This year marks the centenary of the end of the South African War (1899-1902), a conflict which, it’s not too much to claim, produced modern South Africa, geographically, politically, economically, and, to some extent, socially. There is, unsurprisingly, a vast scholarship on the war, ranging from, for example, more recent sallies into the multiple ways in which it’s been commemorated, and medical histories of the concentration camps established for Boer and African refugees, to more old-fashioned accounts of its battles and sieges.
There are a few – interesting – lacunae in this research, and one of these is around food. For various reasons I’ve recently been doing some work around children in the war, and I’ve been struck how so many of the sources I’ve read are preoccupied with food. This isn’t really surprising. As Lizzie Collingham demonstrates in her recent book, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, it’s during war that the ways in which food is processed, distributed, sold, and valued become particularly significant to states. Food can be made a weapon of war.
Ironically, diets often improve during times of war, and this is particularly true of people who, in peacetime, can’t afford to feed themselves well. Italy during the First World War is an excellent example of this. Italian diets declined in the late nineteenth century because of exponential population growth and poor systems of distribution. The majority of Italians ate what was, essentially, a nutritionally inadequate pre-industrial diet based on cereals and legumes, supplemented occasionally with vegetables, and, even more rarely, with meat and dairy products.
What changed in 1914 was that the Italian state took control over the distribution of food. Carol Helstosky explains:
Wartime ministers were reluctant to take action, but their policies made a dramatic impact on food habits. Italy was ill prepared for war and survived on allied loans and wheat shipments. This situation benefitted consumers, who enjoyed cheap, subsidised bread and could afford to purchase foods like meat, milk, or fresh produce. Wheat bread and pasta became the foundation of diet for many Italians, replacing corn, chestnuts, and rice. … At the war’s end, public debate about the bread subsidy indicated that state intervention brought Italy to a political crossroads: should the government continue to foot the bill for a higher standard of food consumption? Would consumers be forced to choose between the necessity of bread and the luxury of meat as bread prices adjusted to the market?
Something similar occurred in Britain during the Second World War, where the strict system of rationing controlled by Lord Woolton’s Ministry of Food ensured not only that there was enough food to go around, but that most people ate fairly well. All adults received regular – if small – rations of butter, meat, sugar, and eggs. Everyone was encouraged to eat fruit, vegetables, and fish. For poor families who had subsisted on cheap white bread and sweet tea before the war, this represented a considerably healthier and more varied diet.
A combination of increased exercise and this standardised, if limited diet, relatively low in saturated fat and sugar meant that the health of the British population actually improved in the 1940s. This is not, though, to romanticise the effects of conflict on people’s diets. Millions of people died of starvation during the Second World War, as Timothy Snyder explains in his review of A Taste for War:
The Germans and the Japanese lost the war and returned to home territory and home islands. The Germans had hoped to supply themselves for eternity with grain from the rich black soil of Ukraine; but in fact they got very little. This is because, as Collingham demonstrates, war itself tends to disrupt labour, harvests and markets. Even if the intention of the Germans had not been to cause starvation, invasions tend to do so. Some two million people starved to death in French Indochina. At least 10 million starved in China, whose army was living from the land on its own territory. About three million starved in Bengal in British India.
This latter description of disrupted and destroyed food supplies seems to apply more accurately to the South African War. In fact, understanding how and why people were able to access food during the conflict helps us to create a more nuanced understanding of power within South African society during this period. There was enough food to go around – the tragedy was that it didn’t get to those people who needed it.
Indeed, the images most usually associated with the conflict are photographs of emaciated Boer children in concentration camps. These are both testimony to the war’s heavy toll on civilian lives – around 28,000 Boers died in the camps, 22,000 of them under the age of sixteen – as well as an indictment of British mismanagement of the concentration camps. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the even worse organised and provisioned camps for Africans, where both adults and children were used as free labour.
People went hungry in the camps because the British army hugely underestimated the logistics of supplying around 110,000 Boer inhabitants with food and water. The first camps were established early in 1901, in response to the Boer decision to switch to guerrilla warfare after the British annexation of the Transvaal in October 1900. Boer commandoes relied on the network of homesteads across South Africa’s rural interior for support, and it was these households – run overwhelmingly by Boer women – that the British targeted in their scorched earth tactics to end the guerrilla war.
Homesteads were burned or dynamited, crops and livestock were either commandeered or destroyed, and Boer women and children and their African servants were sent to camps. Rations were meagre. Emily Hobhouse, the British humanitarian who campaigned to bring the appalling mismanagement of the Boer – but not the African – camps to the attention of British politicians, wrote to her brother in March 1901:
Couldn’t you and your household try living for – say – a month on the rations given here in the camps? I want to find out whether it is the small amount of food the children suffer from so much, or its [sic] monotony or the other abnormal conditions under which they live. …
Coarse meal: 1lb a head daily
Meat (with bone): ½lb a head daily
Coffee: 1oz a head daily
Sugar: 2oz a head daily
Salt: ½oz a head daily
You must promise faithfully to abjure every other meat and drink – only adding for the children one-twelfth part of a tin of condensed milk a day.
Leonard Hobhouse did not do as his sister suggested, but her speculation that this inadequate diet, alongside the chaos and poor sanitation of the camps, left children particularly vulnerable to the epidemics of measles and typhoid which swept the camps, was correct.
Because of Hobhouse’s campaigning, rations did improve in the camps for Boers. Race, clearly, determined which interned people had access to food: Africans received even smaller rations than did Boers, and these did not increase after the international outcry about the concentration camps – summed up, famously, in Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s ‘methods of barbarism’ speech in June 1901.
Even within the Boer camps, though, there were divisions between those women who were able to buy provisions from the British army, and those who had arrived without money or possessions – and a large proportion of the Boer families in the camps were very poor.
In Johannesburg, this link between class and access to food was particularly evident. Isabella Lipp, the wife of the manager of the African Banking Corporation, kept a diary between the outbreak of war in October 1899, and the capture of Johannesburg by the British in June the following year. Although she complained occasionally of certain foodstuffs – butter, eggs, meat – not being available, throughout this early phase of the war, she and her husband were well fed. But this was not the case for the impoverished Boer women living in the city:
Thirty women, wives, etc. of the police (Zarps) now at the front ran ‘Amok’ as the newspaper heads it, poor things they and their children were starving so they made a desperate raid on some small provisions stores and in spite of the resistence [sic] of special police and constables, effected an entrance and helped themselves to food and who could blame them, certainly not their paternal Government who had neglected giving them their absent breadwinners wages which were due at the end of October.
The situation was considerably more desperate in the towns – Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley – to which the Boers laid siege during the first six months of the war. As food stocks ran low, Africans were either forced out or encouraged to leave – putting them at the mercy of Boer soldiers – to reduce the numbers of people dependent on rations.
In Kimberley, Lillian Hutton, the wife of a local minister, kept a diary over the course of the siege. The slow reduction of the food available to the inhabitants of the town – and rationing was introduced in December 1899 – signalled the ever more desperate state of Kimberley, as fresh supplies were halted by the Boers. While she noted with amusement in November that Colonel Robert Kekewich – under whose command Kimberley fell – had ordered that ‘No more cakes or biscuits to be made’, she became increasingly critical of the British army as the siege progressed.
As beef and mutton ran out, horses and donkeys were slaughtered for meat. Milk became scarce. She wrote in January 1900:
Mr Alec Hall’s cow, that was giving good milk, has been commandeered by the military to be killed, in spite of the fact that children and sick folk are dying in nos. for want of milk. … Mr Wilkinson had a splendid milk cow, which had just calved, when it was commandeered. These things are a scandal to the military rule of the town. The officers are living on the best of everything in the midst of widespread sickness and want and starvation.
White babies wanted fresh milk, but it’s unlikely that black babies received any adequate nutrition at all. Africans in Kimberley were allotted only mealie meal. Of the 1,500 people who died during the siege – which was ended in February 1900 – nearly all of them were African.
So although in Kimberley, the other siege towns, Johannesburg, the concentration camps, and in all the parts of South Africa under military command, everyone experienced the effects of either government or army control of the food supply, access to food was still mediated by race and class.
The study of food in the South African War also sheds light on contemporary concerns about food. Firstly, as diaries and letters written during the conflict demonstrate, most middle-class and, indeed, poor inhabitants of South African towns and cities at the turn of the century were reliant on shops to buy their food. The idea that ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) once (whenever that was) grew all our own food is disproved fairly neatly by desperate Kimberley housewives unable to find eggs, milk, or fresh vegetables at the grocer. In fact, Lillian Hutton commented on the novelty of people in Kimberley giving over their flower gardens to vegetables.
Secondly, there has been a vogue recently for holding up Britain’s experience of rationing as a potential solution for both the country’s obesity epidemic, as well as the current, global food crisis. While I agree that eating less meat and dairy, using up leftovers, and other wartime strategies are excellent means of encouraging healthy eating and reducing food waste, we need to be careful of fetishizing austerity.
And, thirdly: we must acknowledge the significance of distribution systems to ensuring that all people receive an adequate supply of food. When shops in rural areas are badly provisioned; when social grants are not paid timeously; when officials steal food intended for the very poor, people go hungry.
Elizabeth Ann Cripps, ‘Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886-1906’ (MA thesis, Unisa, 2012).
Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg,  2006).
Emily Hobhouse: Boer War Letters, ed. Rykie van Reenen (Cape Town and Pretoria: Human & Rousseau, 1984).
Bill Nasson, The Boer War: The Struggle for South Africa (Stroud: The History Press,  2011).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.