British Concentration Camps|
of the South African War
Uitenhage was the third of the camps that the ORC authorities established at the coast [see East London for further details]. Louis Mansergh, the Cape Colony secretary of public works, who was responsible for constructing the coastal camps, considered that the site was an ideal one, slightly protected from the prevailing south-east wind and close to an ‘inexhaustible’ water supply of ‘exceptional purity’. It was built on the Uitenhage municipal commonage, known as ‘Pannell’s Hill’, about two and a half miles from the town. The area of the camp was about 140 acres, surrounded by heavy bush. This was a disadvantage for Mansergh feared that highveld children, who were not used to the bush, might stray and get lost, so he was anxious that the camp should be properly secured and some of the bush cleared.1
Initially the local authorities were unenthusiastic about the prospect of having a Boer camp so close to the town. South Africa’s ‘sanitation syndrome’ in which outsiders, be they Chinese, Indian, African or Boer, were suspected of being a health hazard, came into play. The municipality claimed the right to inspect the sanitary arrangements of the camp, for instance, to which the ORC agreed reluctantly provided that a qualified inspector was used. The town council as a body was banned from the camp, however. Once this hurdle had been overcome, the Uitenhage mayor took a keen interest in the camp, visiting the site to inspect its progress . Local merchants now hoped that they might benefit from the construction of the camp and the supply of the inmates, although the value for local business must have been limited since the camp authorities tended to favour the contractors they knew.2
Despite favourable reports, for some time the camp authorities dithered about going ahead with Uitenhage but, in the end, decided to do so. At the end of February 1902 the ORC people hoped that the camp would be ready by 7 April. The Governor the Cape, Sir William Hely Hutchinson, who visited the site at the end of January 1902, also thought the location ideal, close to the railway, well drained with ‘convenient smooth sward’. He suspected, however, that the estimate that the camp would be ready in six weeks’ time was overoptimistic.3
A breakdown in communications between the ORC and Louis Mansergh did threaten the opening of the camp. Provision had not been made in time for English nurses and teachers, nor for an assistant superintendent, the newly-appointed superintendent, Frank Richards explained. However, this difficulty was soon rectified. The chief superintendent was also concerned that the staff should be in place and working well before any inmates were sent down from the ORC. He wanted to ensure, too, that the journey should not be unreasonably uncomfortable. While the families had to travel in open trucks, they were to be cleaned properly and provision had to be made for latrine stops. Hot water should also be provided at the various stations.4
Inmates were to be housed in forty huts, rather than tents, and construction even included a cemetery of which Mansergh was particularly proud as it was situated ‘in an open glade, clothed with grass and surrounded by mimosa and other indigenous bush’. Fortunately it was little needed since there were only about ten deaths throughout the life of the little camp of about 1,500 people. Inspector Tonkin reported on the camp in mid-April, as the first inmates were arriving. Houses had been built on the ‘pavilion system’, each divided into a number of rooms, all of which were well ventilated and lit with large windows. The buildings themselves were on piles which made it possible to keep the ground clean underneath. ‘The rooms should be both comfortable and healthy’, he concluded. He described the other facilities in some detail and considered that conditions were spacious and well organised, apart from the cemetery, where the soil was too shallow. The fact that the camp was surrounded by thick bush also made the disposal of refuse difficult.5
It is not entirely clear when the first inmates arrived in Uitenhage. The first entries in the camp register date from 27 April 1902 but correspondence suggests that some people had arrived by early April.6 The coastal camps were conceived partly as a means of reducing the death rate by moving people to a healthy locality but, from the start, they were also, to some extent, punishment camps for difficult people or the families of men still on commando. The ‘worst characters’ from Bethulie, 1,200 in all, were to be divided between Uitenhage and Kabusie. The Uitenhage camp inmates were likely to be particularly resentful, therefore, although no problems were ever reported.7
In many respects the camps were small towns (and were often much larger than the local villages) with the same problems of municipal management. The story of camp administration was largely the stuff of urban history – water supply, sanitation, refuse removal. Although the coastal camps were far better conceived that the early republican camps, they still struggled with the usual nuisances. In Uitenhage, the medical officer complained that waste was not disposed of where he had recommended and the lack of supervision meant that the work was sloppily performed. In other respects the day-to-day running of the camp was no different from many others. The school started late, only after the end of the war, yet another example of the way in which the camp authorities, by this time, ran the camps as if they were permanent institutions.8
Uitenhage camp had barely got under way before the war ended and the process of repatriation began. The coastal camps did not repatriate directly. Instead, camp inmates were sent to ORC camps near to their own homes and repatriation proceeded from there. Despite clear directions from headquarters, confusion could occur. Surrendered burghers in the camp believed that, when they returned home, they would be supplied with food every ten days. Head office hastily contradicted this rumour. Only those burghers who could support themselves would be allowed to leave at present, it was announced in June 1901. At the same time, farm owners were allowed to take bywoners or the families of prisoners-or-war who had not yet returned, with them, as long as they could provide for them. Some unfortunate people had been sent to Vredefort Road before the Uitenhage superintendent had discovered that that camp had already been closed. Worse still, because of a misunderstanding, they arrived without the 30 days rations with which they were supposed to be issued, since the Uitenhage superintendent believed that he only had to provide food for the journey. By the time that full-scale repatriation had started, Uitenhage camp had families from all over the country – 249 people were returning to Heilbron, 171 to Bloemfontein, 162 to Springfontein, 160 to Bethulie, 148 to Kroonstad, 38 to Aliwal North, 14 to Norvals Pont, 44 to Potchefstroom, 2 to Irene and 2 to Johannesburg.9
It was decided that East London was to be closed first, followed by Uitenhage, where the thick bush and the accommodation made the camp a difficult one to run. Kabusie was to remain open a little longer. Even when the inmates had left, the process of closing down the camps was a slow one. Inspector Tonkin explained: ‘It is a fearfully long job clearing out and selling the stores in these southern camps, things accumulate very rapidly in private houses but in these camps the rate of accumulation is something inordinate’. Anyone who has moved can sympathise! Staff had to be given a month’s notice so timing was important. The authorities did not want to pay staff when they had no work but, on the other hand, they did not want to find themselves with no staff to do the final clearing up. Uitenhage was eventually closed on 24 October 1902.10
CO and SRC files from the Free State Archives repository [FSAR].
CO files in the National Archives, United Kingdom [NAUK].
A 2030, Ploeger archive, National Archives, Pretoria [NASA].
1 FSAR, SRC 28/9773, 5/9/1902.
2 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 5680, 17/1/1902; FSAR, SRC 23/8346, 30/4/1902; SRC 28/9773, 5/9/1902.
3 NAUK, CO 79/77/697, 7645, 31/1/1902; 8621, 7/2/1902; FSAR, SRC 20/7647, 26/2/1902.
4 FSAR, SRC 21/8053, 9/3/1902; NASA, A 2030/74, 12/3/1902.
5 FSAR, SRC 28/9773, 5/9/1902; SRC 22/8185, 13/4/1902.
6 FSAR, SRC 88, Uitenhage camp register; SRC 22/8114, 8/4/1902.
7 FSAR, SRC 20/7756, 5/3/1902.
8 FSAR, SRC 24/8581, 15/5/1902; SRC 25.8746, 10/6/1902.
9 FSAR, SRC 25/8932, 23/6/1902; SRC 25/9008, 28/6/1902; FSAR, SRC 27/9548, 12/8/1902; SRC 28/9665, 27/8/1902.
10 FSAR, SRC 24/8709, 18/6/1902; SRC 25/8922, 21/6/1902; SRC 30/10260, 4/11/1902; SRC 33/10775, 23/2/1903.
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.