“Actually, the British invented the concentration camp”- a claim many will be familiar with if they have ever studied or discussed the Holocaust to any degree, but how justified is this accusation, and what does it really mean?
It is a great shock to most when they hear this so-called ‘fact’ for the first time, as the idea of us Brits committing a humanitarian crime similar to the forced labour and mass murder witnessed in the Nazi holocaust is an absolute contradiction of what Britain does, and always has stood for. The fact of the matter is that the British concentration camps of the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 were a stark contrast to the likes of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and served an utterly different purpose.
The Victorian British army was without doubt one of the most professional and most disciplined that the world has ever seen, and therefore at the occurrence of the First Boer War in December 1880 a swift and decisive victory was expected. This was certainly not the case. Unlike the native armies which the British had become accustomed to facing, the Boer forces were reluctant to fight conventional battles in the field, and instead favoured guerrilla tactics. By mounting a series of well-planned and swift attacks on military convoys and supply lines the Boers eventually regained the independence of Transvaal, making them the only force in history to fully defeat Queen Victoria’s army.
Of course, the Victorian’s weren’t the type of chaps to shudder at the prospect of a rematch, and decided to give it another bash in 1899. However, due to the unexpected defeat the first time round, the British were required to completely rethink their strategy. In order to combat an unconventional enemy, a scorched earth policy was adopted, which involved ridding an area of Boer activity before erecting fencing and watchtowers to limit guerrilla activity. An unfortunate consequence of the policy was the necessity to demolish the vast amount of farmhouses and homesteads which acted as potential bases for Boer guerrillas. Although the practice of scorched earth proved to be efficient, it evidently produced droves of homeless families which simply couldn’t be ignored, and thus arose a series of refugee camps, as temporary accommodation.
So if the purpose of the camps was to accommodate the endless supply of refugees, why are they the subject of such a great amount of historical critique? The answer lies in the fact that, regrettably, the conditions of the camps were little to be desired- a fact brought to the British public’s attention by the Hobhouse and Fawcett reports. In all, just short of 30,000 died in concentration camps from widespread hunger and disease. The reason for this apparent neglect is first and foremostly that the British were fighting a military campaign, and therefore the supply lines struggled to cater for such a large demand of provisions (which ironically, is the main factor which allowed the Boers to achieve victory in the first conflict).
Due to the Hobhouse and Fawcett reports, an outcry from the British public forced parliament to address the issue of poor conditions in the concentration camps, and after a worthy effort the camp inmate death rate was reduced to just 2%- lower than that of British cities. It is also worth adding that around 15,000 British soldiers also died of hunger and disease.
Now, whilst Britain did in fact employ concentration camps, the claim that “the British invented the concentration camp” is by no means valid. The said accusation likely derives from the fact that, indeed, the British did coin the term ‘concentration camp’. However, simply referring to something is a far cry from actually inventing it. So who did? The fact is, nobody can say.
In order to attempt to discover the genuine origin of the concentration camp, one must properly understand its meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a Concentration Camp as “a camp where non-combatants of a district are accommodated”. Whilst not getting confused with P.O.W camps, we are required only to look a couple of years before the Second Boer war to find an earlier example of concentration camps. The Cuban uprising of 1895-98 saw between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians killed in the Spanish reconcentrados- far more than the amount killed in the Boer war equivalents. The fact of the matter is, almost all civilisations from the Romans to the Assyrians have at some point interned a group of non-combatants against their will, and Britain simply continued a long tradition.
So if at some point in your life, whilst discussing the Nazi final solution, someone claims that “the British invented the Concentration camp”, make sure to let them know just how wrong they are.