Concentration camp

Concentration camp

In Brief

Averse to English justifications of mass death, which in the annals of Irish history include a policy of allowing millions to starve in the name of free trade, Stephen says of Hamlet that "The bloodboltered shambles in act five is a forecast of the concentration camp sung by Mr Swinburne." Then he drives home the point by quoting from one of Swinburne's poems: "Whelps and dams of murderous foes whom none / But we had spared..." Praising the British army for not slaughtering defenseless noncombatants (while imaging them as hateful dogs) is barbarous enough, but in fact troops in South Africa were doing something even more horrifying to women and children. They pioneered the large-scale "concentration camps" that the Nazis later brought to a peak of sadistic perfection. 

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The Second Boer War of 1899-1902 would never have happened if not for the unprincipled and unapologetic financial greed of English bankers, industrialists, and politicians. In the first half of the 19th century, displaced from their colony at the Cape of Good Hope by the British, Dutch settlers trekked inland to found the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In treaties signed in 1852, 1854, and 1869 the British waived all claims to these two territories and guaranteed the self-governing independence of the Boer republics. But then, in March 1869, the richest diamond lode in the world was discovered in the Orange Free State and the British annexed this territory. In April 1877 they annexed the Transvaal too, resulting in the First Boer War of 1880-81, which the Boers decisively won.

In further treaties signed in August 1881 and February 1884 the British again relinquished any claim to the two states. But these treaties were rendered inoperative by the discovery of a colossal gold "reef" in the Transvaal in June 1884. The new gold mine attracted swarms of foreign workers and entrepreneurs, and certain provocateurs in London began agitating for these uitlanders to be given voting rights—a grievance that the foreigners themselves never voiced. Multiple Boer offers to compromise on their franchise requirement of 14 years of residency were rejected. Discord continued throughout the 1890s until, in September 1899, Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, quietly dispatched boatloads of troops to South Africa while publicly promising an imminent settlement with the Boers. War broke out in October.

Having committed half a million professional soldiers to subdue several thousand farmers, the British expected to prevail in a few months, but the Boers' early victories, and their decision to practice guerilla warfare after the fall of their capital cities of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, ensured that the war would drag on for years. The result, starting in the second half of 1900 under orders from Baron Horatio Herbert Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British army, was a "Scorched Earth" policy in direct contravention of the Hague Convention of July 1899.

It was the first example of total war in the modern era. Setting out to deprive Boer commandos of food and other supplies, British soldiers invaded homes, gave the occupants 10 minutes to gather a few belongings, smashed everything else, and torched the farmhouses. Outbuildings, farm equipment, stored crops, orchards, and bales of wool were also destroyed. Sheep and cattle were shot, bayoneted, dynamited, burned alive, or hamstrung and left to die a slow death. Thousands of women were raped. Women and children were hauled away in wagons and railroad cars to several dozen camps that soon housed about 155,000 people, a majority of the entire Boer population.

The purpose of the camps was clearly to inflict maximum suffering. Boers were not allowed to bring their own thicker tents, but were crowded together in thin ones that offered no protection from extreme temperatures. There were no beds, few mattresses or candles, long ditches for toilets, little soap, and only an occasional bathhouse. Diseases ran rampant, and the scanty and poor food rations were frequently cut in half to punish transgressions such as complaining about the food or being related to a man who had not yet been shot or surrendered. In time, many non-transgressing individuals too had their spartan rations cut in half. The London journalist William (Wickham) Thomas Stead wrote that the camps were "our substitute of the Spanish Inquisition," in which "we achieved the same object through the refined and terrible torture of hunger. Under that treatment, the children grew ill and were reduced to living skeletons. / Each one of these children that died thus, as a reduction of rations by half to bring pressure upon their relatives in the field, was deliberately murdered."

There was a parallel system of camps for black Africans, whose sufferings, though less well documented, were probably as great. But the treatment of the Boers was more shocking to European sensibilities, not only because of their skin color and their devout Christianity but also because they were a prosperous modern people. They had pianos and pump organs in their homes, fine furniture, extensive libraries. Their towns were run by elected councilors, their nations by parliaments. The industrialization and growing wealth occasioned by the rich mines produced infrastructure improvements worthy of any European city: railroads, tramways, telegraph and telephone lines, postal service, piped water, gas mains, electricity, food inspectors, hospital boards, an independent judiciary.

This economic self-sufficiency perhaps invited British brutality, as that nation had long practiced a policy of extracting raw materials from its colonies, permitting the manufacture of finished goods only in the home country, and then selling those products back to the colonies. In Cyclops the Citizen ticks off various examples of Irish industries suppressed by British laws, and the same thing happened in the American colonies before their independence.

Considering the outrages perpetrated in this, one of the ugliest chapters in English history, it seems positively restrained of Stephen to speak sardonically of "the concentration camp sung by Mr Swinburne." Even in England, fierce debates raged during the war over the treatment of Boer women and children, with social reformers and political Liberals repeatedly refuting the anodyne assessments put out by the government and the army. In Ireland, sympathies for the overmatched but stubbornly defiant Boers ran sky-high. On the day represented in Ulysses, a mere two years have passed since the signing of a peace treaty in Pretoria on 31 May 1902, and the holocaust in the camps did not end even with that official conclusion of hostilities. On the characteristically sadistic orders of Lord Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, surviving women and children had to wait as long as five months after May 31 to be released.

Many of the details in this note have been drawn from a small book recommended to me by Vincent Van Wyk, Stephen Mitford Goodson's The Genocide of the Boers (The Barnes Review, 2017). That term is polemical but it does not seem overblown. Approximately 30,000 Boers—four thousand more than that by Goodson's account—died in the camps. This was nearly a quarter of those interned, and perhaps 13-14% of the prewar Boer population. More than 80% of those who died were younger than 16. For many in the army and the government, the deliberate extermination of children does not seem to have been even slightly troubling. In one of the self-exculpatory reports issued by the War Office in response to parliamentary inquiries (quoted below the French magazine cartoon shown here), it was reassuringly observed that "Thanks to the good organization of the concentration camps, abundance and health reign there....The precautionary measures we have taken have reduced the mortality of children to 380 per thousand"! Whelps and dams, whelps and dams.

JH 2022
Cartoon by Jean Veber (?) from the 28 September 1901 issue of the French magazine L'Assiette au Beurre depicting a Boer woman protesting the death of Boer children. Source:
The principal British concentration camps. Source: The Genocide of the Boers.
  Photograph of a starving child in one of the camps, with a caption by Goodson that reads, "War-hardened British photographers made fun of the emaciated children in British concentration camps." Source: The Genocide of the Boers.
  Photograph by Emily Hobhouse, a representative of the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund, of Lizzie van Zyl, an internee in the Bloemfontein concentration camp who was punished with half rations. Dying, Van Zyl was transferred to a small hospital, labeled an idiot because she spoke only Afrikaans, and treated harshly by doctors and nurses. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of a mother with her dead child, taken by Emily Hobhouse in 1901. Source: The Genocide of the Boers.