“A naked people in Captivity,
A land where Desolation hath her throne.”
I reached Cape Town the 27th of December, in time to see the opening of the New Year and the New Century. It was my first visit to the country, but whatever my ignorance of South Africa, her language and her people, at least I knew that thousands of women, no matter what their usual condition, were at that moment undergoing great privation and sorrow, and I believe that suffering and the desire to relieve it know a common tongue, which cannot be misunderstood [The War: Its Cause and Conduit, chap. vii. By A. Conan Doyle. Mr. Conan Doyle has said that in consequence of complete ignorance in these particulars my “ conclusions ” concerning the camps are “ untrustworthy.” I notice Mr. Doyle has put forward conclusions on the camps without ever having visited them at all. But he and the critics of whom he is a sample forget that Concentration Camps are not the normal condition of life in South Africa, and it is only indirectly that the norma! life of the people bore upon the conclusions formed in respect to life in those camps. I may remark that X had taken a course of lessons in Dutch, read books relative to the lives and customs of the Boers, and was intimate with many South Africans, who supplied me with detailed information.]
How to approach these sufferers, or exactly where all the existing camps were situated, I did not know when I landed. Port Elizabeth was the only camp known of in England when I left, but in Cape Town I heard at once of the large camps at Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norval’s Pont, Kroonstad, Irene, and other places. Unfortunately, a few days before I landed, martial law had been declared [Dec. 20. 1900.] over a number of fresh districts of Cape Colony, and now extended nearly to the coast. Hence moving about with freedom was impossible even for purposes of relief. Permission from the highest authorities was essential. I therefore took my introduction to Sir Alfred Milner, and had at his invitation the opportunity of putting before him my objects, and of asking his help to reach the destitute women. From him I received every kindness and v promise of assistance, subject only to Lord Kitchener’s military decision. He was himself agreeable to my visiting every camp both in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, but Lord Kitchener’s telegram when it arrived limited my permit to Bloemfontein. The High Commissioner also suggested I should be accompanied by a Dutch lady, but Lord Kitchener thought this unnecessary, and refused permission. Sir Alfred Milner was aware of the uneasy feeling prevailing amongst the Cape Colonists with respect to the women in the north, and he felt it fitting that a representative of their Relief Committee should help in the work. Lord Kitchener, on the other hand, was right in supposing that I should find assistance wherever I went, but he failed to perceive what a great victory might have been won over the hearts of the Dutch by allowing their anxiety and wounded feeling this reasonable outlet. Clearly also he did not understand the vastness of the need, the wide scope of a work in which such help would have been invaluable. I carried his permit, together with the High Commissioner’s letter which follows, to all the camps I visited..
Letter of Authority from Sir A. Milner.
“Government House, Cape Town, 21/1/1901.
“ Dear Miss Hobhouse,—I have written to General Pretyman, the Military Governor of the Orange River Colony, asking him to give you any assistance in his power.
“ Personally I am quite willing that you should visit any refugee camp in either T. V. or O.R.C. if the military authorities will allow it. As you are aware, Lord Kitchener is not prepared at present to approve of your going farther than Bloemfontein. But as he has expressly approved of your going as far as that, I do not think that there can be any difficulty about your visiting the camps either there or at any place on the railway south of it. In any case, you can show this letter as evidence that as far as I am concerned such visits are authorised and approved of.—Yours very truly,
“ A. Milner (High Commissioner).”
I accepted gratefully Lord Kitchener’s limited permission, trusting that the future would bring opportunity for getting forward to the more northern camps, such as Kroonstad, Winburg, and Johannesburg, of which at that time I heard very sad accounts. Sir Alfred Milner further helped me by providing a large truck, in which I was able to pack several hundred pounds’ worth of groceries, clothes, and hospital necessaries. With this I left Cape Town January the 22nd, and reached Bloemfontein the afternoon of the 24th. My first duty was to call on General Pretyman at Government Buildings, who received me very kindly. He gave me a permanent pass to the camp, introduced me to the superintendent, with an intimation that any suggestions I should make should be considered, and asked me to let him know later what I thought of the camp, and from time to time I did so.
I could form no scheme of work till I had seen the camp and the people. Thus a few days were spent talking to the officials and to the women, learning the conditions of camp life in general and that one in particular. It was a time of war. There was pressure on the lines of communication, pressure on the supplies, pressure on the transports, on the exchequer— pressure everywhere, unless we except the time and brains of subordinate officials. Obviously, then, the lowest possible standard of comfort compatible with health and life itself must be the one adopted as the standard to attain to in the camps. And here I may remark that to this standard I sternly adhered during my sojourn in South Africa. So definitely did I draw the line, that I even regarded candles as luxuries except in cases of sickness. It was a hardship to sit in the dark, but it could be endured by those who could not buy, and I saw my funds must be spent on what would nourish, cleanse, or give warmth.
Soon from a crowd of minor details certain facts loomed large. I realised that the barest necessities of life were lacking or inadequately supplied. I had come to give little extras or comforts or garments, such as the authorities could not at the moment be expected to provide, and I found what really lacked were bare necessities.
The shelter was totally insufficient. When the 8, 10, or 12 persons who occupied a bell-tent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rain storms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps. There was no soap provided. The water supplied would not go round. No kartels or mattresses were to be had. Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without. Fuel was scanty, and had at that time to be cut by the people from the green scrub on the kopjes. The earliest ration lists then in vogue ran thus;—
“ Scale of Rations.
1/2 ib. fresh meat,
1/2 lb. either meal, rice, samp, or potatoes,
1 1/2 oz. coffee.
3 oz. sugar,
1 oz. salt.
1/12 tin of condensed milk.
1/2 lb. fresh meat.
1/2 lb. either meal, rice, or samp.
1/2 oz. coffee,
1 oz. sugar,
1 oz. salt.
1/18 tin of condensed milk.
“ Assistant Provost-Marshal, O.R.C.”
The above scale is undated, but was, I believe, the earliest, and superseded by this one, dated January 16, 1901:—
“Line of Communication Orders by Lieutenant-General Sir A. Hunter, K.C.B., D.S.O., Commanding Line of Communication from Norval’s Pont to Wolverhoek.
“Bloemfontein, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1901.
Either of these was sufficiently small, but when, as I constantly found, the actual amount given did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate. Yet, marvellously enough, there was little or no complaint on the score of food. This was due partly to the fact that many still had private means by which to augment the rations, and partly that probably the people themselves did not realise how impoverished the system would become on food at once so meagre and so monotonous. I certainly did not fully realise it, and said little on this head, except to suggest rice as an occasional alternative, and milk for the hospital and young children; and the good sense of the women was most striking, an ordinary remark being, “ We know it is war-time, and we cannot expect much.” Periodically a consignment of coffee or sugar would be bad in quality, or the meat would be putrid and then the results were serious. Mr. Methuen has called attention to the doctor’s analysis of the food given in Johannesburg Camp at one period, [Peace or War in South Africa. A. M. S. Methuen, p. 99.]. and I have coffee and sugar in my possession which a London analyst has pronounced in the first case to be 66 per cent, adulteration, and in the second the sweepings of the warehouse.
As their money became exhausted, it was so hard to live, that many women were driven to borrow from friends or storekeepers or business men in town at high percentage.
In January there were 1800 people in Bloemfontein Camp, and many other large camps awaited my visit. To provide the bare necessaries urgently wanted in this camp alone would have swallowed up the resources then at my command. It seemed clearly the duty of the Government to provide the actual necessaries for the people whose own means they had destroyed, and who were prisoners of war, as well as for the few who had come for their protection. The sum committed to my care was intended to give the people small extras to alleviate their lot. But my hand was stayed, for while necessaries are lacking comforts cannot be considered. Acting therefore on General Pretyman’s instructions, I laid before the superintendent these several needs. Unfortunately for the camp, there was a continual change of authority at this period, which made consistent and organised work impossible. My request for soap was met with the reply, “Soap is a luxury,” and the further argument that soldiers do not receive soap in their rations. I urged that that was a matter which lay between them and the War Office, but did not affect the question of its necessity for women and children. Finally it was requisitioned for, also forage—more tents—boilers to boil the drinking water—water to be laid on from the town—and a matron for the camp. Candles, matches, and such like I did not aspire to. It was about three weeks before the answer to the requisition came, and in the interim I gave away soap. Then we advanced a step. Soap was to be given, though so sparingly as to be almost useless—forage was too precious—brick boilers might be built—but to lay on a supply of water was negatived, as “ the price was prohibitive.” Later on, after I had visited other camps, and came back to find people being brought in by the hundred and the population rapidly doubling, I called repeated attention to the insufficient sanitary accommodation, and still more to the negligence of the camp authorities in attending to the latrines. I had seen in other camps that under proper administrative organisation all could be kept sweet and clean. But week after week went by, and daily unemptied pails stood till a late hour in the boiling sun, [See also Cd. 819, p. 94, Dr. Becker’s “ Report on Bloemfontein in June 1901.”] and the tent homes of the near section of the camp were rendered unbearable by the resulting effluvia.
With regard to the outlay of the fund with which I was entrusted, it was too responsible a matter to give other people’s money at haphazard, and it would, I felt, be necessary to get some broad idea of how and where it was most needed. To obtain this, I determined to proceed by a methodical system of investigation. By getting answers to a certain simple set of questions, [See my Report, p. 18.] I was able to learn quickly what had been the position of a given family, what was now its condition and what its prospects. Having obtained this simple information, the answers could be easily tabulated, and an idea arrived at as to the kind of help most widely needed—amongst whom—and what proportion of the funds should be kept to give on the return home of each family. At that date few thought either that the war would last so long or that the camp system would grow to such proportions. Sufficient advance was made with this plan to gain for myself a clear general view of the situation, when I found the people being brought in on all sides in such great numbers as to render the scheme quite impracticable. Had the camps remained stationary at the size I first found them, a good system of relief could soon have been organised. It was evident they were to attain far larger proportions, and with such a mass of impoverished people it took all the time and the money to find out and deal with instant cases of necessity. Every day made it more evident that camp matrons were essential to do work which could not be done by a man, nor by those nurses whose time should be wholly occupied in hospital work, nor indeed spasmodically by any one, but only by a capable head with a large staff of regular workers. As far as Bloemfontein was concerned, and in other towns where such existed, the local committee of ladies were most anxious to help in every way, and had it not been for their efforts in providing clothing, sad indeed would have been the condition of the helpless people. But here as elsewhere they laboured under a disadvantage. It became clear to my astonished mind that both the censorship and system of espionage were not merely military in character, but political and almost personal, so that even to feel, much more to show, sympathy to the people was to render yourself a suspect. Hence many a charitable scheme in Bloemfontein and in other places was nipped in the bud by the chill of disapprobation. Such schemes which had no aim but the bettering of hardships would have saved many a valued life if freer scope had been allowed to the workers. Life and work in the camps was made intolerable by the presence of spies who carried tales founded on nothing. Every one knows what class of men accept the work which means spying upon neighbours, and can draw their own conclusions as to the value of such reports. The subject is alluded to simply to show the difficulties of voluntary helpers, whose unstinted work has been so unfairly criticised and condemned. One can neither initiate, organise, or work one’s best when conscious that suspicion is in the very air one breathes. If ladies not only in Bloemfontein but elsewhere had not been baulked at every turn, and made timid by censorial methods, their womanly common-sense and ready help would have averted much of the tragedy we all deplore.
I made a tour to visit other camps, and found that though in some respects they were superior to Bloemfontein, yet broadly the same needs prevailed in each, varying according to local circumstances, such as are enumerated in my Report. [See my Report, p. 10] I saw Norval’s Pont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley, Mafeking, and Orange River, in some cases paying repeated visits. On returning to Bloemfontein, I found Major Goold-Adams had just arrived to take up the position and work of Deputy Administrator. Hitherto the camps had been under military control, now they were to pass under civil administration. Undoubtedly in the long run this has proved for the best, but at the moment, with sickness rife in the camps, with a constant influx, with a crude organisation, the change from one authority to another caused great friction and enhanced the difficulties of the situation. Moreover, civil superintendents rarely possessed such knowledge of organisation and discipline as. pertain to military men. In some ways, however, the military still retained control, and an endeavour to get anything done was met with continual shunting of the responsibility from one authority to the other. In addition, expense was a continual difficulty. This may seem strange to those who have formed their ideas of the camps on Mr. Conan Doyle’s description. In the fairyland of his fertile imagination, “ no money was spared,” and “ every child under six had a bottle of milk a day”; [See War: Its Cause and Conduct, pp. 95, 96. By A. Conan Doyle (now Sir A Conan Doyle).] but we are dealing with facts. Major Goold-Adams entered with interest into the condition of the camps. He discussed the question of mattresses, and I drew up and sent him a memorandum of the cost of covers and making to provide one for each tent. It seemed to me of paramount importance to lift the people off the ground at night I volunteered to manage the whole supply, and even to undertake the entire cost, if the Government would provide forage of some kind for stuffing. The military refused this, as too precious, and no sufficient quantity of anything else could be procured. The veld was bare of grass, which might otherwise have afforded good material.
The only bright spot in the camp life at this period was the little schools; these the wisdom and energy of Mr. Sargant were gradually creating out of chaos. They were gladly welcomed, and recognised as an improvement upon the many little classes which had been inaugurated and carried on here and there in the camps by energetic Boer teachers under the most adverse circumstances. Good administration, too, where met with, brought more cheerful elements in its train. This was the case in the very earliest days of Aliwal North under Major Apthorpe, and I have frequently in public meetings and elsewhere dwelt upon the superiority of the camp at Norval’s Pont, which passed in March under the administration of Mr. Cole Bowen. This camp had been from the beginning fortunate in its commandants. The first to organise it was, if I am correctly informed, Lieutenant Wynne of the Imperial Yeomanry, whose conduct won for him the title of “ Father of the Camp,” and the affection of the people committed to his care. I do not know who he is, but I mention this thinking he may like to know that long after he had left the place his memory was treasured with love and respect. After a spell of the firm military discipline of Major Du Plat Taylor, the camp passed into the hands of Mr. Cole Bowen. This gentleman showed marked administrative powers; his rule was firm, just, and kind, and he seemed possessed of unlimited resources. Such a management brought more alleviation than any outside help could do, to the privations which were the lot of all. As a consequence, the entire spirit of the camp was on a higher level.
It was my wish and suggestion that Mr. Cole Bowen should be asked to visit other camps, in order to inaugurate his superior methods, and so obviate needless suffering. The idea, however, was not adopted until in the last months of the year the Ladies’ Commission made the same proposal, and Mr. Bowen became travelling inspector, with effects for which in Bethulie alone that ill-fated camp can never be too grateful.
Some weeks elapsed during my second tour before I returned to Bloemfontein. In the interval, all through March and part of April, fresh sweeping movements had resulted in the advent of crowds of families into the camps. In all directions I had witnessed this, and read of it as happening elsewhere. I had seen families swept close to the railway line near Warrenton and Fourteen Streams; I had seen a crowded train crawl the whole long day into Kimberley—the people, old and young, packed in open trucks beneath a cruel sun—kept at the station without food until late at night, brought up at midnight to bare tents, where, groping in the dark, they sought their bundles and lay down, finding no preparation, no food or drink. I had seen them in crowds by railway sides in bitter cold, in streaming rain, hungry, sick, dying, and dead. I have seen these patient people packed in train-loads for Bethulie and elsewhere, and I never doubted but that every countrywoman of mine, had they seen and known, would have felt as I did, great sympathy with their forlorn condition and a desire to alleviate it. I believe most of the soldiers round me shared my thoughts.
My first visit to the camp at Bloemfontein after the lapse of a few weeks was a great shock. The population had doubled, and had swamped the effect of improvements which could not keep pace with the numbers to be accommodated. Sickness was increasing, and the aspect of the people was forlorn in the extreme. Disease and death were stamped upon their faces. Many whom I had left hale and hearty, full in figure and face, had undergone such a change that I could not recognise them. I realised how camp life under these imperfect conditions was telling upon them, and no impartial observer could have failed to see what must ensue, unless nurses, doctors, workers, and above all extra food, clothing, and bedding, could be poured out in abundance and without delay. I sought the Deputy Administrator, and represented to him the death-rate already worked out in the adjoining camp at 20 per cent, and asked if nothing could be done to stop the influx of people. He replied that he believed that all the people in the entire country, with the exception of towns on the line, were to be brought in. His kindness'' and courtesy often encouraged me to put before him not only the bodily needs of the women, but other troubles or punishments which weighed upon them, which seemed unnecessarily severe, and appeared to be creating sores which even time would not have power to heal. His policy was no doubt dictated from higher sources, his humanity too evidently crippled by lack of means. My fund was but a drop in the ocean of such a need.
There were two courses open to me. To stay among the people, doling out small gifts of clothes, which could only touch the surface of the need, or to return home with the hope of inducing both the Government and the public to give so promptly and abundantly that the lives of the people, or at least the children, might be saved. It seemed certain that in South Africa itself adequate expenditure would never be authorised.
But I first determined to make the effort to visit and take relief to Kroonstad, where I had been repeatedly invited by the superintendent of that camp [It is worth remarking that the incessant getting of permits and passes increased very materially the difficulties and fatigues of the work It swallowed up hours, and even days, involving not only waste of time, but also severe trial both of physical strength and of patience.]. As Lord Kitchener reiterated his refusal to allow me a permit north of Bloemfontein, I referred the matter to the High Commissioner, who telegraphed his regret that it was impossible. I next laid the facts before Major Goold-Adams, asking if his aid was sufficient to help me at least to Kroonstad. His reply was in the negative, and at the same time he dwelt a little upon what were evidently the real reasons of the refusal given me to go farther on. It was said that I was showing “personal sympathy” to the people. I replied with astonishment that that was just what I came to do, to give personal sympathy and help in personal troubles. He believed that gifts could be dealt out in a machine-like routine. I said I could not work like that, I must treat the people like fellow-creatures, and share their troubles. He believed this unnecessary.
It had also been brought to his notice from Pretoria thaf letters from me had been read at a meeting in London which he understood to be a political meeting. As I had that day had similar news by post, I was able to tell him that it was a private meeting of subscribers to the fund, which had met in my uncle’s house, and was not a political meeting. Naturally people desired some account of what was being done with their money.
By this conversation the situation was made clear to me.
It was no question of political sympathy. On that score I always maintained a negative attitude. Personal sympathy was to be discouraged. This wholly unexpected policy accounted for much of what had struck me as peculiarly painful in the camps in the general attitude and tone adopted by many of the officials towards the women in their care, whatever their social standing might be. This sympathy, so needed by a sick and bereaved womanhood, was to be denied them, not only when offered by people of their own race, as the local committees, but even when offered them by an Englishwoman, who believed that whatever might be the issue of the war every friend so made would be a link with England. I had come amongst them as a woman to women, and talked to them on no other ground. After all, one individual whose methods were thus unconsciously in antagonism to the professed attitude of the authorities, could do next to nothing, faced also by the enormous populations of the camps. Disease and death were already let loose in their midst, and if adequate help was to come in money, kind, and working staff, if an immense death-roll was to be averted, it could only be done by a strong warning to the Government of the serious state of affairs, and a mandate from England to lift the entire system on to a higher level.
The arrival of occasional English newspapers confirmed me in the fear that the facts as they existed were wholly misunderstood at home. It was true that efforts made in the House of Commons had brought about a discontinuance of the half-ration system, though treatment of the “ undesirables ” in other ways still remained different from that of refugees; but I read with dismay Lord Kitchener’s message, communicated by Mr. Brodrick, that the people had “a sufficient allowance, and were all comfortable and happy.”[Times, Mar. 2, 1901] I saw, too, that the Secretary for War, relying no doubt on the scanty information contained in telegrams, told the House that the people came to the camps for protection (true only of a minority), and that those who came might go [3 Feb. 25, 1901. Hansard, vol. lxxxix. p. 1021.]. I knew they were miserable and under-fed, sick and dying. It was clear that there was a misunderstanding, and the country as a whole was ignorant of the true position of affairs. Yet this was what the Boer women so often asked me: “ Do the English people know what we suffer ? ”
“ Let us not,” said the Colonel Commanding one of the towns to whom I went for help in my work, “let us not call it the Refugee Camp. These people are not refugees.” I willingly agreed, feeling with him it is always best to face facts as they are.
Shocked at the misery I had seen, and conscious that equal suffering prevailed in some thirty other camps, certain that with right administration much of it could be removed, and strong in the faith that English humanity if made aware would not tolerate such conditions, I formed my determination to return home, and i I left South Africa with poignant regret but with no delay.
It was clear that reform to be effectual and life-saving must come from England, must be on a large scale, and at all cost must be instant.