10 Atrocities Committed by the British Empire that They Would Like to Erase from History Books

Indian stretcher bearers serving in the British Army during the Boer War. Mahatmas Gandhi is in the middle row, third from right. Wikimedia

The Destruction of Ventersburg

The Boers were the descendants of the early Dutch settlers who resided in the Dutch colonies in the southern areas of Africa, including the Cape of Good Hope. Conflicts between the Boers and the British Empire began in 1806, when a British Army captured the colony from the Dutch, and it became a formal British colony at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Many Dutch settlers left the colony and established two independent states in Africa, the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal and not to be confused with today’s South Africa) and the Orange Free State. Wealth in the form of gold and diamonds induced the British to attempt to take over both.

War between the Boer states and the British began in 1899 and at first went well for the Boers. The arrival of additional British troops and attrition among the Boers led to the British gaining the advantage by the fall of 1900, and the Boers adopted a strategy of guerrilla warfare. In order to control the guerrillas, the British began to round up anyone suspected of guerrilla activities, supporting the guerrillas, or knowledge of where they could be found and incarcerated them in concentration camps. The British adopted a scorched earth policy of systematically destroying farms, poisoning the water supplies by dumping salt down wells, and incarcerating the civilian population and refugees.

Ventersburg was a town in the Orange Free State in 1900 with a significant population of British settlers, and a judge there noticed an increase in the number of armed Boers in the vicinity. He dispatched a note to a nearby British garrison that Boer commandos were apparently mustering in the town. The garrison commander, Major Pine-Coffin, alerted his commanding officer, Field Marshal Frederick, Lord Roberts, who decided that Ventersburg would be used to set an example to other areas which may harbor guerrillas. Roberts commanded General Bruce Hamilton to burn down all houses in the town which were owned by absent men.

Roberts went his commander one further, burning down the houses as instructed, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the farms surrounding the town, after confiscating all of the food and other supplies he could find. He then posted a notice in the remains of the town, telling the residents and the guerrillas that they could find food with the Boer commandos or starve, and that the railroads to the town would be henceforth closed. Within days the civilians of the town, including all of the women and children, were sent to concentration camps after all families had been separated, in order to make it more difficult to find each other following their release.

When General Roberts’s actions were reported in the British press, David Lloyd George, then a Liberal Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, rose to protest against the cruelty of his actions. Lloyd George called Roberts a brute and, “…a disgrace to the uniform he wears.” The authorities of the British Empire disagreed and for his actions in the Boer War General Roberts was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) when he returned to England following the Boer War. He was also made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.