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Morbidity and Mortality in the Concentration Camps of the South African War (1899-1902)

The internment camps for civilians (Boers and blacks) set up by the British army during the South African War remain the most controversial aspect of this war and became an important reference point in the mobilization of Afrikaner nationalism in the twentieth century. The deaths of an alleged 27,927 Boer civilians in these camps (three-quarters of them children under the age of 16) became the focus for a potent mythology of suffering and victimhood but the subject was not fully or empirically investigated and the many deaths of blacks in these camps was ignored until very recently. Our project investigated the whole subject of these camps, and especially the record of morbidity and mortality in them, utilizing the extraordinarily rich range of evidence which has survived, mainly in South African archives but also in the National Archives in London.

The creation of a database
Early in the project we realized that a database for the deaths of camp inmates was essential if we were to undertake a reliable analysis of camp mortality which did not rely on the published British statistics or those gathered by the Transvaal archivist P.L.A. Goldman after the war. With the financial support of a supplementary grant of £10,000 from the Wellcome Trust we embarked on this ambitious task and have established a database of 98,000 individuals. This database is about the 45 ‘white’ camps, the meagre surviving evidence for the 64 ‘black’ camps making it impossible to construct anything similar for them. The database is in Microsoft Access and consists of a primary database and several linked databases. The database has been constructed from three primary sources:

1. The Camp Registers (the majority have survived but they are of varying quality and legibility. Those for the Transvaal camps are original and contain more information than those for the camps in the Orange River Colony – where the surviving Registers are those copied up into neat volumes from the originals towards the end of the war).

2. The printed Government Gazettes (where, from April 1901, details (including causes) of the deaths were published – though we have found that not all deaths were recorded).

3. The RS lists – Republikeinse Sterfte i.e. Republican Deaths - (the archive compiled by Goldman after the war, from which the figure of 27,927 Boer civilian deaths is derived). Our research has revealed problems with Goldman’s methodology and his lists contain many duplicates which cannot be verified.

Mortality in the 'white' and 'black' camps
We are currently analyzing the vast amount of data which we have gathered on the morbidity and mortality in the ‘white’ camps. Our present reckoning is that a total of around 25,000 deaths are recorded and can be verified in these camps. This is more than the recorded British figure of 20,139 but less than the widely accepted figure of 27,927 established by Goldman. We have found patchy evidence of the deaths of some ‘black’ domestic servants of the Boer families also in the records of the ‘white’ camps. Much of the evidence about the ‘black’ camps was destroyed some time after the war and it is probable that detailed records of individuals there were never collected in the same way. We are therefore dependent upon the reports on the ‘black’ camps compiled by their supervisor (Captain G.J. de Lotbiniere) and the basic statistical returns in the British records which give a total of 14, 154 deaths in them. This figure was first revealed by Peter Warwick (1983). It may very well be an underestimate but our research has not led us to conclude that the figure of 20,000 ‘black’ deaths (more recently proposed by Stowell Kessler in 2003) is at all well-founded. We therefore stick to the verifiable figure of 14,154 black deaths. Our combined total of deaths in the camps therefore approaches 40,000. We will have much to say about the great differences between the camps in which Boer civilians were ‘concentrated’ and the rather different ‘farm and labour’ camps established on unoccupied land for the displaced African population.

Morbidity in the 'white' and 'black' camps
The disease specific data for the ‘black’ camps is almost totally lacking but the fragments of anecdotal evidence suggest that measles (and its resulting complications) and respiratory diseases generally formed a large component of the mortality, especially in the cold winter months and especially amongst the women and children who were left to construct their own shanties and cultivate their own subsistence whilst most of the menfolk were deployed as labour often far away. Diarrhoea and intestinal infections also emerge as a major cause of death amongst the very young. The extremely low level of expenditure on food etc. for the black camps supports the view (articulated at the time) that the ‘black’ camps, unlike the ‘white’ camps, were meant to become self-supporting. The morbidity records for the ‘white’ camps are much fuller and we were very pleased to combine forces with some able students in the Statistics Department at Warwick who, under the enthusiastic supervision of Professor Jane Hutton, produced some striking graphs portraying the morbidity patterns in the ‘white’ camps using our battery of statistics. Our research shows how very varied is the record between different camps both with regard to morbidity and mortality. Some camps had much higher mortality rates than others and –contrary to what was believed by many at the time - this does not seem to have been related to the size of the camp. Also, mortality in some camps, such as Brandfort and Mafeking, was extremely high for a brief period and was the result of severe measles epidemics. Some camps had epidemics of both measles and typhoid and also suffered mortality from a greater range of diseases. Some of these camps were noticeably less well-administered, some had incompetent doctors and inadequate medical provision, and in some cases higher adult mortality impacted further on child mortality. The population profiles of the camps is of obvious importance. Mortality tended to be highest in children of 1-5 years. Infant mortality was less significant, perhaps for several reasons. This was an abnormal wartime population in which childbirth was restricted; babies may have acquired an immunity from their mothers (especially with regard to measles). Three-quarters of the deaths were of children under the age of 16 years. Virulent measles epidemics were the greatest single cause of death in these camps and in this war. This was totally unforeseen. What was anticipated was typhoid, which was regarded as a preventable disease, which did occur in many of the camps and which was a key source of mortality amongst the British soldiery during this war (which came to be known as ‘the last of the typhoid campaigns’). We will have a great deal to say about rations (and the critical contribution they made to the ill-health of the camp inmates and especially the young children) and the problems of their quality and supply. Also about the camp accommodation, which consisted largely of bell tents (stiflingly hot during the day, freezing cold at night) which were often heavily overcrowded. The data we have collected on the camp superintendents, doctors, nurses, hospitals, shops, costs, employment (wages to camp inmates formed the second highest item of camp expenditure) will open up whole aspects of how lives were lived, as well as lost in these camps which have never before been investigated. So will the fact that there were far more men in the camps than has been acknowledged in the past (when they have been largely air-brushed out of the picture because they were an embarrassment to Afrikaner nationalists who felt that they should have been out fighting the British, not taking wages from them in the camps). The presence of an income-earning male head of a family could improve that family’s chances of survival. At least two other widely-entrenched views about these camps will also be challenged by our research findings: the monolithic assumption that all the camps were the same and remained as depicted in their worst early months; and that the camp populations were static and ‘imprisoned’. What emerges strikingly from the camp registers and records is how much movement there was of people – in and out of camps, between camps and work / self-sufficiency in the nearby towns (which took them off the camp rations list, to the great relief of the camp administrators), from camps to join relatives elsewhere etc. There are also the striking changes (improvements, in every indicator, including morbidity and mortality) which occurred at the end of 1901. The epidemiological ‘fade-out’ typical of measles epidemics (when the further introduction of vulnerable populations into the camps ceased) accompanied – even preceded – the wide-ranging reforms in and increased expenditure on the camps which resulted from the implementation of the recommendations of the Ladies Commission of Enquiry (the first all-women such Commission in British history, under the able leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett). The camps continued in existence until the end of 1902, but evolved into centres for relief and rehabilitation prior to resettlement after the end of the war in May 1902.

The establishment of the database is a major, path-breaking achievement which will transform research into these camps in the future. There is already considerable interest in it, especially in South Africa. Such a resource could never have been established without the financial support of the Wellcome Trust and the painstaking in-put of data by our team of South African assistants. We are also in the process of establishing a web-site and it is our intention to make the data we have collected, camp by camp, accessible to other scholars. Elizabeth van Heyningen has already written a well-researched article on the historiography of these camps (which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies). Together we plan to write a substantial article for publication embodying our chief findings and then to go on to write a social history of these camps in book form. Several publishers have already expressed a keen interest in publishing such a book – in which we hope to use some of the letters and memoirs of camp inmates and some of the many photographs we have come across of these camps alongside all our other evidence.

Iain R. Smith (November 2007)