Boer women and children in a British concentration camp in the Transvaal

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist

The statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, in London’s Parliament Square, has satisfied many of those who longed to see a woman commemorated in the heart of the capital. It was commissioned by the Mayor Sadiq Khan, designed by award-winning artist Gillian Wearing, unveiled by the Prime Minister – conveniently also female – and joyously welcomed by a host of feminist organisations and individuals. What’s not to like?

Wearing’s design sticks to the traditional script of commemorative sculpture by presenting a life-like representation of Fawcett standing on a four-sided plinth. Holding a placard that reads: “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”, Fawcett joins iconic 19th- and 20th-century figures such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. These are men whose legacies represent the blood-soaked efforts to hold the British Empire together and the determination to be free of colonial rule. One might well ask: where are the women in this historical pantheon?

Fawcett’s claim to fame is that she co-founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which went on to become the largest suffrage organisation in Britain. The artwork, installed to mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act which enfranchised some women over 30, ostensibly celebrates her lifelong commitment to The Cause, as it was then known, while simultaneously gesturing towards the fractured movement of which she was a part. Round its base, the plinth bears small photographic portraits of 55 activists, writers and reformers, many of whom led very different lives and had quite divergent views from the eminently respectable Fawcett towering above them.

The initiative was part-funded by the Arts Council through its 14-18 NOW initiative: a five-year programme of “extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War”. Thus the story of how British women acquired the vote has become one more national achievement to be celebrated in the context of the centenary of “the war to end all wars”. But the congruence of these two centenaries creates a problem.

In Britain at least, it creates the impression that women were given the vote in return for their patriotic services in war. Fawcett’s legacy confirms this as, for her, the path to suffrage lay in demonstrating women’s capability in wartime. In 1918 she wrote: “It is a source of great pride and thankfulness that the womanhood of the whole country, quite irrespective of political party or creed, were eager to do everything in their power to help their country.”

However, in the preceding decades, many suffragists who were committed to humanitarian social reform had developed fierce critiques of militarism and nationalism shaped by the specific circumstances in which they worked. Some of these women are included in the monument to Fawcett, despite taking radically different positions when war broke out.

In 1915, almost the entire organising committee of the NUWSS left en masse after Fawcett vetoed sending a member to the International Women’s Congress for Peace and Freedom conference in The Hague. Ray Strachey, a close friend of Fawcett, described the split as “a great cataclysm” but claimed triumphantly that they had managed to “drive all the pacifists out”.

The conference was attended by delegates sent from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States, laying the foundations for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which still exists today. Only three of the 180 British women who applied were successful in acquiring passports, and no French women were allowed to travel at all. One of those who would have attended, had health permitted, was the veteran English pacifist and radical, Emily Hobhouse.

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Over 15 years earlier, Hobhouse and Fawcett had encountered each other in the course of the South African War, a brutal conflict that had offered “glimpses of the great cataclysm ahead” in ways that no one understood at the time. Their passionate, but utterly discordant, beliefs in the role that women could play in international politics earned them very different reputations, both in their lifetimes and to this day.

In 1899, the conflict – sometimes referred to as the Anglo-Boer War – was prompted by the discovery of a massive gold seam in the Transvaal, one of the two Boer Republics led by Paul Kruger. It was Britain’s first major deployment since Crimea in the 1850s, and many felt it to be a continuation of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897. The exercise was intended to showcase the country’s military might to other European powers, notably Germany, and the fighting was expected to be over by Christmas,

In Britain, many on the left vehemently protested that the Boers were innocent victims, and anti-war meetings attracted a violent response on the basis that the organisers were traitors. Others argued that the cost of armaments alone was having a ruinous effect on the economy.

Suffrage groups were divided because there seemed to be a principle at stake. It was said that the Boers were denying “outsiders” (prospecting Brits, Germans and others attracted by the discovery of gold) the right to vote by labelling them as Uitlanders with no citizens’ rights. Fawcett was clear on this point, but she also felt a patriotic duty to stand by her government: “A war almost invariably suspends all progress in domestic and social legislation”, she wrote. “Two fires cannot burn together, and the most ardent of the suffragists felt that, while the war lasted, it was not a fitting time to press their own claims and objects”.

Hobhouse vehemently disagreed. In 1899, she was elected secretary of the South African Conciliation Committee, and by June 1900 had organised a mass meeting in London where women protested against the actions of the British army. Three months later she founded the South African Women and Children Distress Fund to collect money for Boer families.

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By that time, far from being over in a few weeks, the conflict had begun to drag on in unexpected ways. Mounted Boer guerrillas were ambushing the troops who outnumbered them, carrying out quick raids before disappearing into the veldt (open grasslands). The British retaliated by burning homesteads, livestock and crops, and poisoning wells and fruit trees. This scorched-earth policy also entailed sweeping up 100,000 civilians into a network of camps fenced in by barbed wire. Boer women and children, and men too old to fight, were incarcerated with no provision for health or hygiene. This was a new military tactic and the generals Roberts and Kitchener, whose war records included the slaughter of hundreds of Sudanese with the aid of the new Maxim gun, were not concerned with the welfare of the enemy population, even those designated as fellow whites. Meanwhile, thousands of black men, women and children were held in segregated camps, situated along railway lines and along the border where they were expected to act as “the eyes and ears of the British army”.

The details of these concentration camps, as they were called, were initially concealed from the British public. However, since this was the age of mass circulation newspapers and a growing global telegraph network, it would not be long before the government faced new pressures from informed critics.

When Hobhouse arrived in Cape Town in December 1900, she made the astonishing discovery that thousands of Boer women and children as well as African tenants and farmhands were dying as a result of profound neglect. Hobhouse visited many camps, interviewing inmates and collecting photographic evidence. After returning to England she published a pamphlet in which she described the appalling conditions that accounted for this astonishing mortality rate. She then distributed her report to all members of parliament before touring the country.

Her exposé changed the terms of the debate. Faced with indisputable evidence, politicians were forced to take a stand on the moral implications of what was taking place in the Transvaal. The staggering number of deaths made nonsense of the government’s line – echoing the army – that the inhabitants were ‘‘refugees’’ who were merely being protected. On 14 June 1901, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made a speech that was to resound throughout the British Empire. Before he read Hobhouse’s report he had deferred to the Conservative government. But now he launched a full-scale attack on Lord Salisbury’s administration. “When,” he asked, “is a war not a war? When it is conducted by the methods of barbarism in South Africa.”

His intervention was all the more effective since it highlighted the fact that this military strategy was being conducted in the face of growing international concern. In May 1899 the first Hague Convention had brought together representatives of all the world’s major powers to agree on rules and procedures for moderating the conduct of war. After Liberal MP David Lloyd George joined the demand for a debate, having shared a platform with Hobhouse, the government was compelled to respond.

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A commission, to be composed of women, was quickly appointed to investigate the camps and to make recommendations to improve them. Millicent Fawcett, widow of Liberal MP Henry Fawcett, was invited to head the delegation and she accepted eagerly. Under her instruction, the Ladies Commission was adamant that this would be an objective investigation carried out on behalf of elected leaders. Before they left for Cape Town, they refused to meet with Hobhouse, who had been labelled a “hysterical spinster of mature age” by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain. By all accounts Fawcett was determined to avoid anyone who might be ‘‘pro-Boer’’, considering those with ‘‘strong political views’’ on the other side of the issue as “incapable of advising in such matters”. But perhaps more significantly, the suffragist had jumped at the opportunity to perform what she saw as “war work”:

We also very early arrived at the conclusion that the care of infant life, saving the children, and protecting their welfare was as true a service to the country as that which men were rendering by going into the armies to serve in the field.

In an article compiled for the Westminster Gazette before leaving for Cape Town, she openly criticised Hobhouse’s report and asserted that the creation of the camps was ‘‘necessary from a military point of view.’’ She was convinced that the Boer farms had been centres for supplying information to the enemy.

“No one blames the Boer women on the farms for this; they have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact,” she wrote. “But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.’’

That same summer, Hobhouse attempted to return to South Africa in order to organise more welfare schemes. Aware that her presence would be contentious, she travelled incognito. However, in a dramatic turn of events that was to provide more evidence of the threat she posed, she was intercepted in Cape Town harbour before she disembarked. She was immediately arrested and forcibly deported on the next ship going back to London.

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Early the following year, three months before peace was declared in May 1902, the Ladies Commission delivered their findings. The Commission corroborated much of Hobhouse’s evidence – although enough time had passed for improvements to have been put in place – and their conclusion made similar recommendations. The tone of the report, delivered in February 1902, can be gauged by this brief description of the causes of death in the camps: “First: The unsanitary condition of the country caused by the war; second: Causes within control of the camp inhabitants; and third: Causes within the control of the administrations’’. This extract conveys the impression that the camp inmates were increasing their own discomfort as a result of their abysmal standards of hygiene:

Even at the best of times, and especially if anyone is sick in the tent, the Boer woman has a horror of ventilation; any cranny through which fresh air could enter is carefully stuffed up, and the tent becomes a hot-bed for the breeding of disease germs. It is not easy to describe the pestilential atmosphere of these tents, carefully closed against the entrance of all fresh air. The Saxon word “stinking” is the only one which is appropriate.

Hobhouse was exasperated. In private correspondence she referred to the Commission thus: “Great and shining lights in the feminine world, they make one rather despair of the ‘new womanhood’ – so utterly wanting are they in common sense, sympathy and equilibrium.” However, it was not just the lack of sympathy for Boer women that made her furious. The group made no effort to visit camps holding Africans; nor did it address the conditions under which they were held. By the end of the war, African deaths are thought to have reached 14,000 to 20,000, or indeed as many as 25,000. Fawcett made no mention of the black camps in her diary, although she included photos of a few African inmates in the Boer camps. One was captioned: ‘‘Natives at work. Singing.”

At the heart of Fawcett’s political vision was the conviction that in matters of war and foreign policy at least, the British government was behaving honourably. Even after seeing the concentration camps with her own eyes, she was not shocked by the strategy of creating the camps, since she saw them as part of the “fortune of war”. Her concern was merely the standard of care given to the inmates, and she was gratified when the requisite changes were made, resulting in a fall in the death rate.

Not all of the women who took part were ready to condone it, however. One member, Lucy Deane, later wrote a letter, not included in the report, in which she said:

We all feel that the policy of the “Camps” was a huge mistake which no one but these impractical ignorant Army men could have committed. It has made the people hate us, it is thoroughly unnatural and we were not able to cope with the hugeness of the task, at any rate the muddling of the War office wasn’t. I believe it has lengthened instead of shortened the war . . . even those of us who approved at first are now of another opinion on the policy of them.

For Hobhouse, this experience of seeing top military commanders prepared to commit such heinous crimes against civilians convinced her that war could never solve political problems. In her eyes, it was a simple question of barbarism versus civilisation.

In The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, written during 1902, she wrote:

May it not be that, in reality, all war is barbarous, varying only in degree? None of us can claim to be wholly civilised till we have drawn this line above war itself and established universal arbitration in place of armaments.

To overlook the significance of this war is to lose an opportunity to understand what was at stake in aligning the suffrage movement with a patriotic commitment to both imperialism and militarism. There is no doubt that Fawcett was a patriotic woman whose eagerness to lead the Commission reflected her conviction that women had a role to play in war, as well as politics. Her dismissal of Hobhouse as an ungrateful and treasonous individual lay in her conviction that sympathy for the enemy constituted a rejection of one’s own people, a form of disloyalty that could not be tolerated.

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Although the ensuing decade would see many changes in terms of tactics and alliances, affected in part by the constant surge of younger women who had lost faith in bourgeois liberalism, it also offered a taste of what would happen when war was declared against Germany in 1914. Fawcett would be rewarded for her patriotic stance at the end of her life, when she was made the Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Hobhouse’s legacy might have been forgotten in her home country, but her ashes are entombed in Bloemfontein, at the foot of a monument to the Boer women and children who died in British concentration camps.

This argument is not just about demolishing Fawcett as a feminist heroine with feet of clay, and proposing a better candidate in her place – although at least Hobhouse would have been able to pick up her friendships with Gandhi and Smuts. Nor is it a plea to remove her statue, demanding that #Fawcettmustfall as if she was the worst of them.

Perhaps it would be enough to simply drape a garland of miniature skulls around her neck as a reminder of the dangers presented by a myopic mainstream feminism, heedless of the dangers of cleaving to what Virginia Woolf would shortly identify as “unreal loyalties” that sow the seeds for the next war: “pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them”.

A longer version of this piece can be found in the journal “Cultural Studies” under the title “All the Rage”