Work or starve: Dry harts forced labour camp, November 1901–December 1902

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Camps that interned black civilians during the South African War (1899–1902) are known as concentration camps, yet this is an inaccu-rate and misrepresentative picture of what actually transpired during the conflict. Rather, the concentration camps established for black civilians in South Africa late in 1900 and early 1901 were, by mid-1901, incorporated into the newly formed Native Refugee Department which fell under direct command of the British Army. At this point, the camps were mostly closed down and the internees relo-cated to Boer farms cleared of civilians. There, camps were established by the Native Refugee Department with a completely different func-tion to that of the concentration camp system. These camps operated as forced labour camps in which women, children and elderly men were compelled into the labour of growing crops for the British military in exchange for food. If they refused, they were starved to death under the ‘let die’ policy. The Dry Harts Forced Labour Camp forms the focus of this article. A combination of sources was used to reconstruct its history: archaeological surveys, the fragmentary written archive, and through accessing local oral history and memory at the site, from 2001–2008. A narrative emerges from this research of the fight for land, the implementation of forced labour, civilian displacement, and the horror of total war, which are not, as some scholars claim, a shared experience with the Boer population at the hands of a common enemy, commensurate with mutual suffering, or even of black participation in the war. The experience of black civilians inside Dry Harts Forced Labour Camp was fundamentally different: theirs was not so-called participation but rather a separate experience of land loss, forced labour, war and displacement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-110
Number of pages12
JournalSouth African Archaeological Bulletin
Issue number213
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • Black concentration camps
  • Dry Harts Forced Labour Camp
  • Kimberley black concentration camp
  • South African War
  • Taung black concentration camp

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archeology (arts and humanities)
  • Archeology


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