Dr. Aidan Forth is the author of “Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps 1867–1903,” which was awarded the Canadian Historical Association’s 2019 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize for outstanding scholarly book in the field of history.

Prof digs into historical roots of concentration camps

November 8, 2019 | Society
Concentration camps. Refugee camps. Internment camps. Migrant detention centres. While each term might conjure up a different mental image, they all share common roots in 19th-century British colonialism, says Dr. Aidan Forth, assistant professor of history at MacEwan University.

“There are definitely distinctions to be made when it comes to conditions and quality of life,” he explains. “But the camps of one sort or another that are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the modern West all arise out of a shared set of attitudes about who does and doesn't belong to a national polity.”

In his award-winning book, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps 1867–1903, Aidan looks at the origins of concentration camps. As racism became more prevalent In the 19th century, he explains, camps for populations that were “unwanted” (suspected to be dangerous, denigrated as racially inferior, or seen as disease carriers) started to appear – including camps that emerged during outbreaks of famine and bubonic plague in India. A trans-Imperial learning process, he says, inspired the British to introduce “concentration camps” during the South African War (also known as the Boer War) for displaced Africans and Afrikaners (Dutch settlers).

“It was kind of like the 19th century version of the Iraq War – very controversial and supposedly fought in the name of human rights and humanity, but more obviously a fight over mineral wealth. It got very messy very quickly and part of that involved rounding up populations, most of whom had been displaced by British military operations, and placing them – concentrating them – in camps.”

Those camps caused a massive public scandal, explains Aidan, not unlike the response this past summer to migrant detention centres in the United States. 


A historical note about the term “concentration camp”

The term “concentration camp” didn’t officially enter dictionaries until 1901, and when it first appeared in the historical record during the 19th century, it didn’t have the connotation it has today.

“It was more of a descriptive term – a camp where you concentrate a group of people together,” says Aidan. The term concentration camp was interchangeable with refugee camp until the 1930s. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that it took on an ominous connotation connected with watch towers, Nazi guards and gas chambers.

At that point a euphemistic vocabulary developed, says Aidan, where terms like internment camps, extrajudicial holding cells, asylum shelters and refugee camps were preferred.


“Journalists went to South Africa as humanitarian activists and caused a firestorm of protest and controversy,” he says. “At first, the government in Britain tried to dismiss such protestors as hysterical liberals trying to cause trouble and besmirch the good name of Britain, but ultimately the criticism stuck. The government sent their own investigative teams to South Africa and they realized that a lot of the criticism was fair – that these were horrible places – so they invested a lot of money in trying to make the camps better, and in filtering out people who didn’t pose a threat so the camps could be disbanded as quickly as possible.”

There are two lasting effects to consider, says Aidan – one less positive than the other. First, the changed approach to early concentration camps transformed their image from scandalous to justifiable. By the First World War, he explains, camps were seen as legitimate tools of statecraft.

A second, and more hopeful, outcome of the South African War was its illustration of the importance of listening to humanitarian protestors and journalists. It’s something Aidan says is worth remembering today – a time when an unprecedented 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. While modern refugee camps and the concentration camps of the Boer and Second World Wars aren’t exactly the same, they’re not entirely different either, he says.

Both involve “a similar logic of an unwanted group who don’t fit into a nation of people,” Aidan explains. “If governments listen to criticism, they could learn important lessons that could have the final effect of turning scandalous policies into something far more acceptable.”


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