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Christmas in a Camp

Earlier this year I went to the launch of Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History at the Book Lounge in central Cape Town. The result of years of hard work in archives scattered around South Africa and Europe, this book has become – and will remain for some time – the standard history of the camps established for Boer and black civilians during the South African War (1899-1902).

Instead of the usual collection of hipsters in search of free food, academics in need of free wine, and people from the publishing world, this was attended by a largely elderly, white and Afrikaans audience. (I was easily the youngest person there. I am 31.) When Elizabeth and Albert Grundlingh, who hosted the event, opened the floor to questions, she received question after question about why she does not describe the deaths of so many Boer women and children in the camps as genocide.

There were 14,154 officially recorded deaths in the camps for black civilians, but it is likely that the number was closer to 20,000. Estimates of deaths in Boer camps range from 25,000 to 34,000. In these camps, 81 per cent of deaths were children. Despite these incredibly high numbers, as Van Heyningen explained, the camps were not part of a deliberate British policy to exterminate the Boer population. (In contrast, for example, to the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa between 1905 and 1906.)

The tragedy of the camps was that people died as a result of chaotic and negligent mismanagement and poor provisioning. Inmates arrived usually in poor health, and were victims of the epidemics of measles and typhoid, for instance, which swept the camps. In fact – and this is one of the most important arguments in Van Heyningen’s scholarship on the camps – the British saw them as a means of transforming the white populations of the two Boer Republics into the future subjects of a united South Africa firmly under British rule.


This interpretation of the camps almost caused a riot in the Book Lounge. I was almost, but not entirely, surprised. Firstly, because it underscored – again – the gulf between debates among guild historians and the reading public. And, secondly, because Boer suffering in the concentration camps was one of the most powerful strands within a historiography constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to bolster Afrikaner nationalism.

The point is not to deny that people – both black and white – suffered both physically and psychologically in the camps, but, rather, to argue that camps deserve more detailed and nuanced study as a result of the fact that British authorities saw them as being crucial to the making of a modern South Africa. Hospitals and schools, in particular, were used to pull Boer families into what Alfred, Lord Milner, and other officials believed to be the light of British rationality, order, and civilisation.

Which brings me to Christmas parties. In December 1901, around a year after the first camps for civilians were established and when mortality rates had begun to stabilise and decline in response to a raft of reforms, camp superintendents were ordered, and were provided with the means, to organise treats and celebrations for the inmates of the Boer camps. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, at the Belfast Camp, women in sewing circles and schoolchildren were encouraged to make ‘toys and useful articles’ for presents. On the 25th:

the tree was erected in a large room, and, after partaking of refreshments, the little ones were filed through the room containing the Tree and each drew a number from a bag on entering and received small garment or toy – and on leaving each got in addition a bag containing cake, sweets and dates.

At the Heidelberg Camp, ‘all children in the Camp under the age of 12’ were given ‘1 small jam-tart, 1 parcel sweets dates and biscuits.’ There were sports days with prizes, and lots and lots to eat – in contrast to the usually monotonous rations of camp living. The Irene Camp’s Christmas picnic – held for the schoolchildren – was particularly lavish:

On the day fixed, that is Friday the 20th December, all the Teachers and all the children assembled on the School grounds at 5.30 in the morning and the roll was called, when 900 answered their names. All the wagons in Camp has been requisitioned and every available ox, mule and donkey was inspanned and these wagons with their respective teams conveyed all the School children with their Teachers to the spot where several large Store tents had been pitched the day before, and where 100 men and women helpers were waiting in readiness at the 6 large Army Camp boilers and various numbers of large pots and kettles etc. to do the necessary waiting and cooking. A huge supply of bread and cakes had been baked… An ox had been killed by me the day before and the whole of it was cooked during the day on the spot. The children were served three meals during the day, exclusive of sweets and fruit and coffee, tea etc. and enjoyed themselves by playing games of all kinds and competitive sports amongst themselves.

In other camps, there were full Christmas dinners, with roast chicken, plum puddings, and fruit.

So how to interpret these Christmas parties? All superintendents reported (unsurprisingly) that children appreciated the parties and presents, and games and sports days were well attended. It also appears that some officials went out of their way to provide dinners and picnics which inmates would enjoy and remember. But interpreting these Christmas parties as a moment of happy wartime friendship across enemy lines – as a kind of South African version of the 1914 Christmas truce – would be glib. Although not denying the genuine altruism of some superintendents, these Christmas parties had a series of political and cultural functions.

Funded handsomely by the British administration, the parties were an attempt to foster goodwill: to demonstrate to Boer civilians that the camps were being run in their best interests by a benevolent administration. They were also intended to show to an international media – and newspapers did report on the parties – that the camps for Boers had improved since the outcry abroad earlier that year over the high mortality rates.

Perhaps more subtly, these parties also introduced Boer civilians to a tradition which officials believed to be entirely British: to a Christmas with a tree, a roast dinner, plum puddings, and games. Ironically, though, the Christmas traditions replicated in the camps had been invented as recently as the 1840s. Decorated Christmas trees, crackers, and cards had all become popular during the middle of the century, helped along by the increasing buying power of the British middle classes. Carol singing was revived; the Christmas dinner as we know it today emerged in this period. Although some of these rituals were already present in the British religious calendar – gift giving, for instance – they were moved closer to Christmas, and were augmented with borrowed traditions, most notably the tree, from Germany. Christmas was associated with the Victorian cult of domesticity: it was the moment of the year which celebrated the closeness of the family.

This supremely invented tradition was introduced to the camps for Boer civilians as one strategy – among many – for remaking them British. There were no such parties in camps for black civilians – or, at least, there are no records of them. Most of the reports on these camps were destroyed shortly after the war, but it is probable that British authorities balked at the thought of spending more money on black camps, which were already run on the cheap. Their inmates were made to grow their own food, for instance. Whereas Boer children were sent to school, to be educated to be future subjects of the British Empire, black children were to be taught how to work – and performed manual labour alongside their parents, while some were hired out as domestic servants in towns and cities. In this way, Christmas parties assisted in the moulding of white, imperial identities.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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