Concentration camps were not used for the first time during the Boer War.  They were used by the Spanish and by the Americans in the Philippine-American War.  Where the British camps differed was in their scale and size.

The concentration camps were established by Lord Roberts for refugees whose farms had been destroyed under the 'scorched earth" policy around September 1900.  Lord Kitchener, when he took over as Commander in Chief, extended the use of the camps to include women and children who had been forcibly removed from the homes in an attempt to interrupt the supply lines for the Boers.  To cater for the new use of the camps, many more had to be constructed.  The camps were typically located near railway lines or military bases to facilitate supplies and communication.  This was part of the problem for the camps as the sites were chosen on a strategic and logistic basis with insufficient regard to the welfare of the people within the camps.

There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boers.  Of the 28,000 Boer men captured during the war, 25,630 were sent overseas and this meant the majority of inhabitants of the camps were women and children.   The inhabitants in the camps grew steadily:


Boer camps

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The conditions in the camps were generally unhealthy and the food was sparse.  Rations for the families of men who were still fighting were smaller still.  The poor quality of the food and the general disregard towards personal hygiene led to outbreaks of measles, typhoid and dysentery.  The disease coupled with inadequate medical care accounted fro the large number of deaths in the camps, especially in the early years.  By the end of the war, it was reported that 27,927 Boers (of whom 26,251 were women and children, of which 22,074 were children under 16) had died of starvation, disease and exposure.  This equates to about 25%.

The camps were offered to the fighting Boers as an inducement to give up the struggle.  Those Boers that did surrender were invited live in the camps with their families under British protection.  The effect was probably the contrary because the camps released the fighting Boers from the responsibility of looking after their families.

Miss Emily Hobhouse, a member of the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund, visited some of the camps in the OFS between January and April 1901.  She publicised what she found to a shocked public in England.  Her report of 15 pages led to a government enquiry, the Fawcett Committee.  In their report, the Committee criticised the camps and listed a number of recommendations for improvement.  Lord Milner assumed direct control of the camps in November 1901.  His aim was to act on the recommendations in the report by improving the conditions and rations in the camps.  Before he took over, the death rate was 344 per thousand per annum in October 1901.  Infant deaths, mainly due to measles, was 629 per thousand.  By January 1902, the overall mortality rate had reduced to 160, and by February to 69, and by May to 20.  By the end of the war the death rate had fallen below the peace-time rate.  The death rate among camp staff was high compared to the mortality of the Boer male inmates.

Camps were established in Natal and these grew to hold some 24,000 Boers.  Further camps were set up in Cape Colony.

With the war at an end, there was the problem of disbursing the camps.  This meant relocating some 200,000 men, women and children back to their homes, to areas often ravaged by the war, without the livestock and crops that was need to sustain life, nor the homes they once lived in.  The camps provided a focal point for the Boer men in the field and those that slowly returned from camps overseas to be reunited with their families and to prepare for their return home.  The Times History noted: 'Had they not existed, they would have to have been invented for the purpose.'  Families left the camps with a tent, bedding and food for a month.  Where possible, tools, seeds, livestock and vehicles were handed out by the British. 

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