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Concentration camps

Why concentration camps?

The Concentration Camps, established by the British during the Anglo-Boer War, were only the second such social measure in the history of warfare.

In South Africa, the camps evolved from refugee camps, to protect people loyal to the new British rulers, to points of population concentration. From early 1900, residents on towns and farms in the Free State and Transvaal were systematically removed to these camps, to prevent the Boers from obtaining supplies and information. The food, buildings, livestock and equipment on the farms, and in many towns, were systematically destroyed. This meant that there was no point in escaping from the camps, because any refugees would have no place to go.


The number of inhabitants grew rapidly, and the conditions were grim. It is estimated that about 26 000 Boer women, children and elderly people died in the camps.

There were camps for black people too. They were herded there when the farms were destroyed. Generally, black men were expected to work for the British forces, by building railways and trenches. The conditions in the black camps were even worse than those in the Boer camps, and an estimated 13 000 black people died there - although there are no proper records.

The concentration camps left a legacy of political polarization between Afrikaners and English, that lasted at least half a century.

There were several concentration camps in the Upper Karoo: Springfontein, Bethulie, Norvalspont and Orange River Camp (located near Hopetown).

The Springfontein camp

This camp was first established in December 1900, after the Boer commandos resurfaced in the southern Free State.

By early April 1901, large numbers of civilians were brought to the camp in open coal wagons. They were dumped without tents while the camp was still being built. The women looked in the veld for old sacks to create some kind of shelter. One of the recent arrivals, Mr Gerrit Sem of Philippolis, noted that “There are a good many children sick, and some die”. More refugees were offloaded every day. “Unfortunately a rainy and stormy night followed causing a good deal of hardship among the refugees for whom no tents had been provided yet”, wrote Sem in his diary. Rev Sandrock of Springfontein was deeply moved by the wretchedness, anguish, and the crying of the children.  Athe end of April 1901 more that 1600 people were interned in the tented camp. The camp was bursting out of its seams.

Springfontein Camp was fortunate in the quality of its Superintendents.

The first was Mr William Gostling (previously magistrate of Philippolis), who worked strenuously to improve local conditions. But Gostling died of pneumonia in August 1901.

A few days later, on 31 October 1901,  J Sinclair, “the great cricketer”, came to the Refugee Camp as the new superintendent. “He is all for sports, seems rather a broadminded chap”, commented Gerrit Sem. On 9 November, King Edward’s birthday, “a good deal of sports in the camp … all goes well”.  The Scots Guards also played cricket during the South Africa campaign, as the Household Brigade Magazine reported in 1901: "An interesting cricket match was played at Springfontein, Orange River Colony, 1 December, between the 1st Battalion, the Scots Guards and Lord Lovat's Scouts, who won by 16 runs". Sinclair was evidently such a great sportsman, that he was called to Bloemfontein by the Chief Superintendent to play cricket at Ramblers.

In December, a new doctor, PD Strachan, arrived. He was “a young but very nice Scotchman; he seems very sympathetic. At night we often hear him play the flute”, according to Gerrit Sem. Dr Strachan had accompanied the Boer commando as a medical officer under the Red Cross. When he returned to Philippolis, he frequently attended British troops, especially the Yeomanry.

The camp gradually developed better institutions. On 20 March 1902, r Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams arrived from Bloemfontein, to inaugurate the Dutch Reformed Church. The church was christened “Bethel”.

On 5 March, new nurses and other teachers came to camp. Gerrit Sem recorded: “Dr Strachan and Guard, the dispenser, are indeed very nice, kind and obliging, whenever they can they invite people to spend evening with them – some music and singing and games." In May, Sem recorded that “There is a good deal of polo playing among the military”. On the Queen’s birthday (24 May), Dr Strachan “comes over to us and plays flute, very nice evening”. On 28 May, a concert was held at No. 12 Hospital, with a very good programme.          

When peace was declared (31 May 1902), the immediate future for the inhabitants of the white camp was hopeless. By the time they got back to their farms, sowing time had passed, livestock imported from the Cape Colony was excessively expensive and prospects were bleak.


On 31 October 1902, the last British troops left Springfontein and on 30 November 1902 martial law was abolished.  

Why concentration camps?
The Springfontein camp
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