December 25, 2000
Everyone is saying sorry. President Clinton apologised for slavery; even Ambrose Evans-Pritchard did not blame him for that. Tony Blair apologised for the potato famine. Hey that's OK Tony, just resign for it and we will forgive you. However, one group of people will never get an apology, the Afrikaans, the group that first heard the English term "concentration camp." No matter what we did against them, no one will ever apologise to them. It seems that racial hatred is still as strong a force as it has ever been against this group of people.
To compare the Boer War to the holocaust would be wrong, as the British were not aiming to wipe out the Boers, but it is barbaric nonetheless. In 1899, the British in South Africa tried to impose their authority on the Afrikaans republics that just happened to have large reserves of gold. The Afrikaans republics were not easily subdued, even when they were a guerrilla campaign continued. The guerrillas got support, the British rightly suspected from the women who stayed at home and looked after the farms. The way around this thought Kitchener, one of the British high command, was to borrow an idea from the Spanish in Cuba, and resettle all the Afrikaans women and children in concentration camps. As an historical aside the concentration camp, or reconcentrado, was invented by the Spanish and not the British, although how much pride we British should take in this is dubious.
Although they were developed more in the way of strategic hamlets, with the aim of stopping guerrillas in by controlling the general population, the rates of death from disease were at a concentration camp level. This was due to British inefficiency, they had all these people in this place, what were they going to do with them? The British Army were bad enough at dealing with their own soldiers, they were not going to be much good with civilians. They were not. Atrocious medical facilities and poor food killed many Boers, not through the gas chambers but by malnutrition and disease. 27,927 Boers died, 10% of the Boer population. That is decimation. These figures did not include the blacks that were also kept in concentration camps. An English reformer, Emily Hobhouse, inspected the camps and started a campaign in England, which succeeded in setting up a committee that ameliorated conditions, but did not end the practice altogether.
The reasons for Britain being so involved in this war can be oversimplified. Some view it as a desire to free the blacks. Others saw it as an attempt to reverse the Boer political suppression of the (mainly British) white immigrants, the Uitlanders. One theory that is immensely popular is that the mine owners, or Randlords, wanted the more business friendly British rather than the staunchly agrarian Boers. In the end I believe that it was a mixture of British desire to control the gold reserves and a deluded belief in Britain's imperial "mission" in Africa that led Britain to snuff out these two independent republics. But at what a cost.
Tony Blair has apologised over the Irish potato famine, but will not apologise over another atrocity closer to his time and more directly attributable to the British. This may be because this uniquely historically illiterate politician is just unaware of what happened. On the other hand, it may be that he does not care. The Afrikaans are after all the authors of apartheid, and to Mr. Blair the concentration camps were well-deserved racial justice. With a mind like that, one can almost understand Kosovo.
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