From 1900 to 1902 St. Helena had to to house nearly 6,000 Boer prisoners-of-war. The first shipment of 514 prisoners arrived on the 10th April 1900, including General Cronjé and his wife, Colonel Schiel and 21 other officers.
General and Mrs. Cronjé were taken to Kent Cottage in Half Tree Hollow where they were to stay for the duration of their time on the island. The remaining prisoners were marched via Napoleon Street to Deadwood Plain, where they encountered a fence of barbed wire surrounding several hundred square metres containing of canvas tents in which they were to be housed for the duration of their stay on the island.
Another instalment of prisoners arrived two weeks later on 26th April. Between April 1900 and February 1902 around five and a half thousand Boer prisoners-of-war arrived on the island.
In addition to General Cronjé the island also hosted another important Boer General: Ben Viljoen who had been ambushed and captured towards the end of the war. Viljoen arrived at St. Helena on 25th February 1902 and resided in a small house outside the Deadwood Plain Camp.
The bulk of the prisoners were housed in canvas tents or in huts which they later built themselves from biscuit tins. Some of the prisoners expressed a desire to become British subjects, but this caused issues between them and others who were bitterly against the British. To prevent conflict, the authorities were compelled to form a separate camp located apart from the general camp, housing the prisoners desiring to become British subjects – the “Deadwood No2” or “Peace Camp.”. Friction also developed between the “Freestaters” and the “Transvaalers” and in early 1901 the authorities decided to open another camp at Broad Bottom, in what is now Blue Hill district, housing the burghers of the Orange Free State. Several of the prisoners proved so intractable that the authorities decided to confine them in High Knoll Fort.
Among the prisoners were many skilled craftsmen and these were employed on various building projects around the island. Others were given permission to work in and around Jamestown in jobs such as household servants, cooks and grooms. Some were allowed to live in the homes of their British employers provided that they remained well behaved; others were housed in a two-section camp in the Government Gardens and the Botanical Gardens in Jamestown. The more enterprising of the prisoners involved themselves in establishing a Coffee House, a Brewery, a pawnbrokers and another set himself up as an auctioneer.
The prisoners interacted well with the local people and two were allowed to marry local women. They established a string quartet, a piano trio, a brass band and a male choir. The camps boasted a debating society, a German club, an anti-smoking society and many sports teams. Among the prisoners was accomplished artist Erich Mayer; the paintings and sketches he produced provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the Boer prisoners-of-war.
Despite the fact that the prisoners were generally well cared for and accepted by the local people, there were still among them those who plotted to escape from the island. In February 1901 five of the prisoners tried to escape in a boat which they seized from fishermen at Sandy Bay. The fishermen took away the oars and after a struggle the prisoners got into the boat and tore up the bottom boards to make paddles. When they found that this did not work, they then tried to bribe the fishermen, offering them money for the oars. In the meantime one of the fishermen had gone on to report the event and eventually a guard arrived and the Boers were taken into custody.
Possibly the most enterprising escape attempt was that of Andries Smorenburg, who fashioned a crate marked “Curios Only”, in which he hid with clothing, matches, and food and water for 20 days and posted himself from St. Helena on a passing ship. But although the crate was marked “With Care” and “This Side Up” it was tossed about and overturned on board and as a result Smorenburg was given concussion and lost most of his water. In the meantime back on the island, Smorenberg’s absence had been discovered when he did not appear for roll call. The authorities on St. Helena contacted Ascension Island and Smorenberg was recaptured there and returned to St. Helena after only five days at sea.
DEPARTURE (FOR MOST)
The St. Helena Guardian of 5th June 1902 carried the headline “Peace, Perfect Peace” and expressed the hope that the peace would be a lasting one. On 26th June 1902 the first batch of prisoners embarked for Capetown; the last batch left on the 21stOctober.
The departure of the prisoners was reported in the St. Helena Guardian on 23rd October 1902:
“Let us not forget the benefits that have fallen on all, landowners, merchants, and farmers down to the boy of 10 who ought to have been at school instead of pocketing money working on the wharf or elsewhere. Yes, money has been flowing into the Island fast, the Government has reaped a rich harvest from Customs duties, and with many, if not all, money has been more plentiful than ever before. The imprisonment of Boer prisoners-of-war in St. Helena has indeed benefited the Island materially.”
Some Boer prisoners stayed and married. The island surnames Piek and Vanguard come from Boers who settled here.