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Emily Hobhouse

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Emily Hobhouse, a young British woman who witnessed conditions in concentration camps during the Second Anglo-Boer War, included the following passages in her report to the British government (presented during June of 1901):

Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. Well, there are eyes and no eyes. 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.

Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out on is 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. To me it seemed a “murdered innocent.” And an hour or two after another child died. Another child had died in the night, and I found all three little corpses being photographed for the absent fathers to see some day. Two little wee white coffins at the gate waiting, and a third wanted. I was glad to see them, for at Springfontein, a young woman had to be buried in a sack, and it hurt their feelings woefully.

. . .It is such a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made all over the State large uncomfortable communities of people whom you call refugees and say you are protecting, but who call themselves prisoners of war, compulsorily detained, and detesting your protection. They are tired of being told by officers that they are refugees under “the kind and beneficient protection of the British.”  In most cases there is no pretence that there was treachery, or ammunition concealed, or food given or anything. It was just that an order was given to empty the country. Though the camps are called refugee, there are in reality a very few of these – perhaps only half-a-dozen in some camps. It is easy to tell them, because they are put in the best marquees, and have had time given to them to bring furniture and clothes, and are mostly self-satisfied and vastly superior people. Very few, if any of them, are in want.

Those who are suffering most keenly, and who have lost most, either of their children by death or their possessions by fire and sword, such as those reconcentrated women in the camps, have the most conspicuous patience, and never express a wish that their men should be the ones to give way. It must be fought out now, they think, to the bitter end.

It is a very costly business upon which England has embarked, and even at such a cost hardly the barest necessities can be provided, and no comforts. It is so strange to think that every tent contains a family, and every family is in trouble – loss behind, poverty in front, sickness, privation and death in the present. But they are very good, and say they have agreed to be cheerful and make the best of it all.

The Mafeking camp folk were very surprised to hear that English women cared a rap about them or their suffering. It has done them a lot of good to hear that real sympathy is felt for them at home, and so I am glad I fought my way here, if only for that reason. (Emily Hobhouse, Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies, printed in London, during 1901, at Friars Printing Association, pages 3-5 - quoted in Archives of Empire: Volume I. From The East India Company to the Suez Canal, edited by Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter, at pages 670-673.)

Emily Hobhouse did not cease her advocacy to help others, including the Boers. Even though people in Britain - including Members of Parliament - did not believe her stories about events in South Africa, her reporting was later confirmed by investigators of the Fawcett Commission.

When World War I broke out, Emily was appalled. In a letter she wrote to a friend, on 3 September 1916, she observed:

Think of our beloved fatherland, think of beautiful Italy, of France and of Germany, all of them working at full capacity to produce weapons of war and destruction. It seems as if we have reached the end of our civilization. It is all too hideous for words.

Surprising Hobhouse, in 1921, people in South Africa raised the sum of 2,300 - roughly the equivalent of $142,399.42 in 2015 - for her to purchase a home along Britain’s Cornwall coast. At first, she didn’t believe she could accept such a gift, although she changed her mind.

On 18 May 1921, she responded to the people who gave her the gift:

I find it impossible to give expression to the feelings that overpowered me when I heard of the surprise you had prepared for me.

My first impulse was not to accept any gift, or otherwise to devote it to some or other public end. But after having read and reread your letter, I have decided to accept your gift in the same simple and loving spirit in which it was sent to me. (Quoted by Andrew Brel, in The Emergency Bouzouki Player, at page 273.)

Using the funds the people provided, Hobhouse bought a home at St. Ives. She wrote a letter to the fund’s organizers on 25 December 1921:

To you I owe everything that surrounds me now and that gives me a feeling of comfort and rest and security - the warmth of my little room - and the feeling of being at home.

When I look back upon the year that has passed, I marvel more and more at everything that you and your people have done to ensure my happiness and my welfare.

Emily was able to enjoy her home for several years. She died, in London, on June 8, 1926.


Media Credits

Image online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Quoted passages from Emily Hobson's report.

 

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