The Concentration Camp

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Hitler was not the first to use the concentration camp. Long before World War II, the British used this secured "camp" where civilian enemies were placed. It was 1900. The conflict was the Boer War, and the victims were the Dutch settlers in South Africa.

The war began when the Dutch (called the Boers, literally, farmers, by the British) gave an ultimatum to the British to cease reinforcement of the British garrison in South Africa. This happened because the Boer republic, established by the Dutch settlers north of the British colony, had refused to grant political rights to the Uitlander (foreigners, mostly English) who were living in the mining areas. The British really wanted an excuse to take over the Boer republic which was rich in diamonds and gold. On Oct. 11, 1899, the fighting began.

The British vastly outnumbered the untrained Boer farmers, who were fighting what was perhaps the greatest power in the world at that time. So the match was uneven from the start. However the Boers were fighting on their home ground and used unconventional guerilla tactics to good advantage. They achieved some early victories over the British.

"When children are treated in this way and dying, we are simply ranging the deepest passions of the human heart against British rule in Africa..."

The Boer commandos lived off the land and off the help that they got from sympathetic homesteads. The British responded by removing this advantage. They burned farms and created the first "concentration camps" as a place to put the women and children they cleared off the farms. The camps were inadequate and dirty and disease spread through them quickly. Around 25,000 women and children died from epidemics of dysentery, measles, and enteric fever. International opinion began to turn against the British and there were outspoken critics at home as well.

Lloyd George, future Prime Minister of Great Britain, commented in practical terms in 1901:

"When children are treated in this way and dying, we are simply ranging the deepest passions of the human heart against British rule in Africa..."

Due to public opinion, British General Kitchener changed the British policy in 1901 and stopped placing women and children in the camps. He issued instructions that they should be left with the guerrilas, which had two benefits. This policy quietened the outcry at home and hampered the enemy in the field. See British documents about the concentration camps.

By 1902, the Boers were finished. They surrendered the Boer lands, partly due to concern over their families. As a result, the British gained control over all of of the colonies in South Africa. Eventually the British created the Republic of South Africa, an independent country uniting all the colonies into one. The British inhabitants ruled South Africa until the 1940s, but the Dutch inhabitants, later called Afrikaners, never forgot their hatred of the British.

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A History of South Africa
by Leonard Thompson


an excellent resource particularly on the early history of South Africa, before the domination of Europeans


South Africa

Bitter Union: the Story of South Africa exhibit

South Africa History Books