Martin Plaut

Winston Churchill’s role in the British concentration camps in which so many Boer prisoners perished has become the subject of a fierce controversy across the British media. Under the headline ‘the horrible truth about Winston’ the Communist Morning Star ran a list the allegations against Churchill, including a claim that ‘When concentration camps were built in South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering.”’[1]

It is not clear what source they were quoting, but the claim brought an attack from the Daily Telegraph which claimed that ‘These Left-wing slurs on Churchill are part of a bigger war on British history.’[2]

The debate blew up on the BBC’s prime debate, Question Time, where it led to the most extraordinary, bitter exchanges.[3] It began with Grace Blakeley, a commentator and researcher for a think-tank, the IPPR.[4] She claimed that while Churchill should be applauded for his leadership during the Second World War, but had been responsible for a series of reprehensible actions, including supporting the Boer war concentration camps.

This led to a furious response from one of the key campaigners for Brexit – the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose condescending manner frequently antagonises his left-wing critics.  ‘The South African concentration camps had exactly the same mortality rate as existed in Glasgow at the time,’ he told the audience. ‘They were not a good thing but where else were people to live when there was all-out war? These people were interned for their safety.’

Ms Blakeley – incredulous at his reply – attacked the MP, saying that ‘hundreds of thousands’ died in the camps and that concentration camps. ‘It was systematic murder,’ she claimed. Rees-Mogg replied that this was not the case and that Afrikaner women and children had been interned because the ‘farmers were away fighting the war,’ and their families needed to be fed.

A litany of errors

A Scottish paper, the Herald debunked Rees-Mogg’s central claim.[5] The paper pointed out that between June 1901 and May 1902 115,000 Boers were interned – around a sixth of the entire Boer population – and of those more than 28,000 died, around one-in-four. It does not ignore the 80,000 black Africans who were interned, stating that some twenty thousand also died.

The Herald then goes on to compare these figures with the mortality rates in Glasgow at the time. ‘The concentration camp figure of deaths spans a year, totalling more than 48,000 who perished, Boer and black, from a prisoner population of less than 200,000. Glasgow, in 1901, had a population of 762,000 and, according to the National Records of Scotland, 16,190 people died. That dropped slightly to 15,530 in 1902. The usual measurement is of deaths per 100,000 population, and on that measurement camp deaths were an astronomical 24,000/100,000 – more than 10 times that of Glasgow at the time, at 2,124/100,000.’

Approached to comment on the paper’s statistics, Professor David Walsh, of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, said the crude death for Glasgow ‘looked correct.’ He pointed to statistics provided by the city’s Medical Officer of Health.[6]

This indicates that Rees-Mogg was out by a factor of ten. But then so too was Grace Blakeley. Her allegation that ‘hundreds of thousands’ died in the camps is equally far from the truth. As Elizabeth van Heyningen points out the statics are notorious inaccurate, but her own estimate is that between 25,000 and 27,000 Afrikaner women and children died in the camps.[7]

What of Rees-Mogg’s claim that the camps had been introduced because the farmers were away at the war, and their families had to be fed? While van Heyningen makes the point that there were Boer ‘loyalist’ supporters of the British who sought their protection and were put into camps, this seems another fanciful suggestion. The main aim of the concentration camps was to deprive the Boer fighters of access to, and support from, their farms and their families in fighting a guerrilla war.

Churchill and the Boer war

What is odd about this debate is that Churchill had little, if any, role in the concentration camps. He was in South Africa during the war as a correspondent for the Morning Post.[8] It was as a war-reporter that he was captured by the Boers on 15 November 1899 and imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp, from which he later escaped.

Churchill had considerable respect for his captors. In his maiden speech to Parliament in February 1901 he went out of his way to say that if he had been a Boer ‘I would have hoped I would be fighting in the field.’[9] It was only in December 1905 when he became Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in a Liberal government that Churchill really had any real influence over policy towards South Africa.

He certainly found the country difficult to deal with, noting rather despairingly that he was unable to halt what he described as the ‘disgusting butchery of natives’ when the Natal government put to death Zulu captives during the Bambatha uprising. Despite his best efforts the South Africans insisted on going their own way. As Churchill summed up the response of the British government in the Colonial Office file, ‘This is a complete surrender.’

Churchill was at the centre of British political life for longer than almost any of his contemporaries. There may be many reasons to criticise Churchill’s record, the concentration camps (invented by the Spanish, not the British) are a poor target.


















[7] Elizabeth van Heyningen, The Concentration Camps of the Boer War, Jacana 2013, p. 329