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'Throughline': Boer War Gave Rise To Some Of The First Concentration Camps


Recently, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the migrant detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border concentration camps. Her comments triggered a whole debate about when and how that term should be used. NPR's history podcast Throughline looked at one of the earliest modern examples of a concentration camp.

I'm joined by one of the hosts of the podcast, Rund Abdelfatah. Rund, thanks for being here.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So today, the term concentration camp is just about synonymous with Nazi Germany, but it predates that time, right?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it does. It actually goes back to the end of the 19th century, when several Western colonial powers used concentration camps to deal with rebellions in their colonies. This included Spain in Cuba, America in the Philippines, and the focus of our episode - Britain in South Africa.

MARTIN: So why the focus on the British concentration camps in South Africa?

ABDELFATAH: Well, we came across the really fascinating story of Emily Hobhouse. She's an upper-class-English-woman-turned-whistleblower. She played a big role in exposing the realities inside the concentration camps that were created by the British during their war against the Boers.

The Boers were descendants of Dutch settlers who had colonized South Africa in the 1600s. And by the late 1800s, they were waging a guerrilla war against the powerful British Empire. In order to break their will, the British began burning Boer farms to the ground, leaving thousands homeless. And hearing about all this, Emily Hobhouse decides to join the anti-war effort.

My co-host Ramtin Arablouei and I share her story in the episode.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: Emily Hobhouse is unique in a few ways. Not only is she politically engaged, she's single, coming up on 40 and incredibly outspoken. And pretty soon...

ELSABE BRITS: She decides she's going to come to South Africa. She's going to help.


ABDELFATAH: This is Elsabe Brits, a journalist and author based in Cape Town, South Africa.

ARABLOUEI: At the end of 1900, Emily boards a ship on her own with 300 British pounds. She travels for three weeks, arrives in Cape Town with a plan to visit the torched homesteads and deliver food and clothing to the Boer families who've lost everything. Little does she know, no one's there.

BRITS: Within days, she heard about, oh, my word, there are concentration camps.

ABDELFATAH: Emily had heard about a camp where women were being held - not through the British papers, through her own contacts. But when she arrives, she learns that there are dozens of concentration camps.

BRITS: Everybody that lost everything were put in these camps. The majority were women and children in all the cases.

ABDELFATAH: One reason the British started to do this was to cut off the supply of the guerrilla movement - a practical strategy. But there is another deeper psychological reason.

BRITS: Imagine you - you're a man. You're fighting a war against a force 10 times, a hundred times greater than you. And then suddenly, they take your mother, your sister, your wife and all your children. They put them in a concentration camp where there's no clean water. There are no candles. There are no blankets. There's just tents. Your children are dying. What are you going to do? Are you going to continue fighting?

ABDELFATAH: These accounts made Emily realize...

BRITS: This was much, much bigger than she originally thought and decided there and then - well, now I know my destination; I have to go to the camps.

ARABLOUEI: To access the camps, she needs to get a permit from one of the highest-ranking British officers, Lord Milner - easier said than done.

BRITS: 'Cause remember, a woman in 1900 asking to see this very important man who was running a war - what's her business?

ABDELFATAH: At first, he won't see her. But after three weeks, he finally gives in.

BRITS: I can only imagine that this woman from the upper class, suddenly landing in this country, traveling through the dust - it's sun. She's all alone, and there's a war.

ARABLOUEI: After three days on a train with all men, Emily arrives at a camp. It's bleak.


BRITS: These people are just dropped in the middle of nowhere. And among the sights that she saw was this - a baby of six months gasping its life out on its mother's knee, children who were so weak from measles that they weren't able to walk, lying there white and wan.

ABDELFATAH: Emily takes meticulous notes of what she's seeing.

BRITS: I can't describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It is just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one hates to stand and look on such a misery and be able to do almost nothing.

ARABLOUEI: Over the course of a few months, Emily manages to get access to several camps - the whole time, she's documenting the conditions.


BRITS: And then she decides there's nothing more she can do here.

ABDELFATAH: So she returns home, finishes her report and presents it to the secretary of war. But his response is denial. He says conditions are perfectly fine in the camps.

ARABLOUEI: The reality - tens of thousands of people are at risk of starvation, dehydration and disease. And seeing no other option, Emily decides to go public with her report.

BRITS: And everybody knows.

ARABLOUEI: But Parliament just downplays her findings.

BRITS: And then her battle starts. People throw stones at her. And she was vilified in the press as being a liar and a traitor. You don't want to hear in wartime that your country is doing this to defenseless women and children.

ARABLOUEI: Finally, after a few months, Parliament decides to send their own commission down to South Africa to investigate the camps. They select a group of elite women to do the work Emily had already done but intentionally leave Emily off the roster.


ABDELFATAH: In late 1901, the women's commission gets back to England and delivers their own report. It's almost identical to the one Emily made. But because it's a government-backed report, this time, it leads to action - basic improvements like more food and water.

ARABLOUEI: But it's too late. By now, the war is coming to an end. The Boers eventually surrender and sign a peace treaty with the British. And in total, almost 50,000 people have died in the camps.

MARTIN: What ended up happening to Emily Hobhouse when the war was over?

ABDELFATAH: Well, she spent the next few years travelling back-and-forth to South Africa helping to rebuild. And she remained a staunch pacifist for the rest of her life, continuing to speak out against the horrors of war.

MARTIN: Rund Abdelfatah. She is a co-host of NPR's Throughline. Thank you so much for sharing a story with us.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.