Black concentration camps during the second Anglo-Boer war

African Anglo-Boer War prisoners of war in St Helena

The Boer war involved three networks of concentration camps. Boer (white) camps with women and children totalling around 115,000. Black camps with men, women and children totalling around 115,000, and overseas camps for Boer men in the tens of thousands

Submitted by Mike Harman on March 6, 2017

While the two main forces in the Anglo-Boer War 2 were White, it was not an exclusively White war. At least 15 000 Blacks were used as combatants by the British, especially as scouts to track down Boer commandoes and armed block house guards, but also in non-combatant roles by both British and Boer forces as wagon drivers, etc.

They suffered severely as result of the British "scorched earth policy" during which those who lived on White farms were removed to concentration camps, as were the women and children of their White employers. The rural economy was destroyed as crops were ravaged and livestock butchered.

Displaced and captured civilians were forced into 'refugee camps', a total misnomer, because more often they did not seek refuge in the camps, but were rounded up by the British forces and forced into the camps, which soon became known as 'concentration camps'.

Field-Marshal Lord Roberts had an ulterior motive in putting Blacks into camps, namely to make them work, either to grow crops for the troops or to dig trenches, be wagon drivers or work as miners once the gold mines became partly operational again. They did not receive rations, hardly any medical support or shelter and were expected to grow their own crops. The able-bodied who could work, could exchange labour for food or buy mealie meal at a cheaper price.

The British along racial lines separated the White and Black camps. The inmates of the Black camps, situated along railway lines and on the border, became the eyes and ears of the British army. They formed an early warning system against Boer attacks on the British military's primary logistic artery - the railway lines and acted as scouts for British forces. This strategy alienated Whites and Blacks from each other by furthering distrust between the two population groups and was detrimental to racial harmony in South Africa after the war.

Concentration Camps for Blacks. Transvaal Colony: Balmoral; Belfast; Heidelberg; Irene; Klerksdorp; Krugersdorp; Middelburg; Standerton; Vereeniging; Volksrust; Bantjes; Bezuidenhout's Valley; Boksburg; Brakpan; Bronkhorstspruit; Brugspruit; Elandshoek; Elandsrivier; Frederikstad; Greylingstad; Groot Olifants River; Koekemoer; Klipriviersberg; Klip River; Meyerton; Natalspruit; Nelspruit; Nigel; Olifantsfontein; Paardekop; Platrand; Rietfontein West; Springs; Van der Merwe Station; Witkop; Wilgerivier. Free State: Allemans Siding; America Siding; Boschrand; Eensgevonden; Geneva; Harrismith; Heilbron; Holfontein; Honingspruit; Houtenbek; Koppies; Rooiwal; Rietspruit; Smaldeel; Serfontein; Thaba 'Nchu; Taaibosch; Vet River; Virginia; Ventersburg Road; Vredefort Road; Welgelegen; Winburg; Wolwehoek. Cape Colony and British Bechuanaland.(Administered by the O.R.C): Kimberley; Orange River; Taungs; Dryharts.

21 December, The inaugural meeting of the Burgher Peace Committee is held in Pretoria. Lord Kitchener discusses his concentration camp policies with this group, mentioning that stock and Blacks would also be brought in.

22 January, At the Boschhoek concentration camp for Blacks, about 1 700 inmates, mostly Basuto, hold a protest meeting. They state that when they have been brought into the camps they have been promised that they will be paid for all their stock taken by the British, for all grain destroyed and that they will be fed and looked after. They are also unhappy because "... they receive no rations while the Boers who are the cause of the war are fed in the refugee camps free of charge ... they who are the 'Children of the Government' are made to pay'.

23 January, Two inmates of the Heuningspruit concentration camp for Blacks, Daniel Marome and G.J. Oliphant, complain to Goold-Adams: "We have to work hard all day long but the only food we can get is mealies and mealie meal, and this is not supplied to us free, but we have to purchase same with our own money. "We humbly request Your Honour to do something for us otherwise we will all perish of hunger for we have no money to keep on buying food."

30 January, The population for the Black camps is 85 114 and 2 312 deaths are recorded for the month.

31 January, The population of Blacks in camps is 75 950 and 1 327 deaths are recorded for the month.

4 May, The first gold mine on the Rand re-opens, after all mines have been closed in October 1899, a few days before war was declared. The Minister for Native Affairs permits the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association to recruit mining labour from the concentration camps. Simultaneous to the resumption of economic activity is the establishment of the Department of Native Refugees (DNR) under direct British military command.

15 June, The British authority establishes the Department of Native Refugees in the 'Transvaal Colony'. The Transvaal camps are brought under the control of the newly formed department.

30 June, The official camp population of the Black camps is 32 360 and the deaths are not shown in official returns.

31 July, The camp population in Black camps is 37 472 and 256 have died in the Free State camps during the month, while in Transvaal deaths are not yet recorded.

31 August, The Free State camps are also brought under the control of the Department of Native Refugees

31 August, The camp population in Black camps is 53 154 and 575 deaths are recorded for August.

30 September, The camp population in Black camps is 65 589 and 728 deaths are recorded.

31 December, The population in Black camps is 89 407, while the deaths peak during December at 2 831.


18 January, Major De Lorbiniere, in charge of the Native Refugee Department, writes that supplying workers to the army 'formed the basis on which our system was founded'. The department's mobilisation of Black labour is very successful - not really surprising, considering the incentives offered: those in service and their families can buy mealies at a halfpence per lb, or 7/6 a bag, while those who do not accept employment have to pay double, or 1d per lb and 18/- or more per bag. By the end of 1901, when the death rate peaks, more than 6 000 accept employment in the British army. This figure grows to more than 13 000 in April 1902. The labourers are largely housed in Black concentration camps, situated close to military garrisons and towns, mines and railways sidings.

31 January, The population of Black camps is 97 986 and 2 534 deaths are recorded.

28 February, The population in Black camps is 101 344 and 1466 deaths are recorded.

24 March, Mr H.R. Fox, Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, after being made aware by Emily Hobhouse of the fact that the Ladies Commission (Fawcett Commission) ignored the plight of Blacks in the concentration camps, writes to Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary. He requests that such inquiries should be instituted by the British government "as should secure for the natives who are detained no less care and humanity than are now prescribed for the Boer refugees". On this request Sir Montagu Ommaney, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, is later to record that it seems undesirable "to trouble Lord Milner ... merely to satisfy this busybody".

31 March, The population of the Black camps is 101 299 and 972 deaths are recorded.

30 April, The population of the Black camps is 108 386 and 630 deaths are recorded.

31 May, Black concentration camp population in the 66 Black camps (some sources give the number as 80) reach 115 700, of which 60 000 are in the Free State camps and 55 969 in the ZAR (South African Republic/Transvaal). 523 deaths are recorded for the month.

31 May, The final peace conditions, The Treaty of Vereeniging, is signed by both the Burghers and the British at 23:05 at Melrose House, Pretoria.

The total Black deaths in camps are officially calculated at a minimum of 14 154 (more than 1 in 10), though G. Benneyworth estimates it as at least 20 000, after examining actual graveyards. According to him incomplete and in many cases non-existent British records and the fact that many civilians died outside of the camps, caused the final death toll to be higher . The average official death rate, caused by medical neglect, exposure, infectious diseases and malnutrition inside the camps was 350 per thousand per annum, peaking at 436 per thousand per annum in certain Free State camps. Eighty-one percent of the fatalities were children.

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