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Chapter 7


When considerable districts of the country were cleared of food in order to hamper the movements of the commandos, and when large numbers of farmhouses were destroyed under the circumstances already mentioned, it became evident that it was the duty of the British, as a civilised people, to form camps of refuge for the women and children, where, out of reach, as we hoped, of all harm, they could await the return of peace. There were three courses open. The first was to send the Boer women and children into the Boer lines—a course which became impossible when the Boer army broke into scattered bands and had no longer any definite lines; the second was to leave them where they were; the third was to gather them together and care for them as best we could.

It is curious to observe that the very people who are most critical of the line of policy actually adopted, were also most severe when it appeared that the alternative might be chosen. The British nation would have indeed remained under an ineffaceable stain had they left women and children without shelter upon the veldt in the presence of a large Kaffir population. Even Mr. Stead could hardly have ruined such a case by exaggeration. On some rumour that it would be so, he drew harrowing pictures of the moral and physical degradation of the Boer women in the vicinity of the British camps. No words can be too strong to stigmatise such assertions unless the proof of them is overwhelmingly strong—and yet the only 'proof' adduced is the bare assertion of a partisan writer in a partisan paper, who does not claim to have any personal knowledge of the matter. It is impossible without indignation to know that a Briton has written on such evidence of his own fellow-countrymen that they have 'used famine as a pander to lust.'

Such language, absurd as it is, shows very clearly the attacks to which the British Government would have been subjected had they not formed the camps of refuge. It was not merely that burned-out families must be given a shelter, but it was that no woman on a lonely farm was safe amid a black population, even if she had the means of procuring food. Then, again, we had learned our lesson as regards the men who had given their parole. They should not again be offered the alternative of breaking their oaths or being punished by their own people. The case for the formation of the camps must be admitted to be complete and overwhelming. They were formed, therefore, by the Government at convenient centres, chiefly at Pretoria, Johannesburg, Krugersdorp, Middelburg, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Heidelburg, Standerton, Pietersburg, Klerksdorp, and Volksrust in the Transvaal; Bloemfontein, Kroonstad, Bethulie, and Edenburg in the Orange Free State.

Such camps as refuges were no new things, for the British refugees from Johannesburg have been living for over a year in precisely such places. As no political capital and no international sentiment could be extracted from their sufferings, and as they have borne their troubles with dignity and restraint, we have heard little of the condition of their lives, which is in many ways more deplorable than that of the Boers.

Having determined to form the camps, the authorities carried out the plan with great thoroughness. The sites seem to have been well chosen, and the arrangements in most cases all that could be wished. They were formed, however, at an unfortunate moment. Great strain had been placed upon our Commissariat by the large army, over 200,000 men, who had to be supplied by three tiny railways, which were continually cut. In January 1901 De Wet made his invasion of Cape Colony, and the demand upon the lines was excessive. The extraordinary spectacle was presented at that time of the British straining every nerve to feed the women and children of the enemy, while that enemy was sniping the engineers and derailing the trains which were bringing up the food.

The numbers of the inmates of the refugee camps increased rapidly from 20,000 at the end of the year 1900, up to more than 100,000 at the end of 1901. Great efforts were made by the military authorities to accommodate the swelling tide of refugees, and no money was spared for that purpose. Early in the year 1901 a painful impression was created in England by the report of Miss Hobhouse, an English lady, who had visited the camps and criticised them unfavourably. The value of her report was discounted, however, by the fact that her political prejudices were known to be against the Government. Mr. Charles Hobhouse, a relation of hers, and a Radical member of Parliament, has since then admitted that some of her statements will not bear examination. With the best will in the world her conclusions would have been untrustworthy, since she could speak no Dutch, had no experience of the Boer character, and knew nothing of the normal conditions of South African life.

Her main contentions were that the diet was not sufficient, that there was little bedding, that the water-supply was short, that the sanitation was bad, that there was overcrowding, and that there was an excessive death-rate, especially among the children.

As to diet, the list which she gives agrees roughly with that which is officially quoted as the daily allowance at Irene Camp, near Pretoria, in July. It is as follows:

Meat½ lb.
Coffee2 oz.
Flour¾ lb.
Sugar2 oz.
Salt½ oz.
To every child under six, a bottle of milk

It must be confessed that the diet is a spare one, and that as supplies become more plentiful it might well be increased. The allowance may, however, be supplemented by purchase, and there is a considerable outside fund, largely subscribed by British people, which is used to make the scale more liberal. A slight difference was made at first between the diet of a family which had surrendered and of that the head of which was still in arms against us. A logical distinction may certainly be made, but in practice it was felt to be unchivalrous and harsh, so it was speedily abandoned.

As to the shortness of the water-supply, it is the curse of all South Africa, which alternately suffers from having too much water and too little. With artesian wells and better arrangements this difficulty is being overcome, but it has applied as strongly to our own camps as to those of the Boer refugees.

There seems to be a consensus of opinion from all the camps that the defects in sanitation are due to the habits of the inmates, against which commandants and doctors are perpetually fighting. Camp life without cleanliness must become unhygienic. The medical reports are filled with instances of the extreme difficulty which has been experienced in enforcing discipline upon those who have been accustomed to the absolute liberty of the lonely veldt.

On the question of overcrowding, the demand for tents in South Africa has been excessive, and it may well have taxed all the power of the authorities to find accommodation for the crowds of women and children. The evil has been remedied since the time of Miss Hobhouse's report. It is well known that the Boers in their normal life have no objection to crowded rooms, and that the inmates of a farmhouse are accustomed to conditions which would be unendurable to most. To overcrowd a tent is hygienically almost impossible, for the atmosphere of a tent, however crowded, will never become tainted in the same sense as a room.

All these things are of human contrivance, and the authorities were doing their best to set them right, as Miss Hobhouse herself acknowledged. 'They are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means,' said she, and in so saying reduced her whole report to nothing. For if they are really doing their best, then what more can be said? The only alternative is the breaking up of the camps and the dispersal of the women. But in that case Mr. Stead is waiting for us with some 'Blood and Hell' broadsheet to tell us of the terrible fate of those women upon the veldt. It must be one or the other. Of the two I prefer Miss Hobhouse and the definite grievances which she reports, to the infinite possibilities of Mr. Stead. As to the suggestion that this enormous crowd of women and children should be quartered upon their kinsmen in the Colony, it is beyond all argument. There has been no offer of such wholesale hospitality nor have we any means for enforcing it.

But then we come to the great and piteous tragedy of the refugee camps, the mortality, and especially the mortality among the children. That is deplorable—more deplorable even than the infant mortality in Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley. But is it avoidable? Or is it one of those misfortunes, like that enteric outbreak which swept away so many British soldiers, which is beyond our present sanitary science and can only be endured with sad resignation? The nature of the disease which is mainly responsible for the high mortality shows that it has no direct connection with the sanitary conditions of the camps, or with anything which it was in our power to alter. Had the deaths come from some filth-disease, such as typhus fever, or even from enteric or diphtheria, the sanitation of the camps might be held responsible. But it is to a severe form of measles that the high mortality is due. Apart from that the record of the camps would have been a very fair one. Now measles when once introduced among children runs through a community without any regard to diet or conditions of life. The only possible hope is the segregation of the sufferer. To obtain this early quarantine the co-operation of the parent is needed: but in the case in point the Boer mothers, with a natural instinct, preferred to cling to the children and to make it difficult for the medical men to remove them in the first stages of the disease. The result was a rapid spread of the epidemic, which was the more fatal as many of the sufferers were in low health owing to the privations unavoidably endured in the journey from their own homes to the camps. Not only was the spread of the disease assisted by the mother, but in her mistaken zeal she frequently used remedies which were as fatal as the disease. Children died of arsenical-poisoning, having been covered from head to foot with green paint; and others of opium-poisoning, having quack drugs which contain laudanum administered to them. 'In Potchefstroom as at Irene,' says Dr. Kendal Franks, 'the death-rate is attributable not so much to the severity of the epidemic as to the ignorance, perverseness, and dirty habits of the parents themselves.' But whatever the immediate cause the death of these numerous children lies heavy, not upon the conscience, but upon the heart of our nation. It is some mitigation to know that the death-rate among children is normally quite remarkably high in South Africa, and that the rate in the camps was frequently not higher than that of the towns near which the camp was situated.

Be this as it may, we cannot deny that the cause of the outbreak of measles was the collection of the women and children by us into the camps. But why were they collected into camps? Because they could not be left on the veldt. And why could they not be left on the veldt? Because we had destroyed the means of subsistence. And why had we destroyed the means of subsistence? To limit the operations of the mobile bands of guerillas. At the end of every tragedy we are forced back to the common origin of all of them, and made to understand that the nation which obstinately perseveres in a useless guerilla war prepares much trouble for its enemy, but absolute ruin for itself.

We have pushed our humanity in this matter of the refugees so far that we have looked after our enemies far better than our friends. I recognise that the two cases are not on all fours, since the Boers are compelled to be in camps and the loyalist refugees are not. But the fact remains that the loyalists are in camps, through no fault of their own, and that their condition is a worse one than that of our enemies. At East London, for example, there are two refugee camps, Boer and British. The former has 350, the latter 420 inhabitants. The former are by far the better fed, clad, and housed, with a hospital, a school, and a washhouse, all of which are wanting in the British camp. At Port Elizabeth there is a Boer camp. A Dutch deputation came with 50l. to expend in improving their condition, but returned without spending the money as nothing was needed. The Boer refugees and the British are catered for by the same man at Port Elizabeth. He is allowed 15d. per head for the Boers per day, and 8d. for the British. These are the 'Methods of Barbarism.'

I shall now take a few opinions of the camps from British sources and from Boer. I have only seen one British witness who was in sympathy with Miss Hobhouse, and that is a lady (name not mentioned) who is quoted in the appendix of Mr. Methuen's 'Peace or War.' She takes much the same view, insisting mainly upon the insufficient diet, the want of fuel and of bed-clothing. Against these two ladies I shall very shortly and in condensed form cite a few witnesses from both sides.

Mr. Seaton, of Johannesburg (Secretary of the Congregational Church and of the burgher camp), says: 'The reports you send make our blood boil. They are frightfully exaggerated, and in many instances not only misleading but untrue.... A more healthy spot it would be difficult to find.... There is no overcrowding.

'Some weeks ago there was an epidemic of measles in camp of a very severe type, and naturally there were many deaths among the children. The doctor and nurses worked to the very utmost, and I am pleased to say the epidemic is stamped out. No doubt this is what caused the talk by the pro-Boers in the House of Commons and elsewhere, but it is one of those epidemics which could not be prevented among the class of people we have here. They had absolutely no regard for sanitary conveniences, and the officials had the greatest difficulty in enforcing the most ordinary rules of cleanliness. Another difficulty we had was to get them to bring their children when sick into the hospital, where there is every convenience. They prefer to disobey the doctor and try the old women's remedies, which, as you know, are very plentiful among such people. The doctor has had a most trying position, and has worked like a slave. Nearly all the deaths have been from measles. We are having a fairly mild winter. About three months ago it was bitterly cold, but they are used to outdoor life, and this is no worse than they have always been used to. The tents are all military tents, and there is no sign of leakage. I know they all want tents when they come here, if it is possible to get them. On the whole, the inmates are contented, and the children are particularly happy. They skip and play about from morn till eve.'

The Rev. R. Rogers (Wesleyan minister) writes:

'What is the use of persons ignorant of the life and customs of the Boers coming to investigate these burgher camps? I have seen, and do not hesitate to say, that most of them are better housed, better clothed, and better fed than in their own homes of wattle and daub, and mud floors.'

Mr. Howe of the Camp Soldiers' Homes says:

'We do not pass judgment; we only state facts.

'When the first concentration camp was formed we were on the spot, and also saw others spring up. We admit that there has been suffering, but we solemnly affirm that the officers in charge of the several camps known to us were only too anxious to make the helpless people as comfortable as possible. We have seen the huge cases and bales of comforts for the inmates, and know that, in order to expedite the despatch of these things, military stores and ordnance have been kept back.'

The Rev. R. B. Douglas (Presbyterian minister) writes:

'I am glad to see that you are not giving credence to the tales of brutality and cruelty which are being freely circulated by disloyal agitators about the treatment of the Boer refugees. But one point on which you ask for more information is worth being noticed—the difference of treatment between families of those on commando and others. I am in a position to state that the whole difference made amounted to two ounces of coffee and four ounces of sugar per week, and that even this distinction totally disappeared by the middle of March. As a set-off to this, the local Dutch Committee, in distributing some sixty cases of clothing, &c., sent out by the charitable, refused to give any help to the families of some who were not on commando, on the ground that these articles were for the benefit of those who were fighting for their country.'

Mrs. Gauntlett, of Johannesburg, writes:

'I have read certain statements you sent me from English papers on cruelty to Boer refugee families. I am amazed at the iniquity of men who circulate such lies, and the credulity of those who believe them. The opinion of Germans, French, Americans, and even many Dutch, here on the spot, is that the leniency and amazing liberality of the Government to their foes is prolonging the war. A Dutch girl in the Pretoria Camp declared to the nurse that for seven months they had not been able to get such good food as was given them by the British.'

Mr. Soutar, Secretary of the Pretoria Camp, writes:

'The Boer women and children get as much food as they require, and have all sorts of medical comforts, such as beef-tea, extracts of meat, jellies, brandy and wine, and the advantage of fully qualified attendants. Not only are their absolute requirements provided for, but even their "fads" are considered.'

Mr. Scholtz, Inspector of Camps for the Transvaal, reports:

'Many of the children, when they first arrived at the camp, were little better than skin and bone, and, being in so emaciated a condition, it was not surprising that, when they did catch measles, they could not cope with the disease. Many of the women would not open their tents to admit fresh air, and, instead of giving the children the proper medicines supplied by the military, preferred to give them home remedies. The mothers would not sponge the children, and the greatest difficulty was experienced in inducing them to send the patients to hospital. The cause of the high death-rate among children from measles is due to the fact that the women let their children out as soon as the measles rash has subsided. Pneumonia and bronchitis naturally supervene. Another cause is that the mothers persist in giving their children meat and other indigestible foods, even when the doctors strictly prohibit it, dysentery resulting as a matter of course. In other respects the health of the camp is good, there being only one case of typhoid out of 5,000 residents in camp.'

Here is light on the Krugersdorp Camp:

'Johannesburg, July 31st.—(Reuter's Special Service.)—Commandant Alberts, commanding the Boers near Krugersdorp, has sent a letter to the officer commanding the British forces at Krugersdorp, stating that as he has with him on commando several families whose male relatives have recently surrendered, he wishes to know if he will receive these families, as they would like to go to Krugersdorp. The officer replied that he would be pleased to receive them, and they are expected to arrive to-day.

'This action on the part of the Boers clearly shows that the families themselves have no longer any objection to the Refugee Camps, where everything is done to promote their comfort, or any disinclination to being placed under our care and protection.'

From Reuter's agent at Springfontein:

'I to-day visited the Boer Refugee Camp here, containing 2,700 inmates. The camp is splendidly situated, and well laid out. I spoke to several refugees, and met with no complaint, all being satisfied with the treatment received. The hospital arrangements are excellent, and there is very little sickness in the camp.'

From Mr. Celliers, Dutch Minister from Aberdeen, Cape Colony, sent to inspect the Port Elizabeth Refugee Camp:

'He was writing this to show that the British Government were doing everything in their power to help the exiles, and to show that, although these exiles' relatives and friends were still in the field, yet the powers were merciful and kind to the exiles, showing them no enmity, for which they felt grateful. He wished the people to understand that he was at liberty to speak to them privately, and that he had a fair opportunity to hear any complaints, if there were any to be made. Mr. Hess allowed him to go round, placing full confidence in him, and he felt satisfied that if there had been anything wrong he should have heard of it. It had been his opinion all along that the Military, in sending these exiles down there, had done so for their own safety and advantage; and that it had preserved them, and been a blessing in disguise, which would be acknowledged by all in time to come.'

Major Harold Sykes's (2nd Dragoons) evidence is reported as follows:

He arranged the first of the Refugee Concentrated Camps, and when he left he had a camp of about six thousand women and children under his care. All charges of cruelty and inhumanity were vile and calumnious falsehoods. Nay, worse, they were miserable, despicable concoctions. Both women and children were better off, the great bulk of them, than ever they were in their lives. The only thing approaching cruelty to them was at the authorities insisted upon cleanliness and proper attention to sanitary regulations, which the average Boer, being a stranger to, utterly disliked. He had seen all the workings of these camps. He could give an unqualified denial to all the villainous allegations that had recently been made in public meeting and in the House of Commons.

Under date November 1, an officer of the Kroonstad Camp writes:

'We have cricket, tennis, and croquet for them, and they are all jolly well treated. Besides other amusements, they have a band twice a week, and the other day they got up a concert.'

This is what Mr. Stead calls 'doing to death by slow torture all the women and children whom we have penned behind the barbed wire of our prison camps.' Can a cause be a sound one which is pleaded in such terms!

Now for some Boer voices.

Commandant Alberts writes:

'Major Walter, Boksburg.—Honoured Sir,—I must express to you and the other officers of Boksburg my heartfelt thanks for the great kindness shown towards my wife, and at the same time for the message, and I hope that this kindness may some time be repaid to you.

'May you and I be spared to have a personal meeting.

'I have the honour to be your honour's servant,

'(Signed) H. Alberts, Commandant.'

A Dutch minister writes to Captain Snowden, O.C. of Boer Camp, Johannesburg:—'Sir,—I am directed by the Committee of the Dutch Reformed Churches here to convey to you the appreciation of the Committee for the kindly interest and sympathy shown by you to the women and children under your charge.'

One hundred male refugee Boers in the camp at Kroonstad sign the following sentiment:

'We also wish to tender Your Excellency our heartiest thanks for the interest you take in the education of our youth, and we trust you will succeed in your endeavours, and that the growing-up generation will be taught to be God-fearing, honest, and loyal citizens under the British flag. We regret, however, to state that, notwithstanding the highly appreciated efforts of our worthy superintendent and doctors, still so many cases of sickness and deaths occur daily in this camp, still we hope and trust Your Excellency will do all in your power for the health in this camp.

'We trust that the efforts of our worthy superintendent towards promoting our welfare under trying circumstances will be appreciated by Your Excellency. We are happy to state that the spirit of loyalty is daily increasing in this camp, and that the majority of the male refugees have taken the oath of allegiance.'

Mr. Dudley Keys, a surrendered burgher, writes to his brother:

'I have been in camp now for more than seven months—a sufficient time, you will allow, for reflection—and the immutability of the life provides ample scope for indulgence in that direction. How we long for the settlement you cannot imagine, nor can you imagine with what disgust and impatience we regard every endeavour on the part of the pro-Boers, as they are called, to divert the natural and inevitable course of things. You will not be surprised at hearing this from a one-time Dutch Republican when you take into consideration that all of us who have surrendered are fully aware of the fact that we were the aggressors, and that our statesmen are to blame for our present predicament. A large number of Boers, of course, will never come to view the matter in this light. That, of course, is not the result of thought and reflection, but utter and total ignorance. When Miss Hobhouse was here I frequently saw her priming herself or being primed. Some of our women would tell her anything for a dress or a pair of boots. If she knew our countrymen and women as well as we know them, her story would have been a short one. Now the home Government are despatching this commission. Well, when they see the women and children in camp they will naturally feel sorry for them. Who would not? But if they only remember that this is war and not a picnic, they will satisfy the people in England on their return that all we want is peace, and plenty of it.'

He adds:

'In spite of the lack of gratitude shown by our people, the authorities continue to make improvements and to lessen the hardships. That this entails enormous expenditure you will see by the statistics frequently published in the English papers. When I hear our people grumble, I often wonder how they would have treated the Britishers if the positions were reversed, and I am bound to acknowledge that it would not compare favourably with the treatment we receive.'

A Boer woman, writing from Pietermaritzburg, says:

'Those who complain of anything must lie, for we are in good circumstances.'

In a second letter she says:

'I can make no complaint at all.'

Mrs. Blignant, writing from the Port Elizabeth Refugee Camp, says:

'If we had to complain it would be false complaint, and all the stories about ill-treatment are untrue as far as I can find out.' Among the women cared for in this camp was one from Jagersfontein, who boasted—and with truth—that she had shot two unarmed British soldiers with a revolver.

Such is some of the evidence to be placed against Miss Hobhouse's report, and that of the unnamed lady in Pretoria. In justice it must be acknowledged that some camps may have been more open to criticism than others, and that (as we should expect) they became more perfect with time. But I cannot believe that any impartial mind can read the evidence without seeing that the British Government was doing its best under difficult circumstances to carry out the most humane plan possible, and that any other must involve consequences from which a civilised nation must shrink.

Towards the end of 1901 an attempt was made to lessen the mortality in the camps by bringing them down to the sea-coast. The problem was complicated by the fact that many of the refugees were averse from leaving their own country, and had come in upon a promise that they would not be asked to do so. Those who would were moved down, and the camps at East London, Port Elizabeth, and Merebank, near Durban, largely increased. 'No expense must be allowed to stand in the way,' said Mr. Chamberlain in an official message. In Blue Book (Cd. 853) we find Lord Milner and the Colonial Secretary discussing every means by which the mortality might be lessened and the comfort of the camps increased.

It is worthy of record that the portrait of an emaciated child has been circulated upon the Continent and in America as a proof positive of the horrors of the concentration system. It is only too probable that there are many emaciated children in the camps, for they usually arrive in that condition. This particular portrait however was, as I am credibly informed, taken by the British authorities on the occasion of the criminal trial of the mother for the ill-usage of the child. The incident is characteristic of the unscrupulous tactics which have been used from the beginning to poison the mind of the world against Great Britain.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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