Norvalspont Concentration Camp 1900

Norvals Pont

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If there was a model camp in the ORC system, it was Norvals Pont. And, if anyone could be described as the hero of the camps, it was Lieutenant St John Cole Bowen, the first civilian superintendent. Norvals Pont was one of those camps, like Aliwal NorthKimberley and Orange River Station, which was in the Cape Colony, although it formed part of the ORC complex. It was located on the banks of the Orange River, South Africa’s longest river, which ensured an ample water supply and plenty of wood from the bush on the river banks. As the name suggests, Norvals Pont was a crossing on the Orange River but the camp, although on the railway line, was isolated from any towns.

Norvals Pont was probably established about November 1900, in order to relieve the overcrowded Bloemfontein camp with its dire shortage of water The first superintendents, both military men, seem to have been capable people; Lieutenant Wynne of the Imperial Yeomanry was described as the ‘Father of the Camp’ and he was succeeded in January 1901 by Major du Plat Taylor of the Grenadier Guards, who instilled ‘firm military discipline’. At the end of February 1901, when the camp passed into civilian control Cole Bowen was appointed. He was of Irish extraction, a fact which may have given him some sympathy for the Boers.1 His ability ensured that he did not remain at Norvals Pont and Cole Bowen was later appointed as a travelling inspector. Almost everyone who encountered him commented on his calm efficiency. Emily Hobhouse wrote later that Cole Bowen possessed ‘marked administrative powers; his rule was firm, just and kind and he seemed possessed of unlimited resources’.2 After the war Cole Bowen became a resident magistrate in the Free State, spending his life amongst the Boers whom he had served in the camps.

It was not that Norvals Pont lacked the problems of the other camps. On the contrary, the measles epidemic struck early and was followed by scarlet fever and diphtheria. Families poured in without warning and tents and blankets ran out. And, with all these struggles, Cole Bowen had to contend with an unpleasant medical officer. Some people deserted and Cole Bowen was forced to fence in those who were a ‘bad influence’.3 Nor did Cole Bowen show overt sympathy for the Boers. When Miss Malherbe was sent to run the hospital, he considered her a troublemaker.

‘Immediately on her arrival, she at once took up the cudgels on behalf of the refugees, and insisted on the fact that they were most cruelly treated in all Refugee Camps and went out of her way to go down the lines to persuade them of this fact. She used her influence to persuade people not to allow their children to come to hospital, and to have no confidence in the Medical Officer. She even informed Dr Scarlett upon her arrival that she had better take great care of how she treated her (Miss Malherbe), as she said that she (Miss Malherbe) had power to make the people love her or hate her (Dr Scarlett) at will. Further, she did everything in her power to insult and annoy Miss Broers, and I felt that some strong decisive measure was necessary.’

Miss Malherbe was promptly removed. Cole Bowen wrote to head office:

‘I feel quite confident that you will approve of the action under the circumstances as this woman simply came up here to see what circumstances might be used, as tending to increase the present discussion and abuse concerning the treatment of refugees’.4

Despite his determined loyalty to his employers, the Boers of Norvals Pont presented a number of testaments to head office and to Cole Bowen himself, affirming their satisfaction with the camp. S.D. Poign provided a long statement describing their lives in considerable detail He concluded:

‘With these few suggestions, I, a person brought here against my will, and wish [to] beg to attest, that I have no reason to object in any manner over the way in which I have been treated while in this camp, neither have I any reason to complain that the authorities have not treated me with that courtesy which I as a man and a gentleman could expect under the peculiar circumstances under which I am placed.’

The chaplain, the Rev. A.P. van der Merwe, asserted that everything possible was done for the comfort of the people. J.D. Naude of the farm Landplaats in the Winburg district wrote:

‘I find nothing to complain of here in every respect. I have nothing to complain of either of the Superintendent or of any of the officials under him. I have always received kindness and every consideration from them all. The camp here, I am of opinion, is second to none in South Africa regarding cleanliness, order, sanitary arrangements and wood and water supply. We have also a very good doctor, several experienced nurses in Hospital especially our Head Sister in Hospital, who was sent from Holland to us. Every morning we get good fresh meat, either mutton or beef, then, of course, we get our daily rations of groceries, and milk &c. We have also four shops here where we can get any kind of luxury etc, then we have also a greengrocer’s shop supplied with fresh vegetables and fruit. We have also a very good school here accommodating about 500 children.’

Sister Broers, one of the volunteer nurses from Holland, testified in some detail. ‘I cannot judge of other camps but I believe this is one of the best’, she wrote.5

Norvals Pont was one of the camps which Emily Hobhouse visited early in February 1901 and she described it in some detail. It was, she wrote, surrounded by hills, with a pretty stretch of the Orange River visible and the blue hills of Bethulie in the distance. At the time of her visit there were about 1,500 inmates and the camp was beautifully laid out. Hobhouse disliked many English-speaking South Africans. Some of the people were ‘true Refugees’ she commented, ‘generally a very inferior type of inbred English, very pleased with themselves and very scornful of the country and the people as a whole’. The Boers, ‘the people I call prisoners-of-war’, who formed the bulk of population, were kept separate from the British. When Hobhouse returned to Norvals Pont in March, she was forced to share accommodation with an Uitlander refugee who had been sent from Cape Town to teach. She detested Miss Fischer. ‘She is rabid, foolish, narrow, discontented, and one wonders why the Authorities persist in sending up people who hate and loathe the Boers, think themselves so vastly superior and complain all day long’, she said bitterly to Leonard Hobhouse. By this time she was disillusioned with Captain Taylor. There had been much ‘petty tyranny’ under him, she explained. Cole Bowen withdrew the sentries and the people were free to walk down to the river, gather wood and pick flowers.6

At first the camp did not have a resident medical officer but Dr Michie of the RAMC attended the inmates. His services were necessary for, consisting of families from Bloemfontein, Norvals Pont was struck early by the measles epidemic. But Michie was not easy. Cole Bowen considered him extravagant, ordering large quantities of eggs, milk and rice and he refused to put in proper medical returns. Cole Bowen felt he had been placed in an unfair position. ‘I am responsible for a hospital over whom a Medical Officer presides, who does not acknowledge my authority or right of interference’, he complained. Head Office was sympathetic. ‘Mr Cole Bowen is a level headed man and would not complain of him if something was not wrong’, the authorities noted. Hobhouse also disliked Michie – he was an ‘insufferable cad’, she wrote on one occasion. ‘The man has lived six years in Jagersfontein and is of the kind who cannot open their mouths without using invective against the Boers’. Admittedly doctors were in short supply, but head office made no effort to help Cole Bowen, even when the superintendent threatened to resign. It was only when Michie fell ill that he was replaced.7

Even then the staffing problems at Norvals Pont were not over. The most prominent of the women doctors of the camp systems, the Hon Dr Ella Scarlett, took over from Michie. Scarlett became a member of the Ladies Committee but she was always a controversial figure. Her colleague on the Ladies Committee, Lucy Deane, thought her a little mad, like all her family (her father was Lord Abinger, an Irish peer). Undoubtedly she was a maverick, who had an unusual and adventurous career, working as personal physician to the Emperor of Korea, serving in Serbia during the First World War and finishing her days as part of the British ex-patriot community of Florence. At Norvals Pont she met and married Lieutenant Synge, ‘a very good-natured, goodlooking young “Hofficer-man” with not much brains’, Lucy Deane thought. The marriage does not seem to have lasted. She was not popular in the camp system and damaged the cause of women doctors in male eyes. While there was undoubtedly a good deal of male chauvinism in the correspondence about her, Scarlett was clearly not an easy or compliant person. Nevertheless, she worked hard on behalf of the Boers who do not seem to have complained about her.8

Later doctors were equally troublesome. Drs Caldwell and McArthur, both brusque men, did not get on and the latter had to be transferred. Caldwell also quarrelled with the admirable Sister Broers, who was transferred to Bethulie, and he then fell out with Broers’ replacement. Inevitably, such a man was at odds with Dr Ella Scarlett who, he said, was lax and ignored his authority. The correspondence does suggest that Scarlett was wilful but Caldwell had a poor record in his relationships with the medical staff.9

Apart from measles, in April 1901 scarlet fever ran through the camp, followed by diphtheria. Michie struggled to isolate the sufferers, forced to house them with their families, although he knew that the infection was likely to be passed on. Staff shortages may explain some of his irascibility. Neither trained nurses nor civilian doctors could be obtained in South Africa in the early months of 1901, head office explained when Michie appealed for more qualified medical staff. Fortunately the arrival of Miss Broers relieved the situation slightly.10 Yet mortality remained low in Norvals Pont camp.