Boer women and children died ‘due to backwardness’

The emaciated Lizzie van Zyl. She and other children died in British concentrations camps due to 'Boer backwardness', claims UCT academic

A letter writer in Business Day, as well as an academic at the University of Cape Town, Elizabeth van Heyningen, claim that Boer women and children died in British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war because they were “backward” and did not know about soap and water.

Van Heyningen implies that it was really a “myth” that Afrikaners were “civilised Europeans… and not dirty African peasants”.

In her reply yesterday to a previous letter by Dr. Dan Roodt of PRAAG, Pauline Morris of Johannesburg writes:

I REFER to Dan Roodt’s Apartheid revisionism no threat (Letters, September 25). Mr Roodt must realise that historical revisionism applies to all history.

Let’s take the Anglo-Boer War which it seems is the bedrock of Afrikaner identity. A focus feeding this identity is the “genocide” of women and children in the refugee or concentration camps by the British.

I have been reading and interpreting letters that have recently been uncovered in a family archive in Sweden. One of the writers was a medical doctor who served in an ambulance on the side of the Boers at the Ladysmith front, and then in their retreat to the Biggarsberg after the British relieved the siege of Ladysmith.

The opinions expressed by this doctor support the recent research finding on these camps by historian Elizabeth van Heyningen that the “atrocities” in these camps were exaggerated into mythical proportions to support Afrikaner nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reality as I understand it is that there were many cultural and socioeconomic factors that exacerbated the deaths in the camps. Many of those in the camps were very poor bywoners, and many were indigent. Also, not surprisingly the “modern” medicine administered at the time by the British was unfamiliar to the Boer population who had been living in isolation for so many years.

I agree that we “need to find our own truth, commensurate with our own reality.” This means opening up a critical debate on the realities of the Boer War concentration camps. I take it this will pose no threat to yourself and other Afrikaners.

In an article published in the journal Historia 55,2, November 2010, pp 12-33, Elizabeth van Heyningen, a professor of history at the University of Cape Town, suggests that it was really a “myth” that Afrikaners were “civilised Europeans… and not dirty African peasants”.

She quotes from the British “Blue Books” which blamed the Boers themselves for dying of hunger and disease in the camps:

“The high death rate among the children, I would like to emphasise again, is in no way due to want of care or dereliction of duty on the part of those responsible for this camp. It is, in my opinion, due to the people themselves; to their dirty habits both as regards their own personal cleanliness and the cleanliness of their children and their surroundings; to their prejudices; their ignorance; and their distrust of others, even their own nationality, when their advice runs counter to their own preconceived and antiquated ideas. This is specially noted in connection with their treatment of the sick, to their rooted objection to soap and water, and to hospitals.”

According to Van Heyningen, the mortality rate in the camps, where 34 000 women and mostly children died, was not much higher than in Afrikaner towns in the Cape before the “civilised” British introduced public health reforms in the 1880s:

“Lack of sanitation was not confined to the camps. The Boer laagers, when they remained stationery for any length of time, were filthy. A number of commentators remarked on the insanitary state of the laagers besieging Mafeking. Flies were a major problem because the offal of slaughtered animals was never cleared away. The interiors of the wagons and tents were black with the “little devils” and flies flew into the mouths of the burghers as they struggled to eat. The stench from the latrines, built too close to the laager, was unbearable, the Rev Abraham Stafleu complained. Paardeberg and Modderspruit, too, were gripped by disease and foreign doctors attached to the Boer forces, particularly, were critical of the lack of hygiene in the Boer laagers.

“Lack of sanitation was certainly not unique to the Boer republics. The camps have been seen too much in isolation, as sui generis, a unique experience. In the Cape Colony, as public health reforms were introduced by modernising doctors from the 1880s, and district surgeons’ reports and statistics were published, it became clear that many country towns lacked effective sanitation and mortality rates, especially those of children, were very high indeed.”

Elizabeth van Heyningen argues that the vast majority of the camp inmates were lower-class bywoners or “white trash” who knew nothing about basic hygiene and therefore died of their own accord. She then goes on to explain how Afrikaner nationalists have misrepresented the British concentration camps that were really an attempt at “poverty relief” for Afrikaners instead of the military exercise against the Boer civilian population that they were. She also glosses over the burning down of most of Northern South Africa by the British sodiers, leaving the civilian population without food, to be herded into camps where many were again denied food or placed on below-subsistence rations.

Van Heyningen equally neglects to mention the many reports of poisoning by the camp commanders and nursing staff of inmates under the pretext of administering “medicine”.

Writing in Die Burger on 10 July 2010, journalist and historian Marthinus van Bart offered the following criticism of Van Heyningen’s jingoist apology for the British concentration camps:

“Other experts have emphasised that the main reasons for the deaths were malnutrition and lack of food, exposure, polluted food and water, a dearth of soap and other cleaning aids, open furrow toilets and the bucket system, the serious overpopulation of the camps, immunity deficiency, little or no fuel to boil water or do cooking, the denial of the disaster and inaction to set things right after the British opposition had demanded it in parliament in London.”

In the 2001 documentary Scorched Earth “it was indicated that the women and children were civilians against whom war was literally conducted. Their farms (more than 30 000) and furniture were burnt down, food and livestock were destroyed, they were molested and raped, and they were violently herded into the camps.

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“Up to 18 people were divided into a single bell-shaped tent – mostly old, worn-down army tents giving no protection against the scorching Karoo sun, rain and wind storms, bouts of hail and snow. Diseases like pneumonia were widespread due to exposure to the elements, which was worsened by malnutritiion and deficient medication.

“The toilet facilities were one bucket for every 300 people. In one camp there were only 28 bucket toilets for 4 600 inmates. The toilet holes of many camps were 1 km from the tents.

“Most people suffered from diarrhea due to the polluted water and bad meat. Water was limited to one bucket per family per day, in other cases to one small kettle of water per day – not even a cup of water per person per day.

“There was mostly no water for washing, either their bodies or clothes and bedlinen. The elderly and children who fell into the toilet furrows could not be properly washed afterwards.

“In addition families of burghers in the field were placed on half rations, a diabolical plan to slowly but surely exterminate these inmates. That was one of the notorious Methods of Barbarism to which historian S.B. Spies refers in his book.

“There were approximately 235 000 camp inmates and 240 000 soldiers that had to be fed by the British army. The deficient infrastructure made a disaster inevitable.”