I distinctly remember a history teacher of mine claiming that the first use of the concept of concentration camps was done by the English against the Boers in the Anglo-Boer wars, I have wondered for many years if that was true?

I did go to an Afrikaans school and those old prejudices were not completely extinct, so I have always wondered if that was true.

  • 7
    The English did set up concentration camps where Boers starved to death. The difference (well, one of them) was the attitude towards this practice - this caused huge public scandal in the UK in the way the German concentration camps did not in Germany.
    – user3769
    Jul 21, 2017 at 12:49
  • That seems like a good follow up question.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 21, 2017 at 12:51
  • @Eike. The English camps held wives and children rather than the Boer military. And they did starve to death.
    – TomO
    Sep 21, 2017 at 17:44
  • @TomO, I am not sure I get your point - a camp with military prisoners would almost by definition not be a concentration camp in any case, and I did not claim they were morally better than German camps, I pointed out that the British public did not support the practice.
    – user3769
    Sep 21, 2017 at 17:52
  • if sieges count: Troy.
    – Trish
    Jul 24, 2020 at 0:16

4 Answers 4


The first sourced occurrence of Internment camps, if the wikipedia article on the topic is anything to go by, were the US concentration camps for Cherokee and other Native Americans in the 1830s. The same article also has a few passages on the Boer camps.

If you expand the definition to include Prisoner of War camps, then the earliest purpose-built camp seems to be Norman Cross (UK) in 1797, to house the increasing number of prisoners from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

I'll confess that the above two dates took me by surprise. I was thinking there would have been earlier examples - excluding quarantine stations - but cursory googling for earlier internment incidents of Jews or Gypsies, of Catholics or Protestants during the Religious Wars, or during the Crusades yielded precious little to go with. The default course of action before then seems to have been to expel or massacre the excess mouths.

There were prisoners of war before that, mind you. Enough of them to see thousands of soldiers getting massacred during the Siege of Acre for instance. But they weren't kept in purpose-built camps - which I take as meaning the camps they were kept in were built, manned, and operated on an ad hoc basis. (Interestingly, the French and the UK agreed in Nov 1797 to feed each other's prisoners; it certainly gives a yardstick of how ad hoc conditions were before that.)

  • Norman Cross looks like a (more-or-less normal) prison complex to me. Even with makeshift buildings, that would limit the size of any “camp”. That's also why you did not find any earlier occurrence. People would have been segregated all right but in prisons, parts of a city or even entire villages or regions but building a camp was not practical. One thing that's specific about the Boer war and common with nazi concentration camps is the use of barb wire.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 22, 2017 at 20:54

I was sent to a boarding school in Bloemfontein when my father was working in Maseru back in the mid 1970s, and was taught much the same things. Whether you accept that the first use of "concentration camps" was by the British against the Boers during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), depends largely upon your definition of the term "concentration camp".

The camps constructed by the British in South Africa were certainly not the first use of internment camps for civilian populations. They had been used at least as early as the 1830s when the United States used them to contain native American populations and black slaves prior to relocation under the terms of the Removal Act of 1830. Later, they were to be used by the Spanish as a military tool in Cuba during the Spanish American War in 1896-97 (known as "Reconcentration Camps").

The camps in South Africa during the Second Boer War actually started out as refugee camps. They had been set up by the British Army to provide refuge for civilian families that had been forced to abandon their homes due to the war. Conditions at that point were nowhere near as bad as they would become later.

When Kitchener took over in late 1900, he introduced new tactics, borrowing from those used to great effect during the US Civil War (for example by General Sherman in Georgia), in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign. As Thomas Packenham observed in his book, The Boer War, Kitchener initiated operations to ...

... flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organised like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly 'bag' of killed, captured and wounded, and to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children ... It was the clearance of civilians - uprooting a whole nation - that would come to dominate the last phase of the war.

-- Packenham, 1979, p493

Not surprisingly, the influx of civilians to the camps grew dramatically as a result of these operations. It was at this point, that the British began to refer to the camps as "concentration camps", which might be the first use of the term. A total of 45 tented camps were built for Boer internees (and a further 64 for black Africans).

The camps were poorly administered, hygiene was poor and sanitation inadequate. Contrary to popular belief, there was never a policy of deliberately starving Boer families to death (although it is certainly true that there was a two-tier allocation policy, whereby families of men who were still fighting were routinely given smaller rations than others). Internees were issued the same (appalling) food rations as those provided to the British Army at that time.

The overcrowding in the camps led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. These were the cause of the majority of the 26,000 civilian deaths in the camps.

In December 1901, partly as a result of the death toll in the camps, and partly in response to political pressure resulting from the outcry against the camps back in the UK, Kitchener stopped placing women and children in the camps and issued orders that they should be left with the Boer guerrilla fighters. Obviously, this policy had the additional strategic benefit of further hampering the enemy in the field.

Notwithstanding what others have said, there is no evidence that the Boers were "not considered as fully human" by the British. In fact, the public outcry in the UK when the news of the concentration camps broke suggests just the opposite.

The paper British Concentration Camps of the Second South African War by John L. Scott examines the question of the concentration camp in South Africa in some detail. It is rather long, but is well worth reading.

The British National Archives hold an extensive collection of records relating to the Second Boer war, including records of the camps. Although relatively few are available online, all are available to view in person at Kew.

  • 1
    The term 'concentration camp' was certainly first used in South Africa, but of course it did not then have any opprobrious meaning; the camps were places where civilians were concentrated rather than dispersed across the countryside. Jul 22, 2017 at 22:52
  • 1
    "not then have any opprobrious meaning;" - "26,000 civilian deaths" This may explain the opprobrious meaning.
    – Peter
    Jul 23, 2017 at 9:38
  • Actually I have seen the term "concentration camp" used to describe a camp for the supporters of a government, not it's opponents. Specifically a former Union soldier described volunteers being assembled at a concentration camp to be formed into regiments. It is possible that he remembered the term that was sued during the Civil War.
    – MAGolding
    Dec 20, 2017 at 4:13
  • Where you a Grey alumn by any chance?
    – Neil Meyer
    Mar 8, 2018 at 13:02
  • @NeilMeyer No, SAS. :-) Jun 19, 2018 at 1:31

I wanted to ask that question myself. But I would define, what is meant by a concentration camp exactly. For otherwards any large group of prisoners held together is in a camp. Nevertheless, camps were definitely used when captives started to be used as slaves massively.

Another question is using such camp for noncombatants. And again, from the start of slavery that was used, too.

When Crimean Tartars regularly (practically every year) brought in 15-18th centuries tens of thousands of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian peaceful population to Crimea to be sold, they were kept in extremely bad conditions - for example, they simply didn't take small children and babies - killed or left them to die, for anyway children had not the chance to live over up to the selling.

Really, the reaction to crimes of Hitler or English in Boer war is so strong not because that behaviour was unknown before, but because it was not for long applied to Europeans. The behaviour in colonies or to slaves was not better than these "horrors of XX century". Simply people in colonies were not considered as human beings. BTW, that was the problem of Boers - they were not considered as fully human, by English, too.

And where people are not considered as human beings, camps and other horrors appear. And it is incorrect to ask when it happened for the first time - for people for thousands years considered all foreigners as non-fully-human. So, the answer will be - it was when the first time a large group of prisoners was considered as too valuable to kill off or to sacrifice. It was so far ago, that it is impossible to say where and when.


I distinctly remember a history teacher of mine claiming that the first use of the concept of concentration camps was done by the English against the Boers in the Anglo-Boer wars

It fitted the narrative of the National Party (the Apartheid regime) and Afrikaner nationalism.

I do recall that the Spanish in Cuba used concentrations camps against civilians in 1896. So just shortly before the Boer War and mentioned by Sempaiscuba answer. A certain General Weyler interned civilians in similarly poor conditions as in South Africa that also resulted in thousands of deaths.

See here for more detail: Ref 1, Ref 2

As an aside, the Boer concentration camps are remembered in the UK by some also in a manner slightly differently.

In 2019 on a BBC television political debate program, called Question Time. The Conservative MP Jacob-Rees Mogg mentioned people were placed in camps for there own protection. He went on to say that the death-rate in the South African camps was the same as Glasgow at the time.

Here is a video clip from the BBC

Both statements are incorrect:

The Boer families were forced off their farms and the homesteads burned with the crops and cattle destroyed. This resulted that the Boer Kommandos (volunteer horse guerilla militia) losing the ability to be supplied in the field.

In regard to the death rate being the same in South African concentration camp and Glasgow.

Rees-Mogg's comparison with Glasgow at the time is misleading at best. The concentration camp figure of deaths spans a year, totalling more than 48,000 who perished, Boer and black, from a prisoner population of less than 200,000. Glasgow, in 1901, had a population of 762,000 and, according to the National Records of Scotland, 16,190 people died. That dropped slightly to 15,530 in 1902.

The usual measurement is of deaths per 100,000 population, and on that measurement camp deaths were an astronomical 24,000/100,000 – more than 10 times that of Glasgow at the time, at 2,124/100,000.

Source: https://www.heraldscotland.com/

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