I went myself very carefully into the details of whatever information I was able to gather in regard to the treatment of Boer prisoners in the various Camps, notably at Green Point near Cape Town, and I always had to come to the conclusion that nothing could have been better. Is it likely that, when such an amount of care was bestowed upon the men, the women and children should have been made the objects of special persecution? No impartial person could believe such a thing to have been possible, and I feel persuaded that if the people who in England contributed to make the position of the British Government more difficult than already it was, could have glanced at some Prisoners' Camps, for instance, they would very quickly have recognised that an unbalanced sentimentality had exaggerated facts, and even in some cases distorted them.
In Green Point the prisoners were housed in double-storied buildings which had balconies running round them. Here they used to spend many hours of the day, for not only could they see what was going on around the Camps but also have a good view of the sea and passing ships. Each room held six men, and there was besides a large mess-room downstairs in each building which held about ninety people. Each Boer officer had a room for himself. When, later on, the number of prisoners of war was increased, tents had to be erected to accommodate them; but this could hardly be considered hardship in the climate which prevails at the Cape, and cannot be compared to what at the present moment the soldiers of the Allies are enduring in the trenches. The tents were put in a line of twenty each, and each score had a building attached for the men in that line to use as a dormitory if they chose. Excellent bathrooms and shower-baths were provided, together with a plentiful supply of water. The feeding of the prisoners of war was on a substantial scale, the daily rations per man including:
Bread 1¼ lb.
Meat (fresh) 1 lb.
Sugar 3 oz.
Coal (or) 1 lb.
Wood (or) 2 lb.
Coal and wood 1½ lb.
Vegetables ½ lb.
Jam ¼ lb., or 6 oz. of vegetables in lieu.
Coffee, milk and other items were also in like generous apportionments.
The clothing issued to the prisoners, as asked for by them, to give the month of June, 1901, as an instance, was:
Boots 143 pairs
Braces 59 pairs
Socks 222 pairs
and other small sundries.
At Green Point Camp ample hospital accommodation was provided for the sick, and there was a medical staff thoroughly acquainted with the Dutch language and Boer habits. There was electric light in every ward, as well as all other comforts compatible with discipline.
In the first six months of 1901 only five men died in the Camps, the average daily strength of which was over 5,000 men. As for the sick, the average rarely surpassed 1 per cent., amongst which were included wounded men, the cripples, and the invalids left behind from the parties of war prisoners sent oversea to St. Helena or other places.
The hospital diet included, as a matter of course, many things not forming part of the ordinary rations, such as extra milk, meat extracts, and brandy. A suggestive fact in that respect was that though the medical officers in charge of the Camps often appealed to Boer sympathisers to send them eggs, milk and other comforts for the sick prisoners, they hardly ever met with response; and in the rare cases when it happened, it was mostly British officials or officers' wives who provided these luxuries.
The spiritual needs of the prisoners of war were looked after with consideration; there was a recreation room, and, during the time that a large number of very young Boers were in Camps, an excellent school, in which the headmaster and assistant teachers held teachers' certificates. Under the Orange River Colony this school was later transferred to the Prisoners of War Camp at Simonstown, and in both places it did a considerable amount of good. The younger Boers took very kindly and almost immediately to English games such as football, cricket, tennis and quoits, for which there was plenty of room, and the British authorities provided recreation huts, and goal posts and other implements. The Boers also amused themselves with amateur theatricals, club-swinging, and even formed a minstrel troup called the "Green Point Spreemos."
In the Camps there was a shop where the Boers could buy anything that they required in reason at prices regulated by the Military Commandant. Beyond this, relatives and friends were allowed to send them fruit or anything else, with the exception of firearms. In the Boer laagers were coffee shops run by speculative young Boers. The prisoners used to meet there in order to drink coffee, eat pancakes and talk to heart's content. This particular spot was generally called Pan Koek Straat, and the wildest rumours concerning the war seemed to originate in it.
Now as to the inner organisation of the Camps. The prisoners were allowed to choose a corporal from their midst and also to select a captain for each house. Over the whole Camp there reigned a Boer Commandant, assisted by a Court of "Heemraden" consisting of exlandrosts and lawyers appointed by the prisoners of war themselves. Any act of insubordination or inattention to the regulations, sanitary or otherwise, was brought before this court and the guilty party tried and sentenced. When the latter refused to abide by the judgment of the Boer court he was brought before the Military Commandant, but for this there was very seldom need.
The prisoners of war had permission to correspond with their friends and relatives, and were allowed newspapers and books. The former, however, were rather too much censored, which fact constituted an annoyance which, with the exertion of a little tact, might easily have been avoided.
As will be seen from the details, the fate of the Boer prisoners of war was not such a bad one after all. Nor, either, was life in the Concentration Camps, and I have endeavoured to throw some new light on the subject to rebut the old false rumours which, lately, the German Government revived when taxed with harsh treatment of their own prisoners of war, so as to draw comparisons advantageously to themselves.
While adhering to my point, I quite realise that it would be foolish to assert that all the Concentration Camps were organised and administered on the model of the Green Point Camp, where its vicinity to Cape Town allowed the English authorities to control everything that was going on. In the interior of the country things could not be arranged upon such an excellent scale, but had there not existed such a state of irritation all over the whole of South Africa—an irritation for which the so-called English loyalists must also share the blame—matters would not have grown so sadly out of proportion to the truth, painful though the facts were in some cases.
This question of the Camps was admittedly a most difficult one. It was the result of a method of warfare which was imposed upon England by circumstances, but for which no individual Minister or General was solely responsible. The matter was brought about by successive steps that turned out to be necessary, though they were deplorable in every respect. Failing the capture of the Boer commandoes, which was well-nigh impossible, the British troops were driven to strip the country, and stripping the country meant depriving not only the fighting men but also the women and children of the means of subsistence. Concentration, therefore, followed inevitably, and England found itself burdened with the immense responsibility of feeding, housing and clothing some sixty thousand women and children.
In spite of the British officers in charge of the Concentration Camps struggling manfully with this crushing burden of anxiety, and doing all that lay within their power to alleviate the sufferings of this multitude, cruel and painful things happened. The food, which was sufficient and wholesome for soldiers, could not do for young people, and yet it was impossible to procure any other for them. If the opinion of the military had been allowed to be expressed openly, one would have found probably that they thought England ought never to have assumed this responsibility, but rather have chosen the lesser evil and left these people on their farms, running the risk of the Boers provisioning themselves therefrom. The risk would not, perhaps, have been so great as could have been supposed at first sight, but then this ought to have been done from the very beginning of the war, and the order to burn the Boer farms ought never to have been given. But once the Boer farms had been deprived of their military use to the enemy, these people could not be turned back to starve on the veldt; the British had to feed them or earn the reproach of having destroyed a nation by hunger. As things had developed it was impossible for Great Britain to have followed any other policy—adopted, perhaps, in a moment of rashness, but the consequences had to be accepted. It only remained to do the best toward mitigating as far as possible the sufferings of the mass of humanity gathered into the Camps, and this I must maintain that the English Government did better than could have been expected by any who knew South Africa and the immense difficulties which beset the British authorities.
It must not be forgotten that when the war began it was looked upon in the light of a simple military promenade; and, who knows, it might have been that had not the Boers been just as mistaken concerning the intentions of England in respect of them as England was in regard to the Boer military strength and power of resistance. One must take into account that for the few years preceding the war, and especially since the fatal Jameson Raid, the whole of the Dutch population of the Transvaal and of the Orange Free State, as well as that of Cape Colony, was persuaded that England had made up its mind to destroy it and to give up their country, as well as their persons, into the absolute power of the millionaires who ruled the Rand. On their side the millionaires openly declared that the mines were their personal property, and that England was going to war to give the Rand to them, and thereafter they were to rule this new possession without any interference from anyone in the world, not even that of England. Such a state of things was absolutely abnormal, and one can but wonder how ideas of the kind could have obtained credence. But, strange as it may seem, it is an indisputable fact that the opinion was prevalent all over South Africa that the Rand was to be annexed to the British Empire just in the same way as Rhodesia had been and under the same conditions. Everyone in South Africa knew that the so-called conquest of the domain of King Lobengula had been effected only because it had been supposed that it was as rich in gold and diamonds as the Transvaal.
When Rhodes had taken possession of the vast expanse of territory which was to receive his name, the fortune-seekers who had followed in his footsteps had high anticipations of speedy riches, and came in time to consider that they had a right to obtain that which they had come to look for. These victims of money-hunger made Rhodes personally responsible for the disappointments which their greed and unhealthy appetites encountered when at last they were forced to the conclusion that Rhodesia was a land barren of gold. In time, perhaps, and at enormous expense, it might be developed for the purpose of cattle breeding, but gold and diamonds either did not exist or could only be found in such small quantities that it was not worth while looking for them.
As a result of this realisation, Rhodes found himself confronted by all these followers, who loudly clamoured around him their indignation at having believed in his assertions. What wonder, therefore, that the thoughts of these people turned toward the possibility of diverting the treasures of the Transvaal into their own direction. Rhodes was brought into contact with the idea that it was necessary to subdue President Kruger. With a man of Rhodes' impulsive character to begin wishing for a thing was sufficient to make him resort to every means at his disposal to obtain it. The Boer War was the work of the Rhodesian party, and long before it broke out it was expected, spoken of, and considered not only by the Transvaal Government, but also by the Burghers, who, having many opportunities of visiting the Cape as well as Rhodesia, had there heard expression of the determination of the South African League, and of those who called themselves followers and partisans of Rhodes, to get hold of the Rand, at the head of which, as an inevitable necessity, should be the Colossus himself. No denial of these plans ever came from Rhodes. By his attitude, even when relations between London and Pretoria were excellent, he gave encouragement to the people who were making all kinds of speculations as to what should happen when the Transvaal became a Crown Colony.
The idea of a South African Federation had not at that time taken hold of public opinion, and, if Rhodes became its partisan later on, it was only after he had realised that the British Cabinet would never consent to put Johannesburg on the same footing as Bulawayo and Bechuanaland. Too large and important interests were at stake for Downing Street to look with favourable eyes on the Rand becoming only one vast commercial concern. A line had to be drawn, but, unfortunately, the precise demarcation was not conveyed energetically enough from London. On the other hand, Cecil Rhodes, as well as his friends and advisers, did not foresee that a war would not put them in power at the Transvaal, but would give that country to the Empire to rule, to use its riches and resources for the good of the community at large.
The saddest feature of the South African episode was its sordidness. This robbed it of every dignity and destroyed every sympathy of those who looked at it impartially or from another point of view than that of pounds, shillings and pence. England has been cruelly abused for its conduct in South Africa, and abused most unjustly. Had that feeling of trust in the justice and in the straightforwardness of Great Britain only existed in the Dark Continent, as it did in the other Colonies and elsewhere, it would have proved the best solution to all the entangled questions which divided the Transvaal Republic from the Mother Country by reason of its manner of looking at the exploitation of the gold mines. On its side too, perhaps, England might have been brought to consider the Boers in a different light had she disbelieved a handful of people who had every interest in the world to mislead her and to keep her badly informed as to the truth of the situation.
When war broke out it was not easy for the Command to come at once to a sane appreciation of the situation, and, unfortunately for all the parties concerned, the unjust prejudices which existed in South Africa against Sir Alfred Milner had to a certain extent tinctured the minds of people at home, exercising no small influence on the men who ought to have helped the High Commissioner to carry through his plans for the settlement of the situation subsequently to the war. The old saying, "Calumniate, calumniate, something will always remain after it," was never truer than in the case of this eminent statesman.
It took some time for matters to be put on a sound footing, and before this actually occurred many mistakes had been made, neither easy to rectify nor possible to explain. Foremost among them was this question of the Concentration Camps. Not even the protestations of the women who subsequently went to the Cape and to the Transvaal to report officially on the question were considered sufficient to dissipate the prejudices which had arisen on this unfortunate question. The best reply that was made to Miss Hobhouse, and to the lack of prudence which spoiled her good intentions, was a letter which Mrs. Henry Fawcett addressed to the Westminster Gazette. In clear, lucid diction this letter re-established facts on their basis of reality, and explained with self-respect and self-control the inner details of a situation which the malcontents had not given themselves the trouble to examine.
"First," says this forceful document, "I would note Miss Hobhouse's frequent acknowledgments that the various authorities were doing their best to make the conditions of Camp life as little intolerable as possible. The opening sentence of her report is, 'January 22.—I had a splendid truck given me at Cape Town through the kind co-operation of Sir Alfred Milner—a large double-covered one, capable of holding twelve tons.' In other places she refers to the help given to her by various officials. The commandant at Aliwal North had ordered £150 worth of clothing, and had distributed it; she undertook to forward some of it. At Springfontein 'the commandant was a kind man, and willing to help both the people and me as far as possible.' Other similar quotations might be made. Miss Hobhouse acknowledges that the Government recognise that they are responsible for providing clothes, and she appears rather to deprecate the making and sending of further supplies from England. I will quote her exact words on this point. The italics are mine. 'The demand for clothing is so huge that it is hopeless to think that the private charity of England and Colonial working parties combined can effectually cope with it. The Government recognise that they must provide necessary clothes, and I think we all agree that, having brought these people into this position, it is their duty to do so. It is, of course, a question for English folk to decide how long they like to go on making and sending clothes. There is no doubt they are immensely appreciated; besides, they are mostly made up, which the Government clothing won't be.' Miss Hobhouse says that many of the women in the Camp at Aliwal North had brought their sewing machines. If they were set to work to make clothes it might serve a double purpose of giving them occupation and the power of earning a little money, and it would also ensure the clothes being made sufficiently large. Miss Hobhouse says people in England have very incorrect notions of the magnificent proportions of the Boer women. Blouses which were sent from England intended for women could only be worn by girls of twelve and fourteen; they were much too small for the well-developed Boer maiden, who is really a fine creature. Could a woman's out-out size be procured? It must be remembered that when Miss Hobhouse saw the Camps for the first time it was in January, the hottest month in the South African year; the difficulty of getting supplies along a single line of rail, often broken by the enemy, was very great. The worst of the Camps she saw was at Bloemfontein, and the worst features of this worst Camp were:
"1. Water supply was bad.
"2. Fuel was very scarce.
"3. Milk was very scarce.
"4. Soap was not to be had.
"5. Insufficient supply of trained nurses.
"6. Insufficient supply of civilian doctors.
"7. No ministers of religion.
"8. No schools for children.
"9. Exorbitant prices were demanded in the shops.
"10. Parents had been separated from their children.
"Within the Report itself, either in footnotes or in the main body of the Report, Miss Hobhouse mentions that active steps had already been taken to remedy these evils. Tanks had been ordered to boil all the water. She left money to buy another, and supplied every family with a pan to hold boiled water. Soap was given out with the rations. 'Moreover, the Dutch are so very full of resources and so clever they can make their own soap with fat and soda.' The milk supply was augmented; during the drought fifty cows only yielded four buckets of milk daily. 'After the rains the milk supply was better.' An additional supply of nurses were on their way. 'The Sister had done splendid work in her domain battling against incessant difficulties … and to crown the work she has had the task of training Boer girls to nurse under her guidance.'
"Ministers of religion are in residence, and schools under Mr. E.B. Sargant, the Educational Commissioner, are open for boys and girls. Children have been reunited to parents, except that some girls, through Miss Hobhouse's kind efforts, have been moved away from the Camps altogether into boarding schools. Even in this Bloemfontein Camp, notwithstanding all that Miss Hobhouse says of the absence of soap and the scarcity of water, she is able to write: 'All the tents I have been in are exquisitely neat and clean, except two, and they are ordinary.' Another important admission about this Camp is to be found in the last sentence of the account of Miss Hobhouse's second visit to Bloemfontein. She describes the iron huts which have been erected there at a cost of £2,500, and says: 'It is so strange to think that every tent contains a family, and every family is in trouble—loss behind, poverty in front, privation and death in the present—but they have agreed to be cheerful and make the best of it all.'
"There can be no doubt that the sweeping together of about 68,000 men, women and children into these Camps must have been attended by great suffering and misery, and if they are courageously borne it is greatly to the credit of the sufferers. The questions the public will ask, and will be justified in asking, are :
"1. Was the creation of these Camps necessary from the military point of view?
"2. Are our officials exerting themselves to make the conditions of the Camps as little oppressive as possible?
"3. Ought the public at home to supplement the efforts of the officials, and supply additional comforts and luxuries?
"The reply to the first question can only be given by the military authorities, and they have answered it in the affirmative. Put briefly, their statement is that the farms on the veldt were being used by small commandoes of the enemy as storehouses for food, arms and ammunition; and, above all, they have been centres for supplying false information to our men about the movements of the enemy, and correct information to the enemy about the movements of the British. No one blames the Boer women on the farms for this; they have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact. But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the Concentration Camps is part of the fortune of war. In this spirit 'they have agreed,' as Miss Hobhouse says, 'to be cheerful and make the best of it.'
"The second question—'Are our officials exerting themselves to make the Camps as little oppressive as possible?'—can also be answered in the affirmative, judging from the evidence supplied by Miss Hobhouse herself. This does not imply that at the date of Miss Hobhouse's visit, or at any time, there were not matters capable of improvement. But it is confessed even by hostile witnesses that the Government had a very difficult task, and that its officials were applying themselves to grapple with it with energy, kindness and goodwill. Miss Hobhouse complains again and again of the difficulty of procuring soap. May I quote, as throwing light upon the fact that the Boer women were no worse off than the English themselves, that Miss Brooke-Hunt, who was in Pretoria to organise soldiers' institutes a few months earlier than Miss Hobhouse was at Bloemfontein, says in her interesting book, 'A Woman's Memories of the War': 'Captain ― presented me with a piece of Sunlight soap, an act of generosity I did not fully appreciate till I found that soap could not be bought for love or money in the town.' A Boer woman of the working-class said to Miss Brooke-Hunt: 'You English are different from what I thought. They told us that if your soldiers got inside Pretoria they would rob us of everything, burn our houses, and treat us cruelly; but they have all been kind and respectable. It seems a pity we did not know this before.' Miss Hobhouse supplies some rather similar testimony. In her Report she says: 'The Mafeking Camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared a rap about them or their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and I am so glad I fought my way here, if only for that reason.'
"In what particular way Miss Hobhouse had to fight her way to the Camps does not appear, for she acknowledges the kindness of Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner in enabling her to visit them; we must therefore suppose that they provided her with a pass. But the sentence just quoted is enough in itself to furnish the answer to the third question—'Is it right for the public at home to supplement by gifts of additional comforts and luxuries the efforts of our officials to make Camp life as little intolerable as possible?' All kinds of fables have been told to the Boer men and women of the brutality and ferocity of the British. Let them learn by practical experience, as many of them have learnt already, that the British soldier is gentle and generous, and that his women-folk at home are ready to do all in their power to alleviate the sufferings of the innocent victims of the war. I know it will be said, 'Let us attend to the suffering loyalists first.' It is a very proper sentiment, and if British generosity were limited to the gift of a certain definite amount in money or in kind, I would be the first to say, 'Charity begins at home, and our people must come first.' But British generosity is not of this strictly measured kind. By all means let us help the loyal sufferers by the war; but let us also help the women and children of those who have fought against us, not with any ulterior political motive, but simply because they have suffered and are bound to suffer much, and wounded hearts are soothed and healed by kindness.
"Mr. Rowntree has spoken quite publicly of the deep impression made on the Boer women by the kindness shown them by our men. One said she would be always glad to shake hands with a British soldier; it was because of the kindly devices they had invented to make over their own rations to the women and children during the long journey when all were suffering from severe privations. Another Boer girl, referring to an act of kindness shown her by a British officer, remarked quietly: 'When there is so much to make the heart ache it is well to remember deeds of kindness.' The more we multiply deeds of kindness between Boer and Briton in South Africa, the better for the future of the two races, who, we hope, will one day fuse into a united nation under the British flag."
I hope the reader will forgive me for having quoted in such abundance from Mrs. Fawcett's letter, but it has seemed to me that this plain, unprejudiced and unsophisticated report, on a subject which could not but have been viewed with deep sorrow by every enlightened person in England, goes far to remove the doubts that might still linger in the minds of certain people ignorant of the real conditions of existence in South Africa.
A point insufficiently realised in regard to South African affairs is the manner in which individuals comparatively devoid of education, and with only a hazy notion of politics, contrived to be taken into serious consideration not only by those who visited South Africa, but by a certain section of English society at home, and also in a more restricted measure by people at the Cape and in the Transvaal who had risen. These people professed to understand local politics better than the British authorities, and expected the officials, as well as public opinion in Great Britain, to adopt their advice, and to recognise their right to bring forward claims which they were always eager to prosecute. Unfortunately they had friends everywhere, to whom they confided their regrets that the British Government understood so very little the necessities of the moment. As these malcontents were just back from the Rand, there were plenty of people in Cape Town, and especially in Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, and other English cities in Cape Colony, ready to listen to them, and to be influenced by the energetic tone in which they declared that the Boers were being helped all along by Dutch Colonials who were doing their best to betray the British.
In reality, matters were absolutely different, and those who harmed England the most at that time were precisely the people who proclaimed that they, and they alone, were loyal to her, and knew what was necessary and essential to her interests and to her future at the Cape of Good Hope and the Rand. Foremost amongst them were the adherents of Rhodes, and this fact will always cling to his memory—most unfortunately and most unjustly, I hasten to say, because had he been left absolutely free to do what he liked, it is probable he would have been the first to get rid of these encumbrances, whose interferences could only sow animosity where kindness and good will ought to have been put forward. Cecil Rhodes wanted to have the last and definite word to say in the matter of a settlement of the South African difficulties, and as no one seemed willing to allow him to utter it, he thought that he would contrive to attain his wishes on the subject by seeming to support the exaggerations of his followers. Yet, at the same time, he had the leaders of the Dutch party approached with a view of inducing them to appeal to him to put himself at their head.
This double game, which while it lasted constituted one of the most curious episodes in a series of events of which every detail was interesting, I shall refer to later in more detail, but before doing so must touch upon another, and perhaps just as instructive, question—the so-called refugees, whose misfortunes and subsequent arrogance caused so many anxious hours to Sir Alfred Milner during his tenure of office at the Cape and later on in Pretoria.