Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The only bright spot in camp life"

Much has been written about what are often called the first concentration camps, being those set up by Lord Kitchener during the Boer War in South Africa and into which were herded many thousands of Afrikaner women and children after the land was laid waste through his scorched earth policy.

Emily Hobhouse, whose ashes are buried at the foot of this memorial, is especially famous for bringing to light this shameful practice: appallingly run camps riddled with diseases, little shelter, inadequate water, food and clothing. The mortality statistics are that nearly 28,000 Afrikaners died in these camps between 1899-1902 with more than three-quarters of them aged less than sixteen.

Outrage erupted in Britain. Kitchener argued the camps were essential to stop the women supporting their men out in the field by way of supplies and intelligence, while politicians tried to soften matters by saying they were necessary to save the helpless families of the enemy who had been abandoned and left to starve by their men, leaving them easy prey to marauding black Africans.

In an attempt to placate the furore, the British Government appointed a ladies committee headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett to report on the camps. Although she corroborated most of what Hobhouse had reported, her report had a harsher tone as she felt much blame fell on the women themselves because they had chosen to involve themselves in the war and were often more violently opposed to British domination than their men so they had to expect the consequences, also that they contributed to the deaths of their own children through ignorance and superstition.

To reinforce the policy that incarceration in the camps was purely for the safety of the women and children, the British Government initiated a program of education. This is covered in some detail by Eliza Reidi in an article, Teaching Empire: British and Dominions Women Teachers in the South African War Concentration Camps. *
“The picture of dead and dying children drawn by Hobhouse and backed by the mortality statistics was replaced by one of happy schoolchildren, bright, pretty, and keen to learn.
But there was more politics at play here than altruism. The British Government wanted to crush the backward-looking culture of the Afrikaner people, force them towards a modern Imperial future and to make them speak English. And so the daughters of England and the Empire were recruited to carry out this important task.

Shields Gazette, 6 November, 1901.
Ladies ... may be sure of a courteous reception from the parents
and every provision will be made for their comfort.

A salary of 100 pounds a year and a return passage, plus food and accommodation included made this an attractive proposition for many. Some applicants would have been passionate do-gooders or die-hard British Imperialists or feminists, some were governesses, others simply wanted out of a restrictive life or a thirst for adventure (and possibly a husband), or they could be struggling single women or widows fallen on hard times.

Reidi’s article gives an overview of the recruitment processes and its challenges, with brief summaries of some of the women from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who travelled to South Africa. Some remained there, some died before their contracts were up, but most seem to have just disappeared from the records. Perhaps some will be found through judicious genealogical searching, but most resources available on these teachers are scarce or non-existent. Although there were between 300-400 of them, they are just more of the frustrating will o the wisps of female history. Given that these were often well-educated and literate women, where are the diaries or journals or biographies that would throw greater light on their experiences? 

Only one seems to have been rediscovered. Canadian E. Maud Graham published a book in 1905, and this has been recently been re-published and edited in a new edition by the University of Alberta Press, but the book is a little expensive and is not universally available in libraries. (Unfortunately, the original 1905 version has not as yet found its way onto the treasures at Internet Archive.) Another Canadian was writer Florence H. Randal Livesay who manages to score a few lines here and there on Canadian websites but not much else.
Find it on

An Australian contingent departed in the SS Medic from Melbourne on 31 July 1902, and their story is briefly detailed at the bottom of page 22 of this educational publication of the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs - but without specific names.

Australian teachers before departing for South Africa, 1902

The February 2015 newsletter for National Boer War Memorial Association (pages 9-10), lists several of these Australian women and puts out a request:  
We encourage anyone with knowledge of these women, especially descendants, to let us know what happened to them.
Ida Robertson was just one example. The daughter of a solicitor from Deniliquin, New South Wales, she had been inspired to travel to South Africa after the death of her brother. Much detail about his service and death can be found in this newsletter of the Hay Historical Society, but what happened to Ida eventually is not known.

Twenty women sailed from New Zealand and the caption attached to this photograph on the NZ History website lists the names of all of them. Interestingly, the accompanying article has this to say:
Once the camps were dismantled the teachers found jobs working at schools in the towns or countryside. Most decided to remain in South Africa after finishing the term of their appointment. Only six of the 20 teachers returned to New Zealand and those that did found that their lives had been forever changed by their experiences in South Africa.
The 'Learned Eleventh' from New Zealand

As world attitudes change, not only have these stories slipped into the usual fog of women’s history, they are at risk of disappearing permanently as the old “white” South Africa fades from modern consciousness with new emphasis on previously neglected black history. ^ 

Still, for taking on the challenge and doing what they thought was the right thing within the parameters of their time and place, these women remain worthy of recognition. They provided what Emily Hobhouse said was the only bright spot in the horrors of concentration camp life. Here, you can read the memoir of an Afrikaner child, Hester Johanna Maria Uys, who had fond memories of a Miss O’Brien teaching her English and knitting. 

There are a number of books by and about Emily Hobhouse. She even had a South African naval ship named after her during the apartheid era.

An extensive collection of images on this Pinterest page.

You may be lucky to find specific womens names by searching for reports on lady teachers for South Africa via various newspaper archives online, including British Newspapers or TROVE.

* The English Historical Review
Vol. 120, No. 489 (Dec., 2005), pp. 1316-1347
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL:

^ The equally horrendous black concentration camps of this war are now starting to be researched and written about.