Boer Prisoner of War
by Melanie Steyn
Dolf de Wet at your service, Sir.
Queen Victoria? No, not at hers.
I’m a bittereinder! No, I won’t sign.
Her men, her orders burnt my farm
Caught my wife like an animal
Fenced her in with my kids to starve.
Jan my friend is a hensopper
I won’t hold it against him – not much –
He can stay in your camp at Bellevue
He’ll make toys, and can play rugby too.
Take me from this prisoner ship
I’ll play cricket in Sri Lanka, thanks.
Greed and cruelty, politics played,
This is your legacy – never forget –
Racism deep in my blood and yours
Grows, a seed with a system of roots,
Grows, a scourge, and a curse on our land.
Christian gentlemen? Well, we may be,
But toxic tendrils ensnare both our souls.
Boer prisoners of war were initially held on ships in Simon’s Bay, but a camp called Bellevue was later established. Prisoners who would not sign an oath of allegiance to the Empire, were called “bittereinders” and shipped to other British colonies like St Helena, Sri Lanka and India. Those who signed were called “hensoppers” and stayed in the camp.
The British officers taught the prisoners to play rugby and encouraged matches. The prisoners also produced artefacts. There were young boys and a few black men among them.
The first concentration camps were established by the British during this war. When the British entered Pretoria in June 1900, they thought the war was over, and expected the Boer republics to surrender. Instead, they conducted guerrilla warfare, using small raiding parties and disrupting supply lines, for instance. The British felt they would never win the war because the Boer soldiers would go home between raids to rest, eat and convalesce, hidden by the womenfolk. So, they adopted the scorched earth policy and burnt down the homesteads on the farms. They placed the women and children who were rendered homeless in concentration camps. Conditions became appalling and during the first eighteen months that the camps were in operation the mortality rate reached a total of 26,370, of whom 24,000 were infants and children under 16. About 50 children died every day. The final death toll was 40,000, of whom about a third were people of colour.
The heroic Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, a welfare activist, visited the camps and campaigned for better treatment. Her reports caused an uproar when they were published in England, but the British government never treated her with anything but contempt. The suffering of the women and children played a big part in the Boer decision to surrender in the end.
Here I must tell two stories from my family. First, my mother’s mother, Catherina van Rooyen, was a prisoner in a Free State camp. She said only one thing to me about it, which reflected her beautiful and generous spirit. She said that she felt sorry for “those English boys” because she could see that they hated to see the women and children suffering and dying, but they had to carry out orders. She was ten years old at the time but looked at the English soldiers, her captors, with the eyes of a wise old soul.
The second story is about my grandfather, Marthinus Hendrik Steyn. He was a prisoner of war, a bittereinder, who was sent to India. The officers there also organised sports teams, and soon discovered that he was an excellent all-round cricketer. He had refused to sign a pledge to be loyal to the British Empire, but he did accept an offer to become an honorary British officer and tour India playing for the enemy side! His last words to my father were, “The umpire has given me out, and I’m taking a slow walk back to the pavilion.”
Simon’s Town Museum.
New World Encyclopedia: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Emily_Hobhouse.
Personal reminiscences: Melanie Steyn