Marie Steyn, widow of the American researcher Stowell Kessler in their living room. 200612.
Picture: Chris Collingridge
Marie Steyn, widow of the American researcher Stowell Kessler in their living room. 200612. Picture: Chris Collingridge 044

The Boer War death camps held blacks too

By Time of article published Jun 28, 2012

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To the people of Petrus Steyn he was Oom Stowell or simply Stowie, the retired Presbyterian minister who had an obsession with the Boer war concentration camps.

He stuck out in this northern Free State dorp, for not only could he not speak Afrikaans, he was an American.

But Stowell Kessler made Petrus Steyn his home, and it was here for over 18 years he worked on his book.

That book is called Black Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, and it is to be in bookstores soon. The book is the first of its kind.

But Oom Stowie won’t be at the book launch. He died of diabetes in 2007.

In Petrus Steyn, Stowell’s archive remains in the house he shared with his widow, Marie, and his stepson, Danie Steyn.

Filing cabinets hold tens of thousands of evidence-laden documents gathered from following century-old paper trails.

Stowell’s tenacity would have impressed any hardnosed detective. Oom Stowell, said Danie, tackled historical research with an all-consuming obsession that sometimes got little too much for some people.

“That was all he would talk about, the concentration camps,” said Danie.

Marie would sometimes leave the table when the talk turned to the suffering in the camps. In Petrus Steyn the Boer war is still a painful topic for many.

Stowell began researching his book in 1994 just after he had retired and with Marie had returned to SA from the US.

He came with an interesting past. Stowell had fought in the Korean War, and during the 1960s he had been a civil rights activist. His protests had even landed him in a jail in Georgia, where he was tortured with a cattle prod. Stowell first visited SA in 1986 while researching his Master’s thesis. He was then interested in Calvinism and its influence on Afrikaner religion and apartheid.

But the direction of his research and his life were to change when he met Danie in a library at Potchefstroom University.

The American researcher needed a translator, and Danie agreed to help.

Stowell wanted to interview Boer War concentration camp survivors and Danie tracked them down in old-age homes.

They were children when they entered the camps, but their experiences still haunted them.

“I remember Oom Stowell would cry when the old people cried, during the interviews,” says Danie.

Stowell wanted to write a book about the white concentration camps, but was told that there was nothing new on the subject.

“It was suggested he write about the black camps,” said Danie.

During the Anglo Boer war, the British forced Boer women and children into camps, in an effort to take them off the land, so they could no longer support their men who were still fighting. Little known was that there were also black concentration camps, whose inmates the British used for labour.

While there were detailed records pertaining to the white camps, there was nothing on the black camps. No one even knew how many blacks died.

Stowell believes that between 13 000 and 14 000 blacks died in the concentration camps, many of them from hunger.

In his book, Stowell writes: ”Historians must conclude that the misery and the suffering in the black concentration camps were the result of deliberate neglect, and not the misfortunes of war.”

The book costs R485 and is published by the War Museums of the Boer Republics.

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