BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Understanding the history of Mafeking camp presents special problems. For a brief period it had the highest death rate of any camp, in October 1901 reaching a staggering 4132.741 per thousand per annum for children under twelve, the MO calculated. Yet this mortality occurred in a camp which, immediately before that, had seemed relatively healthy. The disaster occurred shortly after the first visit of the Ladies Committee in August 1901, and they returned in November to try to understand what had happened. A number of other reports were also produced, all attempting to explain the crisis and to end it. In addition, we know a fair amount about the context of Mafeking camp, since Mafeking was not only the town which had been besieged longest, but had been under the command of the colourful Robert Baden-Powell. But the position of Mafeking camp was somewhat anomalous since it was actually located in the Cape Colony, although run by the Transvaal camp system. It was also rather isolated, the northernmost point on the railway line up to Bechuanaland. This may, perhaps, partly explain why a sharper eye was not kept on it.

As we can see from the chart above, the Mafeking death rate was well above that of the camp average but the crisis lasted for a relatively brief period. (The increase in women’s deaths at the end can be discounted since it refers to only one death in a very small population).

Mafeking had come through the long, seven-month siege with remarkably few deaths, even of the black population (for this controversial issue see the volume cited below). The local Barolong had continued to cultivate their fields almost throughout the siege, as far as they were able, and there were also Chinese market gardens and enterprising Indian traders (whose presence was always a bonus for the camps, when they were allowed to operate). A number of camp inmates had brought cattle with them and these they were allowed to graze throughout the war. Although the condition of the stock deteriorated during the dry winter months, once the rains started they did supply some milk. Poynton’s Stores, which had a monopoly of camp stores in the Transvaal, did not operate in Mafeking for many months, but the inmates had ready access to the town shops so some people, at least, should have been able to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. In theory, nutrition should not have been one of Mafeking’s problems.1

Mafeking may well have been the first camp to be established, as Emily Hobhouse claimed and it appears to have been in existence by July 1900. A women’s ‘laager’ was established during the siege and it included impoverished ex-dorsland trekkers (who had trekked into Angola), who may well have remained on relief after the siege was over. Certainly a similarity in some of the names suggests a continuity between the laager and the camp. There were other links too. The first matron of Mafeking camp, Miss A.M. Craufurd, had done sterling work nursing during the siege. The British commandant, Colonel Vyvyan, had been Baden Powell’s second in command and he had proved to be a sensible and compassionate man. At the end of the siege his wife had joined him and she, too, was a capable woman who had taken an interest in the camp. Isolated Mafeking may have been but there were some capable and kind people in charge.2

The camp itself was moved several times in the early days, eventually located pleasantly on the banks of the Molopo River. It could not have been easy to manage for it stretched over a mile in length.3 A proportion of the inmates were Cape rebels, who were amongst the most bitter of the camp people, and were resented by the Mafeking townspeople after the hardships of the siege. Others came from the Zeerust and Lichtenburg districts.4 The superintendent, L. McCowat, does not appear to have been subject to Transvaal regulations, for he supplied rations which were far more generous than the Transvaal scale, including rice, jam and marmalade, all ‘of the best’. The weight of meat excluded the bone, making it more lavish than most camp inmates received. Africans, (there were about 300 domestic workers), however, received only mealie meal and salt. The relatively generous ration of the Boers continued at least until August 1901 when the Ladies Committee noted critically that the cost of rations, at 1s 3d a day, was well in excess of that of other camps. The hospital, too, was more solid than most, being a wood and iron building rather than a marquee. A school had been opened as early as June 1901, although it had an uncertain start for the first headmaster resigned almost immediately, as did two of the teachers, when their salaries were reduced. McCowat felt that his action had been justified. ‘Considering they are [British] refugees I think them well paid at my figures, as they held no certificates in teaching’, he explained.5

The winter of 1901 was a hard time in Mafeking. Grazing deteriorated and dust storms blew constantly through the camp. In such an isolated place infectious diseases should not have been a problem but health was not good. In July 1901 there were about 500 cases of influenza and bronchitis and 800 of ‘enteric catarrh’. Conjunctivitis and laryngitis was also widespread, the result of the ‘lime-dust’ in Mafeking. There was a surprising amount of malaria, too, although this was not a malarial area. Despite all this sickness, the mortality rate was low but the general health of the people must have deteriorated, making them more vulnerable to infection.6

The Ladies Committee arrived in Mafeking camp in August 1901, one of the first camps they visited. The lack of comparisons may explain why they failed to register the warning signs, whatever they said later. They were favourably impressed by superintendent McCowat, who accepted all their suggestions and ‘we were struck by his tact in dealing with the people’. There were signs, though, that the camp itself was untidy. The women washed in the river, where the banks were fouled with excreta; there were rubbish and ash heaps everywhere; hospital accommodation was inadequate; there was no camp matron. The Ladies, like everyone else, blamed the habits of the people but, as they understood later, in better-run camps such practices were checked early on. Mafeking was, in fact, a disaster waiting to happen.7

Catastrophe struck with an influx of new arrivals from Taungs in the middle of August, bringing with them measles, whooping cough and typhoid. Taungs is even more remote than Mafeking so that it is surprising that the people were so sick. They may, perhaps, have fled from the advancing British forces, taking disease with them, for such refugees were often the carriers of infection and their hard lives had weakened them, while the journey to the camp was also debilitating.8 In Mafeking the numbers made it difficult to isolate them and disease spread rapidly through the camp, with the new arrivals suffering worst.

An insanitary camp with an inefficient superintendent was clearly one reason for the high mortality. The medical staff was another. The camp was dependent on a Viennese doctor, Dr Kaufmann, and his assistant, a German, who spoke little English and no Dutch. Dr Kaufmann was both conscientious and hard working but he had no administrative skills and he failed to get the authorities to understand the very real problems. The result was severe staff shortages, a lack of medical supplies and poorly kept records. Some children had not seen any medical staff for a week or more before they died. One woman wrote to Emily Hobhouse recording her bitterness at this neglect. Others deeply resented the discourtesy with which they were treated. While this may have been the product of overwork and language difficulties, the memory of this harshness lingered on for years.9 Dr Kendal Franks confirmed this inattention, noting that often the first indication that the doctors had that anyone was ill, was when the parents applied for a death certificate.10 When he resigned, shortly after his replacement arrived, Kauffman wrote aggrievedly:

I am sorry that I am so overworked and exhausted that I must stop my work except giving all over to Dr. Morrow. . . . I should have asked assistance, but as you replied to my first request (20th of August) that other larger camps have only one doctor, I resented it as a reproach and restrained from asking more. The fact is, that here is work enough for five hardworking doctors’.11

Fortunately the newly-appointed Dr Morrow was up to the challenge. A ‘splendid organiser and administrator’, he set about cleaning up the camp energetically. He was shocked by what he had found on his arrival. Over 2,000 in a camp of about 4,000 were ill and half that confined to bed. The black camp, on the other hand, which was much cleaner, had few deaths. His job was not easy for sickness spread to the newly-arrived staff as well; Nurse Merry caught measles while Nurse Gaudie was laid up with typhoid, while Morrow himself was confined to bed with a fever. Later on, describing these first weeks, he wrote

For me the month has been so trying that I shall long remember it. When the doctors and nurses arrived they felt irritated at not finding the accommodation promised them at Cape Town, and at one time I feared the resignation of nearly all my staff, with the nurses and compounders, would take place. Were it not for your [McCowat’s] tact I believe there would hardly have been any doctors or nurses here to-day’.12

Morrow was the first to try to explain why the Mafeking mortality was so high. His explanation fell into two parts. On the one hand he blamed the habits of the people, as so many British officials did. He remarked on their lack of personal cleanliness, their ignorance of basic sanitation and the way in which they clung to outdated medical practices, using their favourite Dutch medicines. On the other hand, it was clear the medical care had been thoroughly inadequate. Morrow was unusual, also, in his comments on the nutrition, which he considered completely unsuitable for children. He recommended that they be given something closer to their familiar diet, including more fat, more mealies of good quality, kaffir corn (sorghum), sifted Boer meal, dried fruit, jam and (unexpectedly, for this is not mentioned elsewhere) bush tea. Rice needed to be supplemented with potatoes or other vegetables and milk was imperative. Malaria, he believed, had also hindered the recovery of people debilitated by other diseases. But some children, he feared, were ‘beyond human aid’.13

Dr Kendal Franks visited Mafeking camp in October 1901, shortly before the return of the Ladies Committee. His report lacked the incisiveness of Morrow’s comments. On the whole he thought the camp, which he described in some detail, was well laid out. Certainly it was not overcrowded, with an average of 3.5 people to a tent. The organisation of the camp, he thought, was very good, although there was a shortage of white men to do the more responsible work in the camp and he recommended that their pay be improved. The great problem, Franks considered, was the shortage of medical staff and too few camp inspectors. Moreover, there were virtually no disinfectants, no carbolic, no Izal and only 80 lbs of chloride of lime.14

When the Ladies Committee returned to Mafeking in November 1901, they found a very different camp, a prey not only to measles but to enteric, pneumonia, malaria, chicken pox and whooping cough, ‘fostered and aggravated by the insanitary conditions of which we had complained on our previous visit’. The camp had also been struck by meningitis, the most severe outbreak to occur in any of the camps. They felt that the general health of the people had declined since their previous visit and the food was partly responsible. Notwithstanding the more generous ration, it was almost impossible to obtain fresh meat in this isolated district in the winter. A brief attempt to grow vegetables had been abandoned. Condensed milk for the children was available only as a medical comfort and bully beef and bread were an unsuitable diet for small children. ‘We feel, therefore, that it is a grave question whether a population of over 4,000, mainly composed of little children and of women, weakened by a terrible epidemic, can be left in a place where the supply of fresh meat threatens to become totally inadequate’. The medical comforts were also in short supply. Although there was much anaemia, no iron was available. There was no bismuth or chalk to check the diarrhoea. There wasn’t even a mortuary, despite the large number of deaths.15

The Ladies were somewhat self-righteous. Now, they claimed, they had made certain recommendations to the superintendent because they had been convinced that, if the camp were not cleaned up, epidemics were likely to arise. But it was clear that McCowat had made no attempt to grapple with the terrible emergency.

It was impossible not to contrast the attitude and manner of the Superintendent on this occasion with that on our previous visit. He appeared as if incapable of realising the gravity of the situation, and was chiefly anxious to lay the whole responsibility for it on headquarters, reiterating his assertion that he had not been given the help he required. A careful examination of all the correspondence in this connection showed that his assertion was not borne out by the facts’.16

McCowat remained in place for the time being but there are indications that the staff were dissatisfied for, in November 1901, Drs Moir and Morrow resigned, as did one of the nurses. By January 1902 McCowat had finally been replaced by H. Kemball Cook but Morrow had left, to be succeeded by Dr F. Campbell Young. By the time that Cook had arrived the death rate had plummeted and conditions were very much better. He turned his attention to other matters. In the hospital, he noted, he had a waiting list of Boer women for the post of ‘probationer’ ‘I attach very great importance to this training of young Refugees in the scientific tending of the sick’, he wrote, ‘with a view to the future’. The camp was much cleaner and the people ‘appear to be growing anxious that their stands should be swept and garnished’, he claimed. He began farming on a substantial scale, planting sixteen acres with mealies, potatoes, cabbages and barley. Other land was provided as allotments.17

After the tragedy of 1901, 1902 was an unremarkable year for Mafeking camp and the people settled down to the monotony of camp life. A proportion of the men joined various volunteer corps, coming and going as their contract periods lasted. Others were less reconciled to British rule but the superintendent was optimistic.

I consider that the attitude of the people has greatly improved towards the British government. Many of them seem to be beginning to recognise that a great deal is being done for them, and I almost think that some of them have some feeling of gratitude. There are a large number who are still irreconcilables at heart, but outwardly they are perfectly amenable’.18

The news of the peace led to some ‘natural excitement’ but there was, to the superintendent’s relief, few signs of unrest. Repatriation began rapidly and, by the end of June, 1,400 people had already been sent home. By July all the Cape rebels had returned home. More problematic were the returning burghers who were unfamiliar with camp discipline and were rapidly turning the camp into a ‘large kraal’, the superintendent complained. His authority had to be re-established. Despite the rapid start, Mafeking camp lingered on until the end of the year, with a handful of people refusing to leave.19 The camp was finally closed in January 1903.

The women’s experience of Mafeking camp has been recorded in some detail, since one of the inmates, H.W. Huyser, who had been a child in Mafeking camp, collected a number of testimonies after the war. Some were even written in verse.20 Huyser also provided material for a novel about the camps by J.R.L. van Bruggen, Bittereindes. These women’s testimonies are not as straightforward as they seem at first sight and they have been the subject of several studies in recent years, which question their reliability. Their accounts should not, therefore, be accepted at face value. Many devoted more space to the arrival of the British troops on their farms and the long journey to the camp, dwelling on their sense of humiliation at their subjection to black subordinates, than to the camp experiences.21 Certainly it is difficult to credit some of the stories, such as that of the women who forced raw meat into McCowat’s mouth, saying ‘Eat that yourself, we are used to better meat’.22 Time is compressed and the suffering magnified, so that improvements in camp conditions and the better aspects of camp life are often forgotten.

What does come through very clearly, however, is the sense of injustice and the misery and confusion of people torn from their familiar environment. Some of the more perceptive commented on the way in which conditions deteriorated as the numbers of inmates increased. Many emphasised their hunger. Since we know that the ration scale was unusually generous, this needs some explanation. Part of the reason for these claims was the lack of fresh meat, for most Victorians considered meat as the most important staple of life. Unfamiliar food, like tinned meat, evoked their suspicion and, over time, occasional contamination became magnified, so that it is in these accounts that such stories as the hooks in the bully beef or blue vitriol in the sugar appear. The doctors and the Ladies Committee all testified to the unsuitability of the food for young children which may also partly explain why they were constantly hungry, while the spare diet treatment for the various intestinal troubles raised fears of deliberate starvation. The terrible disease of cancrum oris, which sometimes occurred as a consequence of measles, and was a form of gangrene of the jaw, is also mentioned in these accounts. Occasionally there are glimpses of the way in which the women coped in the face of the lack of medical attention. Mrs Johanna Bradford called in a black doctor as her children became ill.23 Whatever the distortions in the accounts, therefore, the trauma of the disaster in Mafeking camp cannot be denied.


Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp. 65, 138-140, 255-257, 370-731; Cd 853, pp. 79-83; Cd 902, pp. 89-91.

Unpublished camp reports in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA], DBC 11-14.

Dr Kendal Franks report: Cd 934, pp. 19-25.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp.169-179.

NASA, A 951, Huyser archive.

L. Stanley, Mourning Becomes . . . Post/memory, Commemoration and the Concentration Camps of the South African War (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2006).

J.R.L. van Bruggen, Bittereinders (Potchefstroom, H.W. Huyser, 1935).

E. van Heyningen, ‘Women under siege’ in I Smith (ed), The Siege of Mafeking (Johannesburg, The Brenthurst Press, 2001, v.2, pp. 241-283.

[P LANG="en-ZA" CLASS="western" ALIGN=LEFT STYLE="margin-top: 0in; margin-bottom: 0in"> M. van Wyk Smith, Drummer Hodge: The Poetry of the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978).

1 NASA, DBC 13, Nov 1901.

2 van Heyningen, ‘Women under siege’; Cd 819, p.139.

3 Cd 934, pp.19-20.

4 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.102.

5 Cd 819, p.65, 140; Cd 893, p.169, 170.

6 Cd 819, pp. 256-257.

7 Cd 893, pp.169-173.

8 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.275-277.

9 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.277-278, 280.

10 Cd 902, p.90.

11 Cd 853, p.81, 83; NASA, DBC 159; Cd 953, p.23.

12 Cd 819, p.82, 371; Cd 853, p.80; Cd 902, pp.89-01.

13 NASA, DBC 13, Nov 1901.

14 Cd 934, pp. 19-25.

15 Cd 853, p.81; Cd 893, pp.174, 176-177.

16 Cd 893, p.174-175.

17 NASA, DBC 13, Nov 1901; DBC 14, Jan 1902.

18 NASA, DBC 14, Mar 1902.

19 NASA, DBC 11, May-Jul 1902; DBC 14, Dec 1902.

20 van Wyk Smith, Drummer Hodge, pp.219-221.

21 Stanley, Mourning Becomes . . ..

22 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.278.

23 NASA, A 951, Annoniem , H.G. Bekker , Johanna Bradford.

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.