malnutrition and endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery to which the children were particularly vulnerable

Women and children pictured outside a tent in the Bloemfontein Camp in around 1901. Around 28,000 women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in the camps – the death toll represented almost 10 per cent of the Boer population

A family in the Johannesburg Camp. A turning point in the death rate in the Boers camp came about by November 1901, after Emily Hobhouse of the Fawcett Ladies Commision revealed the terrible conditions in the camps to the British public. The civil authority took over the running of the camps from Kitchener and the British command and by February 1902 the annual death-rate in the concentration camps for white inmates dropped to 6.9 percent and eventually to two percent, which was a lower rate than pertained in many British cities at the time

A refugee camp for native South Africans near Krugersdorp in a picture taken around 1901. Civilians’ farms were burnt or ravaged by the British under their ‘Scorched Earth’ policy. Crops were destroyed and herds of livestock wiped out in a bid to undermine Boer survival

Four women, wearing very basic clothing and headscarves fashioned from rags, sitting outside a grass-roofed hut at the Klerksdorp Camp

Around 28,000 women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in the camps – the death toll represented almost 10 per cent of the Boer population.

A turning point in the death rate in the Boers camp came about by November 1901, after Emily Hobhouse of the Fawcett Ladies Commision revealed the conditions in the camps to the British public.

The civil authority took over the running of the camps from Kitchener and the British command and by February 1902 the annual death-rate in the concentration camps for white inmates dropped to 6.9 percent and eventually to two percent, which was a lower rate than pertained in many British cities at the time.

concentration camp

The term “concentration camp” was used to describe camps operated by the British in South Africa during the Second Boer War from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902, and the term grew in prominence during this period.

The camps had originally been set up by the British Army as “refugee camps” to provide refuge for civilian families who had been forced to abandon their homes for whatever reason related to the war. However, when Kitchener succeeded Roberts as commander-in-chief in South Africa on 29 November 1900, the British Army introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign and the influx of civilians grew dramatically as a result. Kitchener initiated plans to

flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organised like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly ‘bag’ of killed, captured and wounded, and to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children … It was the clearance of civilians—uprooting a whole nation—that would come to dominate the last phase of the war.

lord kitchener

lord kitchener

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener KG (24 June 1850 – 5 June 1916) was a senior British Army officer and colonial administrator who won fame for his imperial campaigns and later played a central role in the early part of the First World War, although he died halfway through it.

As Boer farms were destroyed by the British under their “Scorched Earthpolicy—including the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields—to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base many tens of thousands of women and children were forcibly moved into the concentration camps. This was not the first appearance of internment camps. The Spanish had used internment in the Ten Years’ War that led to the Spanish–American War, and the United States had used them to devastate guerrilla forces during the Philippine–American War. But the Boer War concentration camp system was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted, and the first in which some whole regions had been depopulated.

Eventually, there were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. Of the 28,000 Boer men captured as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. The vast majority of Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children. Over 26,000 women and children were to perish in these concentration camps.

The camps were poorly administered from the outset and became increasingly overcrowded when Kitchener’s troops implemented the internment strategy on a vast scale. Conditions were terrible for the health of the internees, mainly due to neglect, poor hygiene and bad sanitation. The supply of all items was unreliable, partly because of the constant disruption of communication lines by the Boers. The food rations were meager and there was a two-tier allocation policy, whereby families of men who were still fighting were routinely given smaller rations than others (Pakenham 1979, p. 505). The inadequate shelter, poor diet, bad hygiene and overcrowding led to malnutrition and endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery to which the children were particularly vulnerable. An additional problem was the Boers’ use of traditional medicines like a cow-dung poultice for skin diseases and crushed insects for convulsions. Coupled with a shortage of modern medical facilities, many of the internees died.

As the war raged across their farms and their homes were destroyed, many Africans became refugees and they, like the Boers, moved to the towns where the British Army hastily created internment camps. Subsequently, the “Scorched Earthpolicy was ruthlessly applied to both Boers and Africans. Although most black Africans were not considered by the British to be hostile, many tens of thousands were also forcibly removed from Boer areas and also placed in concentration camps.

Africans were held separately from Boer internees. Eventually there were a total of 64 tented camps for Africans. Conditions were as bad as in the camps for the Boers, but even though, after the Fawcett Commission report, conditions improved in the Boer camps, “improvements were much slower in coming to the black camps.”

Mother with her dead child – Boer War: Concentration camps.

Mother with her dead child – Boer War: Concentration camps.

For a long time, until the late 20th century, Afrikaners (Boers) didn’t like British (English) people, the United Kingdom and even the USA as an allie of the United Kingdom. They remembered the Brits destroying their farms, poisening their lands, and starving their women and children. Afrikaners (= Boers) call the Brits and white Anglo-Africans rooinek (Redneck). Probably a reference to the fact that Englishmen, being new to Africa, wore inadequate headgear (such as solar topees (pith helmets) or no hat at all) and thus sunburned more easily than Afrikaners. Other theories have it being a reference to the then red collars of British military uniforms, or to the red markings that British farmers put on their imported merino sheep.

Jaga, the British colonial regime was very tough in many African nations, in India, in Palestine and their Caribbean and South-American colonies. Nazi propaganda tended to glorify British institutions, and above all the British Empire. Adolf Hitler tried to court Britain into an alliance, his propaganda praised the British as proficient Aryan imperialists.

Typical of the Nazi admiration for the British Empire were a lengthy series of articles in various German newspapers throughout the mid-1930s praising various aspects of British imperial history, with the clear implication that there were positive parallels to be drawn between British empire-building in the past and German empire-building in the future.

A particular theme of praise was offered for Britishruthlessness” in building and defending their empire, which was held as a model for the Germans to follow. Above all, the British were admired as anAryanpeople who had with typical “ruthlessnesssubjected millions of brown- and black skinned people to their rule, and British rule in India was held up as a model for how the Germans would rule Russia, through as the historian Gerwin Strobl pointed out that this parallel between German rule in Russia and British rule in India was only made possible by the Nazis’ ignorance of how the British actually ruled India.

King Charles granted the The Stuart family and London merchants who owned the Royal African Company a monopoly of the trade to supply slaves to the British colonies of the Caribbean. From the outset, slavery was the basis of the British Empire in the West Indies. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain was responsible for the transportation of 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. To facilitate this trade, forts were established on the coast of West Africa, such as James Island, Accra and Bunce Island. In the British Caribbean, the percentage of the population of African descent rose from 25 percent in 1650 to around 80 percent in 1780, and in the 13 Colonies from 10 percent to 40 percent over the same period (the majority in the southern colonies). For the slave traders, the trade was extremely profitable, and became a major economic mainstay for such western British cities as Bristol and Liverpool, which formed the third corner of the so-called triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. For the transported, harsh and unhygienic conditions on the slaving ships and poor diets meant that the average mortality rate during the Middle Passage was one in seven.


Kimberley concentration camp

Kimberley Camp

People in this camp


People who died in this camp


Kimberley camp was located in the Cape Colony on the Cape-ORC border but formed part of the ORC system. As one of the besieged towns, Kimberley had suffered severely from the war and there was little sympathy in the town for the camp inmates, especially the families of the Cape rebels who were housed there. Kimberley was a flat, hot town, always short of water and notoriously unhealthy. The camp itself, located on de Beers property in Newton, on the outskirts of the town, was inches deep in loose, sandy soil.1

Some kind of camp probably came into being in the early stages of the war for relief had to be found for destitute Boers from Griqualand West as early as December 1899.2 The formal camp, however, was set up by the town commandant on 4 January 1901 and run by Major Wright and the men of the Kimberley Regiment. Emily Hobhouse was contemptuous of Wright, a colonial volunteer rather than a regular soldier, whom she described as a ‘coarse, lazy, indifferent old man’ who did no work and left his son to run the camp. The result was a dirty, smelly camp where whooping cough and measles were rife and there was almost no medical attention.3 ‘Undesirable’ Cape rebel families, who were ‘not refugees in the true acceptance of the term’, were mixed with people from the Free State, the Transvaal and Bechuanaland.

Under military management disorder prevailed in Kimberley. In the beginning the Free State families were rationed differently from the Cape rebels and appear to have been subject to different regulations. A weak superintendent usually meant arbitrary treatment of the people with the result that the Kimberley women were amongst the most bitter that Emily Hobhouse encountered. As early as February 1901 the women petitioned the British government: ‘On account of carelessness, bad management, and ill-treatment, it is now the second time that we are drenched through and through by rain, which caused our children, already sick with measles, whooping cough, and fever, to become dangerously ill’, they wrote and urged that they be allowed to return to their homes.4

By February 1901, when the civilian camp administration was formed in the ORC, it was clear that all was not well in Kimberley. Finally Sydney Schutte, who subsequently became the first civilian superintendent, was sent by the ORC chief superintendent, Captain Trollope, to find out what was going on. Schutte’s brief, at this stage, was to concern himself only with the ORC people. Emily Hobhouse thought this absurd. She wrote to her brother, ‘Isn’t it ridiculous to split the camp in that way? They urge economy, won’t give soap or mattresses, then go and pay two Superintendents and two doctors and so forth and £500 for a barbed-wire fence, which anybody determined to escape could easily cut through’ http://www2.lib.uct.ac.za/mss/bccd/Histories/Kimberley/


WOULD you believe that there was once a concentration camp in Vryheid?

Rudie Rousseau and his team, who have been researching the existence of British concentration camps throughout South Africa for the last seven years, recently visited Vryheid in search of some of the final pieces of the puzzle that he has been piecing together for a series of documentaries he has been putting together.

More than 100 years after the Second Anglo Boer War, Rousseau is intent on exposing the truth of the atrocities that took place in these concentration camps where Boer women and children suffered and died at the hands of the British.

His visit to Vryheid included both museums where he discovered several interesting historical facts and information from the relevant time period to add to his archives. He and his team visited the Lucas Meijer house as well as the old courthouse and were impressed by what they found documented at both sites.

A visit to Vryheid Cemetery led to another fascinating discovery or two. They discovered a memorial site with names of people who may have been linked to the concentration camps. Some of the graves at the cemetery were unidentifiable, however, and it was not possible to establish if they were also linked.


Pinetown concentration camp

Pinetown concentration camp

The decision to transfer the Pietersburg camp inmates from Colenso to Pinetown must have been particularly traumatic for the families, for this was a third time that they had found themselves in a partly-built camp with all the associated discomforts of an incomplete infrastructure. In March 1902 Pinetown was a tiny settlement of 300 white inhabitants; nearby was the German settlement of New Germany. When the first Boers arrived in April, they were housed in uncomfortably damp houses previously occupied by Indians, before tents were erected. The camp itself was established on land rented from F.W. Königkramer, in a pleasant area surrounded by hills and far cooler than steamy Durban. The authorities had hesitated for some time about the Pinetown site for the water supply was limited and the camp was only possible because a substantial dam was built with water piped into the camp – one of several major engineering works undertaken in the camps. Most of the remaining structures, like the latrines, had been trucked down from Pietersburg and then moved on from Colenso to Pinetown. The camp remained in existence until August 1902, by which time the people had been trucked back to Pietersburg.1

Life in Pinetown camp differed little from the other camps. Food was not bad since rations could be supplemented with fruit and vegetables from the local farms or from Pinetown itself. Health was good, for the measles epidemic was long past. Of the twenty who died in Pinetown camp, most were the victims of the usual diseases of a pre-antibiotic age. To some extent Pinetown seems to have suffered as a punishment camp, for little effort was made with the school. Most of the Natal camps received at least one teacher from England but Pinetown did not, all the teachers being camp inhabitants.

The most momentous event was a severe gale in June 1902 which blew down many of the tents and destroyed the school. Wasserman records that the Hofmeyr family were taken in by local farmers, the Scotts, on their farm, Glenugie, where the young son was comforted with bananas. The storm destroyed the school and prevented a second lantern-slide lecture on the British Empire, with which the camp inmates had recently been entertained. Fortunately no-one fell ill as a result of their exposure to the storm.2

Pinetown was a complex and divided camp, politically and spiritually. Although some friction between hensoppers and joiners, on the one hand, and bittereindes on the other, was common in most of the camps, in Pinetown this tension seems to have been particularly evident. Pietersburg had produced a substantial number of loyalists, well over a hundred men joining the British volunteer forces. When the people were transferred to Natal, a small National Scouts camp remained in Pietersburg to house some of their families. Others, however, went to Natal, sometimes with their husbands. Wasserman suggests that some of these people reported back to military intelligence on the attitudes of the camp people, with the result that patriotic Boers felt ostracised and oppressed by this surveillance. A group of young women petitioned superintendent Tucker to remove the joiners. Yet, while some of the political opponents can be identified, we know little about their motives. It is too easy to see the conflict in black and white but we do not know why some chose to serve the British. Personal and political ties, economic forces or a realistic view of the situation all played their part.


In 1902, near the foot of Mt. Moriah, on the ridge to the north of the Aller river, the British established Pinetown Burgher Camp (burgerkampen or konsentrasiekamp), which was actually on farm land rented from FW Königkramer, in New Germany.  The camp covered an area of about 31 acres.  The Boer internees, who were mainly from the Zoutpansberg district, had been relocated from the Pietersburg and then Colenso Camps.  They arrived between 30 March and 11 April 1902 and brought with them all their tented accommodation, which comprised of 600 Bell tents, which could house 5 people each, and a number of different sized marquees, which could hold between 12 & 20 people.  The camp was guarded by British soldiers and enclosed with barbed wire fences and was supposed to house about 3,000 Boers, but on 30 June 1902 the highest number of 3,148 inhabitants was reached.  The peace treaty between the British and the Boers was signed on 31 May 1902 and the Pinetown Camp residents began to leave from 2 July up to the 10 August 1902.

Pietersburg concentration camp

Pietersburg concentration camp

Pietersburg was the northernmost camp in the Transvaal system, isolated and difficult to service. Although Pietersburg itself was relatively open, the nearby Zoutpansberg was mountainous and forested, bordering on Mozambique. The town was only occupied by the British on 8 April 1901 and, initially, the people of this region were housed in Irene camp. It was only after some thought that it was decided to establish a camp in such a remote area, in May 1901. This was still, in some respects, frontier territory, vulnerable to attacks from local African societies who remained unsubdued by the Boers. While there were some established farmers, much of the wealth of the area was derived from lumber and mining. Slave trading (the capture and sale of black children as apprentices to Boer farmers) still occurred occasionally. Many of the families were subsistence farmers at best and the presence of the Buys clan of Mara was an indication of the ‘in-between’ status of some of the people. These were the descendents of a Cape colonial renegade, Coenrad Buys, who had married into local black families. His descendents, however, did not identify with black society (in the camp context at least) and refused to be classed with black camp inmates. Instead, they maintained a separate identity in Pietersburg camp, living largely in their own wagons but rationed by the camp authorities. The head of the family was ‘a big burly negro, who rules his camp with great discretion’, the Ladies Committee noted in November 1901. Pietersburg was close to malaria country and the health of the region was notoriously poor so it was inevitable that the mortality in Pietersburg camp should be high.1

Given the hostilities that had marked Boer relations with the local black societies over many years, the white families felt particularly vulnerable when war broke out. One of the greatest fears that loomed over the women was the threat of armed blacks. While these were often exaggerated, there seems little doubt that farms in the Zoutpansberg were sometimes cleared by black allies of the British. Inevitably, accounts of these ‘atrocities’ crept into the women’s testimonies. The men of the Bushveldt Carbineers were also active in bringing in the women and children. Lieutenant George Witton’s distasteful and untruthful account of the Breaker Morant affair illustrates vividly the calibre of the men engaged in this work


The Camp

The camp



White tents, white ant hills.
Strange, awkward stenches fills the war-torn air
Weak, but still proud, with no disinfectant
Sitting around in poverty: deprived!
Waiting for food. Waiting for water.
Humiliation. Disgrace. Filth.
Dead bodies carrying along white rows
They don’t care, they don’t think!
They can’t think. They kill.
The pain inside: it cuts deep, very deep.
No sound. No breath. No life.
No words. Only thoughts.
Blue vitriol, no food.
Children crying, children dying

Hunger screams, hunger wails
Endless waiting and timeless prayers.
Shock. Horror. Pain.
Forgotten lives.
Panic. Fright. Terror.
God! My child is dead!
Footsteps. No words.
Empty arms. Eyes watching.
Not my child!
Another seepkissie will arrive soon

Nikita 22/8/2013

Balmoral concentration camp

Balmoral concentration camp

The Volksmoord Museum (Boer genocide museum) stands at Balmoral – near Witbank, 75 km from Pretoria – thanks to the work of Suiderkruis Africa (“Southern Cross Africa” of Willem Ratte) and the BEV (Boere Erfenis Vereniging, the Boer Heritage Association of Balmoral).
The Museum tells about the genocide – physical and spiritual – of a people, exterminate – then as now – by imperialism.

This little tour, it begins with some simple words, wrote on a picture at the entrance of the Volksmoord Museum:

This museum depicts the brutality and arrogance of these, who were and are killing off and driving of this our indigenous white nation of Africa, the Boers. Who are of mainly Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, and British stock (look at the names in the cemetery).
Although we were the victims of hate by imperialist whites and are now the victims of empowered blacks, we do not hate our oppressors. We do not want you hate, either. We just want you to cry out against this racist horror, this hidden genocide, and the shameful injustice of it all.
And we would like, you to think about this our small, abused and maligned nation, remembering the thousands victims then and now. Whose blood flowed into Africa’s hard soil. And whose blood is again being spilt in this new dark age, every day.

Balmoral camp was established relatively late, on 25 July 1901, coming into use a week later – a remarkably short time in which to set up a camp. It was created to take the overflow from the Middelburg and Belfast camps and was divided into the districts from which most of the inmates came – Balmoral, Lydenburg and, later, Ermelo. The move from Middelburg had been precipitated by the poor health in that very large camp and the people arrived unwell. Later arrivals included fugitives from the Bronkhorstspruit district, who were starving and exhausted. By November 1901 they were coming in from the Lydenburg and Barberton districts, in a very bedraggled state, it was noted, because they had been out on the veld for some time. Although by the end of 1901 Kitchener had ordered that no more families should be sent to the camps, his instructions were often ignored and some continued to trickle in. On 27 April 1902 125 people arrived, half of them men, in a pitiful state. ‘They were literally in rags and it was hard to discern the original material of the men’s clothing. When compared with the inmates of the camp they looked a very unkempt lot’, the superintendent noted

The original site was an old military camp, just south of the railway station, and was strewn with refuse. E.R Harvey, the first superintendent, had hard work getting the area into a reasonable condition, as he was limited by lack of transport. This was often a problem for the camps when the military requisitioned all the available animals. The camp was unfenced as the entire area was protected by blockhouses. Within this vicinity camp inmates were allowed to wander freely. Because Balmoral was established so late, it was easy to pitch the camp with the mathematical tidiness favoured by the British officials. The tents had dung floors

Although both Harvey and the Ladies’ Commission were satisfied with the site, when the Military Governor of the Transvaal, General Maxwell, visited the camp on 14 January 1902, he ordered it to be moved to rising ground, almost a mile away. This was a huge labour, especially as the water supply now had to be piped from a considerable distance. In spite of these instructions from the top, it was months before the camp moved. One problem was the lack of transport because, even before the end of the war, the Boer men in the camp were allowed to go into the ‘low country’ with their stock and wagons to winter. As winter approached the lack of grazing also reduced the quality of the oxen. (In June 1902 the camp superintendent reported bitterly that he only had 22 mules, 11 oxen, 3 Scotch carts and 1 wagon to do all the camp work. ‘All the oxen belonging to the burghers have been sent out to the farms, and there are no waggons or oxen obtainable in the vicinity of Balmoral’.) Although the hospital moved in May, the main camp was only transferred in June 1902

Harvey considered the climate to be healthy but it was harsh. Towards the end of winter and the dry season the region was often ravaged by severe sandstorms. In September 1901 the camp was lashed by heavy rain storms, when water poured through the tents until a drain was dug to divert the flow. October was worse, with rain throughout the month, contributing to a variety of chest complaints. This was the result, Dr Lee considered, of the ‘weakly and strumous’ condition of the people, but superintendent Harvey was waist-deep in water on one occasion, when ten tents blew down. Recent arrivals were especially vulnerable to sickness. On 18 September 1901, during one such storm, one of the hospital marquees caught fire in the absence of the night nurse, Hester Vermeulen. The unfortunate woman was responsible for two marquees and was attending to the children in the second tent at the time. The fire was only spotted when the third hospital marquee blew down and Nurse Margaret Adank went in search of someone to help her put it up again. Tragically, four children died. To their credit, the British published the full details of the inquiry into the incident. (The Ladies’ Commission had a different version of the story, that Nurse Vermeulen, a Boer probationer, ran out of the tent in a panic when it caught fire. She was subsequently dismissed, they said.)

The event confirmed the existing reluctance of the Boers to send their children to hospital and the camp authorities were, under the circumstances, unwilling to insist that they should do so. As the hospital expanded however, to ten marquees by November 1901, and better staff and equipment was introduced, this concession was abandoned. By January 1902 resistance was decreasing, the authorities believed, because everything was done to make the patients comfortable. The young Boer ‘probationers’ were settling down well to their work and would soon become really useful. By this time there were eighteen employed and they were provided with their own quarters in the hospital complex. The upbeat tone of the reports can, however, be confusing for the new camp superintendent, Captain Ross Garner, who arrived on 15 February 1902, confessed at the end of February 1902 that people were not willing to go into hospital since there was no visiting day. This was to be remedied.

Even so, conditions were not comfortable. The new hospital was eventually occupied in April 1902. Despite all the work, it remained fairly primitive, with antheap floors, although these were supposed to be tarred. The marquees were not warm enough for chest cases, the MO complained, and a brick and iron ward of twelve beds was finally erected for such cases. Africans were regularly treated in the hospital, at least in 1902. In July 1902 a black man was brought in from a neighbouring farm with diphtheria and a tracheotomy was administered; in the same month another black man from outside died in the hospital of pneumonia. The following month two more men were admitted from the Repatriation Department, one with jaundice and the other with injuries after he had been run over by an ox wagon; two more were hurt by ox wagons in September while another outsider also died in the hospital.

Not surprisingly, health was a major consideration from the start and Harvey took energetic steps to control the raging epidemic of measles which came with the first inmates, forming a quarantine camp to which infected families were moved. By the end of August eleven families had been isolated there. They were not allowed visitors but the patients were nursed by their mothers, a step which probably did something to reconcile them to their situation. Such actions was rare and seems to have been relatively effective, although the epidemic was fuelled in September by families brought in from Hans Senekal. Deaths, at least, had been minimised by the existence of the quarantine camp, Dr Lee believed. Unfortunately, as summer approached, enteric (typhoid) began to increase.

In a report in November 1901, the MO summed up the reasons for the poor health of the camp inmates. By the time the children came to Balmoral from other camps, most had had measles, which left them weak, liable to contract other infections, and unable to digest the camp food. Children born since the outbreak of the war were usually frail, probably because of the malnutrition of the mothers. Neither the corned beef nor the fresh meat, of poor quality, suited the children. He wanted all children who had suffered from measles to be accommodated in houses with proper floors, and given rations which should included vegetables, fresh or compressed, thereby supplying lime salts, he believed. (Scurvy was not fully understood since vitamins had not yet been discovered). In addition, they should receive lime juice, mealie meal and Boer meal, with the husks, rather than refined flour, and better meat. (Men coming into camp from the commandos often showed symptoms of scurvy due, the MO thought, to their ‘excessive meat diet’. In fact the men were frequently short of meat, and meat contains some vitamin C, obviating scurvy.)

The pattern of mortality in Balmoral camp, as the graph below indicates, was a little different from the average pattern in the Transvaal. The epidemic started a little later (not surprisingly given the late establishment of the camp) and was of slightly shorter duration. Adults suffered an increase in deaths in the summer, almost certainly the result of typhoid fever.

The death rates, which give a more reliable indicator of what was happening, indicate that the authorities had reason to be concerned about deaths in Balmoral camp for it was somewhat higher than the Transvaal camp average (compare the grey and black lines). The adult lines also show that the typhoid epidemic was relatively serious. Men, especially suffered quite badly.

By January 1902 various reforms had greatly improved the health of the camp but childhood diseases remained a worry. In April 1902 two children died of diphtheria, the result of their tents being too close to the black location and the cattle kraals, the MO believed. In the same month mumps, though not a killer, ran through the camp. As winter approached, respiratory ailments increased. There was always a trickle of typhoid cases and the medical officers devoted much time to identifying the source. In April 1902, the current MO, Dr W.M. Montgomery, thought the infection might be due to the dust storms. Flies were not very prevalent, he explained, and the disease did not appear to be waterborne.

As in most camps, the women preferred to have their babies born in their own tents, helped, in Balmoral, by a camp midwife, an experienced and sensible woman, the Ladies’ Commission was told. Milk was relatively generously supplied, with all children under six receiving a bottle a day. Dr Lee was concerned, however, by the ‘maternal incompetency’ in feeding the newborn infants, leaving a highway, he explained, to the ‘ravages of artificial feeding’. The ailments of women are barely mentioned in this male-dominated environment and in a world in which anything sexual was deeply private. One woman in Balmoral, however, died of ‘septic peritonitis’ following childbirth, a relatively uncommon phenomenon.

Food was the most expensive item in the camps and was always commented upon in the camp reports. Arriving as the Boers did, towards the end of winter, meat was a constant problem. The troops fared no better, Harvey noted, but he hoped that the military would soon bring in fresh stocks. This did not happen and by September he was looking to the young grass to improve the quality of the stock. By October the meat was so poor that it was condemned as unfit for human consumption and Harvey had to resort to tinned meat, which the people did not like. By 1902 the camps began to use frozen meat, and this was more satisfactory and more acceptable to the Boers, but it did occasionally arrive in an unusable condition and had to be sent back. Sugar in Balmoral was explicitly described as being yellow, granulated sugar from Natal rather than the more common imported sugar. Water was also a problem. Originally it was brought from the military camp but the pipes were dirty and the quality dubious. ‘Fountains’ (springs) were opened up instead, and tanks introduced to boil the water. By October 1901 ovens were also built to bake bread and a soup kitchen was established. Each family did its own cooking, many in ‘neat little ovens’, the Ladies’ Commission noted, made from zinc and iron carried away from neighbouring farm houses. The issuing of rations was quick and efficient. But difficulties were ongoing. In April 1902 fresh milk could no longer be obtained for the hospital because of the rinderpest which was now ravaging the cattle. Condensed milk, however, was abandoned for sterilised milk from Natal, an improvement the MO considered. As in other camps, a vegetable garden was eventually started at the beginning of January 1902, rather late for planting the superintendent noted, but they were coming on well. No more is heard of the garden and one can only surmise that it did not flourish.

Much of the superintendent’s work was concerned with keeping the camp and tents clean. Before he had a camp matron, Harvey took the somewhat unusual step of appointing four Boer women, without uniforms, to inspect the tents, hoping that their work would not be realised by the other inmates. Dr Kendal Franks, who inspected the camp in August 1901, thought this unlikely given the suspicious nature of the Boers. By the following month the women had been replaced by a camp matron, Miss Mary Robb, a ‘useful and practical woman’, aided by a number of young Boer women. Harvey was critical of them as they were, he said, inclined to favour their friends in the distribution of clothing. He would have preferred a staff of young ladies of British extraction. Miss Robb, however, apparently thought much more highly of them than some ‘loyal refugees’ sent up from the coast, one of whom arrived drunk

Miss Robb, always described as interested in her work, also started ‘industrial’ sewing classes in February 1902. These were enthusiastically attended by about thirty girls. By this time the men were also kept occupied in a variety of jobs, ranging from the tannery, an early innovation, to carpentry and shoemaking. Two blacksmiths were later introduced to make metal tent pegs because the white ants tended to eat the wooden ones. Brickmaking, with sun-dried bricks, was a less satisfactory occupation since the torrential rains sometimes tended to wash them away before they could be used. Nevertheless, by the end of February 1902 the camp was turning out 5000 bricks a day, to be used in the buildings being erected in the new camp.

Like most of the Transvaal camps, Balmoral had a Poynton’s store, but Harvey preferred to get fabric for clothing from his own firm, back in Cape Town, as he felt that Poynton’s prices were high. Nevertheless, the shop was well patronised, with such items as golden syrup, butter and lard, preserved ginger and Worcester sauce selling in substantial quantities. Some camp inmates could afford such luxuries since they were paid for their work, the young Boer women who assisted the camp matron receiving 1s a day, for instance, a sum which would buy a tin of butter or a bottle of Worcester sauce.

Superintendent Garner was concerned about the lack of recreational facilities for the camp inmates. Football was always popular and a little cricket was played, but in February 1902 he obtained hockey sticks to start that sport as well (it is not clear that the girls were allowed to play, though.) The coronation of Edward VII was celebrated with a picnic and a cable (telegram) from the camp inmates tendering their loyalty and expressing the hope that prosperity would abound and unity would prevail. (We don’t, of course, know who dissented from this.) In general the superintendent considered that the camp inmates bore the authorities no ill will. It is always difficult to judge these comments but other indications suggest that relations in Balmoral camp were relatively harmonious for much of the time. The attitude to the young Boer women, the ‘probationers’, employed in the camp hospital is often indicative of the attitude of the camp authorities to the people in their care. Balmoral was consistently positive; the women were never pilloried for their lack of cleanliness, their slowness or their inability to learn. On the contrary, by April 1902 the women were receiving lectures on first aid and they showed ‘very keen interest’ in the work, it was noted. Conditions did change somewhat after the end of the war with the returning prisoners-of-war. Relations between the male bittereindes and the joiners became much more strained, the superintendent commented. ‘The people who surrendered with the Government wear as a distinguishing mark a black and white rosette’, he reported

A camp chaplain, the Rev. de Beer, was appointed only in 1902, a step in the right direction, the superintendent thought. Previously the camp inmates had only had the occasional services of the town dominee. His services were so popular that part of the congregation was forced to stand outside the church tent in the broiling summer sun. The school was usually well attended and occasioned no special comment.

Black servants were allowed in the camp, and they were rationed. There was a town location nearby and black men were used for the more unpleasant camp work but of the women and children we know nothing.

The closing down of the camp was a slow process as the women and children were not sent home until they had been reunited with their menfolk, some of whom had been on commando, while others had to return from the overseas prisoner-of-war camps. Many of the families also had to be repatriated from the Natal camps so there was constant movement in and out in the last months of the year. Many of the inmates were not anxious to return home, the superintendent explained, because they had no proper shelter on their burnt farms and no cattle to plough. They were supplied with a tent and a month’s rations to carry them on and they gradually departed. By the end of October there were only 87 left in the camp. The camp seems to have closed by the end of November as there is no report for December.


Merebank concentration camp

Merebank concentration camp

The first concentration camp to be erected in Durban was the Merebank concentration camp 12 kilometres South of the city, on the south coast railway line. This camp which was to become the largest concentration camp of the war with its more than 8,000 inhabitants were erected on wet marshy land that caused health and comfort problems. Criticism of the site had little effect.

The Merebank camp was divided into three sections, Grassmere, Hazelmere and Windermere. The inhabitants were accommodated in either wooden and corrugated iron huts, or wood and canvas huts or bell tents.

In these temporary homes women had to try and recreate homes with the belongings they managed too save. Rations such as meat, flour and potatoes were handed out from the commissariats office to queues. Inhabitants were allowed to buy extras to supplement their rations from stores in the camp.

Firewood was fetched from an allocated spot a fair distance from their huts, while water supplied by the Durban Corporation tended to be erratic.

The camp was administered by Superintendent H M Bousfield who was assisted by a team of administrators which included doctors, hospital matron and nurses, camp matron, camp storeman, clerks, teachers, Indian and African sanitary personnel and many others. Some inhabitants also worked in the camp.

General Schalk burger (bare headed, middle right) addresses the inhabitants of Merebank about the peace treaty. Notice the old man crying at far right.

The dreary monotonous life was broken up by political infighting, passes to visit Durban to bid farewell to POWs, or the seaside. The Merebank camp continued to exist until December 1902 when the last of its inhabitants left for home. During its existence there were 453 deaths mainly due to measles, enteric fever and dysentery.

These people were buried at three different cemeteries: 22 were buried at Isipingo, 19 at Jacobs/Clairmont, and 412 at Merebank. All three these sites have a monument.


Merebank camp could be described as a test case, an attempt to create a camp which avoided the mistakes of the past. It was established about September 1901, mainly to reduce the numbers in the Transvaal camps and to bring down the terrible mortality which was sweeping through the camp system. In some respects it could be considered a success for deaths were considerably lower. But its history is fraught with contradictions. For instance, with about 9,000 inmates, it was the largest camp in the entire system, although it was divided into three parts, Windermere, Hazelmere and Grasmere, each section housing about 3,000 people. This device made it possible to argue that the camp was within the recommended size.

A second inconsistency was its location. Merebank camp was based on the sub-tropical Natal coast, just south of Durban, in a climate which was very different from the crisp highveld air to which the Boers were accustomed. Humidity, strong winds and summer rains all contributed their discomfort, although cooler sea breezes helped to reduce the temperature in summer. Above all, it was built on low-lying, swampy ground, with sand blowing over everything and the floors and bedding constantly wet. Conditions were so poor that, after they had visited Merebank, the Ladies Committee recommended that the camp be moved. Despite this, Merebank remained where it was. The fact that it was on a railway line, close to Durban’s main water supply, on flat land, were all advantages which, in the eyes of the authorities, outweighed the potentially unhealthiness of the site.

Accommodation was a third anomaly. Initially the families were housed in the familiar bell tents and marquees but the climate made such accommodation even less suitable for women and children than it was in the Transvaal. As a result, wood and iron huts gradually replaced the tents. Built in rows of six rooms, they were not ideal, however, for they were hot, they lacked privacy and, by April 1902, they were leaking. In this subtropical climate fleas, lice and mosquitoes abounded, adding to the discomfort of the inhabitants. In some respects the staff were worse off. The teachers, for instance, as late as March 1902, were in dilapidated marquees and their food was cooked over an open fire outside.

Education became a priority for the camps. Not only did schools keep the children occupied but they were also a means of inculcating the values of the British Empire into Britain’s future subjects. Yet the Merebank schools were operated with a mix of relative extravagance and needless thrift. Teachers were recruited from overseas in some numbers, with salaries which were large enough to attract people of ability, but the staff were often poorly housed and fed. The schools were short of such basic equipment as desks, slates, blackboards and books. The Boers made some attempt to start their own schools, less vulnerable to imperial propaganda, but these were swiftly forbidden. Despite all the deficiencies, some children were able to prepare for national examinations. Night classes for adults included lectures on the British Empire and more practical subjects such as cooking, needlework, kindergarten work and art were also taught.

Underlying many of these weaknesses was, of course, the desire for economy, for the Natal authorities prided themselves on running a system which was as thrifty as possible. However, they did not stint on senior staff. The superintendent, Hugh Moberley Bousfield, was a Natalian who had been a captain in the Imperial Light Infantry but he spoke limited Dutch. On the whole he proved a competent administrator of this very large camp. Wohlberg suggests that he was ‘as helpful, compassionate, kind and accommodating’ as the circumstances allowed. Dr Leonard Hardy was the SMO for most of the period, aided by a number of doctors including Dr James O’Reilly, who had been deported by the British from Heidelberg because he was suspected of pro-Boer sympathies. ‘Probationers’ included Uitlander refugees as well as the young Boer women more usually employed, the former receiving considerably better pay.

Wisely, Bousfield did not try to restrict the Merebank people too much. Permission was regularly given for visits to the beach and picnics, swimming and fishing all relieved the monotony of camp life. The women were able to see their men off when they were transferred to prisoner-of-war camps overseas and visits to the Umbilo prisoner-of-war camp were occasionally allowed. Concerts, bazaars and sports days also occupied their time, as they did in other camps. If life in Merebank camp was hard, it was probably less tedious than it was in the up-country camps.

The first inmates arrived from Pretoria on 13 September 1901. It was often the trauma of the journey, in open cattle trucks, which the women remembered later, rather than life in the camp itself, both because of the discomfort and because of the fear of the unknown into which they were being sent. Nevertheless, a number of families were able to take black servants with them to Merebank. Curiously, the camp also occasionally housed Uitlander refugee orphans who had no ties with the Boers at all.

At least the food was better. Supply was much easier on the coast and fresh produce was readily available. Moreover, the Natal ration scale was always more generous than that of the ORC and Transvaal, and the Merebank inmates regularly received potatoes, onions and rice. Indian traders sold bananas and pineapples cheaply. But the meat was usually frozen and the children could not always get fresh milk. For some time there were no communal ovens and the women had to rely on open fires or the occasional primus stove. Eventually ovens were constructed in February 1902, making the cooking, which occupied so much of the day, more efficient.

The real test, of course, was health. One might have expected that Merebank could avoid the terrible measles epidemic but this was not the case. No attempt was made to isolate the new arrivals with the result that measles came with them into the camp. Fortunately many of the camp inmates had already acquired an immunity to the disease so the results were less disastrous than they were in the up-country camps. Measles mortality reached its peak in October 1902 but it disappeared rapidly after that. Respiratory diseases, which might have included the aftermath of measles, lingered on for some months, along with diarrhoea and dysentery. Enteric, though never so fatal, was harder to eliminate completely.

At its worst Merebank reached a death rate of 14 per 1000 per annum which was negligible compared with the Transvaal camps and comparable with peacetime rates in the industrial cities of Britain.

As so often in South Africa, the black presence in Merebank camp was pervasive but rendered largely invisible by the sources. Black labour had constructed the camp and blacks were used in a number of roles from policing to the more unpleasant sanitary work. The white staff often had black men assigned to them for cooking and cleaning. The young teacher, Kate French, observed: ‘Our Kaffirs cooked our food on the open fire outside the tent and often made very picturesque pictures during the process’. A handful of Boer families were able to bring blacks with them, often young people who acted as playmates to the children as well as general servants. Superficial good relations crumbled rapidly when a black man was brought into the camp hospital, for the young Boer women nursing there resigned en masse rather than attend him. Despite this, a number of blacks were cared for in the hospital suffering from the familiar range of diseases, including enteric, pneumonia, dysentery, influenza and the like.

Like many of their counterparts in other camps, the Boers received the news of the peace with mixed feelings. While they longed to return home, they found it difficult to accept that their leaders had laid down their arms. When Bousfield told them the news, therefore, many responded with disappointment and confusion. The visits of General Schalk Burger early in June to explain why the Boers had made peace gave them only limited comfort. Repatriation was slow, partly because Merebank camp was used as an assembly point for returning prisoners of war. These men all had to be processed through the system, taking an oath of allegiance, before they could go home. The children were all issued with school leaving certificates and everyone was required to undergo a medical examination. Mrs Wilhelmina Hertzog, the wife of General J.B.M. Hertzog, was the first to leave the camp, on 4 June 1902. The last group left on 10 December 1902 and the camp was finally closed in January 1903.