Suffer the Little Children: British Concentration Camps During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

As promised, this is not a happy story. Some of the photos in this post are disturbing. They break my heart. I hope I do not use them gratuitously.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 has a strange hold on me. Perhaps because it happened where I live. I can drive through battlefields, pull over, perhaps pick up a spent shell case or a leather strap from 1900. It is a sad story; as I suppose all stories about war are. I recently bought Onthou, a chronicle of first-hand accounts of the lives of Boer women and children during the war. It is devastating and compelling; it makes me feel thoroughly ill. There are also over 200 photographs from the South African Archives; some never seen before. It is a big book; I read it at a table, as much because it is heavy as because it feels respectful to do so with such a special collection about such deep sadness and suffering.


In an earlier post about the ghost in Jan Smuts’ house, I detailed (very briefly) the run-up to the interment of Boer women and children in concentration camps. Even more briefly stated here: the British army was being thrashed by the Boer commandos, which were effectively guerilla war bands. The Boers were generally not soldiers. They were farmers who could handle a gun. They knew the country and were supplied (and concealed) by the women they left to manage their farms for them while they fought for their two Boer Republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Kitchener launched his scorched earth policy in late 1900, with the express purpose of destroying the farmsteads that sustained the Boers.

Somebody’s home

The British killed livestock (often without using it to feed their troops), burnt houses and imprisoned women, children and their servants in concentration camps. The women and children were transported to these camps in open trains, like cattle, with no sitting room and no protection from the elements. They were (mostly) allowed to take from their houses all they could carry. That was not very much. The deprivation as a result of months of soldiers from both sides requisitioning animals and food, meant that many were weak and sick when they arrived at the camps. Their struggle, however, was just beginning.

“There was one magnificently handsome woman with a face exactly like Cruikshank’s picture of Madama Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. I have never seen so much hatred in a woman’s face before” ~ L Curtis on seeing an intake of prisoners of war in Port Elizabeth.

The camps were shockingly under-supplied with tents, water, firewood and food. Small bell tents were crammed with over 10 people each and everything they owned in the world. Ablution facilities were insufficient. Disease was rife and in such close quarters, spread rapidly. The current guesstimate of deaths in these camps is 38 000, mostly children. Measles and pneumonia were the biggest killers.

Gysbert Johannes Vermeulen is 12 in this photo. He died in Bloemfontein. He is the same size as my 8 year-old son.

I don’t have the words to describe quite how awful I find this picture. He’s the same size as my son and he has a chin strap holding his slack jaw together. I am haunted by the thought of him before the strap, his mouth a silent scream. His head is on a pillow he doesn’t need. He is so beautifully dressed.

So, not having the words, here is a translation from the Afrikaans and a precis of one of the stories in the book. It is the story of Anna Botha (the namesake of my husband’s great-grandmother) who was imprisoned with her 5 children in the camp in Bethulie.

“On the 4th of October 1901, my five children and I were captured. When we were a short distance from our house my 5 year-old son burst into tears and said, “Mummy, aren’t we all going to die in the camp?”It was too much for me! In the moment I couldn’t comfort him, but later I told him we would have to draw strength from God. If it was God’s will, we would live.

On the 6th of October we came, exhausted and half dead from hunger, to the camp at Bethulie. Somebody tapped on my tent with a stick. I asked what it meant and I was told that I must go to fetch meat. I went to large tent and as I walked in I immediately smelled the spoilt meat. All the lamb was rotten, full of maggots and worms. I took a piece to my tent but there wasn’t an ounce of it that was edible. It was 8 days before I received a little meat that I could cook.

The same day, my eldest daughter was sent to hospital. She was there for 4 months and 15 days. In this time, all of my children got sick. I was also sick and the doctor told me to go to the hospital with one of my children. I couldn’t find anybody to look after my other children. With my starving child, almost naked, I went into the quarantine area. I was there for one and a half days when my child died.

Think how terrible it was! I was so sick I couldn’t open my eyes and there was nobody to help me. I couldn’t close her eyes or prepare her body for burial.

When it was all over, I had to tell my 9 year-old son through the quarantine fence. One of the turncoats came and I gave him her body, along with 3 shillings to buy a coffin. I had meant for her to be buried the following day but the constable came back, returned my money and told me that the Commander had said that she must be buried immediately because she had died of a contagious disease. “I promised that I would bury the body myself as soon as the coffin was ready,” said the man, “because I felt sorry for you. But the Commander wouldn’t wait a minute longer.”

I screamed and shouted in my grief, but it didn’t help. That body, that was so precious to me, was laid in the ground wrapped in a khaki blanket. And my child died of croup!

Francois Michiel Alexander (b. 6 December 1884) was 16 when this photo was taken. I cannot believe this tiny body belongs to a 16 year-old.

It was then December and 6 days after the death of my little daughter, my 5 year-old son got sick. I had to report it, and the following day the doctor and a nurse came. My son had to stick out his tongue. “Yes, your son must go to hospital”.

Almost everyone that went to the hospital died there. I burst into tears. I had already given one child and now a second was to go to hospital.

“Doctor, please,” I begged, “Let my child stay with me.” All of my pleading was worthless. An hour later the ambulance arrived.

Then my son asked me, “Mummy, am I going to die?”. I needed comfort; I was sick, but because my children needed me to be strong, I comforted him as best I could. And then he left, just like that. Weakness and grief almost stopped me from following after the ambulance wagon.

In the tent, I had two sick children and two were in hospital. I was allowed to visit them twice a week. The first child was just skin and bone. After a month, she could come home although she was so weak, I had to look after her as I would have a baby.

My son was also getting better. Another week went by and they asked me to send his clothes in preparation for his release from the hospital. The fever had gone and his appetite had returned. He asked for food but he was offered only milk with brandy in it, which he couldn’t drink.

Five days after this, he got whooping-cough and then pneumonia. He got weaker and weaker, and his end drew near. He was so hungry, but he couldn’t drink the milk. When I asked him how he was, he said, “Mummy, I am better but I am so hungry.” His last words were, “I am hungry.”

When he died, he was 6 years old but his body looked like that of a 2 year-old. I could count his teeth through the skin on his cheeks. When I put my hand on his tummy, I could feel his spine.

No tongue or pen can tell of the bitter suffering we endured….And now they would have us forget that neglect! I can talk about “the care”. My darling child is dead from neglect and hunger. ”

There is very little I can add to such an awful story. There are scores more like it in the book. Even if your Afrikaans is sketchy, as is mine, I urge you to buy the book. I will treasure my copy. And perhaps especially because my forebears were the English enemy, I will remember Anna Botha’s story. I will remember her little son and his chilling last words. And Francois and Gysbert, asleep in their white nightgowns.

What a Saturday night bedtime story! I’ll be frivolous again next week.

All photographs are from Onthou! Kronieke Van Vroue en Kinderlyding 1899-1902 ISBN 9780987025616 published 2012 by Kraal Uitgewers. They are used with the permission of the publisher. Contact them at:


19 thoughts on “Suffer the Little Children: British Concentration Camps During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

  1. So much of this is about naming. When they call someone an enemy they cease to be human, and in too many cases that becomes a license for them to cease to behave as a human. Great ppst, and one that is a valuable counterbalance to all the great stuff that was part of the empire.

    • South Africa has a long history of de-humanising the “other”. I grew up in the 70s and 80s at the height of Apartheid and saw it in action.

      With regards the camps, there were groups in Britain and Europe who protested against them. Emily Hobhouse led a campaign for better treatment, visiting the camps and documenting conditions. By 1902 conditions in the camps were better if not ideal, thanks to the public pressure.

      • The history of SA and the Boer war has been a pet hobby of mine for some time and what I have discovered during the past years is that all is not always what it seems. We are told that blacks have been oppressed for nearly 400 years and saw the police actions in the townships as a form of oppression but that is not always true. During the Boer war the British used black soldiers even though it was agreed at the beginning of the war that they would be kept out of it. These black soldiers would often be used to fetch women and children destined for the concentration camps, destroy the farms and at times even raped the women and that caused bad blood which also contributed to apartheid. It is important to note that the Boer were mostly Calvinists and family and their faith was important to them and one did not mess with that. (Being Calvinists also means that they had an extraordinary sense of guilt which contributed to the end of apartheid) They left the Cape province in 1838 to get away from the British which to this day still politically dehumanizes them. I worked in Johannesburg and lived in Hillbrow during the 70’s and 80’s and can clearly remember when petty apartheid was abolished in 1974. It was an exiting time with many changes happening on the political front. Contrary to popular belief apartheid was already being dismantled before the release of Mr Mandela. The BEE system introduced in SA is as discriminatory as apartheid was sadly. People never learn from history and live for the present moment and do not look backwards or forwards. Before you think o here we have another one of those I am against any form of oppression and discrimination towards any form of life. I worked for the Sowetan for many years and the lessons I learned there about human relations are priceless or so I would like to think. (World and Post before that). The aftermath of the Boer war was disastrous to many women and children which were left homeless and could not return to farms and towns and lived of the veld…… I still have a copy of Emily Hobhouse’s book at home amongst others. Thank you so much for your post, love history, even the sad parts, I will try to get this book (Onthou) as well. I already looked on internet but it seems to be a bit scarce. Can you recommend a place where I could get it? You might find the link interesting.

      • Thanks Tracy, Mind if i repost with credits?

        Today, the de-humanising is happening again. South Africa is on the list on stage 6. The CEO is world renowned expert on Genocides, the American Gregory Stanton. Interestingly, history is repeating itself. Fast forward 20 or 50 years from now and this will be history again. People just don’t want to learn from history it seems. Arrogance, ignorance and power always have the same outcome.

        Also look on my site for great historical stories you might not be aware of.


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  3. This is so disgusting! Why would anyone do this kind of thing is beyond me. I love history, but I always tend to skip over the wars. The methods and strategies of war leave me so cold. This is the real war anyway; rapes and hunger and thirst and homelessness.

    • It is awful. I had a few friends who fought in the bush war (South Africa had compulsory military service until the early 90s) and they all carried such trauma as a result of what they had done. It is an awful business.

  4. War is such a terrible thing, and even more terrible for the innocents caught up in it. My kids are at school right now and after reading this, and seeing those heart wrenching photos, all I want to do is race over there and give them a hug.

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  6. I am trying to trace the records of Martha, Christina and Daniel Blignaut the children of my wife’s grandmother who died in a concentration camp-possibly vredefort road as the family farmed near there. Where can one obtain records?

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