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UCLA Historical Journal

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Race and Racism: British Responses to Civilian Prison Camps in the Boer War and the Kenya Emergency


During both the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Kenya Emergency (1952-1960), British authorities responded to nationalist movements by adopting a policy of total war that included imprisonment of suspected conspirators and civilians alike in overcrowded detention camps with inadequate facilities and high mortality rates. During both conflicts, women activists – Emily Hobhouse in 1901 and Barbara Castle in 1955 – spearheaded campaigns, demanding official, independent inquiries into camp conditions and treatment of detainees. Despite the similarities, the British authorities’ reactions to the two campaigns differed significantly. While the conflicts’ differing lengths and the Empire’s decline influenced British policy on camp conditions in both cases, ultimately, the British authorities’ willingness to address atrocities occurring in civilian prison camps during the Boer War, yet hesitance to do so in Kenya, was determined largely by the race of the detainees.

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