Selective Quotes: Churchill on South Africa Prison Camps

Selective Quotes: Churchill on South Africa Prison Camps

“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?

The answers…

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.

Emily Hobhouse

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.”

The truth

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.