That time Millicent Fawcett OK’d concentration camps

It’s time to explore Millicent Fawcett’s true Boer War story – from advocate of concentration camps to becoming instrumental in bringing them down.

Over the past few years Millicent Garrett Fawcett has gone from one of those women in history that you only knew about if you were really into women’s history, to a new national treasure.

Until 2018, every time I mentioned Millicent Fawcett to my mates who aren’t giant history nerds, I’d be met with a resounding: ‘who?‘.

So I’d excitedly explain that Millicent was a revolutionary for women’s rights. She was the leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) the largest suffrage movement in the UK. She set an example of peaceful protest, working within politics and using legal methods to keep women’s votes of the national agenda for decades!

Not only that, but she was an advocate for women’s education, campaigned to raise the age of consent and criminalise any family member who inflicted child cruelty. She fought for equal divorce rights, women’s right to work in the civil service and law. Oh, and she did all this whilst holding down a loving relationship and being an amazing mum.

So when it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to have a statue of herself erected in London’s Parliament Square, it was a HUGE DEAL. Suddenly people were remembering and celebrating this incredible woman.

But that’s not to say I’m totally enthused about every aspect of Millicent’s new found popularity. I’m not. Because, she’s now become a flawless hero. A beacon of women’s rights, of the fight for equality and hope for the possibility that we can build a better future. And don’t get me wrong, Millicent is all those things, but she was also a person.

Many of Millicents’ flaws are slowly starting to become airbrushed from history. And nothing proves this better than how we now tell the tale of Millicent and the Boer War concentration camps.

As hundreds of the new articles on Millicent’s achievements state, during The Boer War, Millicent led an all female commission into investigating the concentration camps set up by the British Empire, which held tens of thousands of Boer people (mainly women and children).

But they all leave out this pretty crucial point – before Millicent investigated the concentration camps…she was for them. 

Statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett
Statue of Millicent from London’s Parliament Square

First things first – what was the Boer War?

In 1899 The South African Boer War began, between the British Empire and the Boers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Essentially this was a war over gold, but it was also a war that was very much about empire, race and imperialism. 

This was a huge war on an international scale, it wasn’t just British forces fighting against the Boer people, but troops from all over the British Empire, including Canada and Australia. The Empire’s troops fought with machine guns and deadly explosives, with the Boers using guerrilla warfare to hit back.

In an effort to quell these guerrilla forces, the British Empire set up the first concentration camps. The first camp opened up in 1900 and housed mainly women and children.

It quickly became apparent that for those that entered the camps, the chances of survival weren’t exactly vegas odds. Malnutrition and disease ran rampant. Just a year in, Lord Milner, the man in charge of the camps wrote:

‘The theory that, all the weakly children being dead, the rate would fall off is not so far borne out by the facts….The strong ones must be dying now and they will all be dead by the spring of 1903.’

Within two years, an estimated 28,000 Boer women and children died in the camps. As well as 20,000 black people. 

Boers in a trench in 1899
War! What is it good for!? Nothing…seriously NOTHING – Boers in a trench in 1899

So where does Millicent come into this?

Well, although the deadly nature of the camps was at first only known to those in government (and obviously people on the ground at the camps!) one woman was about to blow this whole genocidal horror show wide open – and that woman was not Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

In 1901 British welfare worker, Emily Hobhouse went to one of the camps, Bloemfontein. She arrived with a host of supplies for those imprisoned there. But she wasn’t just there to deliver aid. Emily spent months visiting camp after camp, collecting testimonies, recording the astronomic numbers of deaths and also estimating the number of black people dying inside the camps. Then when Emily had everything she needed, she publicly reported back on the atrocities being carried out. 

….And Emily was pretty much laughed out the door and labelled a ‘hysterical spinster of mature age’ by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain.

Lizzie Van Zyl during a vist by Emily Hobhouse to the Bloemfontein camp
Seven year old Lizzie Van Zyl, a picture used by Emily Hobhouse to illustrate the danger of the camps. Lizzie would die in the camps from typhoid fever

However, some people were listening to Emily and eventually the number of people that wanted the government to answer or at least investigate her claims grew too much.

It became clear the government had to act. BUT we know that at least some people in charge of the war knew of the horror happening at the camps (remember Milner’s letter). So they didn’t want a band of Emily Hobhouse’s turning up to investigate and then blowing the whistle on this whole war.

Which is why the person they put in charge of investigating the concentration camps was Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

From the start of the war, Millicent had been openly ‘anti-boer’. This was not rare position to take. As Millicent herself would recall in her 1924 biography, What I Remember (arguably the most hilarious yet best title for a biography) the war split England in two. On the left those who were ‘pro-boer’ argued that the boers were innocent and being attacked, however the majority of people (‘anti-boer’s like Millicent) were outraged at this, believing those against the war to be not just unpatriotic, but traitors. 

So the fact that someone staunchly ‘anti-boer’ was now investigating these camps, understandably didn’t go down well with everyone. After all, that’s not exactly the neutral third party you want undertaking such a vital job.

Emily Hobhouse herself voiced concerns about Millicent’s appointment. Worrying that although Millicent fought for women and children’s rights in Britain, she didn’t seem to express any empathy for the Boer women and children.

Still, the Fawcett Commission (also known as the slightly ridiculously named, Ladies Commission) was happening whether Emily liked it or not.

Emily Hobhouse and Millicent Fawcett
Emily Hobhouse and Millicent Fawcett

Alongside Millicent, some of the other ladies in the commission were’nt exactly impartial. Among this number was, Lady Alice Knox, who was married to one of the senior officers of military leader, Lord Kitchener. In fact, Millicent would later write that Alice saw the Boer people as ‘socially equivalent to where Scotland were 200 years ago’ (that’s some serious 1900s shade!).

Ok. So I think we can all agree that Millicent and her crack team of incredibly bias women we’re probably not the best team to take on this job. But it’s about to get so, SO much worse. 

Just before she was set to head off to investigate the concentration camps, Millicent wrote an article for The Westminster Gazette, where she tore apart Emily Hobhouse’s report and said that the camps were:

‘necessary from a military point of view’

Bad right? Don’t worry, it gets worse! Because then Millicent argued that as Boer farms were possibly supplying information on the British Empire forces, the women that were helping in this deserved to go to the camps:

‘They have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact. But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.’ 

And with that, Millicent packed her bags and set off to investigate the concentration camps.

Boer War concentration camp example
Example of one of the concentration camps

If all of this made you angry, then good, it should. I think we can all recognise this as in no way ok. But that’s also why it is so important it’s so vital that this part of Millicent’s life isn’t airbrushed away.

Because, what happened next was that Millicent made it right. On arriving at the camps, Millicent did a total 360. She realised she’d been wrong and led her ladies commission in gathering every scrap of evidence needed to rectify the atrocities going on.

Not only that, but her commission knew that the camps wouldn’t shut down overnight, so the women came up with immediate solutions to the most pressing issues facing those that lived in the camps and ensured they were put in place (which resulted in a dramatic drop in the death rate).

On their return to England, Millicent and her Ladies Commission became one of the most outspoken forces against the camps. 

It’s good that when Millicent’s story is told, we talk about her work on the Boer War concentration camps. But we shouldn’t just tell the end of this story. Not just because to do so isn’t so much telling history, as cherry picking, but because it does a disservice to Millicent.

Millicent Garett Fawcett was first and foremost, a woman. She wasn’t some kind of feminist deity, she was human and flawed. Through her life she did a lot of really amazing things, but she also said and did some really shitty things. Which would make her like pretty much everyone else. In this era of cancel culture and pedestaling, it’s important to remember that.

To make our history heroes shiny blameless beacons, is dangerous. It takes away not only the things that built them into the people they were, but robs us of any lessons we can possibly learn from them.

Further reading on Millicent Fawcett and The Boer War concentration camps:

Gender, Race, and the Writing of Empire: Public Discourse and the Boer War by Paula M. Krebs

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