Once upon a time, there was a British woman named Emily Hobhouse. Born in Cornwall, she was a young woman on fire with the reformist spirit of the late 19th Century….
When the Second Boer War erupted in 1899, Hobhouse got involved in relief organizations in England. The war was placed in the hands of Herbert, Earl Kitchener, one of the worst of the British Empire’s whack-the-bloody-colonials species of general. To bring the South African guerrillas to heel, Kitchener burned people off their farms. He sent the men off elsewhere in Africa. He confined the women and the children to camps to live in tents. And, yes, because this was the British Empire, there were separate camps for the white South Africans and for black South Africans. By the time Kitchener and the British were done, almost 30,000 detainees had died in the camps from starvation and disease.
When awful reports started filtering back about the horrible conditions in the camps that were set up to confine South African women and children, Emily Hobhouse decided to go there and see for herself. She left England in 1900 for Cape Colony. Things were worse than she’d ever imagined. She wrote lengthy reports back to England, informing the government and the English people about the horrors being done in their names. Emily Hobhouse wrote very, very well.
It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill. Thousands, physically unfit, are placed in conditions of life which they have not strength to endure. In front of them is blank ruin… If only the English people would try to exercise a little imagination—picture the whole miserable scene. Entire villages rooted up and dumped in a strange, bare place.
The women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears… only when it cuts afresh at them through their children do their feelings flash out.
Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found—The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself.
The British-built concentration camp at Bloemfontein was among the worst atrocities of the Second Boer War.
Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out is on mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent. Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery, and be able to do almost nothing. It was a splendid child and it dwindled to skin and bone … The baby had got so weak it was past recovery. We tried what we could but today it died. It was only 3 months but such a sweet little thing… It was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out, with a white flower in its wee hand.
Then, she went to another camp, this one at Bloemfontein, and it was a deeper, darker circle of hell. Hobhouse was struck hard not merely by the death and disease, but also by the absence of simple things. Things like, say, soap. She wrote:
The great lack has been soap. Neither in this camp, nor in Norval’s Pont, has any been supplied, and those without money have been unable to wash clothes or person properly. Men don’t think of these things unless it is suggested to them ; they simply say, “How dirty these people are! ” I bought some soap in the town, and sent it in for immediate needs.
Upon her return to England, Emily Hobhouse found herself both celebrated and reviled. Worse, she found herself the subject of serious official harassment. When she tried to return to South Africa, she was seized on the dock and shipped immediately back to England, where she was interrogated on charges that she had been “trafficking with the enemy.” (As it happens, as author David Pryce-Jones notes, Hobhouse’s detention occurred on the day after another famous humanitarian, Sir Roger Casement, had been sentenced to death for his involvement in the Easter Rising in Ireland.)
At the same time, as some letters that came to light in 2001 revealed, the British authorities spent countless hours trying to explain away these atrocities with what we would today call “spin.”
For example, Lord Milner, who had been sent to South Africa to sort out the immediate aftermath of the war, wrote home of the camps:
It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.
Emily Hobhouse died in 1926 and, shortly before her death, she wrote about her experiences in a memoir, one passage of which contained a phrase that her work had embedded in common usage.
My work in the concentration camps in South Africa made almost all my people look down upon me with scorn and derision. The press abused me, branded me a rebel, a liar, an enemy of my people, called me hysterical and even worse. One or two newspapers, for example the Manchester Guardian, tried to defend me, but it was an unequal struggle with the result that the mass of the people was brought under an impression about me that was entirely false. I was ostracized. When my name was mentioned, people turned their backs on me. This has now continued for many years and I had to forfeit many a friend of my youth.
As for Lord Kitchener, he consistently referred to Emily Hobhouse as “that bloody woman.”
This past week, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez kicked off a furor by using the phrase, “concentration camps” to describe what is happening to the detained migrants at the southern border of the United States. Almost immediately, AOC was accused not only of exaggerating the conditions in the detention centers, but also of cheapening the horrors of the Holocaust—which is sui generis among war crimes only because it adapted Lord Kitchener’s methods to use for modern, mechanized, industrial mass murder. By any reasonable definition, especially including Emily Hobhouse’s, what the present administration* is running on the borders are concentration camps.
Remember that episode in Bloemfontein in which Hobhouse deplored the lack of soap for the inmates at the concentration camp there? This week, an administration* lawyer went into court and argued that the detainee children are not entitled to toothbrushes and soap.
Remember how Hobhouse said that life in the camps “presses hardupon the children”? This week, lawyers went into a detention center in El Paso and, according to the AP, this is what the lawyers found.
Data obtained by The Associated Press showed that on Wednesday there were three infants in the station, all with their teen mothers, along with a 1-year-old, two 2-year-olds and a 3-year-old. There are dozens more under 12. Fifteen have the flu, and 10 more are quarantined. Three girls told attorneys they were trying to take care of the 2-year-old boy, who had wet his pants and no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt when the legal team encountered him.
A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a 2-year-old boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’ Another girl said she would take care of him, but she lost interest after a few hours and so I started taking care of him yesterday,” one of the girls said in an interview with attorneys. Law professor Warren Binford, who is helping interview the children, said she couldn’t learn anything about the toddler, not even where he’s from or who his family is. He is not speaking.
The conditions at the Border Patrol facility at Paso del Norte have reached a dangerous new low.
Binford described that during interviews with children in a conference room at the facility, “little kids are so tired they have been falling asleep on chairs and at the conference table.” She said an 8-year-old taking care of a very small 4-year-old with matted hair couldn’t convince the little one to take a shower. “In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” said Holly Cooper, who co-directs University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic and represents detained youth.
And people, important people, people with the power actually to do something about this stench in the nostrils of the world, spent the week quibbling over whether calling these hellholes “concentration camps” was proper rhetorical etiquette. One of those people was the inexcusable Congresswoman Liz Cheney, whose father, of course, made the United States a country that tortured by calling waterboarding an “enhanced interrogation technique.” There’s a special revolving spit in hell for people who poison the language with that kind of euphemism.
In 1901, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was working as a physician in South Africa during the war, and who was loudly in support of what Kitchener was doing, smuggled a photo out of the Bloemfontein camp of an emaciated girl named Lizzie Van Zyl, who died of typhoid fever shortly thereafter. Doyle and his contact in Parliament, Joseph Chamberlain, used to photo to accuse the Van Zyls of neglecting their daughter, claiming that photo had been taken when Lizzie and her mother had arrived at the camp. However, Doyle and Chamberlain had not reckoned with Emily Hobhouse, who had met Lizzie in the camp and knew that the reason Lizzie had been starved was that her father was fighting as a guerrilla in the hills, and that Lizzie and her mother had been declared “undesirables,” which meant that they were given the smallest food rations in the camp. Cruelty is always the point.