The Story of Emily Hobhouse: Pacifism and Hope

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emily Hobhouse lately. The British welfare activist who, in 1901, denounced the British army for their treatment of enemy civilians at war. Hobhouse was the first civilian to decry the government for creating the world’s first concentration camps, during the 2nd Boer War, and was the central figure in bringing aid and assistance to her country’s “enemies,” the captured Boer women and children.

Lord Kitchener, the British commander in chief during the war, referred to Hobhouse as “that bloody woman”. When attempting to visit South Africa, Kitchener deported her back to England as soon as she arrived, with no reason given. Back home, the British government publicly ridiculed her for caring so strongly for those perceived as the enemy.

In our current times of war and violence, I think it’s important to remember the story of people like Emily Hobhouse, who stood up against violence, who stood for peace, and who led the cause for mercy and justice for one’s enemies. Hobhouse was part of a broad anti-war movement of the period, the kind of movement that is desperately needed today.

There is much to learn from their earlier struggle for peace.

Background – The War and the World’s First Concentration Camps

The Boer War began in 1899, as a conflict between the British Empire and the two Boer Republics. The Boers were descendants of Dutch settlers, and had largely been pushed inland, to settle farming and grazing areas away from the Cape Colony.

When the war began, the Boers were lightly trained, and were quickly overwhelmed by the superior British army, who occupied much of their territory. However, they quickly turned to guerrilla warfare, and there, they proved formidable.

Lord Kitchener, facing a protracted conflict and reputational damage in England, instigated a brutal series of orders. British soldiers were to set fire to Boer land and crops, and take women and children captive, to be placed in newly built concentration camps.

The camps were cruel, with inhumane conditions. Poverty, pestilence and disease was rampant, and soon they became synonymous with death. Our modern understanding of concentration camps began in this earlier period, with the suffering of women and children who had not been involved in the fighting, but were nevertheless persecuted.

Emily Hobhouse was one of the first British citizens to push back against these policies. Her story is often swept aside in the history books, seen as a footnote beside her more luminous male peers, including her brother, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, a famous peace theorist, and her close friend, Mahatma Gandhi, who would lead the Indian non-violent resistance to the British Empire, following World War 2.

But Hobhouse’s story is equally worth telling.

In 1900, a liberal member of parliament, Leonard Courtney, invited Hobhouse to become secretary of the woman’s branch of the South African reconciliation committee, an antiwar organization which opposed the Boer War.

It was there that she first heard of the camps. Women and children, she was told had been captured and were forced to live in crippling conditions. Hobhouse responded to this news by establishing the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children. She raised money amongst the British aristocracy, liberal sympathizers, and pacifists – who were a much stronger political force at the time, following centuries of European wars.

She set off to South Africa to put the money to good use.

What she found there was far worse than she feared. Expecting to find only one camp, she found several, and all in a horrific state of overcrowding, disease and malnutrition from a lack of food and resources.

Hobhouse kept a diary and reported on her findings at length.

The Concentration Camps

“In some camps, two, and even three sets of people, occupy one tent and 10, and even 12, persons are frequently herded together in tents of which the cubic capacity is about 500 c.f.

I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty… To keep these Camps going is murder to the children.

It can never be wiped out of the memories of the people. It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill. Thousands, physically unfit, are placed in conditions of life which they have not strength to endure. In front of them is blank ruin… If only the English people would try to exercise a little imagination –picture the whole miserable scene. Entire villages rooted up and dumped in a strange, bare place.

The women are wonderful. They cry very little and never complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, their indignities, loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears… only when it cuts afresh at them through their children do their feelings flash out.

Some people in town still assert that the Camp is a haven of bliss. I was at the camp to-day, and just in one little corner this is the sort of thing I found – The nurse, underfed and overworked, just sinking on to her bed, hardly able to hold herself up, after coping with some thirty typhoid and other patients, with only the untrained help of two Boer girls–cooking as well as nursing to do herself. Next tent, a six months’ baby gasping its life out on is mother’s knee. Two or three others drooping sick in that tent.

Next, a girl of twenty-one lay dying on a stretcher. The father, a big, gentle Boer kneeling beside her; while, next tent, his wife was watching a child of six, also dying, and one of about five drooping. Already this couple had lost three children in the hospital and so would not let these go, though I begged hard to take them out of the hot tent. I can’t describe what it is to see these children lying about in a state of collapse. It’s just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery and be able to do almost nothing.

It was a splendid child and it dwindled to skin and bone … The baby had got so weak it was past recovery. We tried what we could but today it died. It was only 3 months but such a sweet little thing… It was still alive this morning; when I called in the afternoon, they beckoned me in to see the tiny thing laid out, with a white flower in its wee hand. To me it seemed a “murdered innocent”. And an hour or two after another child died. Another child had died in the night, and I found all three little corpses being photographed for the absent fathers to see some day. Two little wee white coffins at the gate waiting, and a third wanted. I was glad to see them, for at Springfontein, a young woman had to be buried in a sack, and it hurt their feelings woefully.

It is such a curious position, hollow and rotten to the heart’s core, to have made… large uncomfortable communities of people whom you call refugees and say you are protecting, but who call themselves prisoners of war, compulsorily detained and detesting your protection.”

Activism in England

When Emily Hobhouse returned to England she received fierce criticism from the British government. It was then that Lord Kitchener referred to her as” that bloody woman.” Regardless, she kept on, gaining sympathy for the cause of the Boer women and children with the general public. She eventually convinced the government to establish the Fawcett Commission to review the conditions in the camps.

The commission corroborated her findings. When Hobhouse tried to return to Cape Town in 1901 however, Lord Kitchener had her deported, with no reason given. 

Although conditions in the camps began to improve, it was already too late. Over 26, 000 women and children would die in the camps by the end of the war. Those who lived were set free but had to swear allegiance to the crown. 

Meeting Gandhi

In 1913, Emily Hobhouse returned to South Africa, and it was there that she met Mahatma Gandhi. They became lifelong friends, and Hobhouse was influential on Gandhi’s eventual strategy of peaceful non-violent civil disobedience in India. Otherwise known as the philosophy of Satyagraha. “Satyagraha,” he explained, “is a weapon of the strong; it admits no violence under any circumstance whatsoever, and it ever insists upon truth.” 

Hobhouse and Gandhi both opposed the first World War, and in their respective ways, protested vigorously against it. They remained dedicated to the cause of pacifism, and throughout their lives struggled to end violence and conflict. 

In 1923, Hobhouse wrote:

“It is astonishing that though so long a list of the world’s greatest thinkers in all periods have pronounced against war, yet to this day no statesmen has appeared capable of abolishing it as a means of settling disputes… Great therefore will be the statesman who takes his stand on Permanent Peace… He will teach the world that peace is not a mere absence of war, that it is not a passive do nothing existence but rather an agreement to join together in work of mutual interests… Cooperation in place of Competition. 

Histories should be rewritten showing how mistaken statesmen have invariably been in leading their countrymen into war, and how little is gained and at what enormous cost. The attention of youth should be fixed on the really great… thinkers, poets, discoverers, scientists, etc, who have laboured to advance history, not destroy.” 

Given the current state of the world, it is good to consider the examples of Hobhouse and Gandhi as shining lights in a world still struggling against the darkness of conflict and brutality. 


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