BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War

Mailing List Postings
Hyslop on colonial concentration camps
Posted on 14/11/2011

Welcome to those of you who have joined the list recently.

Some of you may be interested in a recent article by Jonathan Hyslop, ‘The invention of the concentration camp: Cuba, Southern Africa and the Philippines, 1896-1907’, South African Historical Journal, vol. 63, no 2, June 2011, pp. 251-276.

I quote his abstract:

‘This article contends that new cultures of military professionalism were crucial to the emergence of the concentration camp as a social phenomenon in the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. It uses an analysis of the interaction between professional military culture and the process of warfighting to provide a better understanding of the origins of the camp. Military professionalism, despite important national differences, took instrumental rationality as a core value. This produced a willingness by soldiers to take responsibility for organizing civilian populations on a macro-social scale. In each of the four case studies, clearing the population from the rural areas in a "scorched earth" response to guerilla activity led to the development of the camps. The article argues that this approach has more explanatory adequacy than those based on theories of genocide, biopower, exceptional states, racial ideology, or rational choice. The paper suggests that a major way in which the camps of 1896-1907 were linked to mid 20th century camps was through a global diffusion of the concept, via new forms of print media.’

He makes the following points:

  1. That the establishment and running of the camps contravened the Hague Convention of 1899. (That is not new – Burrage Spies in Methods of Barbarism? made this point many years ago).
  2. The creation of a professional army involved more systematic bureaucratic structures like the establishment of a General Staff (which came in Britain only after the war) and the emergence of military science as a distinct academic discipline. The officer corps was also opened to the middle classes. Finally, the shift towards conscript armies ‘necessitated and propelled new forms of popular political identification with the nation-state’.
  3. All this professionalisation contributed to ‘intensified brutality’ towards civilians. Here Hyslop refers to Isabel Hull’s work and agrees with her, as I do, that the military culture of the day resulted in ‘a doctrine of military necessity as justifying extreme violence’. Hyslop concludes: ‘Professionalised training, I would suggest, intensifies these trends because it inculcates a rational-instrumental focus on the means of attaining military goals, but seldom asks questions about ends’. It led to a tendency, he says, for professional soldiers to regard the enemy combatants as worthy opponents, to be treated decently, while irregular troops were considered beyond the pale of the law.

In other words, the South African War was not a ‘gentlemen’s war’. On the contrary, it was precisely the opposite. I would agree with Hyslop that Kitchener was ultimately responsible for the camp deaths ‘because he wilfully ignored the situation in the camps’. But he also makes the interesting point that Milner, by reforming the camps, in a sense ‘may have rescued the idea of the camp as a legitimate technique of managing populations’.

This article is an example of the kind of writing that is starting to emerge on colonial concentration camps. It is a valuable corrective to much of what has been written on the South African camps because it reminds us that the South African situation was not unique and South African suffering was not unique. That is not to say, of course, that the particular situation was not unique – of course it was – and suffering is always unique to individual people. But we should not think of the South African camps as exceptional.

Unfortunately Hyslop’s article is not easily available to those of you who don’t have access to good libraries. If you are having problems and really want to read it, please contact me.

Elizabeth van Heyningen
14 November 2011

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.