Friday 20th of December 2002 09:24 AM 
Essay [07]


A century ago few citizens would be without their home apothecary - a compendium of natural herbal remedies used for anything from burns to toothache to stomach pains. Today, few households are without a plethora of natural remedies - and shop shelves are full of them. But in the Boer War, home remedies - used for centuries - caused unnecessary deaths in British concentration camps. Or did they?

By Owen Coetzer

Today, supermarket shelves are full of them. They're diminutive bottles - yet they sell like crazy. Most pharmacies have them too, some with shelf after shelf, brand after brand. There are helpful wall charts to tell the anxious buyer what to get, and little booklets too, breaking down the maladies with suggested dosages.
There's a big market for "natural remedies" these days, and my doctor tells me he has a hard time getting people to take the antibiotics he often wishes to prescribes.
There has been, he says, a massive return to herbal and "natural" remedies.
Health magazines are built around them, advertise massively in them and extol their products' virtues - anything from St John's Wort to kelp tablets and cool salves.
It's not new.

A century ago, no self-respecting citizen of the world would be without a home apothecary kit - and on the farms, days away from the nearest doctor, ma and pa relied on old - and tested remedies.
Many of them seem bizarre in the extreme - brick dust and brandy. Dog's blood. Vermilion "paint". Cow dung baths.

In the bitter days of 1900, Herbert Horatio Kitchener's abhorrent policy of scorched earth sweeps in the Orange Free State forced Boer women and children from their farms to be rounded up by British troops and sent - in conditions of searing heat and freezing cold and in open cattle trucks - to concentration camps up and down the mainline.
For many it was the first time they had seen a train, and dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion, despite the misery and abject terror.
And for the first time many became immediately exposed to diseases they had never experienced before. The dynamited and destroyed farms they had left, huge in extent, were far from interfering neighbours. There were no epidemics - there was no such thing, for instance, as measles.
Incredibly, the families had no immunity to disease.

It was to become a tragedy of immense and extraordinary proportions.
And one neither the British camp commandants nor the often inexperienced medical staff in rudimentary camp hospitals had expected.

To many doctors and nurses, newly arrived from Britain, the home remedies were ridiculous and hideously bizarre travesties of medical science and could never compete with good remedial treatment.
But that, too, was a problem. Good medicine was in its infancy.

At the turn of the century, bad sanitation's cause and effects were still something new. Its cruel, often fatal, connection with disease was beginning to be known and siting latrines, dirty-water outlets and slop receptacles away from fresh running water, for instance, was only being slowly comprehended.
It took a long time to be implemented. And before it was, death had begun to stalk the camps.

A hundred years ago a British doctor wrote: "In Britain the infectious diseases which are the principal causes of infantile mortality are endemic, and every child is exposed to the infection of such diseases as measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, scarlet fever and diphtheria, within the first few years of life. This does not apply to the children of the concentration camps who come, almost without exception, from the rural districts . . . These children owing to the lack of communication between farms, hamlets, villages and towns, have never had the chance of contracting any of the infectious diseases."
Suddenly, forced together in overcrowded camps, they began to die.
And British doctors applied British methods to stem the frightening mortality.
But, until they were banned by camp authorities, women carried on with their home grown remedies - dog's blood for fits, goat's dung for measles, hyena dung for sore throats and bread poultices for abscesses. There were others: groen amara, versterk drupples (it is still on supermarket shelves), red powder.

In his History of Medicine in South Africa, Edmund H Burrows writes of yet other successful remedies: Aasvogel vet (vulture fat) used as a salve for lumbago. Beest mest met asyn (cow's dung with vinegar) as a poultice for the pain of sprained joints. Honde bloed (dog's blood, obtained by ear puncture) for severe inflammation and in convulsions.
There was Katte kruie (cat herb - Ballota africana Benth.) an infusion used for colds, influenza and chronic coughs. Wijnruit (Ruta graveolens L., Rue) a decoction of leaves for flu and fever, for cardiac asthma, convulsions and infantile diarrhoea; Skilpad bloed (tortoise blood) for snake and other bites and Slang vel (snake skin) used for wrapping around a rheumaticky limb, among hundreds of others.
Burrows says: "Many of these remedies could receive the blessing of the medical profession for valid scientific reasons."
But in the camps the inmates who used them were severely dealt with. This high-handed attitude , however, only highlighted the increasing distrust of Boer women for the medical system the British enforced, and the horror of camp hospitals.

With more than just a touch of indignation, Dr Kendall Franks, appointed by Kitchener to travel to each camp and evaluate the efficiency - or lack of it - of its medical facilities, wrote: "A man of standing and of superior intelligence, asked the Superintendent to use his influence to allow him to give his wife a cow dung bath for her rheumatism" and says "another man, also above ordinary intelligence, clipped fur off a cat, roasted it and applied it to his child's chest as a cure for bronchitis . . ."

British humanitarian Emily Hobhouse, concerned by the treatment dished out to the women and children, breaking the news of the appalling conditions in the camps, wrote: "The vermilion oil paint which so alarmed people is doubtless Rooie Poeder . . . which is a preparation of red lead. A doctor . . . says it is constantly used by Boer women in the same as we use iodine to paint externally where there is some inflammation. He says it is absolutely harmless."
The home remedies, she wrote, "are prepared by a Cape Town firm in a conventional little case called a Huis Apothek. There is hardly a country house in the whole extent of South African which does not possess one of these little boxes. The doctor . . . . told me that every one of the medicines in this little chest is absolutely harmless."

But the question served merely to indicate the abyss between what the British authorities considered good medicine (their remedies) and what Boer prisoners considered good medicine (their remedies).

A recent work, by British historian Andrew Roberts, allegedly revealing the "real reasons behind the mass deaths in concentration camps" summarises it all by saying: "They brought it on themselves." He quotes "very detailed evidence from the records of the camps themselves" to justify his Boer-bashing conclusions.

But what do the official Blue Books say? My collection of CD volumes, those very Blue Books, paint a different picture to historian Roberts. They show British concern - but abysmal lack of understanding. One of the reasons is not hard to find.
The doctors and nurses in the early days of the camps - May 1900 to May 1901 - were all English-speaking. The prisoners were not. In medical terms it is difficult at the best of times for a sick layman to communicate such as basic thing as pain to his doctor.
"Where does it hurt? What does it feel like?" he asks.
Well, what does pain feel like? It is sharp? Dull? Fierce? Throbbing - take your choice and a hundred other variations. But whatever adjective is used, no patient can adequately describe to a doctor what kind of pain he is feeling. All he wants is for the doctor to take it away. Now.
But try and describe that pain in a foreign language, which English was and it could become an impossible task. Even futile.

There are sufficient reports in the Blue Books that because the doctor could not understand what his patient - or the mother of his patient - was actually saying, it became impossible to therefore adequately take care of a sick child. It was simple for the wrong diagnosis to be made, and worse, the wrong medicine administered.
Things were only to improve when Boer girls became nurses - girls who could speak both languages - and of course the advent of matrons and better-qualified doctors. But this was only much later in the war.

Worse was to come. Women who saw their children go into camp hospitals watched as, days later, they came out - dead. Many camp hospitals - according to the Blue Books - were in huge, baking marquee tents and were themselves, before 1902, healthy breeding grounds for disease.
Thus prisoners began hiding their sick children from the authorities - having a far greater belief in home remedies than hospital cures, which appeared to be no cure at all by the number of children who died in them. Camp authorities then made it an offence for anyone to hide a sick person, and then banned the use of all home remedies.

Dr Pratt Yule, MOH for the Orange River Colony, writes in one of his official reports (CD853): "A very important factor in the production and propagation of disease is the susceptibility of the Afrikander Dutch to almost every infection . . . When measles attacks a susceptible population it is one of the most fatal of diseases, and that the Dutch have lost that degree of immunity possessed by Europeans is abundantly shown by the extremely malignant type the disease assumes in the camps.
"The disease may possibly be intensified by the conditions of camp life . . . Sometimes the refugees are admitted to the camps in a miserable condition . . . In several instances they have been admitted worn out, half-clad and riddled with disease"

Pratt Yule does not say this was as a direct result of the British sweeps. The women and children found at farmhouses were given usually between five and 10 minutes to clear out their stuff before the farms were destroyed, dynamited often, set aflame and all foodstuff destroyed. Farm animals - horses, pigs, cattle, chickens - were shot out of hand. There are pictures to prove it.

Throughout the official reports the Boer women and children (and the few men) are described as dirty with no knowledge of correct sanitation procedures. It comes up often, and the "fouling" of the ground in the camp is given as one of the major causes of disease.

There are two factors which need to be exposed:
There was no soap issued to the inmates of the camps. It had been an angry issue since the war began and was one of the first major complaints from Emily Hobhouse to the Commandant at the first Bloemfontein camp (before the two camps came under civilian control) and continued to be. Soap was not unobtainable for those who had money to buy it from the camp "shop" - but Emily Hobhouse's contention was that it should be issued to women as a matter of course. It was not, until February 1902, three months before the war ended. But then few camps had baths in any case.

Point two is the extreme in humiliating punishment. Bloemfontein new camp had 6,600 women and children (and some men). There were 430 pail (as in bucket) toilets for the entire camp. Bloemfontein old camp had some 4,600 inmates to share 28 pail toilets. Diarrhoea was rampant, as was every type of stomach complaint. Pity the poor woman who had to "go"in a hurry to latrines which were a kilometre away from her tent. A humiliating impossibility with an upset stomach.

As conditions became worse and the lone voice of Emily Hobhouse more strident the British government itself - which had successfully kept from the British public the destructive scorched earth policies as well as the real condition of the women and children in the camps - sent out a Ladies' Commission to visit each camp.
Their visit was, however, a year too late. Had the British government heeded what Emily Hobhouse had to say, and implemented her suggestions, thousands of lives would have been saved. And in the end when their report was completed, there was very little difference between what Emily Hobhouse had proposed and what the committee proposed.

But silence had been the order by the British. No-one in Britain, other than the cabinet, really knew the true state of those "methods of barbarism" finally admitted by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

And they were.

It was, wrote Emily Hobhouse in her seminal work The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, a unique war. Never before had a country deliberately and decisively made war on women and children.

And then been caught out . .

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.