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The First Concentration Camps

In response to:

American Immigration: A Century of Racism from the September 26, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

In her interesting review of Daniel Okrent’s The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America [NYR, September 26], Sarah Churchwell writes that “the term ‘concentration camps’…was previously used to describe the camps set up during the Boer War for forcibly displaced Africans whose rights the state did not wish to recognize. Their high concentration of people within small enclosures led to their name: an estimated 115,000 Africans were interned in sixty-six camps, some 20,000 to 50,000 of whom are estimated to have died…. The term ‘concentration camps’ was also used as early as 1897 by the American press to describe the internment camps, with their ‘concentration of misery,’ forcibly established in Cuba in the run-up to the Spanish-American War for civilians labeled reconcentrados.”

Those reconcentrados were in fact interned or “concentrated” in camps, to which they gave their name, created by the Spanish Army in Cuba under General Valeriano Weyler while suppressing the patriotic rebellion of 1895 (witnessed and reported on by the twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Winston Churchill) that adumbrated the Spanish-American War. Five years later, during the Boer War, the name “concentration camp” was borrowed by the British Army and used in the same sense, to describe the camps in which they likewise “concentrated” civilians: not Africans but Afrikaners or Boers, the “white tribe” against whom that abominable war was fought. The horrors of these concentration camps, with their very high mortality of women and children, were exposed by an Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, denounced as “methods of barbarism” by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the Liberal Party, and not forgotten by Europeans, including Hitler, who later borrowed the name “concentration camp” in cruel mockery.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Bath, England

Sarah Churchwell replies:

A number of readers have pointed out that the framing of my statement about the African victims of concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer War has given rise to confusion, and some have raised questions about the numbers of victims I gave. Several have agreed with Mr. Wheatcroft in stating that the victims of those camps were “not Africans but Afrikaners or Boers, the ‘white tribe’ against whom that abominable war was fought.” Precisely because I do not claim expertise in the Anglo-Boer War, I referred to multiple sources for my claims, and those sources do not agree that (black) Africans were not also victims of the camps. They include Stowell Kessler’s 1999 The Black Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War, Christopher Saunders and Nicholas Southey’s Historical Dictionary of South Africa (which declared it “likely that almost as many Africans died in such camps as Boers”), and several essays by Fransjohan Pretorius, emeritus professor of history at the University of Pretoria and the author or editor of eight books on the Boer War, including an essay concerning the historiographical “debate on white and black concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902.”

As for the total number of victims, it was repeatedly cited by these sources, including an essay in South African History Online by Professor Pretorius, who wrote earlier this year, “It’s well established that 28,000 white people and 20,000 black people died in various camps in South Africa. Between July 1901 and February 1902 the rate was, on average, 247 per 1000 per annum in the white camps. It reached a high of 344 per 1000 per annum in October 1901 and a low of 69 per 1000 per annum in February 1902.” I agree, however, that the claim about the number of “Africans” who died in those camps was too abbreviated, to the point of being misleading, and should—especially given the context—have made explicit that these victims were both white Boers (Afrikaners) and black native Africans.

I am grateful for the opportunity to offer these clarifications, while noting the irony that the issue arose because I suggested Mr. Okrent might have offered a concise and accurate history of the origin of concentration camps. That is clearly easier said than done, and I am happy to withdraw the advice.