A tool for modernisation? The Boer concentration camps of the South African War, 1900–1902

Research Article
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08 June 2010

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While not denying the tragedy of the high mortality of people in the concentration camps in the South African War of 1899–1902, this article suggests that, for Lord Milner and the British Colonial Office, the camps became a means of introducing the rural society of the Boers to the facilities of modern life. To some extent they became, in effect, part of Milner’s project for ‘civilising’ and assimilating the Boers into British colonial society. The high mortality rate was finally contained through the introduction of a modern public health system, including the use of statistics and the employment of qualified doctors and nurses. Young Boer women working in the camp hospitals as nurse aids were trained as ‘probationers’ and classes in infant and child care were offered to the Boer mothers. In addition, the need for adequate water supplies and effective sanitation meant that an infrastructure was established in the camps that familiarised the Boers with modern sanitary routines and left a legacy of more substantial services for the Transvaal and Orange Free State villages.

Author comment: My article was never intended to denigrate Afrikaners in any way. The republican Boers were caught up in an unjust war and they suffered dreadful losses as a result. However, I have argued elsewhere that many of the farm families, who had had little contact with modern preventive medicine, functioned within a different cultural world from the British who ran the camps. I have discussed this in much more detail in the following article: Van Heyningen E. Women and disease. The clash of medical cultures in the concentration camps of the South African War. In: Cuthbertson G, Grundlingh A, Suttie M-L, editors. Writing a wider war. Rethinking gender, race, and identity in the South African War, 1899–1902. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002; p. 186–212. A shorter version of the article has also been published in Van Heyningen E. British doctors versus Boer women: Clash of medical cultures. In: Pretorius F, editor. Scorched Earth. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2001; p. 78–197. There is also an Afrikaans version of this book published under the title of Verskroeide aarde. The same ideas are discussed by Professor Pretorius and myself in the documentary Scorched Earth which has been aired several times recently on the History Channel of DSTV.


Anglo-Boer War; concentration camps; historical statistics; Lord Milner; measles mortality; South African War
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