The inconvenient horror of infant mortality

After decades of no one really challenging the self-pitying Apartheid-regime version, from about 2005, things started to collapse for the lovers of Boer War Myths, with several propaganda-busting books bursting on to the scene. Perhaps most irksome for the more knuckle-dragging Defenders of the Myth is that two of the best were written by – shock! horror! – ladies; I mean, what could any ‘mere female’, especially one who writes on historical sociology, feminist theory, sociological theory, and social change, nogal, possibly teach the Boere!?

To the sheer terror of the True Believers, the excellent ‘Mourning Becomes’ by Dr Liz Stanley of Edinburgh University was soon followed by Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen’s equally brilliant ‘The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War’. And there was also a flurry of associated articles in various academic journals. Of course, and while I would not be so arrogant as to put myself in the same category as those two august academics, then along came ‘Kruger, Kommandos and Kak’, and ‘Kruger’s War’.

All in all, those faithful to the NP-version clearly felt pinned down by a myth-busting fusillade.

Seeing their much-cherished fairy-tales crashing around their ears, the panic-button was pressed, and – surprise, surprise – the High Priest of Boer War Myths himself was dusted off and wheeled out, in an last ditch attempt to defend the indefensible, and keep the ‘approved version’ stumbling on a little longer.

A friend recently sent me a pdf of the entertainingly nonsensical paper that Prof Pretorius produced[1], in his desperate attempt to wave away all the inconvenient facts raised by Stanley and van Heyningen. It was less of an academic rebuttal, indeed, than a panic-stricken plea to his base not to give up the comforting fables just yet.

Alas, I do not have the time to go through all the nonsense he wrote, and, besides, Dr van Heyningen tore his rubbish apart in her response, Fools Rush In[2], so I will instead just focus on this portion:

The claim I find most amusing is this one: ‘it is true that from a family of say ten Boer children, perhaps two did not reach adulthood before the war’.

Firstly, it is telling that a so-called Professor of History does not feel the need to support this critically important statement with any sort of reference, but the fact is that he couldn’t, as he simply made it up in an attempt to bolster his flagging myths. If that is the sort of standard accepted at the University of Pretoria, I’d advise all to give it a wide berth.

But let’s leave the increasingly-beleaguered Grand Wizard to wallow about in his comforting fantasies of Boer victimhood, and try to find some rather more realistic figures.

Though the Prof is seemingly arrogant enough to simply pluck numbers out of the air[3], the reality is that neither Boer republic troubled itself to monitor infant mortality before the war. However, the 1890 Transvaal census reveals an astoundingly low number of infants[4]—an indication of chronic infant mortality described as a ‘real anomaly’.

Infant mortality is defined as the number of deaths of children under one year against every thousand births; to give a sense of context, the figure for Great Britain today is around 4.5, with modern-day South Africa an order of magnitude worse, at around 42. In contrast, the rates in Victorian Britain were truly horrifying, with the national average at 150, and in some slum areas around 250 — ie. some 55 times worse than the current British average.[5]

This is the inconvenient reality which is often completely forgotten when discussing the deaths in the camps[6]; we are talking about a completely different age—as late as 1927, for example, only 15% of childbirths in the UK took place in hospitals,[7] compared to just 2.3% of mothers who give birth at home today[8].

But if the figures for the UK at that time are shocking, Victorian-era Cape Colony figures were even worse. Though more settled, developed, non-malarial, and with a generally healthier climate than the Transvaal, the stats from the Cape Colony are instructive: between 1896 and 1898 the average infant mortality rate among white children in the Cape was 180 per thousand.[9] But even that doesn’t tell the whole story: between 1896 and 1900, in the town of Cradock, for example, 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.[10]

Not that many True Believers tend to care about such things, but 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 see their first birthday, and (though I’ve yet to unearth any reliable stats for them) one could assume that black babies suffered even worse.

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.[11] And yet, had any of these deaths happened to have occurred in a concentration camp, slack-jawed idiots would have spent the last 120 years pretending the infants had been ‘murdered’.

Professor Graham 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, well over a quarter of all babies born in Italy did not see their first birthday.

One should remember that the Transvaal of the period was a much more ‘frontier’ and untamed place than Spain or Italy, with more diseases, more snakes and spiders, a terrible issue with pre-war poverty, less sanitation, less education, far less access to modern medical care, and much more reliance on crackpot Quack remedies.

But I am feeling sorry for the poor old Prof, so let’s be charitable and, just for moment, ignore the ‘real anomaly’ of the ‘astoundingly low number of infants’ in the Transvaal, and instead assume the white population had infant mortality rates in line with (the far more developed, and, climatically, much more benign) Spain, for example. Even given that ridiculously charitable assumption, it would still mean 2.5 out of 10 children were not making it to their first birthday – let alone adulthood.

So where, one wonders, did Pretorius get the idea that only 2 in 10 Boer children would not see adulthood? It is a ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim which would have meant that, for some utterly inexplicable reason, Kruger’s Transvaal had by far the lowest child mortality rates on the planet – despite much of it being malarial. It is implausible the Prof doesn’t understand what infant mortality means – ie. deaths of children under one year against every thousand births … not, as he appears to be pretending to his fawning peanut gallery, ‘deaths before adulthood’. And even then, so utterly weak is his case, that he has no choice but to use made-up numbers – numbers which, though they might suit the sort of myths he thrives on, are outrageously implausible.

Indeed, despite the disingenuous nonsense the Prof is desperately peddling, even if a child made it to its first birthday, it still wasn’t out of the woods. Again, using the far-more developed European nations of the period as our baseline, the picture was far from rosy even for those kids who got past their first birthday. Professor Graham stated that the annual death rates in children under five was over 10% in the likes of Austria, Spain, and Italy.[12]

So that death rate of 2.5 out of 10 by the age of one, has suddenly rocketed up to somewhere about 5 out of 10, and – if he / she has survived – the lucky ones are still only 5 years old.

And, though it certainly helped, wealth was no guarantee against losing children; 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[13]—this despite their father being a very wealthy whisky magnate. Likewise, two of Dr Leander Starr Jameson’s siblings died in infancy while, despite being from an illustrious and wealthy family, Sir Winston Churchill[14] also lost a child; little Marigold was only two when she died of septicaemia suffering from a cold. 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.

Yes, Prof Pretorius, in those days, plenty of kids still died after their first birthday – you read it here first.

It is often forgotten—deliberately or otherwise—that this simply 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.

And if showing just how bad normal peace-time infant mortality rates were isn’t telling enough, the fact is that there was a measles epidemic rampaging through the region at the time the camps were in place. These are the ‘few dreadful months’ Pretorius obliquely refers to, though without feeling the need to provide any sort of context whatsoever. This is the elephant in the room that he and others are so frantic to ignore, but surely, deep down, even one as resolutely blinkered as the Prof can grasp that mortality rates will significantly increase during an epidemic? Let’s be honest, if they don’t, then it’s not much of an epidemic.

To anyone with a functioning brain, this should be self-evident, but in case there’s any lingering doubt, let’s take an example to illustrate how this ghastly reality impacted the people who lived through the war and measles epidemic. Despite the myths of people being ‘imprisoned’ in the camps, in reality, locals were encouraged to take in refugees as lodgers, and the wife and children of Burgher Jack Lane, who left a diary of the conflict, were placed with a Mrs Bell of Colesberg. It is noteworthy that the reason Mrs Bell was able to accommodate the family is because her own children had recently died in the various epidemics that rampaged through South Africa at the time. Despite never having stayed in a concentration camp, the Lane children also suffered: all fell sick and the youngest one, little Maxwell, died.[15] Of the twelve children the Lanes and the Bells had between them, three died in infancy before the war, and another three died of measles during the war—a mortality rate of fifty per cent—this despite none of them ever having been in a concentration camp.

Quite how any of that squares with the Prof’s self-serving (and completely unreferenced) make-belief nonsense of only ‘two in ten not making it to adulthood’ is anyone’s guess. Of course, like most of the things he dreams up, it has nothing to do with historical reality, and everything to do with keeping his sycophantic, sheeplike minions happy for a bit longer – which is all that seems to matter to him.


[1] The white concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A debate without end, Prof Pretorius, Historia 55,2, November 2010, pp 34-49. It is interesting that the poor old Prof appears desperate that any and all discussions into the reality of the camps should indeed end, presumably because he is terrified people are slowly seeing through the utter bullshit that has been written and said about them for over a century

[2] “Fools rush in”: Writing a history of the concentration camps of the South African War, Historia 55,2, November 2010, pp 12-33

[3] Or, perhaps, from somewhere else

[4] van Heyningen, The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War, p.40

[5] Wise, The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, p.9

[6] More striking still, and also completely ignored by the True Believers, is the incredible drop in maternal mortality rates since the early 1900s. The figure in the West today is around ten per 100,000 births. In the early 1900s, and even in the best of times, it was more like one per hundred—ie. it was 100 times more common for a lady to die in childbirth than it is today

[7] Mazower, Dark Continent, p.89

[8] 2015 figures from NHS website

[9] Martin, The Concentration Camps: 1900‒1902: facts figures, and fables, p.37

[10] Ibid, p.36

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

[12] ibid

[13] Mead, The Good Solider, p.19

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

[15] Lane, The War Diary of Burgher Jack Lane, 1899‒1900, p.xxiv


  • Peter Dickens Posted June 11, 2024 3:51 pm

    Very well researched Chris. I would have expected people to understand better the bell curves of diseases spread by contact (and not conditions) after the Covid pandemic, But alas, there are still historians out there who do not learn from other professionals in this field – even to this day.

    • Bulldog Posted June 11, 2024 5:29 pm

      There are some who seem to think that absolutely no one should have died across a 2 year period, and with a measles epidemic raging. It is utterly nonsensical to suggest that many thousands of people wouldn’t have died of disease / infant mortality / old age etc, across a 2 year period, wherever they were living at the time.

      • Peter Dickens Posted June 12, 2024 10:43 am

        Of all the entire photographic record of the white Boer camps, I’ve yet to see an image of general starvation, Adult Boer men and women to their bones I’ve yet so see. A handful of images of children emancipated from disease in hospital tents yes, many of which ironically survived – and it looks bad yes, you should have seen me after 6 months in hospital and 40 kg lighter thanks to Covid – a measles epidemic in 1900/1 would have looked no different. The Black camps are a different matter, in these you do see images of malnutrition, but in general these camp conditions have only been looked into in the past 10 years – and let’s face it the official historians in South Africa during the Apartheid period hardly gave these black camps a glance, nor too the various South African Cultural and History associations – they still don’t. That’s not to say the camps were benign holiday affairs, they were not, farm burning by both sides was devastating, the destruction and disruption of food and water supply a daily challenge and the doctrine of running camps differed vastly from camp to camp. Miserable – yes no doubt, hard and stark conditions – yes no doubt. Supply issues and overcrowding issues are well recorded. No doubt terrible and horrific for any family to endure. Family separation anxiety, general psychological trauma – no doubt. Genocide? No. The camps were porous, open to the Red Cross, nobody was murdered, all deaths attributed to disease – and the Boers were given the option to have the camps and scorched earth policies stopped if they simply agreed to surrender their rather pointless guerrilla campaign and stop burning down Hensopper farms and ransacking British towns and mission stations.

        • Bulldog Posted June 12, 2024 11:16 am

          It’s a good point. Despite Tinus le Roux’s desperate attempts to keep Apartheid-era myths alive by ‘colourising’ pictures from the camps, all he manages to produce are photos of clean, well-maintained camps, with residents who appear well-clothed and well-fed. If he could find something that showed something a little more incendiary, you can be sure he would have frantically ‘colourised’ it by now, and loudly trumpeted it on his FaceBook group.

          Instead, he is left with no choice but write desperately-ghoulish captions for photos which (rather inconveniently) show neat and orderly camps / well-dressed and well-nourished people – anything to keep the myths alive.

          And what is worse is that people believe this nonsense.

  • James Grant Posted June 11, 2024 4:12 pm

    This Pretorious character is a bloody joke. The daft old buzzard needs to be put out to pasture, he’s just making a fool of himself. I guess anyone could become a history professor back then as long as they sang the party song.

    • Bulldog Posted June 11, 2024 5:30 pm

      It is indeed difficult to have much respect for him, when he is so blatantly biased, and appears to just make things up.

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