The terrible conditions in British internment or concentration camps were first brought to light in Europe by the pro-Boer British humanitarian and social worker, Emily Hobhouse, in dramatic and searing publications such as her 1902 Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies. A staunch liberal pacifist, Hobhouse joined the anti-war South African Conciliation Committee at the outbreak of war and soon established the South African Women and Children Distress Fund in response to the first news of farm burnings and the evacuation of rural civilians to refugee camps. She first travelled to South Africa with clothing, food and other supplies at the end of 1900 and encountered rates of illness, suffering and mortality far worse than she had anticipated. On her return to London she produced a sobering account of camp conditions, distinguished for its cold factual reporting and restrained moral indignation.
Hobhouse soon found common cause with the leader of Britain’s opposition Liberals, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who in 1901 drew on her revelations to denounce his country’s war policy as ‘methods of barbarism’. While confining her probing to Boer camps, she was not unaware of the plight of refugees in black camps, and called for an investigation of conditions there. At the same time, Hobhouse was put out by the personal familiarity between some Boer families and the black servants who accompanied them in white camps. In 1902, in a rather racist tone, she deplored the ‘undue familiarity’ with which Boers and blacks were eating and sleeping together, ‘all in the same tents’. But it is also interesting to note that, unlike the same conditions in the Boer camps, the conditions in the
black refugee camps evoked no reaction either from the British government or from the British public. Similarly, in 1941, when the Dutch Reformed Church compiled the numbers of lives lost in the Boer camps during the war, Jacob Mohlamme records, ‘it took no interest in the losses suffered by blacks, even though the Church had nonwhite members’.
In all fairness to Hobhouse, however, she did pass on information about conditions in the black camps to H. R. Fox-Bourne, secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society of London, who suggested that the British government ‘should secure for the natives who are detained no less care and humanity than are now prescribed for the Boer refugee camps’. The society suggested further that, because of the very high mortality rates in the black refugee camps, ‘a committee of South African ladies should be appointed to visit and report upon them’, just as the Fawcett Commission had recently done for the Boer refugee camps. Such noble suggestions seem to have been ignored.
Emily Hobhouse attempted another visit to South Africa in 1901 but on her arrival at the Cape was immediately arrested under martial law regulations and deported to Britain on Kitchener’s personal instruction. Still, although her camp findings were dismissed as biased or exaggerated by prowar critics, they created a political uproar in Britain, forcing the government into improving conditions. Hobhouse maintained a hallowed connection with Afrikaner people after the war, her ashes ending up appropriately at the foot of the Women’s Memorial in Bloemfontein in 1927.