Friday 20th of December 2002 09:26 AM 
 
 
Essay [06]

A PASSION TO DESTROY

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was recently in South Africa. While here, he was faced with placard-carrying demonstrators, seeking an apology for the establishment of concentrations Concentration camp protestors camps in the country during the Boer War. This is the centenary year of the start of that war in which 27,929 Boer women and children died in camps throughout the country. Even though 100 years have passed, the bitterness caused by the camps is still a vivid memory among Afrikaners - and also Britons who were caught up in the conflict. Australian and New Zealand troops, too, were drawn - sometimes hesitatingly - into the war they did not want. The Colonials mostly bore the brunt of the advance. And were often blamed for their part in the scorched earth destruction of the Orange Free State and Transvaal Republics.

By Owen Coetzer

It is a totally simplistic generalisation. But without the Boer War - call it what you will, South African War, Tweedevryheids Oorlog - there would never have been apartheid.
There would never have been the burning necessity for a proud nation to cry, "Never again will we allow ourselves to be dominated by another."
Whoever they are.
But take away - deliberately - a man's possessions, destroy them, and put his wife and children into open cattle trucks and send them, in burning heat and freezing cold, to concentration camps and the seeds of hatred will fester and burgeon and grow. And he will form a laager for his very survival. And fight to the bitter end. And in the end go home to scorched earth and the burnt out, dynamited ruins of his farm. To count the dead, and bury them. And look for others who would never come home. But all the reasons in the world - and there have been many by scores of erudite scholars - will never fully explain to him what possessed soldiers of the Queen to wilfully destroy another man's livelihood - and enjoy every minute of it.
And bitterness spread over the land.
"War is War," was the self-righteous catch phrase thundered out daily from parliament in London. But when it is waged against women and children it becomes "methods of barbarism", was the answer.
In 1899 - 100 years ago this year - Britain's Queen, the ageing Victoria, was invincible, as were her armies.
A spirit of righteousness shone out from London.
God Himself sat at the right hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was not a blasphemy, for how could it be otherwise?
This gracious air of militant snobbish superiority was endemic to the entire Victorian Age. But the ungodly - as in India and the Sudan and in Africa - were often exploited in the interests of Queen and Country and the long whip of "righteous" colonialism, or "Civilisation" was often barbed. And the maps of the time, with British possessions coloured red, were the blood of the vanquished.
But officers were gentlemen.
And Britons never lied.
And when - after the disasters of Black Week in 1899, Stormberg, Magersfontein, Colenso, the investiture of Ladysmith, the siege of Mafeking, the loss of Spieonkop - Britain's mighty army regrouped, it was with a singular purpose.
To hit a small bunch of uncivilised barbarian farmers where it would hurt them most. And destroy their land.
It was a secretive operation.
Most Britons, whipped to unprecedented patriotic fervour, had no idea of what was really going on, and weren't being told the truth. The government had no intention of telling them either.
Yet it was not easy to blinker the masses.
When reports began filtering through to British newspapers of farms being burnt in the far off Orange Free State, they were put down to "pro-Boer" propaganda. And there were, indeed, a growing number of Britons who abhorred what was going on - who were appalled as hundreds of thousands of troops converged on South Africa to take arms against a handful of Boers, fighting for their country's very existence.
But the reports of farm burnings would not go away. Almost daily, fresh ones appeared in the British newspapers.
The descriptions, initially brief, now appeared at length. And it was apparent that there was, sweeping through the British troops as they swarmed the southern Free State, that desire, that passion to destroy.
Mr Prevost Battersby, one of the posse of London Morning Post correspondents in South Africa, sent this report: "The dismantling of deserted houses is a speedy affair. The doors are smashed from their hinges, lintel and side posts wrenched from the brickwork, the flooring is torn up, sometimes even the roof tree is dragged out, chairs, tables, and chests of drawers may be seen going into camp on the backs of the spoilers.
"The whole place is gutted with a passion for destruction."
And Mr Filson Young, in the Manchester Guardian wrote: "The burning of houses that has gone on this afternoon has been a most unpleasant business . . . I stood till late last night before the red blaze, and saw the flames lick around each piece of the poor furniture - the chairs and tables, the baby's cradle, the chest of drawers containing a world of treasure; and when I saw the poor housewife 's face pressed against the window of the neighbouring house, my own heart burned with a sense of outrage.
"The effect on those of the Colonial troops, who in carrying out these orders of destruction, are gratifying their feelings of hatred and revenge is very bad. Their discipline is far below that of the Imperial troops and they soon get out of hand. They swarm into the house, looting and destroying and filling the air with high-sounding cries of vengeance, and yesterday they were complaining bitterly that a suspected house, against the owner of which there was not sufficient evidence, was not delivered into their hands."
WT Stead, editor of the prestigious Pall Mall Gazette wrote this: " . . Because we cannot capture or kill the brave Boers who are fighting for their country, we have made war upon their wives and children. We have burned their houses over their heads and driven them out without food or shelter on the wintry veld . . ."
Then Trooper Bossley, of the 1st Australian Horse - one of the Colonials - wrote to a friend: "We have commandeered a large number of horses, sheep and poultry. The boys kill the fowls by chasing them and running them through with lances . . . The houses are beautifully furnished with lovely pianos and organs. The boys break up the organs and vehicles for firewood."
And it was followed by a New Zealander who wrote: "There is a Boer farm here which has been taken by the troops. You should have seen the things the fellows took. One fellow of ours got a gold watch and chain, another a silver one, and others also got valuables. I myself would not go near the place, as I reckoned it was a damned shame. Some fellows in the regulars pulled up the floor to see if there was anything hidden there, and others broke the piano, organ and things for the sake of saying they did it."
So they were Colonials. What did they know - they were barbarians themselves. Fighting for Britain.
But Briton Mr Thomas F Millard, special correspondent with the Boer Army, sent an account to the London Daily Mail, saying: "Huge wagons, drawn by full spans of trek oxen, piled high with farmhouse furniture, where perched wistful-eyed women and children, with frightened tear-stained faces; past deserted houses with wide-open doors, and scattered belongings; past ambulances filled with groaning wounded.
"It was bitterly cold. The wind had a frost edge, and cut to the quick. Thinly clad women clasped their shivering babes. Heart-rending as was this enforced and hurried abandonment of homes, few hesitated to make the sacrifice. Anything was better than to fall into the hands of the hated English . . ."
And Mr Charles Williams, of the Morning Leader, wrote: "It is a splendid sensation to know that one can help himself to anything that is worth looting."
But in essence the British public remained dismally ignorant of what was going on in South Africa. The government would release only the reports it felt were necessary.
Then came the letters.
Tommy in the field, thousands of miles from his tiny home was a prolific letter writer. If he couldn't write, he dictated his letter to someone who could. While, indeed, there was Press censorship, rigidly imposed in the beginning, some letters found their way home, uncensored Among the stories told, and initially disbelieved, were those of Boer women and children left to fend for themselves after their farmsteads had been burned. Even in the diminishing patriotic fervour of the time the initial reports of farm burning were explained away as being necessary to the war effort.
Not for long.
This searing report was published in the Congregational Monthly - a widely circulated church magazine, with millions of readers: "It is not the English chivalry to make war on women. It is not the English tradition to use force with non-combatants. It is not the English habit to burn and plunder. It is not the English instinct to lay a thriving country to waste. But then all this is done in South Africa ...."
And in an editorial: "Englishmen are now doing things in South Africa which all the better men among them loathe and hate to do. To turn a mother and her children out of doors and send them adrift is not the work that suits even the most hardened Tommy. . . . To be engaged day after day in wrecking and burning peaceful homesteads is not the business which our volunteers had in their minds when they sailed for the Cape. To devastate and depopulate is not the ideal, but the very opposite of the British Colonial policy.
"Then why is all this being done? The answer given is simple. 'It is necessary.' "Nemesis is already at our doors, and comes in the guise of necessity. We have done wrong, and the Nemesis is that we are obliged to do more wrong. We did a little wrong, and the consequence is that we are now doing a great one, and we do not see how we can help it.
"There are numerous precedents for the rigid application of this doctrine of necessity. Caiaphas, animated by patriotism too exalted to be influenced by considerations of mere sentimentality or morality, applied it in the case of one Jesus. The death of this man, said the High Priest, is a national necessity."

These, however, are mild examples of the ferocity of the British assault on the Orange Free State. In huge sweeping movements every single farmhouse was destroyed - set alight, or dynamited. Barns, outbuildings were blown up.
In orgies of destruction all food was destroyed. Grain bags were cut open and the contents strewn on the ground. Maize fields were set alight. Livestock - sheep, goats, cattle - were massacred, shot to death often enough. Every living thing was destroyed - pigs were hacked to death, or speared. Fowls were slaughtered. There were pathetic incidents - one family brought out fresh milk for the British troopers, only to find they had come to destroy.
And then came the villages - whole villages, with house after house systematically set alight.
There was fire in the sky.
But it was only the beginning. The methods of barbarism were to become far, far worse and the establishment of concentration camps - to house women and children and old men whose foodstuff the troops had wilfully destroyed - became what Lord Milner called "The only bleak spot in the war."
In total some 30 000 farmhouses were destroyed in the Free State and Transvaal. The absolute total will never be known.
In the camps, more than 27 000 women and children died. More than 16 000 Blacks, shifted about the countryside in even worse conditions, perished. Civilisation - some of it anyway - wept.

Dear reader - you are fortunate to be spared the horror. The above is a mere soupcon, a brush with history.
And if this is being read as an apology for Afrikaner Nationalism, it is not so. It merely underlines the fact that unpleasant history has a way of being covered beneath a mountain of disinformation, deceit, propaganda. And lies. But it is time the truth be told.
And in the true spirit of reconciliation an apology be forthcoming. No-one can bring back the dead - but for the living it is up to Tony Blair to quench the fire that still rages in the sky...



Owen Coetzer is the author of the book Fire In The Sky: the Destruction of the Orange Free State which recently made it into the Top Ten South African Books of 2000 List.
He is also author of The Road to Infamy, on the Natal Campaign of the Boer War. He is a retired journalist formerly with the Daily News, in Durban, and the Cape Argus in Cape Town.

 

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Further Reading
Coetzer, Owen. Fire in the Sky: the destruction of the Orange Free State, 1899-1902. Johannesburg: Covos Day Books, 2000.

Commission of Ladies Report on the Concentration Camps in South Africa. London: HMSO, 1902. DT937G68. Emmett, W.A.C. "Reminiscences of a Boer Prisoner of War at Bermuda," Africana Notes and News, 28, 1, 1988, pp.16-28.
(Emmett was the Brother-in-law of Louis Botha, Commandant-General of the Transvaal army)

Hobhouse, Emily. The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell. London: Methuen, 1902. DT937H62.

Martin, A. C. The Concentration Camps, 1900-1902 : Facts, Figures, and Fables. Cape Town: Timmins, [1957?].

Pretorius, J.Celestine, Ferreira, O.J.O. "'n Dag in die lewe van 'n Boerekrygsgevangene op die Bermuda Eilande tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog (1899-1902), beskryf deur H.G.Thiel," South African Journal of Cultural History vol. 10, 1996, pp.87-114.

Reports on the Working of the Refugee Camps in the Transvaal, Orange River Colony, Cape Colony, and Natal. London: HMSO, 1901. DT937G73.

Raath, Prof. A.W.G. Konsentrasiekamp Gedenkreeks. Bloemfontein: Oorlogsmuseum van die Boererepublieke (Military Museum of the Boer Republics), 1991-?
[Series covering the Concentration Camps one-by-one]

Return of Numbers of Persons in the Concentration Camps in South Africa, June 1901. London: HMSO, 1901. DT937G7.

Schiel, Adolf. 23 Jahre Jahre Sturm und Sonnenschein in Sudafrika. Leipzig 1903, pp.553ff.

Thomson, S.J. The Transvaal Burgher Camps in South Africa. Allahabad: Pioneer, 1904. UM115T5.