British Concentration Camps|
of the South African War
Although Eshowe camp was unique in many respects, it was also typical of a number of small camps which housed a scattering of families who had concentrated in an area and been fed by the military. Ladybrand, which never attained the status of a camp, was another example.
The location of Eshowe camp partly explains its existence. The position of northern Natal had long been equivocal. A number of Boers had settled in this area and established the ‘New Republic’ under Lucas Meyer. Positioned between the Transvaal to the west and Zululand to the east, the status of the New Republic was always uncertain. By 1899, however, it had been absorbed by the Transvaal, to whom the white inhabitants gave their allegiance. When war broke out in 1899, many of the burghers joined the Transvaal commandos but some, fearful of the welfare of their families who were vulnerable to attack both from British irregulars and the allied Zulus, sought protection in Eshowe.
The earliest arrivals, Charles Chilcott and Henry Corbett and his family, both from the Vryheid district, would appear to have been British but they were followed shortly by Boer refugees. All reached Eshowe in December 1900. The raids of Colonel Bottomley from March to June 1901 hastened the arrival of over 100 families, also mainly from the Vryheid district. Many of these people were virtually destitute, their considerable herds having been pillaged by Bottomley and his men. About half, however, brought their stock in with them. Some of these refugees were of German origin and, although they were ZAR burghers, they did not share ethnic ties with the Boers, and they were more willing to flee the callup of the commandos. In total 436 Boers arrived as surrendered burghers in Eshowe, mainly from the Vryheid district. Johan Wasserman notes that, despite their deprivations, such people were unfairly labelled ‘hensoppers’ for life, although few became ‘joiners’, collaborating actively with the British.
A second wave of arrivals began in October 1901 but was concentrated in the brief period from 30 December 1901 to 2 January 1902. The majority of northern Natal families captured by British troops was sent either to Volksrust or Merebank camps. For this short time, however, a group of destitute families, mainly from the Vryheid district, was sent to Eshowe. This followed Lord Kitchener’s decision in December 1901, not to send anyone else to the camps which were overwhelmed by the numbers they had to cater for. In all 24 families, 91 people, were housed in the concentration camp portion of Eshowe camp. They spent only 50 days there and were then transferred to Merebank in Durban. Other inmates were later sent to Wentworth camp, also in Durban.
Eshowe camp, Wasserman suggests, was an ‘administrative centre’ rather than a conventional camp, for mainly only the women, children and those without stock, resided in the camp itself. The other men herded their cattle widely over Zululand and were required only to report on Mondays to the police in the magisterial district in which they were then living. Run by the military, the camp staff consisted only of the superintendent and one nurse while two burghers helped to issue rations and do other tasks. Bell tents provided accommodation but these housed only five people so there was none of the overcrowding found in the larger camps. The local district surgeon provided what medical care was needed and the seriously ill were cared for in the Eshowe hospital. The ration scale was relatively generous and mortality was low, with only four deaths (three of them adults and a baby which died of dysentery), for this was a healthy camp. Schools were run informally and no minister of religion was provided.
Eshowe camp was closed early, before the end of the war, on 15 April 1902 when the remaining refugees were sent to Merebank and Wentworth. Others, notably the German community, were allowed to join friends and family who could support them. A handful remained in the Eshowe district.
This article is based entirely on:
Acknowledgments: The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is not responsible for the contents of the database. The help of the following research assistants is gratefully acknowledged: Ryna Boshoff, Murray Gorman, Janie Grobler, Marelize Grobler, Luke Humby, Clare O’Reilly Jacomina Roose, Elsa Strydom, Mary van Blerk. Thanks also go to Peter Dennis for the design of the original database and to Dr Iain Smith, co-grantholder.