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“ Did we think Victory great?
So it is—but now it seems to me,
When it cannot be helped, that defeat is great,

And that death and dismay are great "—Walt Whitman.

The year 1902 opened in anxiety for watchers over the welfare of the camps, and small relief came with the publication of the December death-rate. It was lower than the previous months, but still stood at 261.09 for camps in the aggregate. The two first Blue Books [Cd. 819 and Cd. 853, 1901] had revealed a state of things far worse and more widespread in ill effects than the little Report, which had occasioned such indignation six months earlier.

But in spite of Blue Books, debates, and publication of facts, ignorance still prevailed about the Boer women and children, only it was now a wilful ignorance. The women of England seemed in the state described by Ruskin, they “shut out the death cries, and are happy and talk wittily among themselves. That is the utter literal fact of what our ladies do in their pleasant lives.” They are reached, he goes on to say, “ only at intervals by a half-heard cry and a murmur as of the wind’s sighing when myriads of souls expire.” [Crown of Wild Olive.] In a word, the majority did not heed or did not care, while others were glad to avail themselves of the new reasons given for the origin of the camps by Mr. Chamberlain in the House of Commons [an. 19, 1902]. He assured the country that the “ whole responsibility for such misery as has been caused rested upon the shoulders of the Boer Commandant” [Times, Jan. 20, 1902.] He referred the House to the correspondence between Lord Kitchener and General Botha, which is given elsewhere, and which he affirmed was the origin of the camps [Part I. chap. 1. p. 35, and Part II. chap. 1. p. 100.]

If Mr. Chamberlain’s plea had been in accordance with facts, it could only have served to strengthen the case against the concentration system. It entirely cut the ground from under the argument that concentration was a work of unparalleled humanity undertaken to save women and children from starvation, and turned it into a mere act of reprisal. No ingenuity could call an act of reprisal humane which caused 20,000 deaths, chiefly among children. But Mr. Chamberlain’s plea was not in accordance with facts. We have seen already that the correspondence on which he rested his case was vitiated by a misquotation on a vital point, and that the documents referred to by Lord Kitchener contain no evidence that the burning of farms was adopted as a method of punishment by the Boer Generals, but rather prove the contrary.

It must be added that the correspondence between Lord Kitchener and General Botha did not take place until many camps had been in existence for many months—and already contained thousands of people. Mr. Chamberlain, however, thought, and doubtless many were glad to think with him, that with “ a humanity absolutely unprecedented in the history of war, we, upon whom these women and children have been forced, have executed the duty and responsibility in the name of humanity.” [Times, Jan. 20; see also p. 146, note]. Further, the Colonial Secretary thought there had been “gross exaggeration” as to the deaths in the camps. There is, he said, an enormous child mortality in normal times, and that mortality must be deducted. “ With such a people the death-rate could not be expected to fall below 100 per 1,000.” [Times, Jan. 20.] During this last May (1902) we have seen, since Mr. Chamberlain’s thorough reforms, the rate fall to 20!

Every week telegrams now appeared announcing some improvement in the camp system. New schemes for supplying water in Bloemfontein, Kroonstad, and Winburg—new arrangements for housing in huts instead of tents—the issue of vegetables, and so forth. Particularly pleasing was it to learn that 200 boys were learning woodwork in Irene Camp, and that Miss Pughe Jones is teaching knitting at Kroonstad, and Miss Wilson, sister of the Secretary to the Administration, is teaching knitting and the making of point and Flemish lace to the girls in the Bloemfontein Camp. Her labours have been so successful that teachers from other camps are coming to learn the work during their holidays.

“ The total number of children in the Government schools of the Orange River Colony is now 13,409, as compared with a total of 8,900 in the Government and private schools under the old regime [Laffan, Manchester Guardian, April 1, 1902 ; sec also Cd. 1163 (1902), p. 147.]

Indeed, the work of the Education Department advanced rapidly as sickness decreased, and a hundred teachers were selected by the English and Scotch Education Departments for South Africa. “ It has been most gratifying,” wrote Mr. Sargant [Cd. 1163 (1902), p. 147 Report of Mr. E. B. Sargant.]. “ to observe how quickly friendly relations were established between the old teachers and the new. . . . The English teachers report that they find the children intelligent, docile, and eager to learn. They speak highly also of the results the Dutch teachers had achieved before their arrival.” By these and other means the life of the camps was made bearable, and for the children, even interesting, while the greater suffering passed to those families who, it will be seen, were still in the various districts where military operations continued.

In March [March 4, 1902] Mr. Humphreys Owen moved the following amendment—“This House deplores the great mortality in the Concentration Camps formed in the execution of the policy of clearing the country." To his remarks Mr. Chamberlain replied in a speech which showed he had been misinformed on many points. He denied that farm-burning was the origin of the camps, for he believed only some 600 were burnt, and that figure multiplied by five, taking five as an average family, would not account for the large number in the camps [See Times, March 5, 1902] This shows that Mr. Chamberlain still believed that the handful of farms returned as burnt in Cd. 524 was the sum-total destroyed. He went on to say that when the guerilla warfare began “it was found that from one cause or another vast numbers of Boer women and children would be left unprotected on the veld. As a Christian nation we could not leave them there.” [See end of chapter] One does not know what date Mr. Chamberlain fixes as the beginning of guerilla warfare, but the eviction by our troops of Boer families, and their deportation, exile, and concentration, began, as we have seen, many months before Lord Roberts left South Africa. The remark is puzzling, because inconsistent with his previous explanation. Mr. Chamberlain does not offer any reason why British columns “ captured ” women and children living quietly in towns, and also those who were not unprotected, but had been placed in laagers by the Boers, who supplied them with food, and left them in the care of old men past fighting. He repudiated the complaint that there had been delay in making improvements in the camps after attention had been called to the need of it; yet, if Mr. Chamberlain had done in June what he did in December, thousands of lives might have been spared. The Colonial Secretary’s figures were arrived at by quoting infantile mortality against a child mortality, which was reckoned to twelve years in the Transvaal, and to fifteen years in the Orange River Colony. Finally, he said he did not know that the women were unwilling to come into the camps, though “it is fair to say they were brought in.” He thought very few wanted to go to friends, and the people were allowed to go when it was quite certain they would be well taken care of.

This statement does not agree with facts which have repeatedly come before public notice. A well-known instance is that of Mrs. De Wet, who had written openly to Mr. Brodrick about her detention, and about whom the War Secretary was questioned as recently as May [Manchester Guardian,, May 14, 1902]. Mr., MacNeill extracted the information on that occasion that Mrs. De Wet might only leave the camp to go out of South Africa, and that in the opinion of the Secretary for War exaggerated importance had been attached to the lady. Consequently, Mrs. De Wet was kept a prisoner in Pietermaritzburg Camp till the cessation of hostilities. Mrs. Neethling, who died in Balmoral Camp, is another instance, and a very sad one. Repeated applications by her relations failed to secure her release. These cases could be easily multiplied.

The Report of the Ladies’ Commission was issued in February. To comment upon it in detail would be outside the scope of this book, but a few words may be usefully said. The book is divided into two parts, the General Report, and reports on separate camps. Considerable care has been shown in dealing with some of the twenty-two points examined in each camp, especially the Sanitary and Hospital Departments, and the issue of rations. Other important branches, such as the orphans, the local helpers, applications to leave, and the mortality lists, received scant attention. The whole was, of course, a rather superficial view, as the Commission rarely spent more than the inside of two days in a camp. This precluded them from entering at all into the life of the camps as felt by the people, for the Boers are not a race inclined to open their hearts to strangers of a day’s acquaintance. The Commission reiterated the facts, and urged the recommendations made months before, and made some useful improvements which they had power to do. One of their best pieces of work was securing the appointment as Inspector, of Mr. Cole Bowen, an idea proposed months previously. The mortality figures given by the Commission are unreliable. They disagree with the Blue Books, and are misleading, as they begin and end according to fancy. Neither are the dates given for the establishment of camps always correct. For instance, February 1901 is given as the commencement of Johannesburg Camp, whereas it was a large camp in November 1900 [ See Part I. chap. ii.].

The regrettable feature of the book is the tone of the General Report, which does not bear out the separate reports. Particularly unfortunate is the endeavour to cast a large part of the responsibility for their children’s deaths upon the Boer mothers. However constantly and unchivalrously ministers, hard up for excuses, have sheltered themselves behind the supposed stupidity and carelessness of Boer mothers, one hoped that Englishwomen would have been above such accusations. They have only succeeded in collecting a few isolated cases—such as one woman who used green oil paint—one who used vermilion paint—one who used varnish—one who ate a poultice. These are not many out of some 40,000 or 50,000 women. For the rest, their error seems to have been the use of old-fashioned remedies, many of a like kind to which can be studied in Nicholas Culpeper, and all can be capped in English villages in the twentieth century, with parish doctors everywhere. To-day one hears of mouse-pie in certain parts of England, of snails to cure consumption, those found creeping up a churchyard wall, those crawling down are of no avail, and in a northern county blacklead is used to anoint wounds in sore legs. A jelly of black slugs, stewed in water, is mentioned by a recent writer in the Spectator as obtaining still in villages known to him, and we are all familiar with a potato carried in the pocket for rheumatism, and a dead spider tied in a bag for measles. But does one ever hear of deaths arising from these remedies?

The case of the green oil paint seems to have occurred in Krugersdorp Camp. It was said to have been used externally by one mother, and two children died from its effects, or perhaps from the ailments from which they were suffering. Dr. Kendal Franks tells us the name of these children was ‘Smith.’ (Cd. 819, p. 193.) This instance, like the story of the raw carrot, was bandied from camp to camp, published far and wide, quoted in Parliament and Press, till people believed it was a common usage of the Boer mothers. The American leather, spoken of as being a medical trophy brought home by the Commission, is, doctors tell me, quite a common and not a bad foundation for a plaster in South Africa. The vermilion oil paint, which so alarmed a nurse, is doubtless Rooie poeder or Rooie minie, which is a preparation of red lead. A doctor, with twenty years’ practice behind him in the Free State, says it is constantly used by Boer women, in the same way as we use iodine, to paint externally where there is some inflammation. He says it is absolutely harmless. Sometimes they mix it with linseed poultices, but it is never used to paint sores or open wounds. Mrs. Louis Botha told me she has used it with success on her children. Apart from traditional remedies, the Dutch medicines were prohibited by the Commission, who believed that to them “many a child has fallen victim.” [Cd. 893, p. 16.] They are prepared by a Cape Town firm, in a convenient little case called a * Huis Apothek.’ There is hardly a country house in the whole extent of South Africa which does not possess one of these little boxes. The doctor previously mentioned told me that every one of the medicines in this little chest is absolutely harmless, and that one might take the whole \o\ at once without being any the worse. They are, he said, a kind of homoeopathic medicine, quite innocuous; and during his long experience he has never known any harm accruing from their use, though his patients frequently took them, while following also his prescriptions. Mrs. Dickenson, before quoted, noted also that the women much prefer their own medicines, some of which, she says, “are made of herbs gathered on the veld, others are what we generally use under different names. I endeavoured,” she say, “to reconcile them to the use of ours, as the Dutch medicines are forbidden, and a doctor (one of the prisoners) was arrested at Bethulie and sent to Bloemfontein for prescribing them! ”

Individual acts of carelessness or stupidity or ignorance, which result in death, are to be met with daily in every community, and these only mar the impartial character of an official report. One feels sorry at this raking up of trivialities, calculated to transfer to the sufferers the blame for our ineffectual carrying out of our self-made responsibilities. The Commission stand on firmer ground when they deal with the two other reasons they assign for the high mortality, viz. the unhealthy state of the country consequent on the war, and causes within the control of the Administration.

But, leaving the General Report, the Commission in the various camps make admissions, and conduct sweeping reforms, which are the more significant considering the spirit in which they write about the women. They do not shrink from condemning ill-chosen sites, dismissing incompetent superintendents, reforming entire hospitals, urging various improvements in food, fuel, and water, recommending beds and amelioriating sanitation.

But nowhere do we find in the pages of this Report any condemnation of the custom of detaining women well able to leave, or orphans to whom welcome is offered in Cape Colony, or of the punishments meted out to women of good character—such as wired enclosures and solitary guard tents for breaking petty rules not clearly understood, or perhaps simply because pride was expressed in the persistence of their husbands in the field. The Commission glide over these things with some short paragraphs on “ discipline and morals.”

Meanwhile, during the last months of the war, after the camps had been improved, the condition of the families not brought in called for the greatest pity. Speaking on March 4, Mr. Chamberlain had said that as a Christian nation we could not leave numbers of Boer women and children unprotected on the veld [Times, March 5, 1902]. Yet during the last five months of the war that was what was done.

In December 1901, Lord Kitchener had said he had given orders that “ no more women and children were to be brought into the camps unless it was clear that they must starve upon the veld.” Side by side with this order it appears that destruction of houses continued. General Lukas Meyer stated that in February of this year (1902) he saw the smoke of burning houses rise in the Pretoria district between White Nek and Rhenoster Kop, and Generals Hertzog and Smuts say also that the destruction of houses and food-stuffs was persisted in after the order was issued to bring no more women into the camps. Indeed, the destruction of homes continued right up to the beginnings of peace, and I learn on high authority that even during the negotiations a house was burnt in the district of Heilbron.

It must not be forgotten that not merely solitary farms had been burnt, but whole villages laid waste, in many cases even to the churches. The villages of Piet Retief, Bethel, Ermelo, Dullstroom, Amsterdam, Paul - Pietersberg, Roos Senekal, Bloemhof, Schweizer-Reineke, Hartebeestfontein, Wolmarans-stad, Lindley, Ventersburg, and Bothaville were thus demolished, together with parts of Reitz, Frankfort, Dewetsdorp, Jacobsdal, Fouriesberg and others. It was just at the period when at length the camps had been properly organised and supplied with necessaries that women were refused admittance, unless they brought their husbands with them, while at the same time suffering loss, of their own shelter and means of subsistence. The number of people thus suffering, and the full facts concerning them, were not known until the Burghers* Conference took place at Vereeniging, and each Commandant laid the report of affairs in his district before the Assembly.

The following information was given to a Cape lady by some of the Generals:—

“The Conference discovered that there were still 10,000 women and children who were not in camps. These women were in a shocking condition—their homes and all food supplies were destroyed. Their men were able to supply them with food, but the British sent out at once to rob them of these fresh supplies, and did this by means of bodies of armed natives, who took away all food and clothing, and broke up the women’s cooking utensils. The women were then entirely at the mercy of these natives, with results that one dare not dwell upon. . . . Many women were almost naked when their men arrived, some had on only blouses. Many of the women were found in Kaffir huts.”

This description is supported by General Hertzog, who, writes Mr. Drew, “ tells me die necessity for surrendering came upon the Free State burghers as an unexpected shock. It was the state of things which Louis Botha disclosed in the Eastern Transvaal, which left no option but to give in. Some 10,000 Boer women and children were being fed principally in that district, but only enough provision remained for another six weeks. The British had for many months stopped the practice of gathering families into the Concentration Camps, though the work of destroying both the houses and the food-stuffs was still persisted in. Families would be left in the bare veld by the side of the blackened, roofless walls of their houses, and with not so much as a peck of flour left them for bread. The meal would be either removed or emptied out on the ground, and anything else fit for food would also be destroyed. Twas useless to appeal to the General to receive into the camps the women and children thus left to starve, and admission was even refused to the families of surrendered burghers, who were already prisoners in Ceylon or elsewhere. To worsen matters, Kaffirs were being armed by the thousand and sent forth over the country, sometimes in separate corps, and sometimes attached as scouts to the British columns. . . . The natural consequences of rape and murder did not fail to ensue.”

The account given me by General Lukas Meyer of the women’s condition coincided with the above.

Finding remonstrance was useless, the Boer Generals felt they must review the whole position, and the sufferings of the women outside the camps, together with the mortality in the camps, and the arming of the Kaffirs, which endangered life and honour, were embodied in the first three resolutions drawn up at the Vereeniging Conference, and form the main reasons for the surrender which followed. It was a surrender as fine as the struggle so long persevered in; the object of that struggle was manfully set aside when it was clear that the price in innocent life would be so terrible. The three first reasons given in the document handed to Lord Milner and Lord Kitchener ran as follows  [Cd. 1163, p. 15S (slightly varying translation).]:—

“ 1. That the plan of campaign followed by the British military authorities has led to the utter devastation of the territory of both Republics, and the burning of farms and villages, and the destruction of means of subsistence has exhausted all sources of food supply necessary for the maintenance of our families and the existence of our army.

“ 2. That the placing of our captured families in Concencentration Camps has led to an unparalleled condition of suffering and sickness, so that in a comparatively brief period about 20,000 of our near and dear ones have died in the camps, and we have to face the terrible prospect that by the further prolongation of the war our people may die out altogether.

“ 3. That the Kaffir tribes within and outside the borders of the Republics are almost all armed and take part in the war against us (by the committal of murders and other atrocities), thus causing an intolerable state of things in many districts of both Republics — as, for example, in the district of Vryheid, where fifty-six burghers were cruelly murdered and mutilated by natives,” etc. etc.

Thus Peace was brought about and proclaimed, and the news came to the women whose spirit had never failed. As their lot had been far harder than that of the men prisoners of war, so the measure of their relief is greater.

“Strange scenes were witnessed at the Irene Concentration Camp yesterday when the conclusion of peace was announced. The occupants assembled and gave expression to their joy by praying and singing psalms. Many of the people shed tears.” [June 1. Press Association.]

" Bloemfontein Camp, June 3.

“ This morning a party of Boer representatives arrived from Vereeniging. They were followed by a great crowd, but there was no cheering or other demonstration. Later, several of them rode into the Refugee Camp, where they were received with an extravagant demonstration of joy, men and women weeping and laughing at the same time. Crowds of refugees surrounded the horsemen, talking together and all asking for news of relatives and friends.”

Parent Category: Books
Category: Hobhouse: Brunt of the War and where it fell
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