POW camps in Ceylon during the Boer war

Diyatalawa camp, Ceylon
Diyatalawa camp, Ceylon

Over 5,000 Boers were interned in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the Boer War. The Ceylon camps were the second set of overseas POW camps after those in St. Helena had filled.

Submitted by Mike Harman on March 6, 2017

Boer prisoners consisting of burghers captured while under arms from the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), first arrived in Ceylon on 1900 August 9th and subsequently others followed until 5,089 prisoners had landed with the last on 1901 June 1st. Diyatalawa was the main camp. Mount Lavinia was the convalescent camp opened on 1900 December 17th. Dissidents and irreconcilables who would not sign the orth of allegence to the British Crown were housed at Ragama Camp which got it's first inmates on 1901 January 8th. Camps for prisoners on parole was also opened at Urugasmanhandiya on 1901 September 11th and also in Hambantota on 1901 September 19th.

When informed that a sum of money had been placed to the credit of a prisoner-of-war in one of the South African banks, he was allowed to draw against it in the miniature bank-notes issued by the Camp Commandant. Newly arrived Boers had good deal of money, mostly in Transvaal gold sovereigns, which were deposited with the Camp Commandant. These sovereigns were exchanged at Rs 15.25 of local money. The Boer prisoners were paid for the labour, the maximum rate for the more skilled captive artisans being Rs 1.25 for a 7 hour work day.

The Diyatalawa Camp was ringed by the deep trench and barbed wire entanglements, came to be called Boer Town. It was divided into two laagers or settlements. The one nearer to the railway station was dubbed by the prisoners themselves Kruger's Dorp, and was occupied mainly by Transvaalers. The Burghers from the Orange River Colony occupied the other, which they christened Steyn's Ville.

There were in all 22 cases of escapes made by the "prisoners"; of these 20 were recaptured in the immediate vicinity of the camps. The remaining two were arrested at Rangoon. Besides the five guard-huts immediately outside Diyatalawa, there were further out on the hills several thatch huts, each on an eminence, and with a flagstaff from which a white flag floated. In the event of an escape, a red flag was run up instead as soon as news of it reached these outer guard posts. The flags were replaced by lamps at night. The signals were familiar to every labourer in the camp, and villager in the neighbourhood. It meant a reward of Rs 50/- for every recapture, or news which led to one.

Ragama camp recorded one attempted escape. A Frenchman who was under arrest for insubordination had been confined in the guard room. A glimpse of his record would have shown two previous attempts to elude the vigilance of the guard at Diyatalawa. They had cost the Government Rs. 100/- in rewards. Being seemingly well versed in the art, he once again succeeded in eluding the sentry at Ragama. Having got as far as the railway line, he made for Colombo. A boutique keeper of Ragama, happening to see an European minus coat and a shirt walking hurriedly along the rail track at 8 p.m., suspected something amiss. When accosted, the fugitive offered him Rs 300/- if he guided him across country to Colombo. Sensing he was a prisoner-of-war, and anticipating perhaps a bigger reward, the boutique-keeper loudly announced his suspicions, and with the help which seemed to materialise from nowhere hotly pursued the escapee who had taken to his heels. The runaway, seeing he was 'cornered', showed fight, but eventually submitted to arrest, and found himself soon after being escorted back to the camp by a sergeant and two rankers. He was tried in the camp and sentenced to ninety days' imprisonment. This escape added to his score, for it cost the Government Rs. 50/- paid to the boutique keeper as reward for effecting the capture, and Rs. 50/- more which was divided between three others who came to his assistance.

On the 31st of May, 1902, terms of peace were finally signed at Pretoria. One month later general decisions regarding the disposal of the prisoners-of-war were duly announced: Burghers of the late South African Republic and the late Orange Free State were permitted to proceed to South Africa immediately at their own expense, or to await repatriation as soon as arrangements could be made for their transportation. Foreign prisoners-of-war, except those able to produce evidence that they were nationalized Burghers, were not allowed to return to South Africa. They were permitted instead to leave at once at their own expense if they wished to do so, or await repatriation by the Consuls of their respective Governments. All releases were subject to a declaration of allegiance to the British Crown, and in the case of those leaving at their own expense, proof of possessing means of subsistence. On the 24th of September, 1903, the Secretariat issued the communique notifying the release of the remaining five Boers incarcerated at Diyatalawa, stating that they are now free to go anywhere they liked in or out of the Island except to South Africa. When they took the oath, they can go to South Africa. They were permitted to accept employment in the Island, and information concerning their qualifications was to be supplied on release to the Colonial Secretary's Office.

Text adapted from http://notes.lakdiva.org/pow/index.html