Britain in the World
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901
Methods of Barbarism?

Ending the war
By March 1901, the South African War was costing the British £2.5 million a month and General Kitchener was under increasing pressure to bring it to a speedy conclusion. He instituted a new policy that involved systematically clearing South Africa of Boer guerillas by establishing chains of blockhouses and barbed wire fences; burning farms and destroying livestock inside these areas; and then combing them out using mobile columns and irregular troops.

Concentration camps

'Concentration' camps were established by the British in South Africa for Boer families who had been expelled from areas being swept clear of Boer commandos (or guerillas) by British troops, as well as for Africans who had been displaced by the war. In both black and white camps many died from disease, due in part to insanitary conditions and overcrowding. The Liberal politician Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman openly condemned what he called 'methods of barbarism'.

Deaths of refugees at Bloemfontein Camp - link to an enlarged version

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It has been estimated that between 20,000 and 28,000 white civilians died of disease in these camps. There were also 14,154 recorded deaths of black people from disease in the camps (over one in ten of the black camp population) and such deaths were under recorded. While the policy may have succeeded in military terms, it was a political disaster, earning the British a level of unpopularity on an international scale comparable to that of the USA during the Vietnam war. One contemporary critic even used the term 'holocaust'. Public criticism was, however, centred on the white camps; those for Africans, where provision was usually even poorer, were hardly mentioned in the debate.
Vereeniging Camp In June 1901, the campaigner Emily Hobhouse published her Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies. In it she condemned the camp system as 'wholesale cruelty. It can never be wiped out of the memories of the people. It presses hardest on the children.' In Parliament, the policy was attacked by Liberal MPs, such as David Lloyd George and C.P. Scott. It was they who first used the term 'concentration camps', after the reconcentrado camps used by the Spanish against Cuban guerillas at the end of the 19th century. (Such camps were also used by the United States in the Philippines between 1900 and 1906). War Office officials preferred to call them refugee camps.

By 1902, the death rates in the camps had dropped considerably, and the policy of bringing families into them had been abandoned.


In its final stages the war became increasingly brutal, and atrocities were committed on both sides. Captured Boers might be executed for wearing British military uniform, for using expanding bullets and for train wrecking. They were accused of pretending to surrender and then opening fire and shooting wounded prisoners. Africans working for the British could be summarily executed if found by the Boers.

Watch a film clip Watch film of a fake Boer atrocity.
This film, The Dispatch Rider, shows a British soldier giving a Boer a drink of water and then being shot in the back. It is an anti-Boer propaganda film from about 1900 and the action in it is faked.

On the other side, British forces were also accused of committing atrocities, the most famous of all being the Breaker Morant case, the subject of an Australian film in 1980. Morant was an officer serving with an irregular cavalry unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers. In August 1901, he ordered the shooting of a number of Boer prisoners of war in the northern Transvaal and, although he claimed that he was obeying orders, was later executed. One of his co-accused, George Witton, however, went on to write a book called Scapegoats of the Empire in which he claimed that:

"It was customary in outlying districts during the latter stages of the war to shoot as many of the enemy as possible. Vaguely-worded orders were issued that "All officers should strive to the utmost to bring the war to a speedy termination"…These orders were interpreted in only one way by the officers, and that was "No quarter, no prisoners."

Old Friends and Enemies? The Problem of Isolation The Empire Moving to Britain The South African War Censorship Methods of Barbarism?