I read The Boer War as we travelled in South Africa and was horrified by the bungling, stupidity, ruthlessness, and barbarity of the 1899-1902 war. Of course there were acts of bravery, daring, and enterprise, even cleverness, but this was a war which could have been avoided, or stopped much earlier. I was aware of the British ‘scorched earth’ policy and the corralling of Boer women and children into enclosures – concentration camps – but I found a visit to the very fine Anglo-Boer War Museum and the Women’s Memorial just outside Bloemfontein shocking.
The Museum was officially opened by General J B M Hertzog, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, and a General in the Anglo-Boer War, in September 1931.
The Women’s Memorial was opened earlier, in 1913, and was designed by sculptor Anton von Vouw and architect Frans Soff. Anton von Vouw’s bronze sculpture was inspired by Emily Hobhouse’s description of a woman holding her dying child
Alongside the avenue leading to the sandstone obelisk are plaques set into the ground which name the concentration camps and the number of deaths. There is a map on the Wall of Remembrance showing the location of the camps, and listing the women and children who died.
There were 144,944 women, children and men in 49 camps for white people, and 140,154 women, children and men in 65 camps for black people. (Statistics here.) The number who died in the concentration camps is not clear: somewhere between 26,000-35,000 Boer women and children, and at least 20,000 non-white women and children in separate concentration camps. In both cases around 80% of the deaths were children. People died of starvation, and there were measles, typhoid and dysentery epidemics. Lizzie van Zyl, who died of typhoid, is an iconic image of the camps. Medical care was offered but it was limited. The ‘scorched earth’ policy destroyed approximately 30,000 farms, millions of cattle, and crops.
The bronze statues by Danie de Jager and Phil Minnaar capture the sadness and futility of the war and the setting in bare veld, under a burning sun – it was at least 35C this day – brought home the horror of living in a tent with no running water, air conditioning, kitchen, or nearby shop or doctor.
You may be interested in
The Women’s Memorial, 100 years
Black involvement in the Anglo-Boer War
Black concentration camps
Photographs from the concentration camps – please visit this site
The Anglo-Boer War Museum
A long description of the camps and the scorched earth policies
Healthcare and causes of death in the concentration camps