A fearless female champion for justice and humanity
Today, the term ‘concentration camp’ is synonymous with the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Nevertheless, concentration camps were not a Nazi innovation, for the British created them during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In an attempt to apply pressure on men serving with Boer forces to capitulate, the British extensively burned Boer homesteads and farms, slaughtered their livestock, dispossessed families of their property and forcibly incarcerated women and children in concentration camps. Emily Hobhouse, a British woman born before her time, was a welfare campaigner, feminist and an activist for women’s suffrage. She was aware of the social injustice of the camps, and of the terrible conditions in them which resulted in widespread deprivation, hunger and death from disease among the inmates. Hobhouse made it her mission to bring these outrages to public awareness and worked tirelessly for improved conditions in the camps and, ultimately, for their abolition. She was the bane of the British authorities and an abiding heroine to the South African people. In this, her own book on the subject, she exposes a little known imperial scandal. It was originally published at the time of the war, under the title ‘The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell’. This Leonaur edition has been enhanced by the inclusion of many illustrations and photographs which were not included when the book was first published.
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At 4 p.m. exactly the troops were let loose, pulling up and destroying everything in the gardens. Vegetables only just forming were pulled up, peach trees without a peach on them knocked about and shaken, and in a short time the flourishing and pretty gardens were a desert.
In future, whenever a convoy came through the town, the soldiers were so rude and overbearing that Mrs. Z. said she was generally ill for days afterwards. On one occasion an officer when going through the house actually made his way into her bedroom. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘these are my private quarters.’
‘Private quarters?’ he exclaimed; ‘there are no private quarters now.’ And indeed there was scarcely anything you could call your own.
They had a trap which the congregation had given to them, and which they therefore greatly valued. They had the greatest difficulty in keeping the trap. Three times it was commandeered by the military, and three times she had to exert her own personal influence to get it back. During these months of trial a certain Scotch chaplain, the Rev. Mr. McY., was a great help to her. He saved her ducks and fowls from the rapacity of the military, and interfered to prevent her husband from being sent away.
At last the blow fell which she had been dreading. Her house was searched by the military. The provost-marshal, Mr. Q., with four rough policemen, came to her house and said they were going over it to search for arms and ammunition.
She said, ‘I will go round with you and show you everything. You will find nothing, because there is nothing to find.’ So they all tramped into the house, and she opened everything for their inspection, and thereby saved her property in some measure from their rough handling.
Mr. Q. seemed satisfied. ‘I see,’ he said, ‘you have no arms or ammunition—you’re much too cool.’
‘Mr. Q.,’ said Mrs. Z., ‘this time you’ve come as a tyrant; next time I hope you’ll come as a friend.’
Far worse than this was the day when the final blow came, and the town of X—— was to be destroyed. Major W—— carried out the order, and in the roughest, harshest way imaginable.
This took place early in 1901. The people were told to get ready to be taken away to the camp, and their homes were then overrun by the military. Mr. Z. was made prisoner, and carried off to a tent on the top of a hill outside the town; his books, to the value of £500, were all burnt and destroyed; flooring, window-frames, doors, were all pulled out by the soldiers and burnt for firewood. The comfortable home was a desert. ‘Where is your heart to do such things?’ she exclaimed to Major W——.
‘Heart!’ he cried harshly, ‘heart! we haven’t got such a thing anymore.’
He went about the house like the Tommies, seeking for something to pick up for himself; but when she actually saw him opening her private drawer and taking the money which was now the sole barrier between herself and ruin, she snatched it out of his hand, and said, ‘You thief! you shall not have that. That money is for me and my children!’ She said he spoke to them all as if they were dirt, and before she left she had one more outburst. ‘Some day or other,’ she said, ‘Major W——, you will see your name written in capital letters for all the world to see!’
‘I know it,’ he replied savagely, ‘and that is why I’m treating you like this now.’
The journey to the camp was not so wretched as that which many others had to endure, seeing that they were allowed to take with them a certain amount of clothing and bedding and food for the journey. Still, it was a miserable time for the 140 people thus suddenly torn from their homes. One poor lady was very delicate, and the doctor said she could not stand the journey. He was justified in this opinion, for she died on her arrival in camp. They were travelling from Monday till Thursday, and it rained hard all the way. The sails of the waggon were all old and worn, and the rain came through, making them all sopping wet Mr. Z. tried to fix up his mackintosh to shelter them, but the holes were too many, and the only result was that he got wet himself without making them any better off. The last day they had no morsel of food after 11 o’clock.
On their arrival they found a few small bell-tents, but not half enough for the people to be accommodated. The consequence was that half of the people were thrown out on the bare veld for a fortnight, to fend for themselves as best they could. One lady, own cousin to the Rev. Mr. Steytler of Cape Town, had to do her best with two little babies on the damp ground. One of the forlorn party was an old gentleman of over eighty. These poor people had to make shelters of sticks and leaves, under which they crawled at night. It was wet on the top of them, wet at the bottom, wet all round.
After ten or twelve days Mrs. Z.’s husband was taken away from her. Her servants were being bribed to leave her; she herself lay sick, and there she was, left alone with her three little children, one of them an infant in arms. Her husband had no trial, nor was he treated like a gentleman, but abused and reviled. The only charge against him, apparently, was that he refused to take the oath of allegiance, or to ask the burghers to surrender. He had taken the oath of neutrality under Lord Robert’s first proclamation, and had kept to it. But this was not enough, and he was condemned to be sent to India.
When Mrs. Z. heard this sentence, ill as she was she determined to protest She went to the quarters of the commandant and asked to see him. She was refused admittance, and told to go away. She asked again and yet again, and said that there she meant to stay until she saw the captain. Still they replied that she could not see him, until in a kind of desperation she cried out loud, ‘But why then? Is he a kind of God, that he cannot see a woman asking about her own husband?’
At this she heard a voice say, ‘Let her come in!’ and she walked into the officer’s presence.
‘I want to know,’ she began, ‘why my husband is being sent away. He is a gentleman, why have you not treated him as such? What do your proclamations mean? You have not kept to one of them. No wonder we all laugh at them. My husband obeyed your proclamation. What did he get for it? He was abused, robbed, half starved, and now he is sent away.’
It was useless. The commandant threatened her subsequently with the guard-house if she said such bitter things. Her reply was ready: ‘I’m not a bit afraid of your guard-house, and I’m any day ready for your gallows.’
The camp was not enclosed, and they were free to come and go; but this was not altogether an advantage, as it left the women exposed to the rudeness of the soldiers. They had to take care of themselves in every way. The tents were the ordinary bell-tents, and there were no huts or houses. The bell-tent, besides its confined space, has the great drawback that it entails constant stooping, the exact middle being the only place where you can stand upright. No bedsteads or mattresses were provided, and in some cases women expecting confinement from day to day were lying on the bare ground, with but one blanket under them.
The change of temperature was acutely felt in these small tents. In summer, you had to sit for hours with wet cloths on your head, while the babies lay gasping for breath. In winter, it was piercingly cold; one night in June the women sat up all night, as they were afraid to lie down for fear of being frozen to death. When Mrs. Z. first went to the camp she was placed in the line of ‘undesirables.’ The position of this line of tents was bad, and the rations served out to them were on a different scale. They only had mealie-meal to eat, with meal twice a week. This went on till the commotion was raised in England about differentiation of rations, and finally all were served alike.
But the quality of the food was never good. The flour was unfit to eat, the meat extremely poor, and the sugar a chocolate colour and very unpleasant to the taste. The military were not altogether to blame for the poor quality of the food, as the contractors were in some cases paid a good price. Some families arrived at the camp in so literally naked a condition that the military were forced to supply them with clothing. The contract was given to Messrs. Y—— & Y——, who supplied perfectly useless moth-eaten cloth, and then boasted openly that they had now ‘cleared their store of all their old rubbish.’