5 British Concentration Camps of the South African War 1900-1902
BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War
1900-1902

Merebank

Merebank camp could be described as a test case, an attempt to create a camp which avoided the mistakes of the past. It was established about September 1901, mainly to reduce the numbers in the Transvaal camps and to bring down the terrible mortality which was sweeping through the camp system. In some respects it could be considered a success for deaths were considerably lower. But its history is fraught with contradictions. For instance, with about 9,000 inmates, it was the largest camp in the entire system, although it was divided into three parts, Windermere, Hazelmere and Grasmere, each section housing about 3,000 people. This device made it possible to argue that the camp was within the recommended size.

A second inconsistency was its location. Merebank camp was based on the sub-tropical Natal coast, just south of Durban, in a climate which was very different from the crisp highveld air to which the Boers were accustomed. Humidity, strong winds and summer rains all contributed their discomfort, although cooler sea breezes helped to reduce the temperature in summer. Above all, it was built on low-lying, swampy ground, with sand blowing over everything and the floors and bedding constantly wet. Conditions were so poor that, after they had visited Merebank, the Ladies Committee recommended that the camp be moved. Despite this, Merebank remained where it was. The fact that it was on a railway line, close to Durban’s main water supply, on flat land, were all advantages which, in the eyes of the authorities, outweighed the potentially unhealthiness of the site.

Accommodation was a third anomaly. Initially the families were housed in the familiar bell tents and marquees but the climate made such accommodation even less suitable for women and children than it was in the Transvaal. As a result, wood and iron huts gradually replaced the tents. Built in rows of six rooms, they were not ideal, however, for they were hot, they lacked privacy and, by April 1902, they were leaking. In this subtropical climate fleas, lice and mosquitoes abounded, adding to the discomfort of the inhabitants. In some respects the staff were worse off. The teachers, for instance, as late as March 1902, were in dilapidated marquees and their food was cooked over an open fire outside.

Education became a priority for the camps. Not only did schools keep the children occupied but they were also a means of inculcating the values of the British Empire into Britain’s future subjects. Yet the Merebank schools were operated with a mix of relative extravagance and needless thrift. Teachers were recruited from overseas in some numbers, with salaries which were large enough to attract people of ability, but the staff were often poorly housed and fed. The schools were short of such basic equipment as desks, slates, blackboards and books. The Boers made some attempt to start their own schools, less vulnerable to imperial propaganda, but these were swiftly forbidden. Despite all the deficiencies, some children were able to prepare for national examinations. Night classes for adults included lectures on the British Empire and more practical subjects such as cooking, needlework, kindergarten work and art were also taught.

Underlying many of these weaknesses was, of course, the desire for economy, for the Natal authorities prided themselves on running a system which was as thrifty as possible. However, they did not stint on senior staff. The superintendent, Hugh Moberley Bousfield, was a Natalian who had been a captain in the Imperial Light Infantry but he spoke limited Dutch. On the whole he proved a competent administrator of this very large camp. Wohlberg suggests that he was ‘as helpful, compassionate, kind and accommodating’ as the circumstances allowed. Dr Leonard Hardy was the SMO for most of the period, aided by a number of doctors including Dr James O’Reilly, who had been deported by the British from Heidelberg because he was suspected of pro-Boer sympathies. ‘Probationers’ included Uitlander refugees as well as the young Boer women more usually employed, the former receiving considerably better pay.

Wisely, Bousfield did not try to restrict the Merebank people too much. Permission was regularly given for visits to the beach and picnics, swimming and fishing all relieved the monotony of camp life. The women were able to see their men off when they were transferred to prisoner-of-war camps overseas and visits to the Umbilo prisoner-of-war camp were occasionally allowed. Concerts, bazaars and sports days also occupied their time, as they did in other camps. If life in Merebank camp was hard, it was probably less tedious than it was in the up-country camps.

The first inmates arrived from Pretoria on 13 September 1901. It was often the trauma of the journey, in open cattle trucks, which the women remembered later, rather than life in the camp itself, both because of the discomfort and because of the fear of the unknown into which they were being sent. Nevertheless, a number of families were able to take black servants with them to Merebank. Curiously, the camp also occasionally housed Uitlander refugee orphans who had no ties with the Boers at all.

At least the food was better. Supply was much easier on the coast and fresh produce was readily available. Moreover, the Natal ration scale was always more generous than that of the ORC and Transvaal, and the Merebank inmates regularly received potatoes, onions and rice. Indian traders sold bananas and pineapples cheaply. But the meat was usually frozen and the children could not always get fresh milk. For some time there were no communal ovens and the women had to rely on open fires or the occasional primus stove. Eventually ovens were constructed in February 1902, making the cooking, which occupied so much of the day, more efficient.

The real test, of course, was health. One might have expected that Merebank could avoid the terrible measles epidemic but this was not the case. No attempt was made to isolate the new arrivals with the result that measles came with them into the camp. Fortunately many of the camp inmates had already acquired an immunity to the disease so the results were less disastrous than they were in the up-country camps. Measles mortality reached its peak in October 1902 but it disappeared rapidly after that. Respiratory diseases, which might have included the aftermath of measles, lingered on for some months, along with diarrhoea and dysentery. Enteric, though never so fatal, was harder to eliminate completely.

At its worst Merebank reached a death rate of 14 per 1000 per annum which was negligible compared with the Transvaal camps and comparable with peacetime rates in the industrial cities of Britain.

As so often in South Africa, the black presence in Merebank camp was pervasive but rendered largely invisible by the sources. Black labour had constructed the camp and blacks were used in a number of roles from policing to the more unpleasant sanitary work. The white staff often had black men assigned to them for cooking and cleaning. The young teacher, Kate French, observed: ‘Our Kaffirs cooked our food on the open fire outside the tent and often made very picturesque pictures during the process’. A handful of Boer families were able to bring blacks with them, often young people who acted as playmates to the children as well as general servants. Superficial good relations crumbled rapidly when a black man was brought into the camp hospital, for the young Boer women nursing there resigned en masse rather than attend him. Despite this, a number of blacks were cared for in the hospital suffering from the familiar range of diseases, including enteric, pneumonia, dysentery, influenza and the like.

Like many of their counterparts in other camps, the Boers received the news of the peace with mixed feelings. While they longed to return home, they found it difficult to accept that their leaders had laid down their arms. When Bousfield told them the news, therefore, many responded with disappointment and confusion. The visits of General Schalk Burger early in June to explain why the Boers had made peace gave them only limited comfort. Repatriation was slow, partly because Merebank camp was used as an assembly point for returning prisoners of war. These men all had to be processed through the system, taking an oath of allegiance, before they could go home. The children were all issued with school leaving certificates and everyone was required to undergo a medical examination. Mrs Wilhelmina Hertzog, the wife of General J.B.M. Hertzog, was the first to leave the camp, on 4 June 1902. The last group left on 10 December 1902 and the camp was finally closed in January 1903.

Sources

This article is based on:

A.U. Wohlberg, ‘The Merebank concentration camp in Durban, 1901-1902’, M.A. thesis, University of the Orange Free State, 2000.

A. Wessels and A.U. Wohlberg, ‘Black people and race relations in the largest Anglo-Boer War Concentration Camp: Merebank, 1901-1902’, New Contree, 49, 2005, pp. 33-47.



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.