English activist Emily Hobhouse (1860–1926) traveled to South Africa at the peak of the humanitarian crisis triggered by British military actions in the Second Boer War of 1899–1902. Outraged by conditions in makeshift camps in which thousands of Afrikaner civilians and black South Africans were being held against their will, she publicized her findings in a 1901 report that ignited a measure of controversy due to its strong condemnation of British military policy.
English activist Emily Hobhouse and her official “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies” exposed in scathing detail the dreadful civilian toll of the Boer conflict. Reaction was swift: Hobhouse was rebuked in parliament as well as in the London press due to her perceived bias toward Afrikaners at the expense of British lives in uniform. The tide of public opinion eventually turned and she was heralded as one of the first outspoken advocates for the rights of civilians during wartime. Hobhouse devoted the remainder of her life to advocating for tougher international guidelines governing the conduct of armies and for the establishment of watchdog agencies to enforce those agreements.
Hobhouse descended from notable families on both sides: her father's forebears amassed a fortune in the mid-1700s as Bristol merchants involved in the transatlantic slave trade, but they were followed a century later by liberal reformers and high-ranking Church of England clerics. Her father Reginald Hobhouse was appointed archdeacon of Bodmin, a section of the Church of England diocese covering the Cornwall peninsula. He was based in the parish of St. Ive near Liskeard, a centuries-old tin-mining town in Cornwall. On her mother Caroline's side were the Trelawnys, a family of historical and political significance whose members were based in Cornwall and nearby counties of Devon, Exeter, and elsewhere in southwest England.
Born on April 9, 1860, Hobhouse grew up in St. Ive with three sisters, Carrie, Maud, and Blanche. In contrast to their three brothers, the Hobhouse daughters were educated at home under the tutelage of governesses. Emily's younger brother Leonard attained early renown as a standout student at Oxford University and went on to a career as a pioneering sociologist and author of the landmark 1911 tome Liberalism.
In the mid-1870s, Hobhouse attended a young ladies' finishing school in London, and during this time she was devastated by the death of her sister Blanche from tuberculosis. Their mother Caroline died in 1880 and she remained at home in St. Ive to look after her father and assist in various parish-related duties at his church as his health declined, too. Her two living sisters had married by this time, but Hobhouse's conservative-minded aunts proved to be a meddlesome influence upon her future: they deemed at least two potential matches for Reginald Hobhouse's Sunday-school-teacher daughter unsuitable.
Hobhouse's father died in January of 1895, a few months before her 34th birthday. She began spending longer periods in London and was close to her brother Leonard and his wife as well as to her uncle Arthur, Lord Hobhouse, who was her father's youngest brother. A distinguished legal scholar who served for two decades on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—the court of last resort for disputes originating in Great Britain's Commonwealth territories—as well as a member of the House of Lords, Arthur and his wife Mary were part of a coterie of prominent writers and political figures gathering in London during the 1880s and '90s. These Victorian-era reformers would profoundly influence Hobhouse's future as a social activist.
Hobhouse inherited a small sum when her father died, and she allocated some of the funds for an altruistic adventure trip to North America. A sympathetic figure well known to her father's parishioners in St. Ive and its nearby villages in East Cornwall, she had been appalled by reports sent to friends and families about Cornish miners who had immigrated to the Great Lakes region for work and were faring badly in the United States. She sailed in the summer of 1895, dispatching a letter to one sister once she had the chance to experience the energetic, modern bustle of New York City. Hobhouse then set off for the Midwest by train, making her way from Chicago to Duluth, Minnesota, and thence inland to the Mesabi Iron Range.
Hobhouse's trek took her to Virginia, Minnesota, a hastily built new town that was home to more than 4,000 miners and lumber-industry workers. In a piteous rental, she spent the winter of 1895–96 attempting to drum up local support for a roundly unpopular anti-alcohol campaign. She also became engaged to marry John Carr Jackson, a local merchant, and they made plans to move to Mexico together, Hobhouse using her inheritance to purchase a coffee plantation sight unseen. Traveling south in 1897, she lived on her own for the next year, until her fiancé suffered financial reversals and their plans to wed were abandoned. In 1898 Hobhouse sold the plantation and planned her return to England, losing a significant sum of money on the Mexico investment.
Back in London in early 1899, Hobhouse lived in Chelsea at 21 Rossetti Mansions. She devoted herself to the emerging field of social work, advocating on behalf of independent working women and at-risk children. She ventured to the grim Docklands sheds near the River Thames where the lowest-paid female workers picked through the city's refuse for scraps of metal, glass, cork, or other potential reusable items. Her article on these “Dust-Women,” as it was titled, was published in the September 1900 issue of the Economic Journal.
Among Hobhouse's politically active social circle, the outbreak of war in South Africa was an inflammatory topic. At the time, British holdings in southern Africa were extensive and included large sections of present-day Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia, and a significant chunk of gold- and diamond-rich lands under the control of the British South Africa Company (BSAC). The Dutch had a significant presence in this part of the African continent since the 1830s, but their political power had been lost during the Napoleonic War. Tensions between their descendants (many of them farmers, or “boers” in the Afrikaner language) and the British colonial government had grown over the years. Dutch anger increased following the First Boer War of 1880–81, a short, swift effort that resulted in a resounding military victory for the British.
The Second Boer War erupted in October of 1899 and took nearly three years to come to a satisfactory close. The Dutch-speaking Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State were once Afrikaner-ruled sovereign entities settled by pioneers, or “Voortrekkers,” during the 1830s. Now being forced off their generations-old family lands, these Dutch residents banded together and successfully repelled British forces in several rural areas. A major show of force by the British commenced in early 1900, as the combined British and Commonwealth forces from Australia and Canada took control of the Republic of Transvaal as well as the Orange Free State.
Hobhouse visited multiple detention camps over a period of several weeks in early 1901. At Norvalspont, Kimberley, Orange River, and other sites she found thousands of Boer women, children, and elderly living in tents with scarce access to potable water and no soap. Because their homes had been taken by force and often torched in British raids, they lacked even the most rudimentary camping items and were expected to gather their own fuel. Lord Kitchener, the British commander in charge, was so peeved by Hobhouse's demands for soap and additional food rations that he infamously described her as “that bloody woman” in one dispatch.
The term “concentration camp” was coined during the Second Boer War to describe a space in which persons otherwise unclassifiable as detainees—neither enemy combatants during war nor found guilty of criminal conduct by a court of law in peacetime—might be held indefinitely. In the South African camps Hobhouse visited, outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery swept through with terrifying swiftness and resulted in staggering death tolls. Ultimately, the Boer War was responsible for the internment of 46,000 civilians in concentration camps, of whom roughly 26,000 perished.
In 1904, German colonial officials in another southern African territory would adopt the British tactic of using concentration camps to deal with an uprising of black Africans in what is present-day Namibia. Three decades after that, bureaucrats in Nazi Germany introduced the concept to the European mainland when they began deporting, first, their political opponents and then millions of European Jews to remote, purposely built camps with a sinister purpose.
Hobhouse's Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies was completed and submitted to British government officials in early June of 1901. While Liberal Party parliamentarians publicized her work, conservative Tory Party members and other staunch British patriots challenged both her statistical data and the intent of her relief mission to aid Afrikaner civilians. She attempted to return to the camps in the fall of 1901 but was refused permission to leave the confines of Cape Colony. From France, Hobhouse wrote a fuller account of her experience, and this was published by Methuen in 1902 under the title The Brunt of the War, and Where It Fell.
After the end of the Second Boer War in late May of 1902, and up until the start of World War I, Hobhouse visited South Africa for extended periods. She retained many supporters, one of the most prominent being Rachel “Tibbie” Steyn, wife of the ousted president of the Orange Free State. Steyn repaid her kindness and activism by launching a fundraising effort among the survivors of the Boer camps and her fundraising drive permitted Hobhouse to purchase a small cottage in her hometown of St. Ive.
Hobhouse died in London on June 8, 1926, at the age of 66. The first sentence of her obituary in the London Times reiterated the general incivility and tone of affront with which her efforts had been met a quarter-century before. Her human-rights work accrued a more enduring reputation in South Africa, where a town in Free State Province was named in her honor. Hobhouse's cremated remains were interred at the National Women's Monument in Bloemfontein, and as late as 1999 one of the South African Navy's state-of-the-art submarines still carried her name.
The violence of the Second Boer War had a profound impact on the political climate of South Africa, which eventually transitioned out of British hands and remained under tightly controlled, Afrikaner-based white-minority rule until the early 1990s. Hobhouse had correctly intuited that a legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder from the concentration camps would shape future generations in southern Africa. “The ruin of most is now complete,” she wrote in her Report. “Since Old Testament days was ever a whole nation carried captive?”
Balme, Jennifer Hobhouse, compiler, To Love One's Enemies: The Work and Life of Emily Hobhouse Compiled from Letters and Writings, Newspaper Cuttings, and Official Documents, Ibidem Verlag, 1994, second edition, 2014.
Eales, Robert, The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War, Middle Harbour Press, 2014.
Hobhouse, Emily, The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, Methuen & Co., 1902.
Liberal Magazine, July 1901, “Notes and Figures: Miss Hobhouse's Report on the Concentration Camps,” p. 337.
Times (London, England), June 10, 1926, “Death of Miss Emily Hobhouse,” p. 9.□