Painting of Boer families burying their dead outside a British concentration camp in South Africa.
‘Concentration camps’ were established in South Africa to accommodate Boer families displaced as a result of Britain's scorched earth policies. The camps were poorly conceived and ill equipped to deal with the large numbers of detainees.
While the clearance and destruction of farms by British forces (including New Zealand troops) was intended to remove the main source of support for the Boer commandos, the real victims were the women and children who were left to fend for themselves. Aware that these families lacked shelter, food or protection from African marauders, the British hurriedly constructed camps to house them.
At least 40 concentration camps were constructed, altogether holding some 150,000 Boer refugees. Some, such as Merebank, which housed over 9000 internees, were so large that they resembled small towns. Sixty camps were also constructed to house the 115,000 native Africans who had worked as servants for the Boers.
Due to their hasty conception and the difficulties of accommodating a displaced population, the camps offered the bare minimum in terms of housing and supplies; many internees were forced to live in tents. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions led to disease outbreaks, with typhoid, malaria, measles and dysentery being rife. Many British doctors and colonial nurses were shocked by the traditional remedies often employed by the Boers: one supposed cure for typhoid involved placing the warm stomach of a freshly slaughtered sheep on the patient’s chest.
The use of concentration camps drew heavy criticism. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the Liberal Party in Great Britain, declared the camps to be ‘methods of barbarism’. Others, such as social reformer Emily Hobhouse, inspected the camps (much to the ire of the military) and publicised the terrible conditions. As a result of pressure from the public, the British authorities began to improve conditions in the camps.
Towards the end of 1901 these criticisms, combined with a desire to end the war, caused the British to adopt a new policy regarding displaced Boer families. Rather than being removed to camps they were instead to be left to fend for themselves. This tactic was aimed at burdening the Boer commandos so that they would be unable to continue their guerrilla warfare.
The suffering experienced in the camps left a lasting legacy of bitterness amongst the Boers. As a result of the poor conditions the mortality rate was high. Up to 28,000 Boers died, with 80% of the deaths being among children. Although the British did not keep records of the death toll among native Africans in the camps, it is believed that up to 15,000 died.