HL Deb 15 July 1901 vol 97 cc370-8

My Lords, I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for War whether his attention has been called to an article on the Boer refugee camp at Howick, Natal, appearing in the July number of the Empire Review, and signed H. S. Caldecott (civil commandant); whether the regulations governing this camp are rightly set out by Mr. Caldecott; whether similar regulations are in force at other refugee camps in South Africa; and whether, in view of the conflicting accounts from individual sources, His Majesty's Government will consider the advisability of publishing as a Parliamentary Paper an official statement as to the conditions prevailing at each Boer refugee camp. The object I have in view in asking this question is, if possible, to obtain an authoritative statement of the true facts regarding the condition and administration of the Boer refugee camps in South Africa. The report of Miss Hobhouse, sent to the Committee of the South African Distress Fund, has been published for some weeks, and been very much commented upon. I do not intend to make any attack whatever on Miss Hobhouse. I am sure she has acted from the highest motives in visiting these camps, and it is evident that she was profoundly touched by the sufferings she witnessed. But she does not seem to have considered whether, under the conditions of war, it was not inevitable that much suffering should follow in its train, or whether, under those conditions, the persons in these refugee camps were better or worse off than if left in their homes in a country more or less devastated by military operations.

It is not of Miss Hobhouse that I complain. But I deplore the use which has been made of Miss Hobhouse's report by certain persons, both in the press and elsewhere, who thought it consistent with patriotism and a sense of justice to their fellow-countrymen who are administering these camps to make extracts from the report setting forth the worst possible view of the conditions of the camps, and carefully excluding certain qualifications which Miss Hobhouse herself mentioned. This is bad enough if it is only for the ears of English people, who can weigh the merits of this particular form of attack against His Majesty's Government in regard to our military operations; but it becomes much worse when such things are read by people in foreign countries, who are very often not friendly disposed towards us, and who certainly, however willing they might be, have not the opportunity of sifting the matter to the bottom. I have in my question drawn attention to some evidence which I think tells on the other side—namely, the article by Mr. Caldecott. But there is other and independent testimony. About ten days ago Mr. Rose Innes, whose name, I think, will command respect from all sides, referred, in the course of a speech, to the refugee camps, and with your Lordships' permission I will read a short extract. Mr. Rose Innes said— At the end of last year I approached the general commanding officer at Cape Town and requested him to obtain from the officers in charge of various camps a report upon the state of those camps, because it is just as well when you discuss a question to have both sides before you. Sir Forrestier Walker was good enough to obtain these reports, and I saw them all. I would submit those reports to any unprejudiced or even prejudiced man, and say, 'Have not the men in charge of those camps done their very best to minimise the inevitable hardships which children placed in those camps must undergo?' Not only have we their word, but we have, annexed to these reports, reports from Afrikanders themselves. Mr. Rose Innes quoted two letters—one from a Boer commandant (H. Alberts), in which he said, writing to Major Walter, at Boxsburg— I must express to you and other officers of Boxsburg my heartfelt thanks for the great kindness shown towards my wife, and at the same time for the message, and I hope that this kindness may some time be repaid to you. May I and you be spared to have a personal meeting. The other was a letter signed by A. P. Vands, the secretary of the Committee of the Dutch Reformed Churches in Johannesburg, and addressed to Captain Snowden, as follows— I am directed by the committee of the Dutch Reformed Churches here to convey to you the appreciation of the committee for the kindly interest and sympathy shown by you to the women and children under your charge; also to thank you for your courtesy to members of the committee, and for your co-operation in the committee's endeavours to lighten their present sad condition. There is only one other witness I will quote, and to my mind his is striking testimony. In a letter which appeared in the Cape Times on the 5th of May, Mr. J. F. Siebert, for twelve years a Government officer of the late Orange Free State, said— I recently visited most of the camps, and can only express my deep gratitude to the military authorities for their kind and considerate treatment. If the British have erred at all, they have done so in displaying too much magnanimity and consideration to their enemies; else the war might long have been over. We seem to have drifted into this incongruous position—that while, on the one hand, Boers are writing letters thanking us for the treatment their own people have received, there are, on the other hand, certain persons at home who say that these Boers are quite mistaken; that we are really the most inhuman people in the world, and a disgrace to civilization. It is not for me to say what is the right method to adopt to obtain information, but I hope it may be possible for the Government to appoint a commission, including ladies, to visit the camps and report upon their condition. Before we apportion any praise or blame to those responsible we ought to know the full facts, and I believe that if full information is obtained it will be shown that this country has set an example of humanity in conducting war which has not been set by any combatant in any previous war.


My Lords, I will answer the questions of my noble friend to the best of my ability, but I am afraid it is not possible for me to give definite information on all the points raised. There is a large number of these concentration camps, separated by large areas—some are in the newly conquered colonies, some in Natal, and one is on the coast-line in Cape Colony—and they are of different sizes, and contain different classes of inhabitants. For these reasons it has been found impossible to frame cut-and-dried regulations which could be applied to all the camps. Rules that would be useful and necessary in one camp would in all probability be unnecessary and possibly harmful in another. This is one of the chief reasons for the discrepancies to which my noble friend has alluded in the accounts of the various people who have seen these different camps; and I have no doubt myself that the discrepancies are still further exaggerated by the personal equation. It is a truism that no two persons see the same thing in the same manner, and therefore we cannot expect a number of people going to different camps to describe them in the same way.

My difficulty in dealing with this complicated question is increased by the fact that we are not in possession of full information. I should like to remind your Lordships that throughout this war it has always been the policy of the Government to give to the local authorities in South Africa, whether military, civil, or quasi-civil, as much freedom as possible, because they alone are in possession of the facts, and can form a sound judgment. It is obvious that it would very considerably hamper them in the discharge of their duties if we continually demanded from them a detailed running commentary on all their actions. The writing of elaborate reports has been strongly protested against by Mr. Dawkins's Committee, and if that practice is unnecessary and harmful in peace time, it must be more unnecessary and harmful in time of war. The Government have no desire to suppress any information in regard to the refugee camps. On the contrary, they are thoroughly in earnest in their desire to have as complete knowledge of this matter as possible. I am able to inform my noble friend that one of his suggestions has been anticipated, and that the Secretary of State for War is now engaged in forming a committee of ladies who will shortly go out and visit the camps and report on their condition. The Secretary of State for War hopes to be in a position to publish the names of these ladies in the course of a few days. The camp at Port Elizabeth is a small one, containing twenty men and 330 women, and I am glad to be able to report that it is very healthy. It is apparently run by military officers, and is in charge of a matron. The camps at Howick and Maritzburg are under civil commandants and those in the Transvaal and Orange River Colony under camp superintendents, with matrons, storekeepers, medical officers, and clerks. The nature of the shelter depends on circumstances. Where no brick buildings are available marquees and bell tents or huts are used. The regulations governing Howick Camp, into which Mr. Caldecott went in some detail, have not yet reached us, and we are not aware whether the same regulations obtain at other camps, but I imagine myself that they would probably differ in different places. Much must be left to the individual discretion of the superintendents and commandants.

Looking at the regulations as stated in Mr. Caldecott's article, they seem to me, from a general point of view, to carry out the principles of organization and discipline which are necessary for such camps. The refugees are not regarded as prisoners of war, but are permitted to frequent the nearest town with passes, which are freely given wherever it is possible. Whenever the authorities have proof that the refugee is a reliable person, who can either support himself or can go to friends who are in a position to support him, he is permitted to leave the camp and reside with them, or by himself in the town, but he is not allowed to leave the camp in order to starve on the veldt. With regard to rations, no distinction is drawn between those whose husbands are still out on commando and the rest. They receive the same rations as the British soldiers, and we are assured by Lord Kitchener that the refugees, from a material point of view, are satisfied and comfortable. There were complaints at first in various quarters as to the quality of the rations. In some cases it is possible, even probable; they were not all that could be desired. The difficulties of transport, as your Lordships are aware, were great, but these have now been overcome. The presence of a large number of children in the camps rendered the question of rations a very difficult one. Milk was a great difficulty, but condensed milk is now being supplied. Medical attention is provided by the attendance of a doctor, matron, and certified nurse, and ministers of religion are allowed to have access to the camps. In the Orange River Colony the ministers receive pay for their ministrations. There were certain of these ministers who preached politics under the guise of religion, and these men have had, Naturally, to be excluded. Relations are allowed to visit the camps, though, of course, wherever possible, families are accommodated in the same camp. Schools have been established wherever possible for the education of the children.

With regard to the mortality in the camps, of which we have heard so much, the death-rate for the month ended 30th June was as follows:—In Natal, with 901 men, 1,902 women, and 5,037 children, the deaths were 5 men, 15 women, and 84 children; in Cape Colony, with 31 men, 85 women, and 274 chil- dren, there were no deaths; in the Orange River Colony, with 5,116 men, 9,646 women, and 17,953 children, the deaths were 32 men, 75 women, and 182 children; and in the Transvaal, with 8,576 men, 16,078 women, and 19,811 children, the deaths were 26 men, 48 women, and 310 children. So that, with a total of 14,624 men, 27,711 women, and 43,075 children, the deaths were 63 men, 138 women, and 576 children. With regard to the colored inmates, in Natal, with 7 men, 2 women, and 11 children, there were no deaths; in the Orange River Colony, with 2,076 men, 7,313 women, and 11,201 children, there were no deaths, and in the Transvaal, with 244 men, 800 women, and 1,835 children, there were 5 deaths. The mortality at one time was very great in some of these camps, especially in the Transvaal, though I am glad to say it is steadily decreasing. However much we regret it, I think your Lordships will see that, in the circumstances, it was inevitable that the death rate at first should be considerable. A large number of these refugees were in bad health when they arrived at the camps, and were suffering from diseases, brought on chiefly by hard fare and want of luxuries. Large numbers of them have the most elementary ideas of sanitation, and it was with great difficulty that they could be induced to ventilate their tents and huts, and give up a great many in sanitary practices to which they had been addicted. Again, some of them, I am informed, from a morbid dread of illness, constantly took medicine which laid them open to disease. Much as we regret—and we do most deeply regret—the mortality which ensued on this state of things, yet we think, having regard to the only alternative which faced these people, concentration was the most charitable course to adopt, and the one most desirable from the point of view of military operations.


My Lords, I do not rise to say more than a few words on this exceedingly painful subject. There can be no question that the information which came to England in one form or another with regard to these concentration camps excited very keen feeling. Profound compassion has been felt for the unfortunate women and children There, who have no doubt suffered very largely. I do not, therefore, share the view which I understood the noble Lord to take, that attention should not have been called to this very serious subject. I quite understand that in war military necessities must arise, but I sometimes wonder whether a general, when the military necessity faces him, always looks sufficiently forward—whether he balances the immediate advantage which he may gain by a particular course of action, and its results in a more distant future. No doubt the results may at first be good, though we have not as yet heard whether any very good results have followed from the policy in this case; but whatever else may have happened, a terrible amount of ill-feeling and suffering must have arisen. This undertaking was on an enormous scale. I think that at first the Government and those who had charge of the work hardly realized the enormous extent to which this necessity would develop; and I rather doubt whether sufficient arrangements were at first made to meet the necessities which must arise from bringing together this great number of women and children in concentration camps. I am glad to learn that material improvements and changes have taken place in the condition of the people in the camps. For instance, it has been stated that some of the families were put on a different footing from others as regards rations because their husbands and brothers were engaged in warfare. That I think has now been remedied, and everybody must rejoice that that has been done. I am glad to hear that doctors and nurses have been sent out to mitigate the difficulties which have to be faced in these vast camps. I rejoice to hear what the noble and gallant Lord said as to sending out a Committee to visit all these camps. I share what has been said in regard to exaggerated statements. There may have been exaggerated statements on this subject, and I deprecate such statements. I feel sure that nearly everybody in this country attributes the utmost humanity and kindness to those who have charge of these camps. I certainly do, and I should be very sorry if any words in the press and elsewhere led to a contrary opinion. I sincerely trust that the Government will watch most carefully this policy of concentrating the people in camps, and will diminish it as fast as they can. I am not going to argue that it was not necessary, but the ill-feeling arising from the suffering entailed may do a great deal of harm and retard a possible settlement in the future.