Сoncentration camp: the most shameful British invention

Yevhen Monastyrsky

Concentration camps became an instrument of mass murder in the USSR and Germany. But it was only a terrible development on the isolation method that the British had used in South Africa.


The Cape Colony was founded by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 in a bay near the Cape of Good Hope. It was managed by the East India Company, and became the most successful project of Europeans’ resettlement to Africa.

The first Dutch settlements in South Africa appeared in the mid-17th century. Later, Germans and French Protestants arrived there. The settlers would be called Boers, and they would call themselves Afrikaners. Using the labor of black slaves, Europeans quickly developed agriculture. The Cape Colony flourished.

The colony occupied an exceptionally important position on the sea routes from Europe to Asia, and in 1806, the British Empire took it from the weakened Netherlands. The Boers lived in relative peace with the British until 1834, when the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect.

The settlers could not imagine their farms without the forced labor of Africans and decided to start all over again. About 15 thousand people went deep into the continent, where they established the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State.

‘He [the Boer] is deeply religious; profoundly ignorant; dull, obstinate, bigoted; uncleanly in his habits: hospitable; honest in his dealings with the whites; a hard master to his black servant,’ — wrote Mark Twain during his South Africa tour in the late 19th century.

The new region turned out to be rich in gold and diamonds. English prospectors called uitlanders flocked to the Boer republics. Paying heavy taxes, the migrants demanded civil rights. But there were so many Englishmen that they could come to power through elections. The Boers hesitated, the uitlanders insisted, and the British Empire incited. In 1899, war broke out.

The forces were hopelessly unequal. During the three years of fighting, the empire increased its contingent to 450,000 soldiers, compared to 83,000 Afrikaners and 3,000 foreign volunteers.

But the locals were excellent pathfinders and snipers. After losing the cities, they scattered to farms and stabbed the enemy in the back. To destroy the partisans, the British had to deprive them of their bases and the support of the population. So they proceeded to the final solution to the Boer question.

boer war
The Boer War. A Boer trench (left) and a British position (right), 1900. Source: Imperial War Museums / Wikipedia

The imperial army switched to a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Farms were burned to the ground. Fields were sprinkled with salt to deprive them of fertility. Corpses were thrown into wells to poison the water. Captured men were taken out of the country.

All women, children, and elderly were taken from their homes to tent ‘concentration camps’. Officially, they were called ‘Refugee’ (places of rescue). There were 45 of them for whites and 64 for blacks.

The prototype of concentration camps in Africa and around the world were probably the camps in New Mexico, where the US Army gathered Navajo, Cherokee, and Mescalero Indians before the establishment of reservations. From 1863 to 1868, more than 3,500 people died of starvation and disease there. ‘The Americans have turned millions of redskins into hundreds of thousands by shooting, and these modest remnants are now kept in a cage under surveillance,’ Adolf Hitler said in his 1928 speech.

Bloemfontein Refugee Camp
Bloemfontein Refugee Camp, modern South Africa territory. Source: The National Archives UK
Bloemfontein Refugee Camp
Bloemfontein Refugee Camp, modern South Africa territory. Source: The National Archives UK
Boers waiting for food in a concentration camp. Source: SA National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa
A Boer family in a concentration camp. Source: SA National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa
A camp in Johannesburg, modern-day South Africa. Source: SA National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa
A labor camp for Africans on Saint Helena island. Source: South African History Online / sahistory.org.za

The administration did not plan to starve the camps’ prisoners intentionally. Nor did they intend to make significant efforts to solve the problems of supply and sanitation.

A typical weekly ration for an adult white woman was supposed to be 3 kg/6,6 lb of flour, 900 g/2 lb of meat (usually canned), 100 g/0.22 lb of salt, 300 g/0,66 lb of sugar, and 170 g/0,37 lb of coffee. According to calculations, it provided 30% fewer calories than the required minimum.

The situation was significantly complicated by frequent disruptions in food supplies. If the head of the family was listed as fighting in the Boer army, his wife and children received food last or were given a special ration without meat. This condemned the relatives of the partisans to starvation. Measles, typhoid fever, and dysentery killed them afterwards.

In January 1901, the English activist Emily Hobhouse, the founder of the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children, visited several camps. She was appalled.

‘I saw crowds of them along railway lines in bitterly cold weather, in pouring rain–hungry, sick, dying and dead. Soap was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes… by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.’

In May, Hobhouse returned home and presented a report on the tragedy to the British government.

5-year-old Lizzie van Zyl in the Bloemfontein camp. Emily Hobhouse wrote: 'She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care. Yet, because her mother was one of the 'undesirables' due to the fact that her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations.' Source: SA National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa / Wikipedia

Since the fall of 1900, the UK has been ruled by a government formed by the Conservative Party. Hobhouse’s report became a trump card in the hands of the opposition. Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman accused the government of using ‘barbaric methods’.

Photos of emaciated and sick people made it to the world press. It was impossible to pass off prisoners as refugees. As many as 50 children a day died in the camps.

An employee of one of the concentration camps wrote home: ‘The notion that only weak children die is wrong, and after they leave this world, the mortality rate will decrease. Now those who were considered strong are already dying. And they will all be dead by spring.’

Starvation victims in British concentration camps. Source: Mrs. S.C. Jurrius. Kampkinders
Starvation victims in British concentration camps. Source: Mrs. S.C. Jurrius. Kampkinders

The feminist Millicent Fawcett headed an official commission that inspected the conditions of the Boers and confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s discovery. To save the situation (and the reputation of the Conservative Party), a military administration in the concentration camps was replaced by a civilian one. The number of medical staff was increased, and nutrition was improved. For their labor in the camps, prisoners were paid money that could be spent at the food kiosk.

Meanwhile, the British army command decided not to evacuate women and children, captured during the ‘cleansing’, to the camps anymore. This was not for humane reasons, quite the contrary. Thus, the burden of responsibility for the lives of civilians in the burned farms and destroyed fields fell on the Boer partisans. They were deprived of mobility and food supplies.

By February 1902, the mortality rate among white prisoners in the camps had decreased by almost 4 times and soon became lower than in most cities in England. But by that time, about 26,000 people had died, including 24,000 children. The exact number of black African victims cannot be estimated.

What happened next:

  • On May 31, 1902, the Afrikaners admitted their defeat. The British Crown gained power over the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, promising self-government to the white population of the republics, amnesty to the prisoners of war, and compensation to the farmers for their losses.
  • To improve the economic situation after the war and to compensate for the loss of population in South Africa, the British organized the migration of 50,000 Chinese.

  • In 1971, one of the three submarines of the South African Navy was named after Emily Hobhouse.