British Concentration Camps|
of the South African War
Vereeniging was probably the most contented of all the camps. Like Heilbron and Kroonstad in the ORC, it was located in the maize-growing belt of the highveld, but on the north bank of the Vaal River, in the Transvaal, sloping down to the river. It was already in existence when the first civilian inspection took place on 19 February 1901 but it probably started about September 1900 (Dr Kendal Franks dated it from December 1900). G.W. Goodwin, then chief superintendent of the Transvaal camps, reported in February 1901 that the people were of a ‘superior class’ and appeared in good health, happy and contented. If this was the case, it may have been due to the first superintendent, Captain Bentinck, a remarkably capable man. But the people themselves, many of them employees and tenants of Sammy Marks’s Vereeniging Estates Company, had benefited from the burgeoning markets of the goldfields and were probably relatively affluent. Dr Kendal Franks, who visited the camp in September 1901, thought them ‘a superior class of burgher, better educated and more advanced in the manners and arts of civilisation’. Their tents were often well furnished, some with carpets, and the inmates were active, sewing, making jam tarts and the like. One benefit from the association with the Vereeniging Estates Company was the lavish supply of coal so the inmates were never short of fuel. Like the wiser superintendents, Bentinck had immediately adopted the ration scale which included meat and food was always fairly plentiful and good.1
By the time that the first formal camp report was submitted for May 1901, Bentinck had been replaced by Burton Tucker as part of the civilian administration, with Dr Allan Stuart Boyd as medical officer. The camp remained small, with never more than about 1,000 inmates but there was a black camp nearby, with over 2,000 people, mainly women and children. A school was started early, by two young women in the camp, and about 100 children attended, rising to over 300. In time the camp was divided into two parts, with a small section, the ‘Burgher [Scout] Camp’, consisting of about twenty-five families (150 people). Their men were employed mainly in the ‘looting’ corps, bringing in cattle and horses. They were allowed to keep 75% of the stock they caught but had to hand the horses over to the British army. The camp must have had a slightly untidy appearance. The Scouts’ camp, where the families used their own tents and were not under the same discipline, was neither as clean nor as orderly as the main camp. Some fifteen families lived in their own ‘nachtmaal’ tents while another seventeen lived in the town, where they paid rent.2
The white camp at Vereeniging ran smoothly throughout its life but the terse reports make it difficult to understand its success. One factor was probably the good health of the camp for the children had the energy for sports and other activities. A sports day was held in June 1901, with surprisingly substantial prizes – 6 shillings for most races but rising to 14 shillings for the human wheelbarrow and three-legged races. Captain Bentinck, now the local assistant district commissioner, returned to his old camp to act as one of the judges. Some of the inmates were sufficiently affluent to buy clothing and blankets at the camp store but new arrivals were ‘invariably’ poorly clad, although they were fit. Dr Boyd attributed the good health partly to the eviction of most of the blacks from the nearby location but he gave no indication of the fate of these unfortunate people.3
Although the inmates remained fairly well, the camp was dogged for many months by typhoid fever. The difference from other camps was that, although people fell sick, they did not die. When Dr George Turner, chief medical officer of the Transvaal, visited the camp early in March 1901, he noted that, in this tiny camp of just over 650 people, at least 44 had typhoid. The polluted Vaal River was the probably source of infection and, as the Boers disliked the taste of boiled water, they tended to draw river water when they could. Eventually a good supply was found over the river in the ORC and extensive engineering works did much to reduce the disease. (In time substantial water engineering was undertaken in most of the camps – part of the unwritten story of the camps, which were often more sophisticated than the local towns in their sanitary provision.) Unfortunately in the rainy season, in summer, the Vaal River could not be forded and, by November 1901, as the river rose, the disease reappeared. It was never entirely eradicated although constant vigilance reduced the danger considerably.4
By July 1901 Vereeniging camp had grown to just over 1,000 inmates and, with the new arrivals, came measles. Superintendent Tucker was clearly oblivious of the implications for, he reported proudly, enteric fever was finally dying out and the health of the camp was good. Dr Boyd, more aware than Tucker of the dangers of measles, took active steps to isolate the early victims of the disease who, he believed, had contracted the illness in the town. Isolation tents and a ‘contact camp’ were immediately established but, in spite of all his efforts, measles spread rapidly. Strikingly, however, unlike most camps, all the measles cases were immediately treated in hospital. This was not an easy task for the Vereeniging Boers had the usual aversion to the hospital, despite the fact that the visiting hours were generous. The measures ensured, however, that the epidemic was brief. Measles reappeared at the end of the year, brought by a family from Krugersdorp, but this outbreak was milder, for the disease seemed to gain in virulence as more children fell ill. Even so, the mortality rate was high in this little camp, although the actual number of deaths was small. The graphs below indicate the difference.5
Despite the prevalence of typhoid and measles, in the era before antibiotics, Vereeniging could be described as ‘healthy’. The camp was kept meticulously clean. Apart from the usual sanitary precautions, all the tents were struck once a fortnight and the sites thoroughly sterilised – a move which ensured that the camp ground did not become as polluted as many did. Nutrition was better than most camps, although scurvy made its appearance towards the end of 1901. Meat was usually in good supply and of a high quality. Not only were the authorities able to buy cattle from the passing convoys; in addition, the local butcher, Mr Bass, set up shop in the camp (and donated a stove for the hospital and an American organ for the school and church). Indeed, the military complained that the meat was better than theirs, but assistant superintendent Bates explained that the camp staff got up at 5 in the morning to make sure that they got good meat. Fresh vegetables were also available from relatively early on. Swift action reduced the problem of scurvy; 4,000 lbs of vegetables were issued and a vegetable garden started. By February the inmates were also receiving two pounds of fruit a week.6
One of the hazards of the highveld camps was lightning, during the summer storms, and a number of camp inmates were killed in this way. In November 1901 in Vereeniging camp a woman was struck and died, a child stunned and a tent burned. Unusually, the medical officer recommended that lightning conductors be put on all the tents. As the head office authorities struggled to get the high mortality of the camps under control, they appealed to all the medical officers to make suggestions. But Vereeniging had little to offer. There were, the MO noted, a few puny, ill-nourished children with the ‘usual teething troubles’ (possibly cancrum oris) but the only advice he could offer was to supply fresh milk or increase the quantity of condensed milk.7
Despite the apparent smoothness with which Vereeniging camp ran, it was not without its difficulties. Inspector W.M. Brown noted that the medical officer, Dr Evans, who had replaced Boyd in January 1902, was unfit for duty, suffering from a ‘self-inflicted’ malady and he was unsuitable for his post. He was replaced by Dr Marshall, a mine doctor from the Vereeniging Estates Company, who worked part-time, never an ideal situation for the camps.8
Not surprisingly, however, when the Ladies Committee visited the camp in October 1901, they were favourably impressed. ‘This is one of the pleasantest and most cheerful of the camps we have visited’, they wrote. Not only was it clean and orderly; it was the only one in which mortality from measles was ‘nominal’ (but see the graphs above). There was a spirit of good will amongst the people, apart from some hostility to the ‘joiners’. The Ladies attributed this contentment to the quality of the staff. Captain Bentinck continued to take a kindly interest in Vereeniging long after he left the camp, visiting regularly and giving talks on current topics; the sanitary officer, Piet van der Westhuizen, was widely praised and the officials all worked well together. One example was the camp matron, Nurse Hannah, who lived and messed [ate] with the hospital matron, with whom she was on excellent terms. Unlike most camps, the ‘probationers’ she employed were married women with families, who worked well. ‘She is very proud of her camp and she is evidently doing very good work. The people trust her and are much attached to her’.9
By the time the war ended, Vereeniging seems to have been a flourishing camp. 35 acres of gardens kept the inmates well supplied with vegetables and barley was planted to feed the transport animals. Flower beds beautified the hospital grounds. Teachers from England widened the school activities, adding physical drill and ‘fancy work’ to the curriculum. The men were active with gardening, brickmaking (nearly half a million bricks had been made by May 1902), carpentry and tanning. News of the peace was received with ‘joy and thankfulness’ rather than the silent disappointment which characterised some of the camps. It is not surprising to hear that the coronation was celebrated with enthusiasm. The Inskilling Fusilliers playing music all day, sports were held with prizes and the younger children gave a concert in the evening. All enjoyed a lavish picnic and the adults celebrated with a dance.10
Repatriation started promptly and, by the end of July 1902, almost half the camp had left, although returning prisoners-of-war and surrendered burghers increased the numbers. But, as the months wore on, the people became increasingly impatient about the delays in returning home. The planting season was upon them and even the landless hoped to get ground from the government. Bywoners were particularly resentful as they could not afford their own animals either to take them home or to use on the farms. They were mollified when they heard that the government was to make mules and ploughs available for loan. By October 1902 there were less than 200 people in the camp and it must have closed about the end of that month, for there are no reports for November.11
What contributed to the success of Vereeniging camp? Size was probably one factor. Vereeniging was small and never had to battle with the shortages of tents and food that plagued most of the camps. Another was the quality of the camp staff. The foundations were well laid by Captain Bentinck and his successors maintained a happy and efficient staff, both of which ensured contented inmates. Finally, the people themselves were less impoverished than in some camps and were, perhaps, more amenable to the disciplines of camp life.
S.B. Spies, Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900-May 1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1977).
Published camp reports: Cd 819, p.23, 31-32, 73-75, 152-155, 269-272, 334-336, 382-384; Cd 853, pp. 98-100; Cd 902, pp.106-108.
Unpublished camp reports in the National Archive, Pretoria [NASA]: DBC 11-14.
Kendal Franks report: Cd 853, pp. 41-45.
Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 179-183.
CO files in the National Archives, United Kingdom [NAUK.
1 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.150; Cd 819, p.23; Cd 853, p.41; Cd 893, pp.179, 180.
2 Cd 819, pp.73-75; 334; Cd 853, p.41; Cd 893, p.179-180; NAUK, CO 879/70/664, 6922, 6/2/1901.
3 Cd 819, pp.153-155, 336.
4 Cd 819, pp.31-32; NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.
5 Cd 819, pp.270-271, 335; Cd 853, p.100.
6 Cd 819, pp.270-271, 334-335; Cd 893, p.179; NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; DBC 12, December, January 1901.
7 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.
8 Cd 819, p.335; NASA, DBC 12, January 1902.
9 Cd 893, pp.179-183.
10 NASA, DBC 12, March, April 1902; DBC 11, May, June 1902.
11 NASA, DBC 11, July 1902; DBC 13, September, October 1902.
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.