33 Incredible Photos Showing Concentration Camps during the Boer War

While the matter remains one of debate, many contend that history’s first concentration camps were built in South Africa, 41 years before the Holocaust began.

These camps were built by British soldiers amid the Boer War, during which the British rounded up Dutch Boers and native South Africans and locked them into cramped camps where they died off by the thousands.

This is where the word “concentration camp” was first used – in British camps that systematically imprisoned more than 115,000 people and saw at least 25,000 of them killed off. In fact, more men, women, and children died of starvation and disease in these camps than did men actually fighting in the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902, a territorial struggle in South Africa.

It was a horror that the world had never seen anywhere outside of the Bible. As one woman put it, “Since Old Testament days was ever a whole nation carried captive?”

And yet the first genocide of the 20th century started with good intentions. The camps were originally set up as refugee camps, meant to house the families that had been forced to abandon their homes to escape the ravages of war.

As the Boer War raged on, however, the British became more brutal. They introduced a “scorched earth” policy. Ever Boer farm was burned to the ground, every field salted, and every well poisoned. The men were shipped out of the country to keep them from fighting, but their wives and their children were forced into the camps, which were quickly become overcrowded and understocked.

The native South Africans, too, were sent to the camps. Some had their villages circled with barbed wire, while others were dragged off into camps, where they’d be forced to work as laborers for the British army and kept from giving food to the Boers.

Soon, there were more than 100 concentration camps across South Africa, imprisoning more than 100,000 people. The nurses there didn’t have the resources to deal with the numbers. They could barely feed them. The camps were filthy and overrun with disease, and the people inside started to die off in droves.

The children suffered the most. Of the 28,000 Boers that died, 22,000 were children. They were left to starve, especially if their fathers were still fighting the British in the Boer War. With so few rations to pass around, the children of fighters were deliberately starved and left to die.

The world became aware when a woman named Emily Hobhouse visited the camps and sent a report back home to England on the horrors she’d witnessed. “To keep these Camps going,” she wrote, “is murder to the children.”

As the war drew to a close, the British government tried to improve the camps – but it was already too late. The children there were already diseased and starving.

One worker, trying to curb the death rate in the camps wrote home: “The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off is not so far borne out by the facts. The strong ones must be dying now and they will all be dead by the spring of 1903.”

By the end of the Boer War, an estimated 46,370 civilians were dead – most of them children. It was the first time in the 20th century that a whole nation was systematically rounded up, imprisoned, and exterminated.

But nothing tells the story as well as the photographs. In Emily Hobhouse’s words: “I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing.”

A crowd of Boer children, photographed inside of a concentration camp. One in four would not make it out alive. Nylstroom Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Boer women and children in a concentration camp. South Africa. 1901.
A young boy, withered to nothing but skin and bones, sits inside of his tent. Irene Camp, South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
A family’s farm is burned to the ground as part of the British Army’s “scorched earth” policy.
During the war, farms were destroyed, fields salted and wells poisoned to keep the Boers from feeding their fighting men. The families that lived inside would then be dragged off to a concentration camp, where many would die.
South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
Inside of one of the “native compounds,” where black South Africans were interred. Kimberley Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Boer prisoners captured by the British army.
These men will likely be shipped to prisons overseas. Their families, however, will be sent into concentration camps to starve and die. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
Lizzie Van Zyl, a dying young girl. Lizzie Van Zyl contracted typhoid fever in the camp and slowly withered away. She could not speak English. Nurses who tried to help her were told by the camp heads “not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance.” Bloemfontein Camp, South Africa. 1901.
A distant view of the lines of tents that made up a concentration camp in the Boer War. Norval Pont Camp, South Africa. 1901.
British soldiers on guard at a concentration camp. Balmoral Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Distributing the meat rations at a concentration camp. Springfontein Camp, South Africa. 1901.
A Boer family, crammed together inside of a small tent. These tents would often be home to as many as 12 people, forced to squeeze together and share diseases because of the massive overcrowding. South Africa. 1901.
A native South African village, surrounded by a fence of barbwire and turned into a work camp. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
A native South African family living inside of a British camp.
Native families were rounded up and sent into concentration camps of their own to keep them from feeding Boer troops. An estimated 14,154 natives died in the camps. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
Native South Africans were often forcibly put to work by the occupying British forces. Camp Durban, South Africa. June 1902.
Native South Africans doing forced labor in a concentration camp. South Africa. 1901.
The native South Africans are put to work building a railway line.
The original caption to this photograph, meant to be propaganda to defend the concentration camps, proudly notes that the forced laborers were “singing” while they worked. South Africa. 1901.
Native South African women huddle together inside of a camp. Bronkerspruit Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Camp Matron Miss Moritz grinding cord inside of a concentration camp. Generally speaking, the nurses and matrons in the camps had nothing but good intentions. They did their best to help the captives stay healthy and safe — but with too few resources and space to do it, the people under their care died as such alarming rates that the camps nearly exterminated an entire population.
Klerksdorp Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Native South Africans pose for a picture in front of the wagon that brought them to the concentration camp. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
A refugee Boer family, still free of the concentration camps, try to get out of the country before they get caught in the horrors of the camps. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
Boer refugees arrive at Merebank station, with their every earthly possession at their sides. Merebank, South Africa. 1901.
A church service inside of a concentration camp, held in the open air.
Nylstroom Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Distributing rations inside a camp. South Africa. 1901.
A group of Boer children with a native woman, who seems to have been brought in to replace their missing mother. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
A young Boer girl in one of the camps. Irene Camp, South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.
Boer prisoners sit down for an outdoor church service. South Africa. 1901.
The Boer women head out to the river to wash their clothes. Middelburg Camp, South Africa. 1901.
Native South Africans inside a camp. Bronkerspruit Camp, South Africa. 1901.
South African women gathered around their hut. Klerskdorp Camp, South Africa. 1901.
South African prisoners are put to work. Pietersburg Camp, South Africa. 1901.
South African prisoners sit by the wall of their concentration camp.
Standerton Camp, South Africa. 1901.
A South African family stand by their home, inside a village that has been turned into a British-run camp where thousands will die. South Africa. Circa 1899-1902.

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