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.
In 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.
This 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.
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.