“I visited the camp at the Springfontein railway station in the Southern Free State. What I was about to witness here… haunts me until this day. The mother sat on a little trunk, with a sick child across her knee. She had nothing to give it, and the child was sinking fast. Her plea for medicine fell on deaf ears. There was nothing to be done. And we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence… A friend standing behind the mother cried and called upon heaven to witness this tragedy. The mother neither moved nor wept for her only child. Dry-eyed but deathly white she sat there motionless, looking not at the child but far… far away into the depths of grief.” – Emily Hobhouse, May 15, 1901, what is now South Africa.
When the Dutch decided to establish a replenishment station in Cape Town in 1652, they needed farmers to work the fertile land of what was to become South Africa. Dutch farmers and their families emigrated sometimes willingly as well as some French Huguenots who were fast incorporated in this Boer society. With European powers fighting for influence all over the globe, in the 19th century, the British established the Cape colony and pressurized the Boers to leave the peninsula. Taking all their belongings in wagons pulled by ox, they set off for a long trek across mountains and hostile lands. Unforgiving climate, wild animals and fights against black Zulu and Xhosa tribes did not stop these Voortrekkers from settling in barren lands they started to farm. The British will to extend their empire from Cape Town to Cairo kept putting pressure on the Boers and the first Anglo-Boer war of 1880 was an attempt of the British to confiscate their land. The Boers resisted fiercely also gaining support from Europeans putting an end to this six-month war by gaining two independent republics.
Their hard work, faith and strong family structure paid off. Towards the end of the 19th century, a flourishing middle class of these Afrikaners lived in small settlements and villages in the Orange Free State and the South African Republic of Transvaal. They were the thriving force behind the successful agricultural industry until the British government once more tried to unify today’s South Africa under the Imperial British rule. The two independent Boer republics were not ready to give in: the second Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899. The under-prepared British suffered severe losses in the battles of Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg as the Boers were well armed and above all ready to die for their freedom. To get support for this war back in Europe, the British propaganda painted the Boers as a retarded society that should be civilised. The underlying motivation of the empire was to confiscate these lands on which gold had been recently discovered… More soldiers were shipped in by the empire. In this three-year war a total of 500,000 British soldiers fought against 50,000 Afrikaner farmers. Such disproportionate numbers give an idea about the will of independence of the Afrikaners. Their lands, economy and infrastructures got destroyed and they were still fighting relentlessly.
In front of such a resistance, the British put in place inhumane tactics backed up by their propaganda: Boer women and children needed protection against black people. To do so, camps were erected to offer the Boers a safe haven. In reality, these were the first concentration camps and the only way the British found to blackmail Boer men and force them to put their weapons down. Their wives and children were taken to these camps where life was harsh and harsher for women and children whose husbands or brothers were still fighting: their already small food portions were halved. Other than on their farms there were no fruits nor vegetables, no milk nor other proper food supplies. These women and children were starving by thousands without anyone caring about them but their husbands and brothers on the front-line. However, the willpower of the Boer was not gender-based and women were ready to die for their freedom and nation: 27,000 women and children perished in the concentration camps.
The divide and conquer tactic of the British did not stop at the family-structure level but went deeper to create racial tensions and isolate the Boers.
The livelihood of many black people who used to work and live on Boer farms was also jeopardized and some black people supported the Afrikaners. The British started sending black people to camps as well. But if conditions in both types of camps for whites and blacks were horrific, they were even worse in the black camps. Other black people were paid and armed by the British and were promised voting rights and land in return to fight alongside the British. Promises were never kept. The Afrikaners felt betrayed. The ground for Apartheid was laid.
The Boers held on for three years in this guerrilla war. Young Boer boys fought in battle as their chances of survival were higher than in the camps. About 22,000 British lives were lost in this war before the two Boer states had to surrender and later got incorporated in the Union of South Africa.
If the loss of lives during this second Anglo-Boer war is unspeakable and has deeply marked Afrikaners, the tactics that had been put in place laid ground for the concentration camps that would be used about half a century later by the Nazis and started the racial segregation South Africa will suffer from during the dictatorship of the Apartheid and that has hindered the country to this day.
Marcella & Claire
- To learn more about the Anglo-Boer war visit the informative Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein.
- To get the most out of your visit make sure to book a tour prior to your arrival by sending them an e-mail.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.