Remarkable People

ID #5237

Emily Hobhouse 3 Personal Experience.

Late in 1901 the camps ceased to receive new families and conditions improved but the damage was done. Thomas Pakenham writes of Kitchener's policy turn: “No doubt the continued “hullabaloo” at the death-rate in these concentration camps, and Milner's belated agreement to take over their administration, changed Kitcheners mind (some time at the end of 1901). By mid-December at any rate, Kitchener was already circulating to all column commanders instructions not to bring in women and children when they cleared the country, but to leave them with the guerrillas. Viewed as a gesture to Liberals on the eve of the new session of Parliament at Westminster, it was a shrewd political move. It also made excellent military sense, as it greatly handicapped the guerrillas, now that the drives were in full swing. It was effective precisely because, contrary to the Liberals' convictions, it was less humane than bringing them into camps, though this was of no great concern to Kitchener”.

One European commented on England's conduct with the concentration camps: “Great Britain cannot win her battles without resorting to despicable cowardice of the most loathsome cure on earth - the act of striking at a brave man's heart through his wife's honour and his child's life”.

She arrived at the camp in Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901 and was shocked by the conditions she encountered:
"They went to sleep without any provision having been made for them and without anything to eat or to drink. I saw crowds along railway lines in bitterly cold weather, in pouring rain - hungry, sick, dying and dead. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes (small hills) by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine."
The suffering of the undernourished children is what most distressed Hobhouse. Diseases such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid had invaded the camp with fatal results. The few tents were not enough to house the one or more sick persons, most of them children.

In the collection Stemme uit die Verlede ("Voices from the Past"), she recalled the plight of Lizzie van Zyl, a child who died at the Bloemfontein camp.
"She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care. Yet, because her mother was one of the "undesirables" because her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations and so perished with hunger that, after a month in the camp, she was transferred to the new small hospital. Here she was treated harshly. The English doctor and nurses did not understand her language and, as she could not speak English, labelled her an idiot although she was mentally fit and normal. One day she dejectedly started calling for her mother, when a Mrs. Botha walked over to her to console her. She was just telling the child that she would soon see her mother again, when she was brusquely interrupted by one of the nurses who told her not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance"
When she requested soap for the people, she was told that soap is an article of luxury. She nevertheless succeeded, after a struggle, to have it listed as a necessity, together with straw, more tents and more kettles in which to boil the drinking water. She distributed clothes and supplied pregnant women, who had to sleep on the ground, with mattresses, but she could not forgive what she called “…crass male ignorance, helplessness and muddling… I rub as much salt into the sore places in their minds… because it is good for them; but I can't help melting a little when they are very humble and confess that the whole thing is a grievous and gigantic blunder and presents almost insoluble problems, and they don't know how to face it….”

Hobhouse also visited camps at Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River.

When she returned to England she received criticism and hostility from the British government and much of the media but eventually succeeded in obtaining more funding to help victims of the war. The British Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced what he called the "methods of barbarism". The British government eventually agreed to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims, under Millicent Fawcett, which corroborated her account of the shocking conditions.
She returned to Cape Town in October 1901 but was not permitted to land and was eventually deported five days later, no reason being given.

After Hobhouse had met the Boer generals she learned that the distress of the women and children in the concentration camps had contributed to their resolution to surrender. She saw it then as her mission to assist in healing the wounds inflicted by the war and to support efforts aimed at rehabilitation and reconciliation. With this object in view, she visited South Africa once more in 1903. She decided to set up Boer home industries and to teach young women spinning and weaving when she returned in 1905.
Ill health, from which she never recovered, forced her to return to England in 1908. She traveled to South Africa in 1913 for the inauguration of the National Women's Monument in Bloemfontein but had to stop at Beaufort West due to failing health.

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Last update: 2014-03-17 02:28
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.2

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