World’s first concentration camps

I spent today at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, which tells the story of the war between the British and the Boers in present-day South Africa from 1899-1902. The war is infamous not only because the British were able to incorporate South Africa into the British Empire as a result, but it also influenced a rise in Afrikaner nationalism and culture as a result. But the war also featured the use of concentration camps as a strategy during the war by the British…and one of the largest ones was in Bloemfontein.

Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein

Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein

Picture1In 1900 when they had been beaten back by the British, the Boers turned to guerrilla warfare as a strategy to disrupt the British lines of communication. They used small mobile commando units to attack repeatedly and unexpectedly. This allowed the Boers to drag the war on for another two years, greatly frustrating the British. In reaction to this new strategy by the Boers, the British retaliated with a brutal scorched-earth policy and a rounding up of the refugees into concentration camps — the first in modern history, predating the Nazi Germany concentration camps by over 30 years. The goal was to cut the commandos off from their support base among the population. In these camps, food, medicine, and water were in desperately short supply, though, and outbreaks of dysentery and typhoid spread quickly, especially amongst the children. The British established 49 concentration camps throughout South Africa for the Boers, with one of the largest camps being right here in Bloemfontein. The numbers are shocking: 144,000 white South Africans were sent to the concentration camps and over 27,000 of these people died in the camps, of which over 22,000 were children under the age of 16. But the British Empire got what they wanted, unimpeded access to the lucrative gold and diamond mines of South Africa.

map from the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein

map of the British concentration camps for the Boers from the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein

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Black_Concentration_CampsThis is the story that the museum tells through graphic testimonials, pictures, and stories of suffering in these camps. But reality is much, much worse, because in reality, the vast majority of people who were in the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal — where the war was primarily fought — were Africans. The museum barely mentions the impact that this conflict had on the African population, or that Africans were also imprisoned in concentration camps. Africans were involved in the war on both the Boer and British side as scouts, guards, laborers, wagon drivers, and in the case of the British, even as armed soldiers in the war. The British rounded up and imprisoned over 140,000 Africans in 65 concentration camps. Segregation was rampant through all aspects of society at the time, even in terms of concentration camps. Africans were put into their own concentration camps, separate from the Boers. And the African concentration camps didn’t have the tents that at least the Boers had; the Africans were forced to build their own shelters to survive, not to speak of the segregation of basic supplies of food and water, as well. Over 24,000 Africans died in these concentration camps, of which the majority were children. This is the story that was not included in the pre-1994 apartheid history of the war. In apartheid, even history was segregated.

map of the British concentration camps for Africans from the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein

map of the British concentration camps for Africans from the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein


black camp inmates – image from the Anglo-Boer War Museum

Nazi Germany had a predecessor in terms of the use of concentration camps, and it was the British who used them brutally against the Boers and Africans that saw a total of over 51,000 civilians perish in just over two years.


Concentration camp memorials at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein


6 thoughts on “World’s first concentration camps

  1. Quite a history lesson for me…..thanks for taking your time to summarize your visit to the museum. I’m learning more now than I did in school.

    Thanks. look forward to the next journal entry.

    Vermont’s still here and misses you.

  2. I am surprised that a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher had to travel to S.A. to learn about the first concentration camps in “modern history”. Indian (native Americans) Reservations in the USA served much the same purpose and the rewards for the immigrant population were much more lucrative. Read about the times of the Van Buren presidency and later. There is also the experiences in Cuba which preceded the British actions in S.A. No doubt there were other earlier examples. The only difference is the word used to describe these actions i.e. Reservations, reconcentrados, concentration camps and the definition of modern history. The Brish were the first to use the term “concentration Camp”, but we’re not the first to use them. They are all disgusting examples of man’s inhumanity to man no matter where or when they occurred. Unfortunately, they still occur today and a convenient blind eye is turned by lots of people and nations.

    • Great point! I have to admit, I was obviously very naive when I began learning about British concentration camps in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. While I obviously knew of the vast atrocities and oppression that the colonists and the U.S. government displayed towards Native Americans, for some reason I never saw it in this light. Maybe this is because the word “concentration camp” has such a different connotation to it than “reservation,” as you correctly pointed out. I am a teacher of History and am always open to learning different perspectives and narratives, and that was part of why I wanted to have this experience in South Africa. While I should have known this before, I am not a professor and do not have a PhD, but I am always trying to learn more about world history in order to better help my students understand it.

      Thank you for your interesting feedback and perspective.


  3. The earliest instances of concentration camps were in the Americas, starting in the 1400s, the Reductions, the Mission System and reservations where thousands died of hypothermia , Starvation, disease and outright genocide. I just love how people like to think that Native Americans don’t exist!

    • Thank you very much for your response and comment.

      What happened to the Native Americans in the United States can certainly be seen as genocide due to the deliberate destruction of an entire people, including their way of life and culture, but reservations were not concentration camps. There are some similarities, including soldiers forcing people into these restricted environments and the large death rate initially to the spreading of disease, but there are clear differences as well. Reservations today are voluntary residences for native peoples as they do not have to live there, and while the reservations of today are different than original reservations, this is a large difference with concentration camps. Also, the spreading of disease and the murder of Native peoples was happening outside of reservations, as well, as it was not solely contained to these camps.

      I appreciate the point you are making about other populations who were oppressed, but Native American reservations are not comparable with concentration camps. A good parallel in American history would be the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II when over 100,000 people were forced into camps for the duration of the war. These were not voluntary, were guarded by the military and were cordoned off with barbed wire. This despicable treatment of Japanese Americans is an example of concentration camps in US history.


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