BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Pietersburg was the northernmost camp in the Transvaal system, isolated and difficult to service. Although Pietersburg itself was relatively open, the nearby Zoutpansberg was mountainous and forested, bordering on Mozambique. The town was only occupied by the British on 8 April 1901 and, initially, the people of this region were housed in Irene camp. It was only after some thought that it was decided to establish a camp in such a remote area, in May 1901. This was still, in some respects, frontier territory, vulnerable to attacks from local African societies who remained unsubdued by the Boers. While there were some established farmers, much of the wealth of the area was derived from lumber and mining. Slave trading (the capture and sale of black children as apprentices to Boer farmers) still occurred occasionally. Many of the families were subsistence farmers at best and the presence of the Buys clan of Mara was an indication of the ‘in-between’ status of some of the people. These were the descendents of a Cape colonial renegade, Coenrad Buys, who had married into local black families. His descendents, however, did not identify with black society (in the camp context at least) and refused to be classed with black camp inmates. Instead, they maintained a separate identity in Pietersburg camp, living largely in their own wagons but rationed by the camp authorities. The head of the family was ‘a big burly negro, who rules his camp with great discretion’, the Ladies Committee noted in November 1901. Pietersburg was close to malaria country and the health of the region was notoriously poor so it was inevitable that the mortality in Pietersburg camp should be high.1

Given the hostilities that had marked Boer relations with the local black societies over many years, the white families felt particularly vulnerable when war broke out. One of the greatest fears that loomed over the women was the threat of armed blacks. While these were often exaggerated, there seems little doubt that farms in the Zoutpansberg were sometimes cleared by black allies of the British. Inevitably, accounts of these ‘atrocities’ crept into the women’s testimonies. The men of the Bushveldt Carbineers were also active in bringing in the women and children. Lieutenant George Witton’s distasteful and untruthful account of the Breaker Morant affair illustrates vividly the calibre of the men engaged in this work:

During these trips I came into contact with many of the “Boers of the Veldt,” or the Dopper class. I would often take a cup of coffee with them, and as many of them could speak a little English, they would pour out all their troubles to me. The women folk were eager to learn all about the refugee camp, asking would they be provided with food and clothing, and would the “Englisher” give them schoens for the kinder?” This is the class of people that predominates in South Africa, and in my opinion there must be generations of purging, educating, and civilising before they will be capable of taking part in national life. They appear habitually to shun water, and never undress; as they go to bed, so they get up again – dirty, untidy, and unwashed.2

When J.E. Tucker arrived as superintendent in May 1901, he found that there were about 1,000 people housed in the town or living in wagons. By the end of that month there were over 2,000 people, all of whom were living in the camp by August 1901, when Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp. Many had come from the lowveld and were ill with fever. While there was plenty of water, it had to be brought by wagon to the camp, and there was surprisingly little fuel; coal had to be trucked in. The people were often confused by this disruption in their lives. Tucker complained that ‘it is very difficult to find out from the burghers whom they surrendered to and when. They are also quite ignorant as to the numbers of their farms. Very few women can tell on whose commando their husband was or is’.3

Unfortunately, as families returned from Irene and Pretoria, they brought measles with them and the death rate began to soar in a society already debilitated by malaria. Dr Henderson, the medical officer, described the impact of the disease on one of the groups. While in the lowveld, eight had died of malaria, one was brought into the camp dead, and three more died shortly after their arrival. Several others were so frail that the MO doubted that they could recover. The measles was a particularly bad type, Dr Franks explained, with many of the children developing double pneumonia as the rash disappeared. Unfortunately the mothers, believing that the worst was then over, allowed the children into the cold winds and dust storms, which sprang up in July, contributing to the relapse of their offspring.4

Mortality reached its peak in July 1901, when the death rate was well above the camp average. Measles returned briefly in November with new arrivals but, by this time, most of the camp inmates had acquired an immunity to the disease and it disappeared fairly quickly. Malaria also returned in the summer, together with an outbreak of whooping cough which claimed a number of lives. Diarrhoea plagued the younger children, largely because of the pork they bought in the village, the MO believed. Two of the camp staff, including the headmaster (who later died), went down with typhoid but, the MO considered, they had both contracted it in the town, where they had been living. The camp water was much safer. This was not necessarily how the frightened camp inmates saw these deaths, The mortality in Pietersburg camp gave rise to myths which became entrenched, over the years, as fact. A young man told Elizabeth Neethling:

As far as I know I am the only person who left the Pietersburg hospital alive. And my father took me out almost by force. The filth was something awful, old soldiers' blankets were used for us.”

A number of people also told her that the hospital was locked all night, and the sick and dying were left to care for themselves. This is arrant nonsense and Neethling ought to have gleaned fact from fiction. How, for instance, does one lock people into marquees? (See Pinetown camp for more on this subject).5

One of the reasons why the camp officials found the management of the Boer women so difficult was that the camps were profoundly disempowering for the women, who were accustomed running their own homes. When he had difficulty keeping the women’s latrines clean, superintendent Tucker shrewdly appointed two ‘austere old Dutch women, who had in other ways been very troublesome in the camp’ to look after the latrines, to good effect, for the women no longer caused trouble and the other women kept the place clean.6

It is always difficult to judge the spending power of the Boers and many were, undoubtedly, destitute. But others brought money with them into camp and more could usually be earned in the camp or town. Dr Franks commented that, although the people seemed so poor, they spent freely at Poynton’s store, which took over £2,000 in the first six weeks of its existence. Nor did the Boers buy necessities (as he thought). Instead, they spent their money on sweets, large amounts of raisins and preserved ginger, and various forms of tinned fish.7

Despite the ill health, difficulties with the people and the problems of supply, Pietersburg camp was unproblematic for most of 1901. The camp was well supplied with medical staff, routines ran smoothly and health improved rapidly once the measles epidemic had declined. Food was relatively good and, in August 1901 the camp began to grow its own vegetables. Nevertheless, scurvy threatened during the winter months.8

The visit of the Ladies Committee was delayed by Boer incursions in the region and they reached the camp only in the middle of November 1901. They found a clean, orderly camp of almost 4,000 people and they had few criticisms of any substance. Although there was some scurvy, vegetables could be bought in the store and the school children were issued with lime juice. The school ran well and outside occupations included sewing and singing classes, and a number of workshops with carpentry, bootmaking, brickmaking, a tannery and a blacksmith’s shop. A number of people had constructed ovens of various kinds and one man made horn ornaments, polishing them ‘beautifully’. Another brewed ginger beer. This was one of the best managed camps they had visited, the Ladies concluded and, by this time, their experience was considerable, so they were well able to judge.9

The general satisfaction with the camp may, perhaps, be measured by the number of men who volunteered for the British forces for, in September, fifty joined the Intelligence Department and there continued to be a trickle of men who followed in the following months. By January 1902 140 men had joined the British forces.10

Although most of Pietersburg town had been evacuated, the camp was an attraction to the Boers for, unusually, the camp inmates had been able to keep the stock they had brought with them. In December 1901 there were 1,700 cattle, 800 sheep and 630 donkeys grazing nearby.11 This may have been one reason for Commandant Beyers’ attack on the camp on 23 January 1902. The superintendent and storekeeper were held captive for a couple of hours and 141 men and 10 boys were commandeered. There had been several desertions in the months before the attack but Tucker believed that at least some of these recruits had been taken against their will, for several trickled back in the days that followed.12 Kitchener had a different view, considering that some of the camp inmates had been complicit in the attack and, in retaliation, decided abruptly to move the entire population to Natal. This was awkward for the camp authorities, for there was nowhere that could readily absorb nearly 3,000 people. However, Lord Milner said airily to the Governor of Natal, as this was a ‘penal measure’, all they needed was a healthy site. ‘We are not obliged to trouble about their comfort’. Privately, the Colonial Office in Britain was appalled by Milner’s attitude and decided that this correspondence should remain confidential. Eventually the Natal camp authorities fixed on Colenso. Superintendent Tucker was sent down from Pietersburg to supervise this removal into the open veld and the transfer started in mid-February 1902.13

Although the majority of the Boers were moved down to Natal, several small camps remained in existence. The Buys clan remained where they were, and a tiny National Scouts camp of seventeen people was also established. As a result of the change, the Buys people received much greater attention in the reports. A school had been established by April 1901, run by Commandant Buys himself, who read and wrote English fairly well. As a result, although the Education Department was not concerned with black education (as the Buys clan was categorised), the inspector agreed to supply the children with slates and books. The women had been able to get work in the town as washerwomen so they were able to supplement their rations. As soon as peace was declared, the families returned to Mara and their camp was closed as early as June 1902.14

Between 2 July and 10 August 1902 the Pietersburg people trickled back from Natal, along with superintendent Tucker, who had remained with them throughout. Rinderpest had killed much of the livestock, delaying repatriation, for there were few animals to pull the wagons of the returning families.15 Tucker found the people ‘disorderly and impudent’ when they first returned and mixed with the surrendering commandos. Fortunately, he noted, this spirit soon subsided, although he had some difficulty in persuading the men to carry out the normal sanitary duties. As the prisoners of war returned the families were gradually repatriated and, by the end of December 1902, there were just under 200 people left. The camp closed in January 1903.16


E.H. Hobhouse, War Without Glamour (Bloemfontein, Nasionale Pers, 1924).

E. Neethling, Should We Forget? (Cape Town, HAUM, 1902).

S.B. Spies, Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900-May 1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1977).

J. Tempelhoff, ‘Die okkupasiestelsel in die Distrik Soutpansberg, 1886-1899’, Archives Yearbook for South African History, 60, 1997.

J. Wasserman, The Pinetown Concentration Camp during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) (Congella, Waterman Publishers, 1999).

G. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire. The True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers (London, Angus & Robertson, 1982, orig. pub. 1907).

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.69-70, 144-147, 260-263, 373-377; Cd 853, pp. 86-90; Cd 902, pp. 94-97.

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

Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp. 217-220.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 203-208.

1 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.81; Tempelhoff, ‘Okkupasiestelsel in die Distrik Zoutpansberg’; Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, pp.48-52; Cd 893, p.203.

2 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.58-60; Witton, Scapegoats of Empire, p.65.

3 Cd 819, p.70, 146, 217.

4 Cd 819, p.218, 262-263, 263.

5 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.111-112; NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901; DBC 12, Dec 1901.

6 Cd 819, p.219.

7 Cd 819, p.220.

8 Cd 902, p.97.

9 Cd 893, p.207; Cd 853, p.89; Cd 902, p.97.

10 NASA, DBC 14, Nov 1901; DBC 12, Jan 1902.

11 NASA, DBC 12, Dec 1901.

12 NASA, DBC 12, Jan 1902.

13 Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.256; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 7643, 31/1/1902; PAR, GH 553/G151/02, 10/2/1902; Wasserman, Pinetown Concentration Camp, pp.8-12.

14 NASA, DBC 12, Apr 1902; DBC 11, Jun 1902.

15 NASA, DBC 11, Jul, Aug 1902.

16 NASA, DBC 11, Jul, Aug 1902; DBC 14, Dec 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.