She wrote of this journey: Going through the Karoo it was very hot and the second day there were horrible dust-storms varied by thunderstorms. The sand penetrated through the closed windows and doors, filled eyes and ears, turned my hair red, and covered everything like a table-cloth.
There was no food available on the train. At stations the food on offer was of poor quality and she found it difficult to buy any because of the throng of soldiers crowding around the few outlets. By the end of the journey she was surviving on dry bread, apricot jam from a tin and drinks of cocoa that she could make for herself with the little spirit stove that she took with her.
On the last few hundred kilometres from Colesberg, they were in the area where rail lines were being blown up and trains attacked. She was within the combat zone. [To see a sketch-map of this journey, click on this link Maps for Hobhouse paper. Then click on the thumbnail of Emily's 1st journey.]
She visited her first camp a day or two after arriving in Bloemfontein. It was the height of summer. What did she find?
The camps had been created on the cheap with the resources that were to hand, namely the canvas bell tents used to accommodate soldiers on campaign. And little else. People had to sleep on the ground and often had no furniture at all. Few blankets were available.
The food provided varied by region, camp and over time but the variations were minor. Rations consisted of raw meat, raw meal or potatoes, coffee, salt, sugar and sometimes a small quantity of condensed milk. It was the same for everyone – adults, children, babies - no matter how small the children or young the babies. Each family had to cook their own food for which they were given some fuel – coal or firewood, usually too little –and not much by way of equipment. The rations never changed, month after month.
½ lb meat (usually raw)
¾ lb meal, rice, samp or potatoes
1 oz coffee
1 oz salt
2 oz sugar
1/12 tin of condensed milk
The tents were overcrowded - up to ten or even twelve persons in a tent. Families were large in those days, and many of the women had five or six children of all ages to look after. Some of the women had arrived pregnant and had given birth in the camp.
The toilet facilities were rudimentary, far too few and soon became disgusting.
Soap was not available and water was in very short supply. Emily learned that they were allowed two buckets of water per tent per day – for drinking, cooking and keeping themselves, their clothes and their cooking and eating utensils clean. The water was untreated river water. This, in a town where typhoid was rife and had already killed many soldiers.
These conditions, which are so easily and simply described, clearly posed great health risks for the occupants. When Emily first inspected the Bloemfontein camp with its then 2,000 occupants, she soon realised the gravity of the situation:
Whatever you do, she wrote, whatever the Military Authorities may do – and Major Cray, I believe, is doing his very best with very limited means – it is all only a miserable patch upon a very great wrong…The whole system is a mistake and has placed thousands physically unfit in conditions of life which they have not [the]strength to endure.
She was urged to see the Anglican bishop in Bloemfontein. She wrote of this meeting: He said one of his Sisters of Mercy had visited the camp some time ago and reported that all that was needed was a little cotton and a little soap. They were happy and well off otherwise.
She was dismayed. Allow me to quote at some length from her subsequent letter to her aunt:
… I went straight to my camp and just in one little corner this is what I found. Nurse Kennedy, underfed and overworked,just sinking onto her bed, hardly able to hold herself up after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients with only the untrained help of two Boer girls – cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next I called to see a woman panting in the heat just sickening for her confinement. Fortunately I had a nightdress in my bundle to give her and two tiny baby gowns. Next tent, a little six months’ baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee. The doctor had given it powder in the morning but it had taken nothing since. Two or three others drooping and sick in that tent. Next, a child recovering from measles sent back from hospital before it could walk, stretched on the ground, white and wan, three or four others lying about. Next, a girl of 24 lay dying on a stretcher. Her father, a big gentle Boer, kneeling beside her while in the next tent his wife was watching a child of six also dying and one of about five also drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let those go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. “We must watch these ourselves”, they said. Captain Hume had mounted guard over me - he thinks I am too sympathetic – but I sent him flying to get some brandy
and get some down the girl’s throat. But for the most part you must stand and look on helpless to do anything because there is nothing to do anything with. Then a man came up and said “Sister,” (they call me Sister) “come and see my child, sick for nearly three months”. It was a dear little chap of four and nothing left of him except his great brown eyes and white teeth from which the lips were drawn back too thin to close. His body was emaciated.
“Captain Hume,” I said, "you shall look.” And I made him come in and shewed him the complete child-skeleton. Then at last he did say it was awful to see the children suffering so.
After just a week in Bloemfontein, Emily left to visit other camps. In her next journey - between 2nd and 12th February 1901 - she visited the camps south of Bloemfontein at Norvals Pont and Aliwal North. Though shorter, this journey was more difficult and dangerous than the first. Just at this time De Wet was entering the same area in force to make his break into the Cape Colony and Kitchener was rushing troops into the region to corner him - unsuccessfully, of course. [To see a sketch-map of this journey, click on Maps for Hobhouse paper. Then click on the thumbnail of Emily's 2nd journey.]
At some stations, food was unobtainable. The ladies’ facilities were often locked-up or being used as offices. She spent one sleepless night sitting upright in the guard's van as the train was shunted all night. For another night she sought accommodation at a station but all the meagre offerings were taken. Then a gallant commercial traveller offered her his hotel room if he could leave some of his things in it:
It was an appalling room; you had to stand in it with your skirts drawn round you – and to add to the misery a sand storm came on and the heat was the most excessive I have felt out here. My tongue felt as if it were tied into a knot. After much worry I got two black ladies to come and wash the place out, and then made a ring with insect powder and lay down in the centre of it. It was a very ghastly night and though not amusing at the time, I feel very much amused now in thinking of my absurd hunger, thirst,fatigue, dirt, loneliness and general misery.
During this time, the Boers under Commandant Froneman, one of De Wet’s subordinates, captured and looted a train on the Jagersfontein branch by blowing up the line before and after it. This was close to her route and the danger is evident.
Conditions at the Norvals Pont and Aliwal North camps – newer than Bloemfontein - were a little better, although the lack of clothing was acute. Despite the risks, despite the difficulties and hardships, she did not decide - as others might have done – that it was all too difficult and dangerous. She had reached her destinations, inspected the camps and returned to Bloemfontein via a long southern route.
She realised now that what she and her Fund could do was not going to alleviate the huge need to any significant extent. The scale was such that only the authorities with government resources could assist the camp residents and she changed her objective. Instead of delivering direct aid she would delegate that and devote her efforts to persuading the authorities of the need for urgent change.
Back in Bloemfontein she went straight to the lieutenant-governor, Hamilton Goold-Adams, but had little joy. One of her key requests was that no more people should be brought to the camps so that facilities could be improved and the difficulties brought under control. Instead, he told her many more people would be sent to the camps.
By now Kitchener’s scorched earth campaigns were gathering momentum. You will know what this meant: His army’s formed long lines across the veld – up to 70 km long – and swept slowly forward over a period of weeks, even months covering huge areas of country and destroying everything in their paths. Anything that could sustain human life was removed. Houses were torched, livestock confiscated or simply slaughtered, crops burnt, wells poisoned with animal carcasses, dams breached. Even the farms of loyalists were devastated and the humble homes of black residents were not spared. No food or shelter could remain.
The people on the farms, black and white, were forcibly removed to the concentration camps and the number of occupants in them increased rapidly. This began in the Transvaal even as Emily was inspecting the southern camps and she did not see its immediate consequences. But soon people were arriving from the overcrowded camps in the north. This is what Goold-Adams had meant.
During this period, after Emily’s journey to Norvals Pont and Aliwal North, deaths in the Bloemfontein camp became a daily occurrence. Some days several funerals were held. Emily realised that the population of the camp was about the same as that of her father’s parish in Cornwall. There funerals had been rare events and it was usually the elderly that died. In the camp, funerals were frequent and it was the children that were dying.
Frustrated by the lack of action in the face of such urgency and gravity, she found it difficult to restrain her impatience with the authorities and they, in turn, were becoming less cooperative. She thought they were incompetent, out of their depth and impotent. They thought that they were conducting a war and how they did it was none of her business.
Undaunted by the hardships and the uncooperative attitudes, she embarked on an even more ambitious journey to Kimberley and Mafeking, stopping off at camps along the way.
When she reached Kimberley, the local civil administrator, General Pretyman, refused to give her a pass to go anywhere except back to Cape Town. She took it, went to Cape Town and made the best of it. She saw Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, the new Governor of the Cape Colony, and General Forrestier-Walker, the military commander at the Cape. Hely-Hutchinson was surprised to learn that there were any concentration camps on his territory. There were six. Forrestier-Walker gave her the permits she needed to get to Mafeking.
She went to Mafeking via Kimberley and then retraced her route to Bloemfontein. The journey took six difficult weeks during which time she covered 4,800 kilometres. [Click on Maps for Hobhouse paper. Then click on the thumbnail of Emily's 3rd journey.]
I’ll not go into details of her discoveries at the camps on the way. It was more of the same and her descriptions make further disturbing reading. I’ll just pick-up on one thread. On her way south from Bloemfontein she had stopped at a newly established camp at Springfontein and distributed clothing. On her return, she did not have a permit to break her travels here, but at the station she learnt that during her journey, the population of the camp had increased from 500 to 3,000. She found a trainload of a further 600 people at the station. They had arrived in open cattle trucks and were attempting to dry themselves after a downpour during the night. They had had no food and children were crying from hunger.
She returned to Bloemfontein by 22 April 1901 to find that the camp there had doubled in size. She believed improvements were in progress when she left and she expected to see the benefits. Instead she found a camp overwhelmed by the sudden influx. The condition of the inmates was considerably worse and people she had known and worked with had died. She again directed urgent appeals to the administration.
She was now deeply demoralised. Kitchener had refused her final request to go to the northern camps and she left Bloemfontein on 1 May 1901 to return home. Remember this date: 1 May 1901.
But we have not yet done with the Orange River Colony. Of the return journey to Cape Town, she wrote this:
I broke my journey at Springfontein. There, to my horror still massed on the railway siding, I found the same unfortunate people whom I had seen when passing north 10 days previously – their condition beggars description; the picture photographed on my mind can never fade.
She was called to a makeshift shelter where a mother sat on a trunk with a fast-fading child on her lap. She tried unsuccessfully to get a little brandy from the camp, a mile away, in a last ditch effort to save the little one. The camp refused; its meagre supplies were being husbanded for the camp itself.
There was nothing to be done, she wrote, and we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence.
The mother neither moved nor wept. It was her only child. Dry-eyed but deathly white, she sat there motionless looking not at the child but far, far away into depths of grief beyond all tears. A friend stood behind her who called upon Heaven to witness this tragedy and others crouching on the ground around her wept freely.
Emily arrived in Cape Town in a dishevelled state, unable to wash on the train journey. A few days after her arrival, she was on a ship home to the UK.
During the four months that Emily spent in South Africa she wrote regularly to her Uncle and Aunt, Lord and Lady Hobhouse, to her brother, Leonard, a journalist and later a distinguished sociologist and to the committee of the Distress Fund. These letters, from which I have been quoting, began to be circulated among influential people in London and questions began to be asked in Parliament.
The government dismissed the concerns and blamed the Boers for refusing to surrender. But behind the scenes, telegrams were flying: The Secretary for War, St John
Brodrick, demanded to know from Kitchener what was really happening in the camps. And so, as a direct consequence of Emily’s work, the formal reporting on conditions in the camps began and the collection of statistics commenced. These reports – especially those prepared by the camp doctors – were quite as disturbing as Emily’s letters and confirmed in formal terms what she was saying. They show that the fatality rates were indeed high and rising and they warned that the mortality rate would increase unless urgent action was taken.
The early reports were patchy, but it seems that by the end of April 1901, there were 47,000 people in the camps. By the end of June, just two months later, the figure had nearly doubled to 80,000.
The winter was now descending on the Highveld. And these winters are severe. Typically the temperature goes below freezing at night, sometimes well below freezing. When we lived in Johannesburg, minus 7 deg was a common event. The people were still in tents and had very little clothing, mostly worn-out summer clothing. As Emily and the doctors had anticipated, the consequences would be dire.
Emily returned to England on board a ship, the RMS Saxon, which also happened to be carrying Milner and some of his staff. Milner, as High Commissioner, had responsibility for the camps. He was going to England on holiday. From his secretary, she learnt that she would not be allowed to return to southern Africa, a revelation that alarmed and outraged her.
She sought a meeting with Milner but he refused to see her until the ship refuelled at Madeira. There he received a telegram informing him that a lordship would be conferred upon him as soon as he landed. A grand welcoming was being prepared for him. Now he agreed to meet her. He listened, apparently sympathetically, to her pleas that much more be done for the people in the camps. She also asked to be allowed to return. He promised to speak with the government and to write to her.
Emily in England
Having had little success in getting a change in direction in policies in South Africa, Emily now tried in England. This part of her story is as remarkable as her time on the veld. And just as troubling.
She had arrived back in England a nobody. Where was she to start? She began with a round of meetings with her supporters, particularly her family and the members of the Distress Fund Committee, and a plan was developed. She would seek a meeting with the Secretary for War, St John Brodrick. At the same time preparations would be made to publish her letters from southern Africa as a report. The plan was to make it available to members of parliament and the press, but only if her meeting with the Secretary for War was unsuccessful.
Emily felt she should first wait for the promised letter from Milner. But his letter never came. The situation in the camps was urgent and she asked to see Brodrick. She met him on 4th June 1901. He had already mounted a stout defence of the camps in the Commons and Emily received nothing but platitudes and assurances from him. Everything that could be done, was being done. Nevertheless, he asked her to put her suggestions in writing and he would see if more could be done. She delivered her response to his office the same afternoon.
Brodrick referred the list to Milner. Milner rejected some of her suggestions and said the rest were mostly military matters to be referred to Kitchener. His reply to Brodrick revealed his cant hypocrisy. He wrote:
It is possible to be too stingy about the camps. We don’t want to make them too comfortable, but neither ought anything necessary for the health of the inmates be neglected. But this can and ought to be done by persons, preferably S. Africans, appointed by the Government, not by philanthropic or other private agencies outside. It is admitting neglect on our part that such persons should be necessary.’
Emily should not be allowed to return, nor should any other outsiders be allowed to meddle with the camps. On the other hand, said Milner, if the government ‘thought it necessary to allow such meddling, then Miss Hobhouse had better be one of the meddlers. As long as she is working in the camps, she will not be able to carry on a crusade in England, though, of course, she can write mischievously.’
As Milner had just returned from southern Africa, as he was the man with responsibility for the camps, as he had just been celebrated and elevated to the peerage, why would Brodrick disagree? He procrastinated and did not respond immediately to Emily.
Emily continued to meet with influential people. The most notable discussion was with the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. When he heard what she had seen, he called the way the war was being conducted ‘methods of barbarism’. He used that phrase in a speech he delivered that same evening. It flashed around the world but only seems to have hardened the government’s attitude.
The issue was again debated in parliament after the government had revealed, in response to a question, the high fatality rates in the camps. The Opposition asked that this be treated as a non-political, humanitarian issue. Brodrick refused and again defended the camps and the way the war was being conducted.
In the debate, David Lloyd George, a future prime minister said:
We want to make loyal British subjects of these people. Is this the way to do it? Brave men will forget injuries to themselves much more readily than they will insults, indignities, and wrongs to their women and children. ... When children are being treated in this way and dying, we are simply ranging the deepest passions of the human heart against British rule in Africa... It will always be remembered that this is the way British rule started there and this is the method by which it was brought about.
These words were, of course, prophetic. Emily watched the stalemated debate from the gallery with deep dismay.
The next day the newspapers supported Brodrick. The Times said:
Mr Brodrick’s reply to the attack upon the system of refugee camps in South Africa ... was clear, vigorous and convincing.
Emily’s 15 page report on the camps was now distributed to all members of Parliament. The Times carried a dismissive editorial. As for further assistance to the camps, it said,
Mr Brodrick explains that Lord Milner, Lord Kitchener and the Government are most anxious to avail themselves of the services of local committees. There is, on the other hand, another class of persons whom Miss Hobhouse and others would like to see in the camps, but whom the Government will on no account admit. They absolutely refuse to have the camps turned into centres of agitation by the action, intentional or unintentional, of real or sham philanthropists, who write blood-curdling descriptions and disseminate false or inaccurate stories. They are perfectly right.
But the complacency and hubris was at odds with the evidence from the camps. The death rate was steadily rising. In that June, 1152 white people died in the camps – about 1.4% or an annualised fatality rate of 16.7%. That is 1 person in 6 – very troubling indeed. Black deaths were not recorded.
With her attempts to get the government to do something about it getting nowhere, Emily and her supporters now played their last card: She would go on a speaking tour to inform the British people of what was going on. She had no experience of this and the prospect was intimidating, but thousands of lives were at stake and she felt compelled to do it. If the British people understood the inhumanity of the camps, if they knew what she knew, public pressure would force the government to change direction, she
The role of the newspapers was now crucial. If they supported her, the government would have to act. But they had been primed. Most railed against her. With their
encouragement, rowdy protestors aimed to disrupt the meetings and several meetings were prevented from happening by the police or owners of the venues where she was to talk to ‘maintain public order’. (New venues were hastily arranged in most instances.) At Bristol, chairs were uplifted and broken and it took 20 minutes to restore order and begin proceedings; at Southport the police escorted her to safety after the meeting; at Darlington she was unable to speak at all as the protestors in the audience sang the national anthem for an hour until the meeting was abandoned.
There is no single list of all her meetings but I have found evidence of 24 and I suspect there were more. She travelled on her own and it was an extremely difficult time. By the end of July, she was exhausted and took a break.
Unbeknownst to her, the high June fatalities had stirred the government into action – of sorts. Broderick appointed a ladies only committee to go to Africa to investigate. It meant another month’s delay before they could even begin their investigation. Their report was not delivered until December. By then it was tragically too late for many. The fatalities in the camps during the work of the Ladies Committee are as shown:
Camp fatalities in the second half of 1901
Whites Blacks Total
July 1715 unknown
August 2665 575 3240
September 2548 728 3276
October 3217 1327 4544
November 2951 2312 5263
December 2437 2831 5268
The level of these fatalities speak of an enormous tragedy. You will notice that they increased in every month of the Ladies investigation. Thereafter they declined quite rapidly as action was taken to improve conditions and as the summer brought relief from the bitter winter cold.
They also declined because the small children were mostly dead. Few below 7, very few below 4, had survived the winter.
Nevertheless people continued to die until well after the war had ended in May 1902 and into the next winter because it took time to move all the people from the camps. Their farms and villages were in ruins. Where could they go?
The best estimate I can find is that the death toll exceeded 42,000: about 28,000 whites and more than 14,000 blacks. Of the whites who died, 22,000 were children. More than 80% of the black fatalities were also children. Recent research by British sociologists suggests that these numbers are incomplete for whites and are especially so for blacks whose deaths were initially not reported at all.
Final known death toll in the concentration camps of the Boer War
On this sombre note, I’ll draw this to a close. This is of necessity just an outline of Emily’s story but I hope it gives a flavour of the remarkable, courageous and compassionate person that she was. As for Roberts, Kitchener, Brodrick and Milner, what can we say? I’ll let you decide what the appropriate labels for them might be.
Maps for Hobhouse paper