An apology is due

2013-06-24 00:00

THE Witness (June 10) published an editorial in which it discussed the British government’s apology for the atrocities committed by the British colonial police against the “Mau Mau veterans” in Kenya.

It remains a matter of fact that atrocities were committed by both sides and, in any event, pale into insignificance when compared to the atrocities committed by the British during the Anglo-Boer War.

The second Anglo-Boer War took place between 1899 and 1902. The Afrikaners named it the Second War of Independence. Political tensions had increased, leading to war, as the British sought to control the mineral wealth of gold that was discovered by the Afrikaner in the Republic of Transvaal.

The British High Commissioner at the time was Sir Alfred Milner. Under his command was General Lord (later Field Marshal) Kitchener. In order to shorten the war, Kitchener embarked on a policy of destroying both the morale and will to continue the war of the burghers, by creating concentration camps, the designation derived from the notorious Reconcentrado camps of the Spanish, to deal with Cuban guerrillas.

If all the Boer women and children were moved from their farms and into camps, the result would be twofold. First, it would deprive the military-active burgher of food supplies. Secondly, the resultant inability of the burgher to communicate with his family and loved ones would bring an early surrender and an end to the war.

A total of 45 tented camps were established for whites and a further 64 tented camps established for blacks who had sided with the Boers or were employed by them. The white camps in Natal were located as follows: Colenso, De Jagers Drift, Eshowe, Howick, Jacobs, Ladysmith, Mooi River, Pietermaritzburg, Pinetown, Vryheid and Wentworth.

Some camps were positioned to promote disease, such as the Standerton camp, which was erected on both sides of the Vaal River and was infested with mosquitoes in the summer. Many camps were positioned climatically unfavourably, but whether this was by intent or otherwise is arguable. With the removable of women, children and babies, the farms and homesteads were burnt and cattle looted or destroyed, leaving carcasses to rot.

The crowded camps received little or no medical treatment. Dysentery, cholera and diarrhoea were among the major causes of death, together with a lack of food. For example, no milk was provided for babies and children, and this, together with the deliberate lack of provision of sustainable food, resulted in death by starvation.

Women in South Africa and the UK, such as the South African Conciliation Committee, and Emily Hobhouse’s campaigns, were prominent in drawing attention to the appalling conditions, to no avail.

It is not only sad, but tragic to record the following statistics, which took 10 years to collate after the cessation of war. In the 45 white tented camps, no fewer than 27 000 Boers died, the majority of whom were children under the age of 16. Aged male deaths were recorded as 1 400. In the black tented camps, the minimum death figure as a result of starvation and lack of medical facilities is recorded as 14 000, although some sources place the figure nearer 20 000.

What was Britain’s post-war reaction? Welshman, parliamentarian and future prime minister, David Lloyd George, said: “The fatalities of women and children in the camps is 450 per thousand per year. We have no right to put women and children into such a position.”

He further quoted from a letter written by a British officer: “We moved from valley to valley, lifting cattle and sheep, burning and looting and turning out women and children to weep in despair besides the ruin of their once-beautiful homesteads … It is a war not against men, but women and children.”

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, leader of the Liberal Party, said: “When is a war not a war? When it is waged by methods of barbarism in South Africa.”

John Dillon, Irish Nationalist MP, said: “I can produce an endless succession of confirmation that the conditions in most of the camps are appalling and brutal. To [sic] my opinion, the fatality rate is nothing less than cold-blooded murder.”

As a direct result of these deaths, it is computed that the current Afrikaner population is diminished by some three million. It is not unreasonable to put forward a case for the Boer volk and the descendents of blacks who suffered and paid the ultimate penalty, to receive an unconditional apology from the British government, late as it may be, both for the creation of the concentration camps and the unacceptable resultant deaths that were entirely avoidable.

• Peter Quantrill is a retired Gurkha officer and co-author (with Ron Lock) of several books, including Zulu Victory and Zulu Vanquished.

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