Go to the Labyrinth of East London Lore

Concentration Camp
for Boer families

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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The South African War -- also known as the Anglo-Boer War -- brought to East London a sizeable contingent of what the authorities euphemistically termed "Boer refugees".

During the second half of 1900, the British authorities had started a system of concentration camps -- mostly for Boer women and children. These original "refugee" camps were meant to protect those families who had surrendered to the Imperial forces and had taken an oath of neutrality.

As the conflict developed into a guerilla war, however, Britain initiated another scheme whereby all Boer women, children and elderly people were rounded up, and a scorched earth policy commenced. By May 1901, there were more than 11,000 Whites and 9,000 Blacks in such detention.

The camps soon became a scandal because of overcrowding, disease and a high mortality. Eventually the Secretary of State for Colonies -- Joseph Chamberlain -- and Lord Milner advised that they be broken into smaller units and located in the Cape Colony and in Natal.

The plan began to materialise in November 1901. Lord Milner suggested several possible localities but the Cape Government insisted that the camps should be as close to the sea as possible so that they could be supplied at minimal cost.

Various sites were proposed but East London, Port Alfred and Uitenhage were selected. In May 1902 another camp was established near Stutterheim. The site at East London was to the east of the Buffalo River, and bounded by the Buffalo, Amalinda and Second Creek rivers.

Local contractors were employed to construct 54 huts, each a wooden frame with walls and roof of corrugated iron and set on stilts to keep it raised off the ground. The camp could contain a population of over 2,000.

There would also be a school, a hospital, morgue, superintendent and matron's quarters, a workshop, store and dispensary. Four streets were to be broad enough to allow room for recreation.

The inmates began to arrive at end of March 1902. They travelled in cattle trucks, some with tents for protection and others covered merely with tarpaulin. All were provided with hot water and cocoa on route. They remained at East London until August that year.

They came from the Orange Free State -- mostly from Heilbron, Vredefort and Winburg. When the population reached its peak in June 1902, there were 2,088 on the register, most of whom were women and children but also a sizeable minority of men.

They were allowed a degree of freedom. There would be no fences to restrict movement. There were also no sentries, while the camp corporals were elected. Once outside the perimeters of the camp, the inmates became subject solely to the laws of the land.

Facilities were also provided for them to visit the town and make private purchases, although permits were needed before they were allowed beyond the boundaries of their reserve. That privilege was granted on a rotation basis.

Conditions were considerably healthier and more comfortable than those under which the Uitlander refugees had existed. Sickness and death were minimal. The freedom also enabled some of the inmates to marry. Several babies were born within the camp.

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