It is impossible to speak or write about the South African War without mentioning the Concentration Camps. A great deal of fuss was made about them, not only abroad, where all the enemies of England took a particular and most vicious pleasure in magnifying the so-called cruelties which were supposed to take place, but also in the English Press, where long and heartrending accounts appeared concerning the iniquities and injustices practised by the military authorities on the unfortunate Boer families assembled in the Camps.
In recurring to this long-forgotten theme, I must first of all say that I do not hold a brief for the English Government or for the administration which had charge of British interests in South Africa. But pure and simple justice compels me to protest, first against the use which was made for party purposes of certain regrettable incidents, and, more strongly still, against the totally malicious and ruthless way in which the incidents were interpreted.
It is necessary before passing a judgment on the Concentration Camps to explain how it came about that these were organised. At the time of which I am writing people imagined that by Lord Kitchener's orders Boer women, children and old people were forcibly taken away from their homes and confined, without any reason for such an arbitrary proceeding, in unhealthy places where they were subjected to an existence of privation as well as of humiliation and suffering. Nothing of the kind had taken place.
The idea of the Camps originated at first from the Boers themselves in an indirect way. When the English troops marched into the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, most of the farmers who composed the bulk of the population of the two Republics having taken to arms, there was no one left in the homes they had abandoned save women, children and old men no longer able to fight. These fled hurriedly as soon as English detachments and patrols were in sight, but most of the time they did not know where they could fly to, and generally assembled in camps somewhere on the veldt, where they hoped that the British troops would not discover them. There, however, they soon found their position intolerable owing to the want of food and to the lack of hygienic precautions.
The British authorities became aware of this state of things and could not but try to remedy it. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. To come to the help of several thousands of people in a country where absolutely no resources were to be found was a quite stupendous task, of a nature which might well have caused the gravest anxieties to the men responsible for the solution. It was then that the decision was reached to organise upon a reasonable scale camps after the style of those which already had been inaugurated by the Boers themselves.
The idea, which was not a bad one, was carried out in an unfortunate manner, which gave to the world at large the idea that the burgher families who were confined in these camps were simply put into a prison which they had done nothing to deserve. The Bond Press, always on the alert to reproach England, seized hold of the establishment of the Camps to transform into martyrs the persons who had been transferred to them, and soon a wave of indignation swept over not only South Africa, but also over Britain. This necessary act of human civilisation was twisted to appear as an abuse of power on the part of Lord Roberts and especially of Lord Kitchener, who, in this affair, became the scapegoat for many sins he had never committed. The question of the Concentration Camps was made the subject of interpellations in the House of Commons, and indignation meetings were held in many parts of England. The Nonconformist Conscience was deeply stirred at what was thought to be conduct which not even the necessities of war could excuse. Torrents of ink were spilt to prove that at the end of the nineteenth century measures and methods worthy of the Inquisition were resorted to by British Government officials, who—so the ready writers and ready-tongued averred—with a barbarity such as the Middle Ages had not witnessed, wanted to be revenged on innocent women and children for the resistance their husbands and fathers were making against an aggression which in itself nothing could justify.
So far as the Boers themselves were concerned, I think that a good many among them viewed the subject with far more equanimity than the English public. For one thing, the fact of their women and children being put in places where at least they would not die of hunger must have come to them rather in the light of a relief than anything else. Then, too, one must not lose sight of the conditions under which the Boer burghers and farmers used to exist in normal times. Cleanliness did not rank among their virtues; and, as a rule, hygiene was an unknown science. They were mostly dirty and neglected in their personal appearance, and their houses were certainly neither built nor kept in accordance with those laws of sanitation which in the civilised world have become a matter of course. Water was scarce, and the long and torrid summers, during which every bit of vegetation was dried up on the veldt, had inured the population to certain privations which would have been intolerable to Europeans. These things, and the unfortunate habits of the Boers, made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to realise in the Camps any approach to the degree of cleanliness which was desirable.
To say that the people in the Concentration Camps were happy would be a gross exaggeration, but to say that they were martyrs would convey an equally false idea. When judging of facts one ought always to remember the local conditions under which these facts have developed. A Russian moujik sent to Siberia does not find that his life there is very much different from what it was at home, but a highly civilised, well-educated man, condemned to banishment in those frozen solitudes, suffers acutely, being deprived of all that had made existence sweet and tolerable to him. I feel certain that an Englishman, confined in one of the Concentration Camps of South Africa, would have wished himself dead ten times a day, whilst the wife of a Boer farmer would not have suffered because of missing soap and water and clean towels and nicely served food, though she might have felt the place hot and unpleasant, and might have lamented over the loss of the home in which she had lived for years.
The Concentration Camps were a necessity, because without them thousands of people, the whole white population of a country indeed, amounting to something over sixty thousand people, would have died of hunger and cold.
The only means of existence the country Boers had was the produce of their farms. This taken away from them, they were left in the presence of starvation, and starvation only. This population, deprived of every means of subsistence, would have invaded Cape Colony, which already was overrun with white refugees from Johannesburg and the Rand, who had proved a prolific source of the greatest annoyance to the British Government. To allow this mass of miserable humanity to wander all over the Colony would have been inhuman, and I would like to know what those who, in England and upon the Continent, were so indignant over the Concentration Camps would have said had it turned out that some sixty thousand human creatures had been allowed to starve.
The British Government, owing to the local conditions under which the South African War came to be fought, found itself in a dilemma, out of which the only escape was to try to relieve wholesale misery in the most practical manner possible. There was no time to plan out with deliberation what ought to be done; some means had to be devised to keep a whole population alive whom an administration would have been accused of murdering had there been delay in feeding it.
There was also another danger to be faced had the veldt been allowed to become the scene of a long-continued migration of nations—that of allowing the movements of the British troops to become known, thereby lengthening a war of already intolerable length, to say nothing of exposing uselessly the lives of English detachments, which, in this guerrilla kind of warfare, would inevitably have occurred had the Boer leaders remained in constant communication with their wandering compatriots.
Altogether the institution of the Concentration Camps was not such a bad one originally. Unfortunately, they were not organised with the seriousness which ought to have been brought to bear on such a delicate matter, and their care was entrusted to people who succeeded, unwittingly perhaps, in making life there less tolerable than it need have been.
I visited some of the Concentration Camps, and looked into their interior arrangements with great attention. The result of my personal observations was invariably the same—that where English officials were in charge of these Camps everything possible was done to lighten the lot of their inmates. But where others were entrusted with surveillance, every kind of annoyance, indignity and insult was offered to poor people obliged to submit to their authority.
In this question, as in many others connected with the Boer War, it was the local Jingoes who harmed the British Government more than anything else, and the Johannesburg Uitlanders, together with the various Volunteer Corps and Scouts, brought into the conduct of the enterprises with which they were entrusted an intolerance and a smallness of spirit which destroyed British prestige far more than would have done a dozen unfortunate wars. The very fact that one heard these unwise people openly say that every Boer ought to be killed, and that even women and children ought to be suppressed if one wanted to win the war, gave abroad the idea that England was a nation thirsting for the blood of the unfortunate Afrikanders. This mistaken licence furnished the Bond with the pretext to persuade the Dutch Colonists to rebel, and the Boer leaders with that of going on with their resistance until their last penny had been exhausted and their last gun had been captured.
Without these detestable Jingoes, who would have done so much harm not only to South Africa, but also to their Mother Country, England, it is certain that an arrangement, which would have brought about an honourable peace for everybody, could have come much sooner than it did. A significant fact worth remembering—that the Boers did not attempt to destroy the mines on the Rand—goes far to prove that they were not at all so determined to hurt British property, or to ruin British residents, or to destroy the large shareholder concerns to which the Transvaal owed its celebrity, as was credited to them.
When the first rumours that terrible things were going on in the Concentration Camps reached England there were found at once amateurs willing to start for South Africa to investigate the truth of the accusations. A great fuss was made over an appeal by Lady Maxwell, the wife of the Military Governor of Pretoria, in which she entreated America to assist her in raising a fund to provide warm clothing for the Boer women and children. Conclusions were immediately drawn, saddling the military authorities with responsibility for the destitution in which these women and children found themselves. But in the name of common sense, how could one expect that people who had run away before what they believed to be an invasion of barbarians determined to burn down and destroy all their belongings—how could one expect that these people in their flight would have thought about taking with them their winter clothes, which, in the hurry of a departure in a torrid summer, would only have proved a source of embarrassment to them? More recently we have seen in Belgium, France, Poland and the Balkans what occurred to the refugees who fled before foreign invasion. The very fact of Lady Maxwell's appeal proved the solicitude of the official English classes for the unfortunate Boers and their desire to do something to provide them with the necessaries of life.
Everybody knows the amount of money which is required in cases of this kind, and—in addition to America's unstinting response—public and private charity in Britain flowed as generously as it always does upon every occasion when an appeal is made to it in cases of real misfortune. But when it comes to relieve the wants of about sixty-three thousand people, of all ages and conditions, this is not so easy to do as persons fond of criticising things which they do not understand are apt sweepingly to declare. Very soon the question of the Concentration Camps became a Party matter, and was made capital of for Party purposes without discrimination or restraint. Sham philanthropists filled the newspapers with their indignation, and a report was published in the form of a pamphlet by Miss Hobhouse, which, it is to be feared, contained some percentage of tales poured into her ears by people who were nurtured in the general contempt for truth which at that time existed in South Africa.
If the question of Concentration Camps had been examined seriously, it would have been at once perceived what a tremendous burden the responsibility of having to find food and shelter for thousands of enemy people imposed on English officials. No one in Government circles attempted or wished to deny, sorrowful as it was to have to recognise it, that the condition of the Camps was not, and indeed could not be, nearly what one would have wished or desired. On the other hand, the British authorities were unremitting in their efforts to do everything which was compatible with prudence to improve the condition of these Camps. Notwithstanding, people were so excited in regard to the question, and it was so entirely a case of "Give a dog a bad name," that even the appointment of an Imperial Commission to report on the matter failed to bring them to anything approaching an impartial survey. Miss Hobhouse's report had excited an emotion only comparable to the publication of Mrs. Beecher Stowe's famous novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Miss Hobhouse came to South Africa inspired by the most generous motives, but her lack of knowledge of the conditions of existence common to everyone in that country prevented her from forming a true opinion as to the real hardship of what she was called upon to witness. Her own interpretations of the difficulties and discomforts which she found herself obliged to face proved that she had not realised what South Africa really was. Her horror at the sight of a snake in one of the tents she visited could only evoke a smile from those who had lived for some time in that country, as a visitor of that particular kind was possible even in the suburbs of Cape Town, and certainly offered nothing wonderful in a tent on the high veldt. The same remark can be applied to the hotels, which Miss Hobhouse described as something quite ghastly. Everyone who knew what South Africa really was could only agree with her that the miserable places there were anything but pleasant residences, but the fuss which she made as to these trivial details could only make one sceptical as to the genuineness of the other scenes which she described at such length. No one who had had occasion to watch the development of the war or the circumstances which had preceded it could bring himself to believe with her that the British Government was guilty of premeditated cruelty.
Of course, it was quite dreadful for those who had been taken to the Concentration Camps to find themselves detained there against their will, but at the same time, as I have already remarked, the question remains as to what these people would have done had they been left absolutely unprotected and unprovided for among the remnants of what had once been their homes. It was certain that Miss Hobhouse's pamphlet revealed a parlous state of things, but did she realise that wood, blankets, linen and food were not things which could be transported with the quickness that those responsible heartily desired? Did she remember that the British troops also had to do without the most elementary comforts, in spite of all the things which were constantly being sent from home for the benefit of the field forces? Both had in South Africa two enemies in common that could not be subdued—distance and difficulty of communication. With but a single line of railway, which half the time was cut in one place or another, it was but natural that the Concentration Camps were deprived of a good many things which those who were compelled to live within their limits would, under different circumstances or conditions, have had as a matter of course.
Miss Hobhouse had to own that she met with the utmost courtesy from the authorities with whom she had to deal, a fact alone which proved that the Government was only too glad to allow people to see what was being done for the Boer women and children, and gratefully appreciated every useful suggestion likely to lighten the sad lot of those in the Camps.
It is no use denying, and indeed no one, Sir Alfred Milner least of all, would have denied that some of the scenes witnessed by Miss Hobhouse, which were afterwards described with such tremulous indignation, were of a nature to shock public opinion both at home and abroad. But, at the same time, it was not fair to circumstances or to people to have a false sentimentality woven into what was written. Things ought to have been looked upon through the eyes of common sense and not through the refracting glasses of the indignation of the moment. It was a libel to suggest that the British authorities rendered themselves guilty of deliberate cruelty, because, on the contrary, they always and upon every occasion did everything they could to lighten the lot of the enemy peoples who had fallen into their hands.