Although she was a British citizen, Emily Hobhouse was later awarded an honorary South African citizenship because of her courageous and sacrificial actions, which exposed the cruelty of the concentration camps during the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902).
Emily was born 9 April 1860, and raised in St. Ive, in East Cornwall. Her father was a Church of England pastor for 51 years. Her mother was the daughter of Sir. William Trelawney, a Member of Parliament for East Cornwall. After her mother’s death, Emily cared for her father until his death in 1895.
Then she travelled to the United States to undertake welfare work amongst miners in Minnesota. Her engagement to John Carr Jackson was broken off in 1898, and she returned to England. Emily was involved in social actions and was a member of the Women’s Industrial Committee. As the Anglo Boer War broke out October 1899, she joined the South African Conciliation Committee. As Secretary, she organised protest meetings against the war.
During the Second Boer War (October 1899- May 1902) Great Britain attempted to impose its control over South Africa by invading the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, inhabited mainly by the descendants of Dutch settlers, known as ‘Boers (meaning farmers). Britain already controlled the Cape Colony, and the Colony of Natal.
Although the British forces with their superior military might overran the ‘Boers’ (after some initial reverses), the latter reverted to guerrilla warfare, merging into the civilian Boer population. The British government responded by setting up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. This allowed the British mounted infantry units to systematically track down the Boer guerrilla units.
Public opinion in many countries was largely hostile to Britain, and in Britain and its Empire the Boer War aroused significant opposition, especially outrage at the concentration camp policy.
In April 1900 Emily and her friend Kate Courtney organized a women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, under whose auspices they then called a women’s protest meeting at Queen’s Hall, Langham Place, London, for 13 June 1900. On the platform appeared a pantheon of Liberal and radical figures – Lady Mary Hobhouse, the Countess of Carlisle (president of the Women’s Liberal Federation and the North of England Temperance League), Mrs SA Barnett, Mrs Bryce (chair of the Women’s National Liberal Association), and Mrs Frederic Harrison. Emily herself had previously been excluded from a Liberal conference in Manchester which discussed the wrongs of the Boer War which enraged her. “We [female Liberals] longed to protest… it occurred to me that women, at least, might make a public protest without rousing undue criticism.”
Opponents of the Boer war were being fiercely denounced by ‘patriots’ as traitors, anti-British, and public events such as rallies being held against the war were often attacked by jingoistic crowds.
In organising the Queens Hall protest Emily Hobhouse was attempting to both counter and take advantage of women’s formal exclusion from political life. It is generally held that the rally, and Hobhouse’s subsequent campaign against the British concentration camps in South Africa, had a significant impact on the development of the women’s suffrage movement. For instance, in 1902, the Women’s Liberal Federation, who had played a part in the Boer war protest movement, moved towards support for women’s suffrage.
Emily Hobhouse went on to spend much of the next two years campaigning against the British concentration camp policy, and organising aid for the Boers, especially interned women and children. Learning in the Summer of 1900, that hundreds of Boer women that had become impoverished and driven from their homes, she launched the South African Women’s and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled to South Africa to deliver aid to the Boer women and children, who were suffering because of the war.
Arriving in Cape Town, in late December 1900, she began to learn of concentration camps in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom, Norvalspont, Kroonstad, Irene and elsewhere. As Martial law had been declared over large parts of the Cape Colony, she needed the permission not only of Lord Milner, but of General Kitchener, to visit these camps. Because of her persistence and perseverance, she finally received permission to proceed only as far as Bloemfontein.
Emily described arriving at the concentration camp outside Bloemfontein on 24 January 1901: Two thousand people had been dumped on the slope of a kopje with inadequate accommodation, massive overcrowding of ten to twelve people in a tent, no soap, inadequate water, no beds, or mattresses, scarce fuel, extremely meagre rations, and (the actual quantity dispensed, fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.) all kinds of sicknesses festered in the camp, including: measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. Almost every tent housed one or more sick persons. When she requested soap for the inmates, she was told by the authorities that soap was “a luxury!”
Emily went beyond Bloemfontein to investigate other concentration camps. When informed by the Administrator of the Orange River Colony that she showed “too much personal sympathy”, Emily replied: “That was the precise reason why I came out to show personal sympathy and to render assistance in cases of personal afflictions.”
Emily published a “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies”, relating the result of the policy: Children were dying at a rate of 50 a day in these overcrowded and unhygienic camps. As Emily wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty to keep these camps going is murder to the children the women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety, seems to lift them beyond tears the nurse, underfed and overworked coping with some 30 typhoid and other patients a six month baby gasping its life out on its mother’s knee A girl of 21 lay dying on a stretcher The mother watching a child of 6, also dying. already this couple had lost 3 children in the hospital. like faded flowers thrown away a splendid child dwindled to skin and bone a baby so weak it was past recovery it was only three months, but such a sweet little thing it was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out.
“To me it seemed a murdered innocent. In an hour or two after, another child died. At Springfontein a young lady had to be buried in a sack it is a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the state, large uncomfortable communities of people, whom you call refugees, and say you are protecting, but who call themselves Prisoners Of War, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection. Those who are suffering most keenly and who have lost most, either of their children by death, or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those re-concentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience and never express a wish that their men should be the one’s to give way. It must be fought out now, to the bitter end.
“It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost, hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared about them and their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I have fought my way here, if only for that reason.”
Emily Hobhouse campaigned tirelessly against the concentration camp system, the war carried out against Boer women and children, the scorched earth campaigns, burning of farm houses, poisoning of wells, slaughtering of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, and destruction of food supplies. Her reports helped to spread news of British military policy and contributed to an outpouring of revulsion in England, which did lead to pressure on the government to improve conditions in the camps. One of the first successes of Emily Hobhouse’s campaign was that soap began to be issued amongst the meagre rations and conditions began to improve in the camps.
She received scathing criticism and hostility from the British government and many in the media upon her return to Britain. However, the opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, denounced the methods of barbarism and forced the government to set up the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims.
However, Emily Hobhouse was not allowed to be part of the commission, and upon her return to Cape Town in October 1901, was not permitted to land and was deported. But her reports continued to circulate. She moved to France to write the book: The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, which mobilised even more outrage and action. The Fawcett Commission confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s reports.
In spite of fierce opposition from the British newspapers supporting the government’s war, Emily continued to address public meetings about the plight of women and children in South Africa. There is no doubt that the initiatives and energetic actions of Emily Hobhouse shortened the war and saved countless lives. She also gave hope to mothers who had lost all hope.
Emily Hobhouse’s courageous campaign to speak up for the forgotten Boer women and children, who had been brutally treated, played a major role in undermining popular British support for the war. It also forced the government to offer massive concessions to the Boer forces.
She returned to South Africa in 1903 to set up Boer home industries, teaching young women spinning and weaving. Through her efforts, 27 schools were established in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She travelled to South Africa again in 1913 for the Inauguration of the National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, but had to stop at Beaufort West, due to ill health.
Emily was also an avid opponent of the First World War and vigorously protested against it. Through her efforts thousands of women and children starving in Germany and Austria, because of the British naval blockades, were fed by the support she was able to channel to them.
Emily Hobhouse’s remains are buried in a niche in the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.