The Story of the First Concentration Camps in History and the Whistle-Blowers of the British Empire

Dylan Freestone - Writer

The term ‘Concentration Camp’ is a very loaded term, and one associated with some of the worst inhumanity shown to man. It is a term twinned with the image of Auschwitz and the Nazi Regime of the 1940s. By UK law, the Holocaust is taught as part of the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum and thankfully the indescribable images of the Holocaust are ingrained in people’s heads, aided by other works like Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002) and the adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).  

However, these were not the first Concentration Camps in history. 

In fact, it was Britain which invented and first employed the use of camps 40 years prior to the Nazi regime. The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) involved the British Empire expanding into colonised South Africa against the existing Dutch settlers there, known as Boers (which is simply the Dutch word for farmer). The British and the Dutch had lived in different parts of South Africa with relative peace despite some divergent attitudes. This was until gold and diamonds were discovered under Boer territory. Britain was hungry for dominance. The early battles in this war had seen trench warfare and several defeats for both sides. Britain was declared victorious as they managed to annex and take control of both territories that the Dutch Boers were controlling.

However, victory was declared too early for Britain. 

The existing Boer fighters had lost a conventional war but still believed that God was on their side. They adopted ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ (essentially small groups taking down prominent leaders and using tactics to demoralise the other side). The Boer guerrilla fighters managed to live off the land and destroyed railway lines meaning that the British forces were losing supply lines and men.

At this point, the British officials in South Africa decided to involve Boer civilians as a means of revenge. They began burning any farms that they came across, so the fighters would have no homes to return to. Unsurprisingly, the innocent wives and children of the fighters also now had no homes. So, they were placed in refugee camps in order to ‘concentrate’ a large number into more manageable areas. You can see where this is going.

Lord Kitchener, the ‘Your Country Needs You’ guy, may be seen by some as a patriotic symbol and an inspiring leader in the First World War. Well, it was his idea to set up these camps to deal with the displaced civilians. 

It is important to note that these were not death camps nor labour camps. Britain did not commit an intentional genocide of the Dutch Boers, based on race like the Nazis had towards the Jewish population. Instead, the camps in South Africa were so poorly managed and neglected that disease and starvation began to increase the death rate anyway.

Over 26,000 Boer women and children died in concentration camps established by the British military. (Stanley, 2006). There is a monument at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, SA which commemorates the deaths of the women, children and black minorities in the camps. And at the bottom of the monument is the final resting place of a white Victorian British woman.

This particular woman is Emily Hobhouse. She began as an anti-war campaigner and later heard about what was going on in the camps. She demanded to visit and made it her life’s work for the next few years to expose to the British public what was happening there. She wrote letters, memoirs and articles for the Manchester Guardian detailing the suffering that was going on in these camps. Her graphic descriptions involved testaments from Boer women, dying from diseases like pneumonia, dysentery and measles and embarked on a ‘personal crusade’ to do what she could to improve the situation. (Jewell, 2003). She met with the British leaders in South Africa and told them that it was damaging the country’s reputation. It took many years, but she began to turn the public mood against the war. She describes one of the camps’ many tents as having ‘the flies lay[ing] thick and black on everything’ as well as her observation that ‘It is horrible that the corpses should lie in the hot tents with eight or ten living beings’.(Emily Hobhouse’s Letter to Lady Hobhouse 26/1/1901).

Lizzie Van Zyl, who died in the Concentration Camp at Bloemfontein shortly after Hobhouse’s visit. 

This is where J.A. Hobson comes in. Hobson is known generally as an English economist. However, he was formerly a journalist for the Manchester Guardian. When tensions first began to emerge in South Africa between the Boers and the Empire, he was sent to report on the situation as the newspaper’s South-Africa correspondent. However, it was on his visit that he discovered another ugly truth about British imperialism. The official reason behind the war continuing was that it was protecting the rights of the British workers in Boer Territories. Hobson discovered that in reality, there was a capitalist conspiracy at the heart of the colonial government (Hobson, 1900). A small group of gold mine-owners would benefit massively from winning the war and the territory. He then made it his work for the next few years developing his theory about capitalism and imperialism being linked, using material from Emily Hobhouse. His ground-breaking yet dull titled Imperialism: A Study (1902) went on to inspire Lenin, who linked the two more explicitly in a work of 1916. Hobson had been largely ignored but later historians have considered his views pivotal in the understanding of the Empire.

He revealed a truth about the British Empire, that it was motivated by profits and growth and that it would destroy human lives in order to do this.

Both Hobson and Hobhouse revealed to the public the brutal reality of British Imperialism. While they were both motivated by different feelings (Hobson, an economist who wished to reveal the truth and Hobhouse a humanitarian and completely selfless figure of her time), their criticisms went some way to changing the British public’s feelings towards the Empire. It remained as an institution for decades after the Boer War and with public support but Hobson and Hobhouse began to unpeel the glittering mask from the ugly face beneath. Historians before the war only considered the Empire a triumph that spread progress to all the “backward” people around the world. This tradition changed after their work was spread and a more nuanced view was considered of imperialism.

Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed in 2019 that the death rate in Glasgow at the time was the same as the Boer War concentration camps and then proceeded to defend them, suggesting that “They were interned for their safety.”(BBC Question Time 14/2/19). Not only was this entirely factually inaccurate and incredibly insensitive, but it shows how ignorant many people are to what happened in South Africa. It is not something that is explored in film and television and it is not an event that is known to everyone.

As the proverb goes History repeats itself because no one listens. In this case, it is certainly worth listening to.


Hobson, J.A., Capitalism and Imperialism in South Africa (1900)
Jewell, J.R., ‘Using Barbaric Methods in South Africa: The British Concentration Camp Policy during the Anglo-Boer War’, Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies, 13/1, (2003), pp. 1-18.
Krebs, P., ‘” The Last of the Gentleman’s Wars”: Women in the Boer War Concentration Camp Controversy,’ History Workshop 33/1, (1992), pp.38-56.
Morgan, K., ‘The Boer War and the Media (1899-1902)’, 20th Century British History, 13/1, (2002), pp.1-16.
Stanley, L., Mourning Becomes: Post/memory, commemoration and the concentration camps of the South African War (Manchester, 2006).
Emily Hobhouse’s Letter to Lady Hobhouse 26/1/1901 in Van Reener, R. (ed.) Hobhouse, E., Boer War Letters (Cape Town, 1984).

Web Sources

Holocaust Education in the UK (
BBC Question Time 14/2/19 (

Photo Credits - 
Lizzie Van Zyl
Lord Kitchener


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