Port Elizabeth of Yore: Refugees during the Boer War

Up until the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War, Port Elizabeth had never been inundated with refugees. However the ABW was another matter altogether. This situation arose due to the fact that the “Uitlanders” or foreigners were at the heart of the dispute between the Boer Republics and the British Empire. Being a British colony and as they were often English subjects, the Cape Colony was morally obliged and responsible to assist the refugees.  

Main picture: Refugees from the Boer War living in cattle stalls

A month or more prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, hundreds of “Uitlanders” started to flee from the Transvaal and many of them arrived in Port Elizabeth with the first batch of Uitlander refugees arriving on the 1st October 1899. Amongst them was a batch of Chinese refugees from the Transvaal

No 2 Remount Depot

 These destitute refugees were initially housed at the Agricultural Society’s Show Yard with the Show Ground being commandeered, and the produce sheds being converted into dormitories. However the Military Authorities refused to allow their usage for refugees as they required the site for soldiers and as a remount depot. As a consequence, the European refugees were settled at the Fairview Race-course with wood and iron dwelling-blocks being erected. In addition, three separate camps were established in Prince Alfred’s Park, one for Jews, one for Indians and one for Coloureds and natives. Here the buildings were less substantial, being tents and structures with sacking walls.

Hindu refugees from Joburg encamped at Port Elizabeth

To see to their needs a committee of local citizens was formed. Being quick off the mark, they immediately set up a Refugee Relief Committee under the chairmanship of the Mayor, Councillor M. Gumpert with Mr. and Mrs. John Fox Smith as Hon Superintendents of the Race-Course Camp and John Pyott of the North End Camp. Many well-known local names featured in the list of committee members – Pyott, Geard, Mosenthal and others.

A newspaper report proclaimed that 568 Europeans, 106 Indians and 61 “unclassified denizens” were living amicably side by side.

For hygienic reasons rigid rules were drawn up, medical staff appointed, and there was even a librarian. The pamphlet which contains an account of the camps has an amusing sketch of one day’s routine in the camp written by one of its inmates. Statistics show that the cost of the camps was only 10 7/8d. per head. And yet according to the account, the food was adequate and palatable.

The Race-Course Camp staff included a doctor, chief cook, nurse etc. and there was a school. Fund raising ventures were begun to help cover the costs.

Finally the tense peace erupted into fully-fledged war on the 11th October 1899 with the Transvaal Republic declaring war on the British Empire. The agile Boer forces brushed aside all opposing forces and swiftly captured several towns in quick succession defeating the flat-footed British forces

The settlements were finally disbanded in May 1901.

Uitlanders fleeing in cattle trucks

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Refugees by Khitab [Looking Back, Volume III, No.3, September 1963]

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