Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

South Africa and the British concentration camps


I’m loving the World Cup, trying to watch as many matches as I can, and even like the sound of the vuvuzelas! With many others of the English tendency, I watched England’s first match against USA with nervous excitement. ITV prefaced the match with an outdoor broadcast from Roark’s Drift, and Film4 showed Zulu earlier in the day. As much as I have enjoyed the film in the past, it belongs to the odd canon of boys-own British pseudohistory.

The Boer War is a fairly forgotten piece of British Empire history, although ending only a little over a century ago. In the UK we remember Roark’s Drift (mainly because of Zulu), the Relief of Mafeking, Cecil Rhodes and Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts. It’s far too easy to have this jingoistic comic-book understanding of British history. In some countries, lots of them, the school history books are doctored to instill a nationalistic pseudohistory in the student, but here simple, subtle mass ignorance suffices.

Lizzie van Zyl, victim of Britain's concentration camps.

Lizzie van Zyl, victim of Britain's concentration camps.

Britain began the 20th century with systematic mass murder in South Africa, which involved the invention of the concentration camp. Part of jingoistic history is to make evil other: foreigners are and do evil,which we boldly resist. By editing out the evil from our own history, we end up with an overinflated impression of our moral superiority. This makes it important to remember the evil our country has done.

After the Relief of Mafeking in 1900, General Kitchener arrived in South Africa to take command. Frustrated by fighting the Boer defenders, who adopted guerilla tactics against superior British forces, Kitchener ordered the transformation of the extant refugee camps into concentration camps for the internment of the Boer women and children left in the villages and townships. The British didn’t mean to murder these women and children, but simply interred them in disease infested camps with too little food and let nature take its course. About 26,000 Boer women and children died in the British concentration camps. A roughly equal number of Boer fighters were deported from South Africa during the same period.

More forgotten are the Black Africans caught up in the fighting who were interned in separate concentration camps. The liberal British media, outraged at the plight of the White Boers, said almost nothing about the Black camps. All we have is an estimate that around 14,000 died in the Black camps.

The Boer War was an important turning point in the history of South Africa and the British Empire. The violence, bloodshed and trauma of the war is the background for Afrikaner grievances and insecurities that lay behind Apartheid. The war was the moment that Britain learnt that we could not dictate political and economic terms around the globe, and perhaps that we should not.

As we now have official admission that British soldiers killed 14 unarmed civilians without warning in Derry almost 40 years ago, that their commanders put them in that high-pressure position, and that the authorities have led the denial and coverup ever since, we realise that the need to question authority in order to keep it accountable and responsible for its actions.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

6 thoughts on “South Africa and the British concentration camps

  1. The refusal of the Crown of England to admit to the mass murder of my nation and the refusal to reimburse our families whom suffered financial ruin inflicted upon us like the Germans did to the Jews remains the bloody stain of shame that good Englishman like Gareth Hughes have to bear forever.

    • The British Empire was a long period of continual rape, pillage and murder, barely hidden under a blanket of Victorian moralising. The effects of British imperialism have left global scars. It doesn’t take much knowledge of South African history to realise that imperial violence set the scene for generations of further violence. As for reparations, I’m not sure the British state could begin to afford to pay for all its wrongs in South Africa, let alone globally. That’s probably why the truth in Truth and Reconciliation is so much needed: it’s good to get those past sins out in the open where all can see them.

  2. It is a pitty that your queen do not have the guts to admit the wrong that was done. When she was here [I think round about 2000] and she were ask if she would lay a wreath at the women’s memorial in Bloemfontein ,she simply said she have no time for that.When I was in London I specialty looked were is the special monument for the thousands that was killed in the ABW you just don’t find any, yes for all the other wares there are. Thy are ashame that ±40 000 boers learn them [400 000] a lessen.!!

  3. I truly believe in the sentiment ‘what goes around comes around.’ hence why the UK is being flooded with what they hate the most; foreigners. Most of this country is up in arms at the influx and the general take over of the UK and I believe that this is the fulfillment of the children’s children suffering the sins of their fathers. You never get away with your actions ever; whether in this world or the next.

  4. The British did not invent concentration camps. The claim that we did is Nazi propaganda, and that is why the claim is typically heard from sources close to Naziism, such as Afrikaaners, Irish Republicans, Germans, etc.

    “The persistent belief that the British invented the concentration camp has been the war’s [WW2] most enduring propaganda issue.”

    Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present by Nicholas John Cull, David Holbrook Culbert, David Welch.

    According to Robertson, Patrick. “The Book of Firsts,” Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, 1974, p. 44.

    “The idea that the British ‘invented’ concentration camps was fostered by Dr. Goebbels during the 1930s.”

    Concentration camps were used by Imperial Spain in Cuba, in 1896, four years before their use by the British in South Africa in 1900.
    ‘Spain’s Reconcentrado policy in Cuba 1896-97’

    Here’s a description of the Cuban camps by US Senator Redfield Proctor. Clara Barton’s book THE RED CROSS ( Washington DC: American National Red Cross, 1899) 534-539.

    Tens of thousands of civilians were murdered in those camps; hundreds of thousands by some accounts.

    At a dinner given by the National Reform Union at the Holborn Restaurant to Sir W. Harcourt and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman G.C.B., on June 14th, 1901, Sir Henry gave a long speech denouncing the “methods of barbarism” used by the British in South Africa, including the following, which makes clear reference to the prior Spanish use of concentration camps.

    ‘It is that we should sweep – as the Spaniards did in Cuba; and how we denounced the Spaniards! – the women and children into camps’.

  5. Pingback: Oxford University’s liberal mask slips in Rhodes Must Fall campaign | rs21

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