Pretorius swings into action!

Just a couple of days after Rees-Mogg made his comments on the BBC, old Prof Pretorius has feverishly swung into action to defend the Apartheid-era myths:

Funnily, the perennially offended Pretorius didn’t feel the need to correct the comments made by the lady with whom Rees-Mogg was arguing. As a self-appointed champion of ‘the facts’ why, one wonders, was Pretorius not moved to ridicule the claims she made? Why did he not feel the urge to write an article to correct her claim that the British ‘invented the concentration camp’? Or that ‘hundreds of thousands were murdered in them’?

None of this should surprise anyone really, as Pretorius has long demonstrated he is only interested in ‘correcting’ anyone who dares to challenge his much-cherished myth.

While he got a couple of details slightly wrong, the general point Rees-Mogg was making was a perfectly valid one: it is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to try and compare modern day mortality rates with those of 120 years ago. Mortality rates in the UK in 1900 were as much as 40 in a 1,000 in some slum areas[i]  – or around 10 times the rate of today. Perhaps rather more germane to the topic is that infant mortality rates of the time were much, much worse than today – in some poorer areas of the UK, they were 55 times as high as now.[ii]

But if the figures for the UK at the time are shocking, Victorian-era Cape Colony figures were even worse: between 1896 and 1898 the average infant mortality rate among white children in the Cape was 180 per thousand.[iii] Between 1896 and 1900 in the town of Cradock, it was 395 per thousand; that is to say that almost 40 per cent of European children born in Cradock did not make it to their first birthday during that period.[iv] The figures for coloured babies were even more ghastly, with an average infant mortality rate across the Cape of 332 per thousand in 1896, so even in peacetime one in three coloured babies did not live past one. It is thus utterly disingenuous to look at the infant deaths in the camps through a modern lens.

And this was by no means unique to South Africa. In 1908, Edwin Graham MD, Professor of Diseases at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, gave the Chairman’s address to the American Medical Association, and spoke on the horrors of infant mortality all over the world. He noted that, of the 173,126 babies born in New York between 1889 and 1892, ten per cent did not survive their first month, let alone their first year.[v] He further noted that collective statistics from 16 European cities, embracing 1,439,056 children showed that ten per cent of those born alive died within the first four weeks of life. The Professor went on to explain that things improved only slightly if the child got through its first month, with infant mortality rates in Victorian-era France of 223.2; the Netherlands of 237.5; in Spain, 249.6, and in Italy, 273.3—or, to put it another way, over a quarter of all babies born in Italy did not see their first birthday. Some American cities and states were worse still—the 1900 census showed that infant mortality in Charleston, South Carolina was over 400 per thousand. Several other American cities had rates over 300 per thousand, while over 100 others were still over 175 per thousand.

Even across developed European nations the picture was still not exactly rosy if a child got past its first birthday. The Professor stated that the annual death rates in children under five was over ten per cent in the likes of Austria, Spain, and Italy.[vi]

Graham’s talk also detailed the differences in infant mortality rates between urban and rural populations and between the rich and poor. In Great Britain, for example, between 1889 and 1891, infant mortality in rural areas was about ten per cent; in the manufacturing counties 17 per cent; and in the manufacturing towns 22 per cent—presumably at least in part because people lived in relatively close proximity to one another.

And, though it certainly helped, wealth was no guarantee against infant mortality; one of the most famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) veterans of the Boer War, Field Marshall Earl Haig, was one of a family of eleven children, three of whom did not live to see their first birthday[vii]—this despite their father being a very wealthy whisky magnate. Likewise, two of Dr Leander Starr Jameson’s siblings died in infancy while Rudyard Kipling, the very well off and allegedly arch-Jingo ‘Poet Laureate of Empire’, lost one of his three children—seven year old Josephine—to pneumonia just before the Boer War. Despite being from an illustrious and wealthy family, Sir Winston Churchill[viii] also lost a child; little Marigold was only two when she died of septicaemia after suffering from a cold.

It is often forgotten—deliberately or otherwise—that this was the tragic reality of the age, and Southern Africa was as bad, if not worse, a place as any for an infant to be born. War or peace, the simple—though unpleasant—truth was that South African infants of all colours died like flies at the fin du siècle.

Why, one wonders, was Pretorius unable to concede this simple reality?

Towards the end of his vent, Pretorius casually mentions in passing something about a measles epidemic, but fails to inform his readers that this was responsible for 43% of the deaths in the camps[ix]. One would have thought someone who allegedly wants to present ‘the facts’ might have taken a moment to point out that a virulent measles epidemic just happened to be rampaging across the land in the middle of the Boer War. Quite an important fact, one might think?
Of course, admitting this would not suit his argument though, for while he is happy to squeal that people died in the camps, but that is very different from being able to claim that people died because of the camps.

If he was being intellectually honest, Pretorius would have mentioned that Imperial troops also suffered severely from the diseases that ran rampant through South Africa during the Boer War. After the capture of Bloemfontein, enteric fever swept through the ranks, with one 500-bed hospital trying to cope with 1,700 patients[x] and 50 men a day dying at the height of the outbreak.

The 17th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry was formed from four squadrons of relatively young, fit men, all volunteers. They served in Rhodesia and then took part in numerous actions in the guerrilla war, including the chase of de Wet—so the casualty figures for this regiment are instructive. The 50th (Hampshire) Squadron lost two men killed in action, and six men to disease. The 60th (North Irish) Squadron lost no men in action, but four to disease. The 61st (South Irish) Squadron also lost no men in action, but six to disease, while the 65th (Leicestershire) Squadron had one man killed in action, and three died of disease.[xi]

The situation in the 18th Battalion was similar. The 67th (Sharpshooters) Squadron suffered no men killed in action, but lost six men to disease. The 70th (Sharpshooters) Squadron had three men killed in action, and another four died from disease, while the 71st (Sharpshooters) Squadron lost two men in action and five to disease. Of the eight squadrons in these two battalions, only the 75th (Sharpshooters) Squadron lost more men to enemy action (five) than to disease (two).[xii]

The 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment served in South Africa from the very start of the war, and then returned to India in January 1902[xiii]. Despite seeing more than their fair share of action, of the 91 NCOs and men the Devons lost in the war, 57 died of disease[xiv]—over 62 per cent of the total killed. If anything, the Devons suffered proportionately less from disease[xv] than the average; overall, 13,720 Imperial soldiers died of disease over the course of the conflict—almost twice as many as were killed in action.[xvi] A further 66,500 were invalided home[xvii] and the Boer War was the last major conflict in which the British Army suffered more losses from disease than from enemy action. The high death toll of doctors and nurses working the camps is also worth noting: in one month alone it was recorded that one doctor, one camp superintendent, and four nurses had died, either of measles or enteric fever.[xviii]

The reality is that Pretorius simply leaves out any ‘facts’ which do not suit the myth he is always determined to peddle.

Rees-Mogg was perfectly correct to point out that many (though certainly not all) residents were in the camps for their protection – Botha had ordered that anyone who wouldn’t re-join the commandos (and continue to fight the pointless guerrilla war / terrorist campaign) should have his farm burned down. Kitchener, who Pretorius would have us believe was some sort of monster, confirmed what had been discussed at the Middelburg Conference in a letter to Botha dated 16 April 1901:

‘As I informed your Honour at Middelburg, owing to the irregular manner in which you have conducted, and are conducting, hostilities by forcing unwilling and peaceful inhabitants to join your commandos … I have now no other course open to me except to take the unpleasant and repugnant step of bringing in the women and children.’[xix]

Indeed, the bittereinders actually took advantage of the shelter and relative safety the camps offered. An Imperial intelligence agent, Napier Devitt, captured an order written by Louis Botha; the original was in Dutch but the translation reads as follows:

‘In consequence of the moving about of commandos many of the wives and families of the burghers are disposed to attach themselves to our forces and thereby cause hindrance to our operations. As the enemy has destroyed our farms, thereby causing the families of the burghers to be homeless, all officers are requested to see that such persons do not follow the commandos as the responsibility for their food and shelter rests upon the enemy.’[xx]

So why did Pretorius not admit Botha bears a large part of the blame for the camps? For a man who claims to want to present ‘the facts’ he comes across as desperately pushing his own agenda.

And it was not just attacks from their former brothers-in-arms that the surrendered Boers needed protection from. Toward the end of 1900, native attacks in the western Transvaal saw increasing numbers of hendsoppers in a desperate position. A report declared:

‘…[blacks] in many places are active in hostility against, and a standing danger to, the Boers. Last week four Boers were wounded and one killed by Natives at different places about the Pilansberg; most of the Boers from that neighbourhood have come to live under our protection.’

Far from encouraging such attacks as some like to claim, both Baden-Powell (commanding the newly formed South African Constabulary) and Roberts did all they could to disarm these natives.[xxi]

Similarly, while Pretorius sheds a few crocodile tears over the camps established for blacks, he fails to mention that, even as Boer refugees sought protection from native attacks, there were also huge numbers of natives who sought Imperial protection from the brutal attacks of the ‘noble’ bittereinders:

‘Following the British annexation of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony and the beginning of the guerrilla war, the military administration was faced with two immediate problems concerning black refugees: first, to alleviate hardship and destitution among those Africans whose livelihood had been destroyed by military operations; and secondly, to give protection to black communities in danger of suffering at the hands of the Boer commandos for the assistance they had given to Imperial forces. Already by the end of July 1900 groups of blacks had begun entering the British lines and garrison towns to seek protection from military operations and punitive raids on their settlements.’[xxii]

Large numbers of such refugees flooded into Vryburg, with similar scenes in the western Transvaal, where many blacks with herds of livestock sought the protection of the British army. Many refugees staggered into British-held towns, starving and destitute. ‘The inhabitants of Zwaartboys, their stad having been destroyed by General Grobler, were permitted to settle close to Wolmaransstad and some assistance given them.’[xxiii] In garrison towns attempts at relief were made by district commissioners, but by the end of 1900, it was apparent that a coherent policy would be needed to deal with the tide of black refugees fleeing from the guerrilla onslaught: this was a humanitarian crisis caused almost entirely by the murder and mayhem wreaked by the bittereinders.

Pretorius prefers to overlook that fact that, not only had the bittereinders’ terrorism directly prompted the establishment of the refugee camps for blacks, but also that the Boers cheerfully went on to target the blacks in them as a handy source of supply, stealing food from those already in a desperate condition. Pickets were raised to defend the camps against night raids but there were still many successful attacks. In early 1901 three raids by bittereinders on the black refugee camp at Potchefstroom netted 258 cattle and 400 sheep, as well as leaving one refugee dead.[xxiv] Attacks on other black refugee camps saw the bittereinders making off with hauls of money, food, and clothing, while one such raid resulted in the deaths of thirteen residents[xxv] (undoubtedly included in the statistics of those ‘murdered’ by the British today).

Even black refugees outside the formal British camp system were considered fair game by the Boers. In February 1902, a raiding party fell on an unofficial refugee settlement in the ThabuNchu area in the Orange River Colony, stealing 590 cattle, 32 horses, and 6,625 sheep and goats from these poor wretches.[xxvi] Less dramatically, the white camps were also a regular source of supply for the bittereinders—despite the myths about residents having starved to death, there was a great deal of smuggling of supplies out of the camps.[xxvii]

None of this is to suggest that the Imperial forces did not also create refugees by way of their scorched-earth tactics: of course they did, and many tens of thousands of them. It should always be remembered though, that much of this was the direct result of the bittereinders having used farms as depots and the like. But the refugee crisis has to be understood in context: Kitchener’s memorandum of 21 December 1900, calling for the removal of men, women, children, and natives from the districts then occupied by the enemy’s bands stated:

‘This course has been pointed out by surrendered Burghers, who are anxious to finish the war, as the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the Guerrillas, as the men and women left on the farms, if disloyal, willingly supply Burghers; if loyal, dare not refuse to do so. Moreover, seeing the unprotected state of women now living out in the Districts, this course is desirable to ensure their not being insulted or molested by natives.’[xxviii]

The frustration is obvious in a message written to Chamberlain by an increasingly exasperated Milner:

‘Every farm had become a supply depot for the enemy, enabling him to concentrate at will and refit his commandos with food and munitions of war … to have denuded the farms and left the women and children to subsist as best they could would have been entirely within the military rights of the British … the women had actively assisted the combatants by furnishing them with exact information regarding all British movements. The military situation demanded that the enemy should be deprived of such a system of intelligence, and humanity induced the British Commander to remove the inhabitants from the farms and assemble them in concentration camps, where they have at all times received food similar to that provided for the British soldier, as well as shelter and other comforts.’[xxix]

Rees-Mogg might have got a couple of details wrong, but his presentation of the camps was a lot more balanced and accurate than the near-hysterical rebuttal by Professor Pretorius.

We shall let General Botha have the last word. At the end of the war, he stated:
‘…one is only too thankful nowadays to know that our wives are under English protection’.[xxx]

Who knows – perhaps Pretorius will pop up to say Botha was wrong too?


[i] Wise, ‘The Blackest Streets’, p.8

[ii] Wise, ‘The Blackest Streets’, p.9

[iii]Martin, p. 37

[iv]Ibid, p. 36

[v] Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. LI, No. 13, 26 September 1908


[vii] Mead, The Good Solider,  p. 19

[viii] Churchill’s nemesis, Adolf Hitler, was just as unfortunate: no fewer than four of his siblings died in infancy or early childhood.

[ix] ‘A Tool For Modernisation? The Boer Concentration Camps of the South African War, 1900–1902’, South African Journal of Science, Vol. 106, No. 5–6, Pretoria, May/June 2010

[x]James, Lord Roberts, p. 315

[xi] Gilbert, Rhodesia & After, p. 332–335

[xii] Gilbert, Rhodesia & After, p. 336–339

[xiii] Far from the modern day South African perception of the British Tommies as wicked Imperialist invaders, the men of the Devons were each presented with a pipe, some tobacco, and a pocket handkerchief by the grateful ladies of Pietermaritzburg as they stopped off there on their way to Durban to ship out. These brave men really had helped to save Natal from the republican invasion and annexation.

[xiv] Jacson, The Record of a Regiment of the Line, p. 219–225

[xv] Or, if one prefers, more from enemy action.

[xvi] This was the case in most conflicts prior to the Second World War and the widespread use of penicillin. In the Spanish-American War, for example, the American army lost more than five times as many men to disease as it did to enemy action. The Second World War was the first major conflict in which American battle casualties exceeded those from disease (and did so, indeed, by more than 2:1). By the Vietnam War, the ratio reversed to the extent that almost five times as many American troops were killed in action than died from disease.

[xvii]Martin, p. 26

[xviii]Ibid, p. 34

[xix]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 4, p. 660

[xx]Devitt, The Concentration Camps in South Africa, p. 19

[xxi]Warwick, p. 46

[xxii]Ibid, p. 146

[xxiii]Ibid, p. 147

[xxiv] In a similar incident, the Belfast concentration camp was raided by bittereinders on 15 September 1901; one woman was killed and two children injured.

[xxv]Warwick, p. 155

[xxvi]Ibid, p. 157

[xxvii] Unpublished personal account of RJ Mason, kindly supplied to me by Hugh Rethman

[xxviii]Martin, p. 7

[xxix]Ibid, p. 5

[xxx]Pakenham, ‘The Boer War’, p. 570


  • Chris Posted February 28, 2019 8:51 am

    Good Day Chris
    Why not come and debate him in person — in the sanctum

    Announcing the 120-year Commemoration of the Anglo-Boer (South African) War Conference: 9-11 October 2019.
    Announcing the 120-year Commemoration of the Anglo-Boer (South African) War Conference

    9-11 October 2019

    War Museum of the Boer Republics
    Bloemfontein, South Africa

    Could be a good one ………..

    • Bulldog Posted February 28, 2019 8:55 am

      Certainly would be entertaining!

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