British Concentration Camps|
of the South African War
The decision to transfer the Pietersburg camp inmates from Colenso to Pinetown must have been particularly traumatic for the families, for this was a third time that they had found themselves in a partly-built camp with all the associated discomforts of an incomplete infrastructure. In March 1902 Pinetown was a tiny settlement of 300 white inhabitants; nearby was the German settlement of New Germany. When the first Boers arrived in April, they were housed in uncomfortably damp houses previously occupied by Indians, before tents were erected. The camp itself was established on land rented from F.W. Königkramer, in a pleasant area surrounded by hills and far cooler than steamy Durban. The authorities had hesitated for some time about the Pinetown site for the water supply was limited and the camp was only possible because a substantial dam was built with water piped into the camp – one of several major engineering works undertaken in the camps. Most of the remaining structures, like the latrines, had been trucked down from Pietersburg and then moved on from Colenso to Pinetown. The camp remained in existence until August 1902, by which time the people had been trucked back to Pietersburg.1
Life in Pinetown camp differed little from the other camps. Food was not bad since rations could be supplemented with fruit and vegetables from the local farms or from Pinetown itself. Health was good, for the measles epidemic was long past. Of the twenty who died in Pinetown camp, most were the victims of the usual diseases of a pre-antibiotic age. To some extent Pinetown seems to have suffered as a punishment camp, for little effort was made with the school. Most of the Natal camps received at least one teacher from England but Pinetown did not, all the teachers being camp inhabitants.
The most momentous event was a severe gale in June 1902 which blew down many of the tents and destroyed the school. Wasserman records that the Hofmeyr family were taken in by local farmers, the Scotts, on their farm, Glenugie, where the young son was comforted with bananas. The storm destroyed the school and prevented a second lantern-slide lecture on the British Empire, with which the camp inmates had recently been entertained. Fortunately no-one fell ill as a result of their exposure to the storm.2
Pinetown was a complex and divided camp, politically and spiritually. Although some friction between hensoppers and joiners, on the one hand, and bittereindes on the other, was common in most of the camps, in Pinetown this tension seems to have been particularly evident. Pietersburg had produced a substantial number of loyalists, well over a hundred men joining the British volunteer forces. When the people were transferred to Natal, a small National Scouts camp remained in Pietersburg to house some of their families. Others, however, went to Natal, sometimes with their husbands. Wasserman suggests that some of these people reported back to military intelligence on the attitudes of the camp people, with the result that patriotic Boers felt ostracised and oppressed by this surveillance. A group of young women petitioned superintendent Tucker to remove the joiners. Yet, while some of the political opponents can be identified, we know little about their motives. It is too easy to see the conflict in black and white but we do not know why some chose to serve the British. Personal and political ties, economic forces or a realistic view of the situation all played their part.
Most of the camp people were devout but the records give little sense of their spiritual life. In Pinetown all the three Dutch Reformed churches were represented, not always harmoniously for the ‘Gereformeerde’ or ‘Dopper’ people rejected overtures from the other churches to co-operate in their services. There were a number of church dignitaries in the camp, as well as the missionary, Stefanus Hofmeyr, but full-time pastoral care only began with the arrival of ds A.M. Murray of Weenen in May 1902. In that month Murray conducted a series of revivalist meetings ‘during which the Holy Spirit broke through and many people, both old and young, were led to Christ then and during a meeting afterwards lead’. Some, however, were hostile to such religious extravagance and campaigned against it.
In the remote fastnesses of the Zoutpansberg, often living in close contact with African societies, and isolated from doctors trained in modern medicine, many of the people cherished their own folk medical practices. When asked, Mrs Sue Nicholson provided a rational explanation:
‘'I replied that I had been born & grew up in the district of Zoutpansberg, that some few years ago the nearest doctors to Zoutpansberg were living in Pretoria, 200 miles away, that in case of sickness, we had no other than the dutch medicines, which when properly administered by an experienced person, very, very seldom failed to attain the object in view & that I still had and used these in cases of slight ailment’.3
But Mrs Nicholson (who was never in Pinetown camp), was relatively well-educated and was able to put an acceptable face on these practices. The other side of the coin was a deep suspicion of British medicine. One woman attributed the healthiness of her children to the fact that she took care not to give them the doctor’s medicines. Over time stories of the sufferings of the Pietersburg people became wilder, with hooks in the meat, vitriol in the sugar and the tarring and feathering of superintendent Tucker. The combination of poorly-educated and resentful people and the increasing politicisation of camp mythology contributed to the spread of such anecdotes.4
The accusations of drunkenness against Dr Henderson are another matter. Alcohol was freely available in the camps, sometimes in considerably quantities, usually as ‘medical comforts’. A number of the medical staff resorted to alcohol, either because they were already addicts or because stress, hard work and discomfort drove them to this relief. Some were habitually drunk; others may have fallen only once. It’s difficult to know into which category Henderson fell, but the fact that he remained in camp employ suggests that, if he drank, it did not, in general, impair his functioning.
Pinetown camp was a short-lived camp, the tail-end to the story of Pietersburg, but the complexity of its population and the richness of Wasserman’s research, gives it an unusual interest.
Most of this account is taken from:
J. Wasserman, The Pinetown Concentration Camp during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) (Congella, Waterman Publishers, 1999).
E.H. Hobhouse, War Without Glamour (Bloemfontein, Nasionale Pers, 1924).
M.M. Postma, Stemme uit die Vrouekampe gedurende die Tweede Vryheids Oorlog tussen Boer en Brit van 1899 tot 1902 (Potchefstroom, 1925).
GH records in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository [PAR].
1 PAR, GH 1231/217/02, 5/8/1902.
2 PAR, GH 1337/245/02, Jun 1902.
3 OM 155/176/1, 30/4/1904; Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, p.55.
4 Postma, Stemme uit die Vrouekamp, p.25.
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.