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Boer Prisoners (1900-1902)

Home-from-home? Not really…

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The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

From 1900 to 1902 St Helena became the first overseas prisoner-of-war camp.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Boers on Parade in Jamestown being addressed by The Governor {1} [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]

Below: In advanceArrivalActivitiesBoer CemetaryEscapeesDeparture (for most)Read More

From 1900 to 1902 St Helena had to to house nearly 6,000 Boer prisoners-of-war; probably the greatest logistical challenge the island had ever faced.

It is sometimes said that the Boer prisoners’s camps were the world’s first ‘concentration camps’. Despite this claim it should be noted that the prisoners were treated with respect and dignity consistent with the rules of war in force at the time.

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In advance

Knowing that the Boers were coming, and concerned that, as captured enemy soldiers in a war that was still ongoing there was a risk of abuse and ill-treatment by the islanders, Governor Sterndale published the following advance proclamation:

His Excellency expresses the hope that the population will treat the prisoners of war with that courtesy and consideration which should be extended to all men who have fought bravely for what they considered the cause of their country, and will help in repressing any unseemly demonstrations which individuals might exhibit.

And in fact there was no jeering and no rude remarks were heard from the crowd of islanders who had congregated to see the prisoners land and pass on their way to Deadwood Camp which had been prepared for them.

Arrival

Unloading at the Wharf [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Unloading at the Wharf

Leaving the Wharf [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Leaving the Wharf

Grand Parade [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Grand Parade

Main Street [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Main Street

The first shipment of 514 prisoners arrived on the 10th April 1900, including General Cronjé and his wife, Colonel Schiel and 21 other officers.

General Cronjé an his Officers [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
General Cronjé an his Officers

General and Mrs. Cronjé were taken to Kent Cottage in Half Tree Hollow where they were to stay for the duration of their time on the island. The remaining prisoners were marched via Napoleon Street{2} to Deadwood Plain, where they encountered a fence of barbed wire surrounding several hundred square metres containing of canvas tents in which they were to be housed for the duration of their stay on the island.

1902 postcard/map showing the camp sites [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
1902 postcard/map showing the camp sites

Another instalment of prisoners arrived two weeks later on 26th April. Between April 1900 and February 1902 around five and a half thousand Boer prisoners-of-war arrived on the island.

In addition to General Cronjé the island also hosted another important Boer General: Ben Viljoen who had been ambushed and captured towards the end of the war. Viljoen arrived at St Helena on 25th February 1902 and resided in a small house outside the Deadwood Plain Camp.

Activities

The bulk of the prisoners were housed in canvas tents or in huts which they later built themselves from biscuit tins.

‘Turbulent Boers’ outside High Knoll Fort [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
‘Turbulent Boers’ outside High Knoll Fort
Light Industries were developed [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Light Industries were developed
Some drew postcards [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Some drew postcards

Some of the prisoners expressed a desire to become British Subjects, but this caused issues between them and others who were bitterly against the British. To prevent conflict, the authorities were compelled to form a separate camp located apart from the general camp, housing the prisoners desiring to become British Subjects - the ‘Deadwood No2’ or ‘Peace Camp’. Friction also developed between the ‘Freestaters’ and the ‘Transvaalers’ and in early 1901 the authorities decided to open another camp at Broad Bottom, in what is now Blue Hill district, housing the burghers of the Orange Free State. Several of the prisoners proved so intractable that the authorities decided to confine them in High Knoll Fort.

Boer Camp on Deadwood Plain [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Boer Camp on Deadwood Plain
Carpenters (“ Vierkleur Kasteel ” translates as “ Four Colour Castle ”) [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Carpenters (“Vierkleur Kasteel” translates as “Four Colour Castle”)

Among the prisoners were many skilled craftsmen and these were employed on various building projects around the island. Others were given permission to work in and around Jamestown in jobs such as household servants, cooks and grooms. Some were allowed to live in the homes of their British employers provided that they remained well behaved; others were housed in a two-section camp in the Government Gardens and the Botanical Gardens in Jamestown. The more enterprising of the prisoners involved themselves in establishing a Coffee House, a Brewery, a pawnbrokers and another set himself up as an auctioneer. Some found employment with the Eastern Telegraph Company. The prisoners even started an Afrikaans newspaper, Kamp Kruimels.

The prisoners were allowed to write letters home (some even drew postcards), but only under strict censorship including “No POW may write about any of the following subjects:- the political situation; the British Government or troops; occurrences in the camps; complaints about the food; or anything of a kindred kind” and “All photographs showing the coats of arms of the late republics, pictures of the leader, and any article whatsoever with the coats of arms aforementioned will be confiscated”.

The prisoners interacted well with the local people and two were allowed to marry local women. They established a string quartet, a piano trio, a brass band and a male choir. The camps boasted a debating society, a German club, an anti-smoking society and many sports teams. Among the prisoners was accomplished artist Erich Mayer; the paintings and sketches he produced provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the Boer prisoners-of-war.

You can listen to an interview recorded in 1962{a} with Jack Thorpe regarding his escort duties for General Cronjé:

Click on the icon to hear this audio file: 

(right-click to download) 

Click here to listen [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ] (603.8Kb)

Boer Eastern Telegraph Company workers [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Boer Eastern Telegraph Company workers

Control of the prisoners was an issue. The notices below, in English and Afrikaans, were posted to discourage the prisoners from felling trees for their camp fires or craft projects:

Boer prisoner notices [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]

Rubbish removers [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Rubbish removers

Inevitably there were occasional spots of serious trouble in the camps. For example, one Saturday night early in 1901 a prisoner was shot by a sentry. At the Military Court which followed it emerged that for some time the prisoners had been hurling stones, sticks, tin cans and other missiles at the sentries, and that on this occasion the sentry in question had been struck in the face by one of these missiles.

Local men were employed to remove rubbish from the camps (photo, right). This is thought to have been the island’s first ever organised Refuse Collection service!

The gross lies which have been circulated in the Continental papers about our treatment of the prisoners have aroused considerable indignation here, even amongst the prisoners themselves.{b}

Boer Cemetary

The 180 prisoners that died while on St Helena (many, 31, from an outbreak of enteric fever in 1902, probably brought to the island by the last contingent of prisoners to arrive) were buried in a special cemetary at Knollcombes, provided by the Baptist Church. The Anglican Church refused to bury the prisoners in Anglican cemetaries because they were ‘heathens’ and ‘enemies of the King’{3}. Each grave is numbered and the names are indexed to the graves on the monuments; the two obelisks, which were sent to St Helena by the South African Government in 1913. The cemetary is open to visitors - take the Knollcombes road from White Gate and you will see the signs.

 

1 st Monument, 1913 [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
1st Monument, 1913

Graves at Knollcombes [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Graves at Knollcombes

Grave markers [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Grave markers

Location [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Location

The graves were maintained by the Baptist Church until 1st January 1945, when the Government of St Helena took over responsibility.

Escapees

Despite the fact that the prisoners were generally well cared for and accepted by the local people, there were still among them those who plotted to escape from the island. In February 1901 five of the prisoners tried to escape in a boat which they seized from fishermen at Sandy Bay. The fishermen took away the oars and after a struggle the prisoners got into the boat and tore up the bottom boards to make paddles. When they found that this did not work, they then tried to bribe the fishermen, offering them money for the oars. In the meantime one of the fishermen had gone on to report the event and eventually a guard arrived and the Boers were taken into custody.

Andries Smorenburg outside Jamestown Gaol [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Andries Smorenburg outside Jamestown Gaol

Andries Smorenburg and his crate [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Andries Smorenburg and his crate

Possibly the most enterprising escape attempt was that of Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate marked ‘Boer Curios’, in which he hid with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days and posted himself from St Helena on a passing ship{4}. But although the crate was marked ‘With Care’ and ‘This Side Up’ it was tossed about and overturned on board and as a result Smorenburg was given concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenberg’s absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on St Helena contacted Ascension Island and Smorenberg was recaptured there and returned to St Helena after only five days at sea.

You can listen to an islander recalling the escape{a} (but only if you understand spoken ‘Saint’):

Click on the icon to hear this audio file: 

(right-click to download) 

Click here to listen [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ] (447.2Kb)

Visit to Napoleon’s Tomb, 1901 [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Visit to Napoleon’s Tomb, 1901

Departure (for most)

The peace treaty was signed on 31st May 1902. The St Helena Guardian of 5th June 1902 carried the headline ‘Peace, Perfect Peace’ and expressed the hope that the peace would be a lasting one. On 26th June 1902 the first batch of prisoners embarked for Capetown; the last batch left on the 21st October.

The departure of the prisoners was reported in the St Helena Guardian on 23rd October 1902:

Let us not forget the benefits that have fallen on all, landowners, merchants, and farmers down to the boy of 10 who ought to have been at school instead of pocketing money working on the wharf or elsewhere. Yes, money has been flowing into the Island fast, the Government has reaped a rich harvest from Customs duties, and with many, if not all, money has been more plentiful than ever before. The imprisonment of Boer prisoners-of-war in St Helena has indeed benefited the Island materially.

Boer Prisoners’ departure [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Boer Prisoners’ departure (from a contemporary postcard)

Some Boer prisoners stayed and married. The island surnames Piek and Vanguard come from Boers who settled here.

For more detail, the St Helena National Trust has produced An Education Pack on the Boer Prisoners (2.4Mb).

Read More

Below: Article: “The Last Boer Prisoner”Article: “Were there black prisoners in the Boer camps of St Helena?”

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: “The Last Boer Prisoner

From a blog posting by John Grimshaw, published on jcgrimshaw.blogspot.co.uk 2nd April 2011{5}

Beside a Muzzle-loader Stands the Last Boer Prisoner. [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]
Beside a Muzzle-loader Stands the Last Boer Prisoner.

As described above, most of the Boer Prisoners left St Helena in late-1902 and early 1903, but some decided to settle here. Many stayed for some years but none, as far as we can tell, as long as Charles John Smith…

He was reported thus in January 1949:

Up on the [Ladder Hill] fort stood a very interesting old man: Charles Smith, 75, St. Helena’s last surviving Boer War prisoner. He was captured by the British in South Africa and had been shipped along with the Boer general, Piet Cronje and 512 other captives to this island which had already been the rocky cell for another distinguished man of action.

He told us he had been liberated in 1903, but that, liking his insular prison, he had elected to stay there forever. He had married a native and for many years had run a bakery. Only once had he ventured into the outside world, and that was in 1912 when he travelled to Durban to see his ailing mother.

Known on the island as ‘Boer Smith’ he died on 16th September 1958 at the age of 85 and was buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard. His only daughter Muriel died in 1992 but he has descendants still living on St Helena. His brother was also imprisoned here but he elected to return home to Pretoria.

Reader comments:

I remember Boer Smith whose original name was probably Smid. He lived a few doors up on Market Street from me. He used to hang around the old cemetery, where we played as kids and would often show us the scars on his legs which he said he’d gotten from the wounds he’d received during the war. Been young and naive, I assummed he meant WW2, which had not long ended. He also spoke English with a strange accent that we all thought was amusing. Of course he was referring to the Boer War and his mother tongue was probably Dutch.{c}

Article: “Were there black prisoners in the Boer camps of St Helena?

By Simon Pipe, published on St Helena Online 23rd April 2015{5}

Little is heard of the black Africans who lived and died in the prison camps of the Anglo Boer War. One man is engaged on a search for what traces remain - and he’s heading for St Helena.

Twin Mosia is to tour the 65 known black concentrations camps set up by the British in mainland Africa, paying homage to those who died and gathering what information still remains. Virtually no records were kept.

He has now put out an appeal for evidence of black prisoners of war (PoWs) in the two camps that were established on St Helena in 1899 when the British began dispersing captured men around the Empire.

Boer Prisoners in their camp [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]

He is certain black men would have been among those landed on the wharf at Jamestown during the three years that Boers - now called Afrikaners - were on the island.

During the Anglo Boer War an unknown number of black men and children were shipped to St Helena as PoWs,” says Twin in a Facebook™ post.

No records of them are found and some have even denied the fact that blacks captured with Boers were sent to various PoWs camps overseas. Does anyone of you know their number, names etc? How many perished while in captivity in St Helena? Where are their graves?

He also asks how many made their way back to South Africa after the peace negotiations.

Historian Paul Alexander, whose family was prominent on St Helena in the 18th and 19th centuries, lends support to Twin’s beliefs.

From photos I’ve seen there is no doubt that there were black African prisoners together with the Boers on St Helena,” he says on Facebook™.

One of my ancestors was chief censor at the camp as he could speak Dutch (although he was St Helena born he had lived at the Cape for a while, and his son had been killed fighting against the Boers).

Paul has written a history of his family and plans to visit the island in 2016. One of his ancestors, a Captain Alexander, was a member of the island Council under the East India Company in 1719. John Alexander (1671-1731) was a planter who lived at Bamboo Grove.

Others were closely connected with Napoleon’s captivity.

A young Fraser Alexander was involved in building up South Africa’s gold mining industry after his parents emigrated from St Helena in the 1870s to take part in the Kimberley Diamond Rush. A century later, the mining company Fraser Alexander still survives - under black owners.

Merle Martin, of the South African St Helenian Heritage Association, had also heard of black Africans among the thousands transported to camps at Deadwood Plain and Broad Bottom.

The story came to light after an article about Saints in South Africa was published on the Archival Platform website.

Someone commented but we couldn’t get hold of him to get more info,” Merle says in the Facebook™ discussion.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]

Laugh at funny boerprisoners humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]


Credits:

{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{5}.{6}

{b} Governor Sterndale in the ‘Blue Book’{7}, 1900{5}

{c} George Reynolds.



Footnotes:

{1} Probably Governor Sterndale.

{2} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed. The moonbeamsforall.com: Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Boer Prisoners ]Moonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.

{3} A detail which Edward Cannan in his otherwise useful ‘Churches of the South Atlantic Islands’ (1991) curiously fails to mention!

{4} The full inscription was “This side up. Captain Marling, Gloucester Regiment. Boer Curios”. Captain Marling was with the 4th Gloucester Regiment who were guarding the PoWs so the crate would have been loaded without attracting suspicion. We do not know whether Captain Marling actually existed. If he did we presume he was completely unaware of the attempt.

{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{6} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™ www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.

{7} Formally the ‘Colonial Annual Report’ - a document setting out the island’s income, expenditure and other administrative matters for the year. Signed by the Governor or acting Governor usually in April-June of the year following.



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