You probably didn’t know the Pondering Pig is a historian. I didn’t either, but ignorance has never stopped me before. It’s all this talk of Willa Cather (100 per cent from me) and Gibson girls (100 per cent from Genevieve). Got me wondering what the world was like a hundred years ago. So I’m reading A History of the Twentieth Century by Martin Gilbert. Here’s some things I learned about 1901, actually one hundred five years ago…
I always imagined 1901 sort of like Anne of Green Gables – with guys in straw boaters and girls in long white dresses sipping pink lemonade on the lawn while Mom sweats it out on the front porch swing. Peace, plenty, and ice cream socials, a more innocent time. (Have you ever noticed how as eras retreat further into the past they automatically become “a more innocent time?”)
Well, according to A History, the first battle of the first war of the twentieth century was launched on January 6, 1900. So we had at least five days for a pink lemonade social before people started killing each other again. Winter of course, so maybe we could go ice skating on the river and have a bonfire instead.
The war: the Boers, a rather unpleasant group of Dutchmen who had been living in South Africa since the 1600s and later came to be known as Afrikaners – the boys responsible for apartheid – they were afraid the British, who lived next door, were going to attack them, so they attacked the British first, kicking off this pretty well forgotten but bloody unpleasant Boer War.
The British won, but the Boer farmers wouldn’t give in. They took to the hills and became efficient guerilla warriors. They exasperated the British, who came up with a plan. Perhaps if they rounded up all the Boers’ wives and children (the Boer farmers themselves being off in the hills) and put them in big, unpleasant prison camps, and then rounded up all the Boers’ farmhands and put them in other prison camps, maybe the Boers would give up. They tried it, the Boers didn’t give up, and the new camps began to hold so many people that the British coined a new term for them: concentration camps.
Conditions in the camps were not good. No medical facilities and almost no food. The ladies, the kids, the farmhands up and died in embarrassingly large numbers. In fact, more people died in the camps than in all the battles of the war — 28,000 Boer women and children, and more than 50,000 African farm workers.
I guess it would have been okay if the Germans or the Belgians had run the camps. They already had a reputation for running absolutely terrifying, hell-hole colonies. But the Brits were supposed to be the good guys. They prided themselves on it. They were bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted lands of India, Africa, China, Canada, wherever.
But war is hell, right? And besides, nobody up in Europe knew anything about the death camps. If it hadn’t been for a nosy Englishwoman named Emily Hobhouse, who actually visited the camps and, when she got home, went around telling everyone what she had seen, the British military might have got away with their pressure tactics: the barbarous killing of women, children, and ordinary folks who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the British public and their Parliament learned about the camps, they raised holy hell and forced the Army to “initiate reforms”.
The concentration camps didn’t work, by the way. The Boer farmers refused to give up the struggle, no matter what the cost. For all I know, they may still be out there.
So here’s your assignment for today, kids. Go read up on Emily Hobhouse and determine what effect one determined woman might have on a nation fighting an unjust war. Then suggest any other parallels that might come to mind between war in 1901 and war in 2006.