“Churchill on South Africa Prison Camps”: excerpted from my essay for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the unabridged original, together with endnotes, and WSC’s complete letter to The Times, click here.
1. Same old, same old…
An Indian colleague writes:
I’ve noticed that the same accusations about Churchill repeated frequently. Many writers seem to recycle them on trust. Take for example a new anti-Churchill article which I think needs a thorough debunking. In fairness to the author, it is not all bad; she concedes for instance that Churchill wanted to use tear gas in Iraq, not poison gas. But there are some things that stand out as seriously misinformed.
For example, the article claims inter alia that (1) Churchill admired Hitler in the 1930s. (2) Churchill’s decisions derived from romantic intuition, not intellectual consistency. (3) Churchill’s convictions about the “Aryan race” were why Churchill was unpopular in the 1930s. Are these exaggerated, or just wrong?
We can’t respond to every ahistorical attack on Churchill; we would simply end up repeating ourselves. But we can certainly supply links to published material. Feel free to quote from these articles.
(1) The notion that Churchill “admired” Hitler in the 1930s stems from inadequate understanding. Churchill approved of Germany’s revival after the Great War. As a politician was careful not to condemn a whole people; but on Hitler he was right from the beginning. For the first of three articles on this, click here.
(2) Decisions guided by “romantic intuition”? Churchill was certainly guided by a deep understanding of history. In Marlborough, his greatest biography, one can see all the great war speeches developing. See Andrew Roberts, “Marlborough.”
(3) “The Aryan stock is bound to triumph” (remarked by young Winston when he was 26) is a favorite bogeyman among his critics. He certainly said those words, but he was not predicting a triumph by the British. He was referring instead to the likely outcome of a Russia-China dispute, now 120 years ago.
2. “Defending” Boer War prison camps
Our correspondent continues:
Many allegations seem to derive from Johann Hari’s review of Churchill’s Empire, now over a decade old, in The New York Times. Hari claims that Churchill defended the British prison camps set up in the Boer War as causing the “minimum of suffering…. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his ‘irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.’ Later, he boasted of his experiences. ‘That was before war degenerated,’ he said. ‘It was great fun galloping about.’”
Churchill’s “minimal suffering” remark apparently stems from his letter to The Times (London) on 25 June 1901. At almost the same time, Emily Hobhouse returned from a fact-finding trip to South Africa. Meeting the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, she told of appalling conditions in the ‘concentration camps.’ At that point, it seems to have become a big scandal in Britain.
I’ve found nothing in the Churchill Archives flagging Boer War concentration camps. The government at first denied Hobhouse’s claims. It wasn’t until later that the appalling conditions were confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt.
Camps: what Churchill said
To quote Professor Warren Kimball, “‘Concentration Camps’ as a term for anything but the Nazis’ work is ‘politically’ incorrect and should stay that way.” In any case, having read Churchill’s letter to The Times, I cannot imagine what the critics are talking about. Readers may judge his letter for themselves. (Excerpt below, click here for the full text.)
Churchill does not defend inhumane conditions in the British camps. In fact he condemns them. The “civilized combatant,” he writes, “is obliged, at peril of being classed a savage, to avoid unnecessary cruelty to his enemy.”
His letter mainly criticizes Campbell-Bannerman and Lord Crewe for blaming the government, while excusing the military, for cruelty in the camps. Nevertheless, Churchill allows for the possibility that both may be at fault. The government indeed appointed the Fawcett Commission, which found Emily Hobhouse’s description of the camps accurate.
The phrase about natives firing on white men is not from this letter. It is from a 1900 letter to Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Churchill was commenting on Boer troops being hardened by facing non-whites in the war. After all, he also said, “we have done without the whole of the magnificent Indian army for the sake of a White man’s War…’” This suggests quite a different attitude than the one Hari implies.
Churchill’s 1901 letter does not mention Emily Hobhouse. He did, however, write favorably of her more than half a century later, when he knew the full story:
Then, area by area, every man, woman, and child was swept into concentration camps. Such methods could only be justified by the fact that most of the commandos fought in plain clothes, and could only be subdued by wholesale imprisonment, together with the families who gave them succour. Nothing, not even the incapacity of the military authorities when charged with the novel and distasteful task of herding large bodies of civilians into captivity, could justify the conditions in the camps themselves. At length an Englishwoman, Miss Emily Hobhouse, exposed and proclaimed the terrible facts. [Italics added.] Campbell-Bannerman, soon to be Prime Minister, but at this time in Opposition, denounced the camps as “methods of barbarism.”
Churchill was always horrified at inhumane treatment of civilians or prisoners, from Kitchener’s in the Sudan to Britain’s in South Africa to the Germans’ in the 1940s. On the Holocaust he was as censorious as anyone who ever lived:
There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.
During the Boer War, Churchill certainly was sympathetic to the Boers, as he was to most brave enemies. including the Indian Pashtuns and the Sudanese Dervishes while “galloping about.” He also knew that in dealing with South Africa, Britain was walking on eggshells. Every British action had to be based on the art of the possible, not on fantasy. t is, I fear, fantasy that drives such warped historical visions as this one.
Excerpts: Churchill to The Times, 25 June 1901
Sir, In his rejoinder to Lord Hugh Cecil, Lord Crewe deals chiefly with two questions. First, if the war in South Africa is being prosecuted by “methods of barbarism,” are the generals responsible or only the Government?… If the methods are of the general’s own choosing, the balance of responsibility, if any exist, rests with him…. Unless there has been unnecessary cruelty, whatever the suffering, there can be no barbarity. If there has been unnecessary cruelty, all who are in any way responsible for it are infected with the taint of inhumanity.
[Second,] is the policy of concentrating the civil inhabitants barbarous? As Lord Hugh Cecil pointed out, the privations of the women and children in the refugee camps are nothing in comparison to those endured by the civil inhabitants of a fortified town during a siege. Nevertheless, as the death-rate shows, they have undoubtedly been severe….
The supreme question is—Was there any alternative action by which this suffering might have been diminished without impeding the military operations? Lord Crewe is silent. He does not tell us…whether they would have faced the alternative to the concentration camps. Would they have refused to accept any responsibility for the Boer women and children left in the devastated districts?… Would they, having trampled the crops—the enemy’s commissariat—or destroyed the houses—often his magazines—have left the women sitting hungry amid the ruins? The mind revolts from such ideas; and so we come to concentration camps, honestly believing that upon the whole they involve the minimum of suffering to the unfortunate people for whom we have made ourselves responsible.
I am, Sir, Yours faithfully
WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
Click here for the full text.