Bethulie Concentration Camp 1901

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Bethulie camp was formed on 22 April 1901, after the civilian administration took over the running of the camps from the military, and was created to take the overflow from Springfontein camp. At first families were housed in the little town (which had a population of hardly more that 550). Initially the camp was located on the koppies above the town, but it was moved twice. In June 1901 it was placed nearer to the river. Unfortunately the lower site meant that the camp often lay in heavy mist, the Ladies Committee observed. As disease increased and the ground became polluted, in March 1902 the camp was moved again, to a site where the ground was less fouled.1

The camp was unfenced and, for a long time, unguarded and the inmates were free to come and go as they wished. But, as conditions worsened, some women took advantage of the situation to ‘abscond’. As a result, by September 1901 access to the town was controlled with permits and the boundaries of the camp were guarded by camp police, drawn from the inmates.2 Desertions, however, continued to be a problem for many months and were one reason, later on, for sending some of the ‘worst characters’ to Uitenhage camp in the Cape Colony.3

We know very little about the black inmates of the camp. Certainly they were there. A.G.H. Daller, the first travelling inspector in the ORC, observed the presence of black children: ‘A peculiar feature is the presence of the families of “adopted” or “apprenticed” little coloured children – virtually slaves’, he noted. Their lives must have been hard for they received no rations, depending on their employers for food. As the black townspeople were virtually destitute, blacks in the camp could get little help from that quarter either.4

Bethulie was the archetypal ‘bad’ camp, about which there is a considerable literature. In this entry we try to explore the reasons for its high mortality and to explain its poor reputation.

Many of the early Bethulie inmates were demoralised before they arrived. They had been sent to Springfontein, to find there was no room for them. Sometimes they had to wait for many hours, even days, on Springfontein station before some overcrowded accommodation was at last found for them. The child depicted on the Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein, dying in her mother’s arms, and taken from an account of Emily Hobhouse of a family marooned on Springfontein station, would have been such an example. Yet Mrs Carstens, who arrived in Bethulie in April 1901, commented with relief, ‘The Commandant of the camp, Mr. Deare, was a kind, considerate man, which was a great consolation to us in our trouble.5

One of the ministers serving the camp community, ds A.D. Lückhoff, commented on the air of depression which pervaded the camp. At one time he wrote:

‘Another great point; must insist that friends and relatives abstain from all long-faced despondency, with total absence of any cheer and hopefulness; this bad effect on patients; if anyone seriously ill, they “hands up” and cluster around to await the end, lest perchance they miss seeing “zoo ‘n prachtige sterfbed” (such a beautiful deathbed).’

And later on:’ . . . there is too much despondency and heaviness of spirit rampant.’6

From the start Russell Deare, the first superintendent, struggled with inadequate accommodation – he described it as ‘an impossible task’. When the camp opened, two hundred people had to remain in railway carriages while three hundred were housed in the town. Tents had been sent but the station master could not trace them. Nor could Deare get any supplies. Nothing was available in the village and he had to persuade the local military authorities and various firms to provide food. Deare’s telegrams vividly indicate his desperation: ‘Please enquire where fault lies in sending me at a days notice close on 1000 refugees without any rations or tent accommodation’, he telegraphed; he still wanted another fifty tents sent ‘without delay’ as the resident magistrate would not keep the refugees in town any longer. On 21 May 1901 one hundred refugees arrived ‘and I have no tents for them’; on 9 June: ‘Just heard that 300 refugees will arrive at 7 p.m. I must have 100 tents at once otherwise women and children will have to remain in the open veldt’.7

If Deare was unhappy, so were other local authorities. In June 1901 Lord Kitchener decided that Boer prisoners-of-war who were prepared to take an oath of neutrality, should be allowed to go to the camps as ‘refugees’. The resident magistrate of Bethulie was outraged. He had a garrison of only seventy men, all dismounted; now he was to receive 118 prisoners-of-war for the camp (by July 1901 there were 219 in Bethulie camp, of whom only 162 were ‘voluntary surrenders’ and had taken the oath). The town was overcrowded; the enemy were in the vicinity; there were no police and many ‘undesirable’ local men were in the town, he considered. Please stop these men from coming, he begged. The military refused – these were Kitchener’s orders. ‘If Genl Tucker has anything to say to it, he would not allow one of these men back into the colony for some time yet, but orders must be obeyed’.8

The shortage of supplies continued for months. The Ladies Committee commented on the empty shelves in the camp store; they were still bare in December 1901 and the inmates petitioned for something to be done. Deare supported their request; the health of the men suffering because they could not get tobacco and were smoking ‘vaalbosch’, he complained. Bethulie town was even worse off. The camp inmates complained bitterly about the quality of the meat but, in the village, there was no meat available at all. The civilians in Bethulie town were now on half rations, less than half that available to the camp inmates (and they had to pay for them). Milk was almost entirely unavailable outside the camp, except for very young children. All round, townspeople were suffering badly. Long after conditions had improved in other camps, supplies in Bethulie appear to have been inadequate. When the new superintendent, W.K.H. Wilson, took over in February 1902, he complained that the inmates were inadequately fed. ‘I have found families in a state verging on starvation – the meat supplied is useless as human food containing little or no nutriment, being simply skin and bone. The result of this is that the majority of the people are in a weak and unhealthy condition and are quite unable to withstand the epidemic of enteric fever decimating the camp’, he wrote.9

Under these desperate conditions health was bound to suffer. Some of the people pouring into Bethulie camp carried infectious diseases. Whooping cough (which could be a fatal disease) was the first to be detected. ‘Please give instruction that no families are to be sent to my camp suffering any contagious diseases as several arrived here yesterday with hoping [sic] cough’, Deare telegraphed in early August 1901; a few days later he was worrying about the large number of sick in the camp. By this time measles had struck the camp; malnutrition and the cold weather were a fatal combination. Deare struggled to cope:

‘I would further point out that the want of hospital comforts on several occasions for the proper nourishment of children has also been the cause of several deaths and had I not ordered some from East London I would at present be entirely without them. I am further convinced that the average number in tents in my camp is far above any other camp, which is also the cause of the measles spreading so rapidly. I would now suggest that another doctor be sent who can speak Dutch’. 10

As conditions worsened, Deare also struggled to get adequate staff. At the time that the Ladies Committee visited, the hospital had only two partially-trained nurses and the patients were left to the ‘probationers’ (young Boer women who acted as nurse-aids) at night, however ill they might be. Deare’s request for twelve more ‘probationers’ was queried by the authorities; he already had twenty, they complained. But the PMO concurred; the twelve hospital marquees required at least two assistants each, and orderlies and washerwomen were also required. More nurses were appointed and, by the end of the year, Bethulie had four doctors as well. But the camp doctors had been a problem from the first. Although the authorities approved of the first doctor, Dr Wohlers, the local town doctor, the people found him unsympathetic. Friction between the inmates and some of the doctors became so severe that a case of assault occurred (the details are not known); Deare considered Wohlers responsible for much of the trouble. One of the doctors sent to help Wohlers, Dr F.A. Madden, was relieved of his duties because of incompetence before his first month was out. The shortage of staff, combined with Madden’s popularity with his patients, who petitioned that he be reinstated, led Deare to retain him. ‘I have little faith in Dr Madden as he seems to have so little confidence in himself, but if the people whom he visits wish his services to be retained they will hereafter have to hold their peace’, Deare wrote. But Madden was never a well man.11

Other staff were also problematic. The very competent inspector, St John Cole Bowen, recommended that Percival, the issuer, also be sent away. ‘He is very unpopular here and does not seem to me to be a good man for the camp’. The books were kept badly and the register was so deficient that it had to be restarted. Percival was replaced by Mr de Vletter, who was ‘thoroughly incapable’, the new superintendent, J.E. Smith, considered.12

It is clear that, by the end of 1901, the authorities were desperately worried about the mounting toll of deaths. Milner telegraphed repeatedly for information and finally requested that details of the sick and dying be sent daily to head office in Bloemfontein. Inspector Cole Bowen felt that the situation in Bethulie was hopeless; a major problem was the shortage of water, so critical in a typhoid epidemic. He felt the only recourse was to move the entire camp to the coast. By February 1902 things had not improved at all. In that month Cole Bowen telegraphed desperately: ‘Medical matters most critical. Send Tonkin at once. If he is unavailable send Yule [the ORC MOH] with full power to deal with the matter’.13

Both the graphs below confirm that mortality in Bethulie camp was particularly severe. The first graph, which shows the total number of deaths, emphasises two features – the very high and ongoing mortality of the children, and the twin peaks, indicating epidemics both in the severe winter of 1901 and in the summer months of 1901 and 1902. The latter was often an indication of typhoid which tended to flourish in the hot season.