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Boer War black camps uncovered

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: April 13, 2008, 12:06:46 pm »

Boer War black camps uncovered 

    April 12 2008 at 02:13PM 
By Jana Engelbrecht

Beneath the surface of the dry, red sand covering a farm just outside Kimberley, the remains of an untold story have been uncovered, revealing the establishment of a black Boer War concentration camp, dating back more than 100 years.

About 1 200 refugees were moved from locations in Jacobsdal, Boshof and Petrusburg to a farm 30km outside Kimberley in the then Orange Free State, after the British forces had occupied the towns.

Local archaeologists had been searching in vain for the location of the camp for several years, when a Kimberley farmer stumbled on a leg of a potjie pot and some broken glass on his farm, miles away from anywhere, in late 2001.

Historian and research associate Garth Benneyworth and archaeologist and research associate Elizabeth Voigt were called out to the site to investigate the farmer's find, and they found a burial site and the living area of the camp.

"We couldn't believe it. We had searched for so long and the area was so vast," said Benneyworth, adding that there was no historical content elaborating on the black concentration camps, as all evidence was destroyed by the British forces at the end of the war.

An insight into the concentration camp experience of African civilians between 1901 and 1902 unfolded in the following few years, in which time Benneyworth and Voigt used GPS plotting, mapping, extensive photography, as well as extensive archival research and oral history to piece together the past.

"The archival research and foot-slogging over other camp sites revealed standard patterns of occupation which were based on British military requirements.

"This work is of use in interpreting the finds made on the Kimberley camp site. These extensive foot surveys revealed a suite of cultural remains which can be taken as reflecting life in the camp," explained Voigt.

The twosome uncovered grindstones, fragments of glass and china from broken plates, cups and bowls, pieces of ethnic pottery, as well as iron potjie pots, buckets and long strips of iron.

They also found the remains of ration tins, identifiable as being of the right period by shape and method of manufacture.

It is believed that the black civilians were forcibly removed from the outskirts of Kimberley between April and September 1901, carrying what personal belongings they could with them.

They had to build their own shelters from packing crates, grain bags, corrugated iron, tarpaulins and local vegetation, while enduring the cold and the heavy snow which fell in Kimberley that year.

African civilians received few rations and no medical help or tents, apparently to reduce the financial cost of the war.

According to Benneyworth, there were about 1 500 refugees housed at the camp by September 1901.

In October last year, Voigt received the necessary permits from the South African Heritage Resource Agency which allowed for the excavation of the sites in Kimberley, as well as at Dry Harts and in Vryburg.

Voigt said the first dump they excavated on the farm outside Kimberley fitted the military rules, as garbage, ash and glass had been dumped in a slight depression and covered.

"But the next two reflected a uniquely local solution - the glass had been thrown down an ant bear hole."

Personal items were also found, including fragments of a bangle, hooks from clothing, an earring and several buttons.

"These areas also produced tools, a complete hoe, half a pair of scissors, a sickle blade, and buckles, which probably came from cart harnesses. We were surprised to find many fragments of clay pots in the living areas, indicating that these women had brought some of their traditional kitchen goods with them."

Voigt said one of the exciting aspects of the archaeological research was that it had thrown light on the diet of the refugees, which went beyond archival information and the fragments of meat, fish and milk tins.

"The weekly ration for a person was half a pound of meat. The wild animals would have been snared, thus providing vital protein in a virtual starvation diet.

"We found eggshells in the ash and, unbelievably, fragments of burnt peach pips. This was an exciting and totally unexpected line of evidence," enthused Voigt.
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