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British Prisoner of War Camps

The approximately 27 000 Boer prisoners and exiles in the South African War were distributed far and wide throughout the world. They can be divided roughly into three categories: prisoners of war; 'undesirables'; and internees. Prisoners of war consisted exclusively of burghers captured while under arms. 'Undesirables' were men and women of the Cape Colony who sympathised with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republics at war with Britain and who were therefore considered undesirable by the British. The internees were burghers and their families who had withdrawn across the frontier to Lourenšo Marques (now Maputo) at Komatipoort before the advancing British forces and had finally arrived in Portugal, where they were interned.
Prisoners of war were detained in South Africa in camps in Cape Town (Green Point) and at Simonstown (Bellvue), and some in prisons in the Cape Colony and Natal; in the Bermudas on Darrell's, Tucker's, Morgan's, Burtt's and Hawkin's Islands; on St. Helena in the Broadbottom and Deadwood camps, Map of sites of POW Camps and the 'recalcitrants' in Fort Knoll; in India at Umballa, Amritsar, Sialkot, Bellary, Trichinopoly, Shahjahnpur, Ahmednagar, Kaity-Nilgris, Kakool and Bhim-Tal; and on Ceylon in Camp Diyatalawa and a few smaller camps at Ragama, Hambatota, Urugasmanhandiya and Mt. Lavinia (the hospital camp). The internees were kept in Portugal at Caldas da Rainha, Peniche and Alcobaca. The 'undesirables', most of them from the Cape districts of Cradock, Middleburg, Graaff-Reinet, Somerset East, Bedford and Aberdeen, were exiled to Port Alfred on the coast near Grahamstown.

In the Bermudas, on St. Helena and in South Africa, quarters consisted chiefly of tents and shanties patched together from tin plate, corrugated iron sheeting, and sacking, and in India and Ceylon, mostly of large sheds of corrugated iron, bamboo and reeds. The exiles, whose ages varied between 9 and 82 years, occupied themselves in various fields, such as church activities, cultural and educational works, sports, trade, and even printing, and nearly all of them to a greater or lesser extent took part in the making of curios.

A book about Boer POWs in Bermuda The exiles in Ceylon and on St. Helena were the most active in printing. Using an old Eagle hand press purchased from the Ceylonese, the prisoners of war in Ceylon printed the newspaper De Strever, organ of the Christelijke Streversvereniging (Christian Endevour Society), which appeared from Saturday, 19 December 1901, to Saturday, 26 July 1902. Other newspapers which they published, mostly printed by roneo, were De Prikkeldraad, De Krygsgevangene, Diyatalawa Dum-Dum and Diyatalawa Camp Lyre. Newspapers issued on St. Helena were De Krygsgevangene (The Captive) and Kampkruimels.

The range of trade conducted among the prisoners of war is evident from the numerous advertisements in their newspapers. There were cafes, bakeries, confectioners, tailors, bootmakers, photographers, stamp dealers, general dealers and dealers in curios. An advertisement by R.A.T. van der Merve, later a member of the Union Parliament, reads in translation:

Roelof v.d. Merve, Shop No 12, takes orders for
men's clothing. Has stocks of all requirements.

Another, by C.T. van Schalkwyk, later a commandant and M.E.C., may be roughly translated as follows:

Here in Kerneels van Schalkwyk's cafe a Boer,
be he rich or poor, for money so little its spending
not felt. Can have his tummy press tight on his belt.

In religious matters, the exiles in overseas camps devoted their efforts in the first place to the establishment of churches. In most of the camps building material was practically unprocurable, with the result that most of the church buildings were patched together out of corrugated iron sheets, pieces of tin, sacks, reeds and bamboo. Pulpits were constructed from planks, pieces of timber, etc. Boer POWs waiting for deportation after the Battle of Modder River
There were a number of clergymen and students of theology among the prisoners; with them in the forefront and with the help of others who had gone to the camps for this purpose, congregations were founded and church councils were elected. From these developed Christian Endevour Societies, choirs, Sunday-school classes for the many youngsters between 9 and 16 years of age, and finally catechism classes for older youths. Many young men were accepted as members of the Church and confirmed while in exile. Attention was also given to mission work, and funds collected by means of concerts, sports gatherings, etc. Many of the prisoners died in exile, and the burial services as well as the care of the graves and cemeteries were attended to by their own churches. In the Diyatalawa cemetery 131 are buried, and on St. Helena 146; in the Bermudas and in India a considerable number also lie buried. Through the years the Diyatalawa cemetery has been maintained by the local populace. Boer prisoners of war in the Bermudas were buried on Long Island. The graves themselves are neglected and overgrown with vegetation, but the obelisk erected in the cemetery on the insistence of the returning prisoners after the conclusion of peace is still in fairly good condition. It is a simple sandstone needle on a pedestal of Bermuda stone. The names of those buried in the cemetery and those who had died at sea on the voyage to Bermuda are engraved on all four sides of the pedestal.

Cultural activities covered a number of fields. At first debating societies were formed, and from these there developed bands, choirs and dramatic groups; theatrical, choral and other musical performances were given, festive occasions such as Christmas, New Year, Dingaan's Day, and the birthdays of Presidents Kruger and Steyn and of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands were celebrated. Judging by the numerous neatly printed programmes, many of the concerts and other performances were of quite a high standard. Celebrating Dingaan's Day at Ahmednager (India) on 16 December, 1901 the prisoners reaffirmed the Covenant. Skillfully art-lettered in an illuminated address, the text reads in translation as follows:

We confess before the Lord our sin in that we have failed to observe Dingaan's Day in accordance with the vow taken by our forefathers, and we this day solemnly promise Him that with His help we with our households will henceforth observe this 16th Day of December always as a Sabbath Day in His honour, and that if He spare our lives and give us and our nation the desired deliverance we shall serve Him to the end of our days...

This oath was taken by the exiles after a month of preparation and a week of humiliation in Hut No. 7.

Interior of a POW camp hut.

Education received special attention and schools were established; bearded burghers and commandants shared the school benches with young boys and youths. The subjects studied were mainly bookkeeping, arithmetic, mathematics and languages, and fellow exiles served as instructors. It was in these schools that the foundation was laid for many distinguished careers in South Africa, such as those of a later administrator of the Orange Free State (Comdt. C.T.M. Wilcocks), a number of clergymen, physicians and others who, after returning to South Africa, became leading figures in the Church and social and political fields. Literary works were also produced in this atmosphere of religion and culture, such as the well-known poem The Searchlight, by Joubert Reitz (brother of Deneys Reitz):

 

When the searchlight from the gunboat
Throws its rays upon my tent
Then I think of home and comrades
And the happy days I spent
In the country where I come from
And where all I love are yet
Then I think of things and places
Searchlight iconAnd of scenes I'll ne'er forget,
Then a face comes up before me
Which will haunt me to the last
And I think of things that have been
And of happy days that's past;
And only then I realise
How much my freedom meant
When the searchlight from the gunboat
Casts its rays upon my tent.

 

Sports gatherings were frequently arranged and provided days of great enjoyment, when young and old competed on the sports field, while cricket, tennis, gymnastics and boxing matches filled many afternoons and evenings. Neatly printed programmes for the gatherings and the more important competitions were usually issued.

Various daring attempts at escape were made, but few were successful. Five exiles - Lourens Steytler, George Steytler, Willie Steyn, Piet Botha and a German named Hausner - who succeeded in swimming out to a Russian ship in the port of Colombo, travelled by a devious route through Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and again Germany, and finally landed at Walvis Bay. One captive on St. Helena attempted to escape by hiding in a large case marked 'Curios' and addressed to a fictitious dealer in London. But he was discovered shortly after the ship left port and was returned to St. Helena from Ascension Island. Of those in the Bermudas two succeeded in reaching Europe aboard ships visiting Bermudan ports, while J.L. de Villiers escaped from Trichinopoly disguised as a local and made his way to the French possession of Pondicherry, from which he finally reached South Africa again by a roundabout route through Aden, France and the Netherlands.
Boer Settlers of the South-West Among the exiles held in Ceylon two brothers named Van Zyl and a German did not return to South Africa, but went to Java, where they developed a flourishing enterprise with Friesland cattle. Among those held in Bermuda a number went to the USA, where in some states such well-known Boer names as Viljoen and Vercueil are still found (see image to left).

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Further Reading

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)

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.

Thomson, S.J. The Transvaal Burgher Camps, South Africa. Allahabad, India: Pioneer, 1904. UM115.1899/1902.T5.