South African concentration camps

South African concentration camps

Painting of Boer concentration camp Painting of Boer concentration camp Painting of destroyed Boer farmhouse

Painting of Boer families burying their dead outside a British concentration camp in South Africa.

Concentration Camps

‘Concentration camps’ were established in South Africa to house Boer families forcibly displaced by Britain's scorched-earth policies. The camps were poorly conceived and managed, and ill-equipped to deal with the large numbers of detainees.

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. As a result, women and children were left without shelter, food or protection from local tribespeople who the British had encouraged to settle old scores with the Boers. Camps were hurriedly constructed to house them.

At least 40 concentration camps were constructed, holding in all some 150,000 Boer refugees. Some, such as Merebank near Durban, which housed more than 9000 internees, resembled small towns. Another 60 camps were 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, with many internees forced to live in tents. There were two scales of rations – less for those whose menfolk were still fighting. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions soon led to outbreaks of disease, with typhoid, malaria, measles and dysentery becoming 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. Social reformer Emily Hobhouse inspected the camps (much to the ire of the military) and publicised the terrible conditions. British Liberal Party leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman declared them ‘methods of barbarism’. As a result of public pressure, the British authorities belatedly made improvements and the death rate fell.

At the end of 1901 these criticisms, combined with a desire to end the war, caused the British to adopt a new policy towards displaced Boer families. Rather than being removed to camps, they would be left to fend for themselves. The aim was to burden the Boer commandos so that they would be unable to continue their guerrilla campaign.

The suffering experienced in the camps left a lasting legacy of bitterness amongst the Boers. Between 18,000 and 28,000 Boers died, 80% of them children. The British did not bother to keep records for native Africans housed in camps, but it is believed that their death toll was similar to that of the Boers.

Community contributions

10 comments have been posted about South African concentration camps

What do you know?

Maxwell Muir

Posted: 15 Sep 2022

>They could not eat the food because of the fine glass and
>small fish hooks contained in it and survived on locusts.


'Some of the other claims, such as blue vitriol and ground glass in the sugar,
hooks in the tinned meat and the like, were mythical.'



Posted: 29 Jan 2022

It always amuses me how people would defend ridiculous points of view, I believe it because he said this or she said that, well, does it matter? Not much, the victors will always write the history book to make themselves look good and the other side bad. And anything showing the victors in a bad light is prohibited and just covered up. WW2 is a perfect example, but that is besides the point.

Points of view does not hold up in courts of law does it? Facts win cases.

So lets summarize a few basic facts of this war:

1. This war actually took place. - Acknowledged by both sides.

2. The war was dragging on without any resolve in sight. - Acknowledged by both side.

3. A scorched earth policy was implemented by the British forces to force the Boer to the negotiating table. - Acknowledged by both side.

4. Concentration Camps was set up to house the displaced. - Acknowledged by both side.

5. A lot of people died in the concentration camps. - Acknowledged by both side.

6. Atrocities were committed. - Acknowledged by both side.

I honestly don't care if you believe me. And since a lot of people like to be "Google Historians" you can look up the written eye witness accounts of both sides. I am sure eyewitness accounts are more acceptable in a just court of law and trying to hide behind propagandized news articles as fact and the sort will make you a laughing stock. Then you take that same google and have a look if you can spot the massive graveyards left by these camps.

Also you might like to look into the so called black concentration camps and why the whole hot potato suddenly disappeared from public view. Maybe it is because it would have caused a scandal after excavations of grave sites found these "black" graveyard where full of white babies and children. Some graves having five corpses piled on top of each other. Leading to even more camps being found with even more graves. The most recent research count raising the camp numbers to almost double the official number and the possible death number to more than 40 000. Why are there no Boer records or witnesses to these camp?

And I again don't care if you believe me or not. All the information is out there go and find it for yourself. The newest research, survivor diaries, British documentation and individual soldier diaries are there. Stop assuming things find the truth for yourself.

As for opinion pieces as above well you can decide for yourself why they are actually posted.

Bill Pollock

Posted: 17 Nov 2021

>The British put ground glass in the food.

>This article does not touch on the horror done.

>I can supply photographs if so desired

Yes, I'd like to see your photos of the ground glass in the food please.

You see both a British (Thomas Pakenham) and Afrikaaner historian (Elizabeth Van Heyningen) dismiss that claim as a wild tale originating in 1936.

Costly Mythologies: The Concentration Camps of the South African War in Afrikaner Historiography
Elizabeth Van Heyningen
Journal of Southern African Studies
Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 495-513 (19 pages)

Van Heyningen says the story about the British putting ground glass in a the food is a myth that started in the 1930s.

Thomas Pakenham

'28,000 people died of hunger, disease, and from eating the ground glass that the British were alleged to have put in their food.

The propaganda value of this tale was enhanced by the fact that it is all true (apart from the bit about the ground glass, a later embellishment).'

So if you have any photographic evidence that ground glass was put in the food of the children, I want to see it. What I mean is, photos of post mortem reports that show this, for example; not photos of the piles of ground glass that used to be in the Anglo Boer War museum.

As Pakenham puts it:

'The Anglo-Boer war museum in Bloemfontein, once a showpiece of apartheid propaganda, has adapted with the times. Out went the display of glass shards, and in came an exhibit accurately reflecting the role of black people in the war.'

N J Hauman

Posted: 19 Jan 2021

Muir, your disinformation and propaganda campaign is obvious given the death rate and final figures. My grandmother could only once manage to tell us of the horrors of the camps. Her mother forced them to pretend to be healthy so that the merciless nurses wont kill them in the hospital tents for all who entered it left it in a soap box for the cemetry. They could not eat the food because of the fine glass and small fish hooks contained in it and survived on locusts. It is most unworthy of you as an outsider having a luxury life to spread JOSEPH GOEBBELS PROPAGANDA LIES ABOUT INNOCENT WOMEN AND CHILDREN TORTURED IN HELLISH LORD KITCHENER CAMPS OF WHICH THEIR GRAVES IS A STARK REMINDER OF THE GRAVE INJUSTICE DONE TO THEM.

Maxwell Muir

Posted: 11 Nov 2020

>men's love for their families and their suffering eventually had them surrender

I don't suppose this will get past the moderator, but here goes...

If Boer commandoes loved their women so much, why did they steal food off them?

For example:

page 383, THE GREAT ANGLO-BOER WAR, Byron Farwell
"At one farm, the housewife welcomed the men of the Johannesburg
Commando warmly, but they stole her pigs and turkeys anyway, causing
her to break into tears: "If only she had cursed us," said
"we could have stood it; but she merely wept; and this drew from me
all I had to leave her--a tear of pity."

It sounds like the women and children didn't like having their food stolen.

"During our wanderings last night [16 May 1901] we stopped at a
farmhouse to make some enquiry, but received scant courtesy from the
woman in command. She approached, followed by a long diminishing
file of children, the whole looking like a monstrous sea serpent,
herself in the van forming the formidable head. With tearful fury
she denounced us as thieves, drunkards, and cowards, who having
left our manhood behind us in the big cities and other idolatrous
centres, had come here to rob and ruin helpless Christian women and
children, and to be instrumental in causing their homes to be
burnt down, by drawing, through our uninvited presence, the enemy
to their houses with fire and sword and, when he came, by fleeing
and leaving the distracted household to face him. The painful
part of the reproach was the coarse grains for truth embedded
therein. We admitted defeat and moved on."

And why didn't you ever rescue your much-loved women and children
from the concentration camps? I mean, you raided them for food: why
not rescue the women and children?

"Young Commandant Willem Fouche, operating in Cape Colony,
heard that administrators of the camp at Aliwal North
were traitors from the Orange Free State. On July 17 1901
he led an attack on the camp, killed two Bantu, and carried
off four of the alleged traitors; he also tried there to
drum up some recruits, but out of 689 men in the camp only
five elected to follow him. On Sept 15 1901 the Belfast
camp was raided, apparently only to get supplies, but
the attack was repulsed; one woman and two children were
wounded. In December about 800 Boers captured the
Pietersburgh camp, and J. E. Tucker, the superintendent,
and his staff were made prisoners. After a gay, all
night party with wives, sweethearts, friends, and relations
the burghers released their prisoners unharmed and rode off
into the sunrise."

Seems like the women who followed the Commandoes were in worse condition than the ones we forced into the camps:

"Those who followed the commandos were in miserable
condition. They were worn out, half clad, riddled with
disease. A Kroonstad one batch brought in eight
moribund and three dead. Many had lost one to four children
on commando. The Heidelburg refugees came into
Kroonstad in terrible condition. They started the
terrible measles in July, August, September."

"One woman lost twelve of her eighteen children from
malaria before being brought into camp; another had lost nine out
of ten from dysentry."

Remember, the British used to let captured Boers go, so that they return home and look after their families (after signing an oath not to fight any more). But your side managed to screw that up by re-enlisting the released Boers, threatening to burn down their farms, or take their wagon, so they'd die in the veld.


"I am entitled by law to force every man to join, and if they
do not do so, to confiscate their property and leave their
families in the veld".

"Kitchener tried to make a deal with Botha: he would spare
the farms of those on commando if Botha agreed to leave in
peace those who had surrendered or who wanted to remain
neutral. Botha would not agree. The fate of tens of thousands
of women and children was thus sealed."


" As I informed your Honour at Middleburg, Owing to the
irregular manner in which you have conducted and continue to
conduct hostilities, by forcing unwilling and peaceful inhabitants
to join your Commandos, a proceeding totally unauthorised
by the recognized customs of war, I have no other course
open to me, and am forced to take the very unpleasant and
repugnant steps of bringing in the women and children. "

= There are other examples, including accounts of Boer farm burning
= following Botha's order of the 6th October "Do everything in your
= power to prevent the burghers laying down their arms. I will be
= compelled, if they do not listen to this, to confiscate everything
= moveable and also to burn their farms."

"So the Boers did their share of farm burning too, and they were
not always judicious. Marthinus Becker was with his commando
when a group of Boers came to the thatched cottage where he had
left his wife and children. The accused Becker of having gone
over to the British and refused to believe his wife's protestations
that he had not. They burned the house and all its contents."
page 398 ibid.

Sacking homes of the women and children...

"Some commandos were worse than others, carrying reputations
that made their visits dreaded. Jack Pienaar's field coronetcy,
consisting mostly of foreign volunteers, earned a name for poultry
thieving, and the approach of the Machadodorp Commando, noted
for plundering, was cause for alarm to any farm, although when they
came to her parents' farm Freda Schlosberg recorded they were
"so utterly discouraged that they did not have enough pluck to
loot us, though they stole as such as they could".

Sounds like you were treating the women and children even worse than we did.

Maxwell Muir

Posted: 11 Nov 2020

>The British put ground glass in the food.

Nope, that's anti-British propaganda, concocted long after the war.

For example, British historian Thomas Pakenham writes:

"forced Boer women and children into concentration camps. There, 28,000 people died of hunger, disease, and from eating the ground glass that the British were alleged to have put in their food.

The propaganda value of this tale was enhanced by the fact that it is all true (apart from the bit about the ground glass, a later embellishment)."

But I don't suppose you believe any British historians, eh?

Well, consider an Afrikaaner historian, writing in a refereed academic journal.

Costly Mythologies: The Concentration Camps of the South African War in Afrikaner Historiography
Elizabeth Van Heyningen
Journal of Southern African Studies
Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 495-513 (19 pages)

Van Heyningen says the story about the British putting ground glass in a the food is a myth that started in the 1930s.

Jaco Grobler

Posted: 29 May 2016

Media manipulated reports to the public during this war in 1899-1902, and still as per.this.article! The Boer women and children were well adapted to.survive without their men. 'African maraunders'..... Provide some factual info please. A team of 15 Boer chicks would in all likeliness have kicked the butt of 15 All Blacks when it comes to tough! The women were and children were forced into camps in order to get to the boers, as the military campaign was failing and the pomms and their allies were.getting their butts kicked by a very small group of men. The plan worked, and the men's love for their families and their suffering eventually had them surrender.


Posted: 27 Jan 2016

Anyone have an idea who the old dutchman in the painting could be?


Posted: 20 Oct 2015

I think this was a travesty done to the Boers by the British and its colonies - Lord Kitchner would and all involved would have been tried for war crimes today. The British put ground glass in the food.

This article does not touch on the horror done. I can supply photographs if so desired


Posted: 06 Oct 2015

Lol why do you need to lie about the this? The woman and children was forced into the camp's and some got raped by the British and New Zealand troops. You are down playing this event and you are trying to make it look like the British Empire was the good guys. Silly actually.