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Boer PoWs

Home-from-home? Really not…

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.{g}

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

SEE ALSO: Exiles

For a summary of the war see our Read More section.

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

It is sometimes said that the Boer PoW Camps were the world’s first ‘concentration camps’, however this claim could really only be applied to the camps in South Africa. The PoWs held on St Helena were treated with respect and dignity consistent with the rules of war in force at the time.

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 PoWs land and pass on their way to ‍Deadwood Camp‍ which had been prepared for them.


The first shipment of 514 PoWs arrived on the 10th April 1900, including General Cronjé and his wife, Colonel Schiel and 21 other 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 PoWs were marched via Napoleon Street 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.

Another instalment of PoWs arrived two weeks later on 26th April. Between April 1900 and February 1902 around five and a half thousand Boer PoWs 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 Camp.

Some of the PoWs 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 PoWs desiring to become British Subjects - the ‘Deadwood No. 2’ or ‘Peace Camp’. Friction also developed between the ‘Freestaters’ and the ‘Transvaalers’ and in early 1901 the authorities decided to open another site at ‍Broad Bottom Camp‍, in what is now Blue Hill district, housing the burghers of the Orange Free State. Several of the PoWs proved so intractable that the authorities decided to confine them in High Knoll Fort.

The bulk of the PoWs were housed in canvas tents or in huts which they later built themselves from biscuit tins. It should be noted that Deadwood Plain is one of the windiest and most exposed spots on the island (which is why our windmills are now there), and that Broad Bottom is one of the dampest places.

Boers on St Helena

Below: Camp LifeBoer CemeteryEscapeesEvents Database

Camp Life


You can listen to an interview recorded in 1962 with Jack Thorpe regarding his escort duties for General Cronjé (right):

Among the PoWs 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 PoWs 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 PoWs even started an Afrikaans newspaper, Kamp Kruimels.

The PoWs 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. Incoming letters were also censored.

The PoWs 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. In 1900 they even held a crafts exhibition. Among the PoWs was accomplished artist Erich Mayer; the paintings and sketches he produced (example above) provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the Boer PoWs.

The PoWs also helped improve our road network.

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

Inevitably there were occasional spots of serious trouble in the camps. For example, one Saturday night early in 1901 a PoW was shot by a sentry. At the Military Court which followed it emerged that for some time the PoWs 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.

Historians refer to the Boer Prison Camps in South Africa as ‘Concentration Camps’. On St Helena, however, the camps, while poor were at least humane by the standards of the time. However correspondents to newspapers in Europe often did not distinguish between the two regimes, thus prompting the following:

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.{i}

Boer Cemetery

180 Boer PoWs 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 PoWs to arrive.

The Anglican Church refused to bury the PoWs in Anglican cemeteries because they were ‘enemies of the King’ and also, the church said, ‘heathens’{7}, although as the photograph above shows, attendance at the weekly ‘church’ service was high. Instead they were buried in a special cemetery at Knollcombes, provided by the Baptist Church. 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 cemetery is open to visitors - take the Knollcombes road from White Gate and you will see the signs. The graves were maintained by the Baptist Church until 1st January 1945, when the Government of St Helena took over responsibility.


Despite the fact that the Boer PoWs were generally well cared for and accepted by the local people, there were still those among them 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
Andries Smorenburg outside Jamestown Gaol

Andries Smorenburg and his crate
Andries Smorenburg and his crate

Possibly the most enterprising escape attempt was that of Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate marked ‘Boer Curios’{8}, in which he hid with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days and posted himself from St Helena on a passing ship. 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 suffered concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenburg’s absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on St Helena contacted Ascension Island and Smorenburg was recaptured there and returned to St Helena after only five days at sea.


You can listen to an islander recalling the escape (right) - but only if you can understand spoken ‘Saint’!

Smorenburg’s crate is apparently on display at the Museum Africa in Johannesburg.

These are not the only people to attempt escape from St Helena.

Events Database

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 PoWs embarked for Cape Town; the last batch left on the 21st October.

Some Boer PoWs stayed and married. The island surnames Piek and Vanguard come from Boers who settled here. See also the Article (below).

For more detail, the St Helena National Trust has produced An Education Pack on the Boer PoWs.

Impact on St Helena

Rubbish removers
Rubbish removers

The impact on St Helena was dramatic. For the first time since Napoleon resources flowed into the island, and there was also a free, skilled, able and mostly-willing labour force available for island development projects (of which our road network was a particular beneficiary). The ‘Blue Book’ reports for 1889-1902 tell the story in figures: Revenue, which in the 1890s was around £9,000 was £24,614 in 1901. Liabilities exceeded Assets in 1899 by £2,634 - in 1901 Assets comfortably exceeded Liabilities by £9,951. Reporting on Imports the 1901 The ‘Blue Book’ also notes that The two principal items of increase, viz., beer and coals, are due to the increase in the garrison. The islanders also consume more beer than they used to.

There was much local employment where previously there had been little. For example, 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!

Many on the island were disappointed that the boom was so short-lived. The departure of the PoWs was reported in the St Helena Guardian on 23rd October 1902, which also commented:

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.

Remembrance Sunday

Wreath laying at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day
Wreath laying at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day


Read More

Below: Summary of the ‘South African War’Extract: My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer WarArticle: The Last Boer PoWArticle: Were there black prisoners in the Boer camps of St Helena?Fiction: The Box from St Helena

Summary of the ‘South African War’

Also called the Boer War or Anglo-Boer War (Oct. 11, 1899 - May 31, 1902): A war fought between Great Britain and the two Boer (Afrikaner) republics - the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Although it was the largest and most costly war in which the British engaged between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, it was fought between wholly unequal protagonists. The total British military strength in South Africa reached nearly 500,000 men, whereas the Boers could muster no more than about 88,000. But the British were fighting in a hostile country over difficult terrain, with long lines of communications, while the Boers, mainly on the defensive, were able to use modern rifle fire to good effect, at a time when attacking forces had no means of overcoming it.

The war began on Oct. 11, 1899, following a Boer ultimatum directed against the reinforcement of the British garrison in South Africa. The crisis was caused by the refusal of the South African Republic, under President Paul Kruger, to grant political rights to the Uitlander (foreigners; i.e., non-Dutch and primarily English) population of the mining areas of the Witwatersrand, and the aggressive attitudes of Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner, the British high commissioner, and of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, in response to this obduracy. An underlying cause of the war was the presence in the Transvaal of the largest gold-mining complex in the world, beyond direct British control, at a time when the world’s monetary systems, preeminently the British, were increasingly dependent upon gold.

The course of the war can be divided into three periods. During the first phase, the British in South Africa were unprepared and militarily weak. Boer armies attacked on two fronts, into Natal from the Transvaal and into the northern Cape from theOrange Free State; the northern districts of the Cape Colony rebelled against the British and joined the Boer forces. In the course of Black Week (December 10-15) the Boers defeated the British in a number of major engagements and besieged the key towns ofLadysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley; but large numbers of British reinforcements were being landed, and slowly the fortunes of war turned. Before the siege of Ladysmith could be relieved, however, the British suffered another reverse at Spion Kop (January 1900).

In the second phase, the British, under Lord Kitchener and Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, relieved the besieged towns, beat the Boer armies in the field, and rapidly advanced up the lines of rail transportation. Bloemfontein was occupied by the British in February 1900, and Johannesburg and Pretoria in May and June. Kruger left the Transvaal for Europe. But the war, which until then had been largely confined to military operations, was by no means at an end, and at the end of 1900 it entered upon its most destructive phase. For 15 months Boer commandos, under the brilliant leadership of generals such as Christiaan Rudolf de Wet and Jacobus Hercules De la Rey, harried the British army bases and communications; large rural areas of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (which the British annexed as the Orange River Colony) remained out of British control.

Kitchener responded with barbed wire and blockhouses along the railways, but when these failed he retaliated with a scorched-earth policy. The farms of Boers and Africans alike were destroyed and the Boer inhabitants of the countryside were rounded up and held in segregated concentration camps. The plight of the Boer women and children in these camps became an international outrage - more than20,000 died in the carelessly run, unhygienic camps. The commandos continued their attacks, many of them deep into the Cape Colony, General Jan Smuts leading his forces to within 50 miles (80 km) of Cape Town. But Kitchener’s drastic and brutal methods slowly paid off. The Boers had unsuccessfully sued for peace in March 1901; finally, they accepted the loss of their independence by the Peace of Vereeniging in May 1902.{j}

Extract: My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War

…by General Ben Viljoen, 1902{9}

You can download and read the part describing his time on St Helena

Article: The Last Boer PoW

From a blog posting by John Grimshaw, published 2nd April 2011{9}

Beside a Muzzle-loader stands the Last Boer PoW.
Beside a Muzzle-loader stands the Last Boer PoW.

As described above, most of the Boer PoWs 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 Cronjé 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 assumed 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.{k}

A serviceman’s recollection

Further to the above ‘Boer Smith’ is described by a World War 2 serviceman stationed here{l}:

One great character in the town was the baker, known as ‘Boer’ Smith. As a young man he had fought with the Boers in South Africa, had been taken prisoner, and brought to the P.O.W. camps on the island. When the prisoners were repatriated at the conclusion of hostilities, he stayed on to become a baker. He had prospered, and at one time used to drive furiously around in his carriage and pair.

However, he had drunk his fortune, and at this time was again a poor man, but a great ‘worthy’.

He delighted to air his old-fashioned Afrikaans to my South African mates, and to spin amazing yarns of his exploits in the war, all pure fabrications, as he had only been sixteen years old when captured.

A scar on his leg, which he invariably exhibited as an old wound, was actually the result of a fall down some cliffs. At least so others informed us. Once he began his tales it was nearly impossible to break away, and it was frequently said that ‘Bore’ Smith would describe him much better.

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

By Simon Pipe, published on St Helena Online 23rd April 2015{9}

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 in the two camps that were established on St Helena in 1899 when the British began dispersing captured men around the Empire.

Boer PoWs in their camp

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 PoW 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{10}.

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

Fiction: The Box from St Helena

Elsie lives a happy, content life as a much loved schoolteacher on the quaint island of St Helena until one day she meets Luke Viljoen, a Boer prisoner of war, and nothing is ever the same again. After a brief, passionate romance, Luke departs, leaving Elsie with a box, a letter and a secret.

Olimpia Publishers ISBN: 9781800744080

Please Note: Mention of this book does not constitute a recommendation (we have not read it, so have no opinion). Saint Helena Island Info receives no remuneration or reward for publishing this notice.


{a} Domaines Français de Sainte Hélène{b} Erich Mayer{c} Don Barr{d} Nico Moolman{e} Robin Woodruff{f} Erich Mayer{g} Fyodor Dostoyevsky{h} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{i} Governor Sterndale in The ‘Blue Book’, 1900{9}{j} Encyclopaedia Britannica{9}, {9}{k} George P Reynolds{l} Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{11} #46, 2017{9}


{1} Vierkleur Kasteel translates as Four Colour Castle{2} The names are given as: (rear, L→R) A. Botha; C. P. van Niekerk; T. Goslet (front L→R) M. J. Fourie; C. Lemmer; J. H. Bosman (‘Jan Viool’); J. Bosman (‘Jan Kitaar’); H. Everitt.{3} The sign reads Tot Nut en Vermaak, which translates as For Work & Entertainment.{4} The images are 1:Jamestown from the Roads; 2:The Wharf; 3:The Quay and West Rocks; 4:Jacob’s Ladder; 5:St. James’ Church; 6:Rockfall Memorial Fountain; 7:The Fountain in the Public Gardens; 8:Jamestown from Inland; 9:Longwood House; 10:Napoleon’s Tomb; 11:The Road to Napoleon’s Tomb; 12:The Briars Pavilion; 13:High Knoll Fort and Enfield House; 14:Friar’s Rock; 15:Mount Pleasant; 16:Rose Cottage; 17:Farm Lodge; 18:Mount Eternity(?); 19:Kent Cottage, Cronje’s residence; 20:Teutonic Hall; 21:Alarm House; 22:Longwood Gate; 23:Oaklands; 24:Porteous House, Jamestown; 25:Arnos Vale; 26:Warbro House; 27:Hutt’s Gate Store; 28:St. Matthew’s Church; 29:High Knoll Fort from inland; 30:Deadwood Camp; 31:Lot and Lot’s Wife; 32:Baptist Chapel, Knollcombes.{5} Probably Governor Sterndale.{6} Sorry, we can’t decipher the inscription. If you can help please contact us.{7} A detail which Rev. Edward Cannan in his otherwise useful ‘Churches of the South Atlantic Islands’ (1991) curiously fails to mention!{8} 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.{9} @@RepDis@@{10} Which seems to have dissapeared - it was at http://archivalplatform.org.{11} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.


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