During the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, there were two British prisoner of war camps on the Green Point Common, namely the Green Point Track Camp and the Sky View Camp. The camps were established to relieve appalling conditions of over-crowding at the Simon’s Town camp after the arrival of some 4000 Boers taken prisoner at the Battle of Paardeberg. The camp was so crowded that nine transport ships in Simon’s Bay had to be used to house the overflow.
Prisoners of war were sent to the Cape either by boat or train. Having arrived at the harbour or Cape Town Station, they were usually marched to the camp flanked by two rows of British soldiers.
Upon their arrival in the camp, they were photographed in groups of six for identification purposes. They then received camp equipment from the British authority, comprising: a suit, a vest, a pair of underpants, a pair of boots and a hat, as well as two blankets, a ground canvas, and a tin plate and mug. The men slept 12 to a tent and each prisoner later received a third blanket.
Relations were not always harmonious between prisoners. Some were willing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown and were therefore known as the hensoppers (hands uppers). Others were prepared to resist to the ‘bitter end’ and were therefore known as the bittereinders.
Defusing this situation was among the reasons a second camp was established on the Common in October 1900, primarily for the Bittereinders. Surrounded by a fence made from sheets of corrugated iron, the prisoners were left with only a view of the sky and hence this camp came to be known as ‘Skyview Camp’.
A total of 103 POWs died in the camps due to illness and one died during a church service when he was shot by a nervous British guard.
The prisoners of war in Green Point, along with other South African POW camps, were released once the Boer commandos surrendered – but only after they had laid down an oath of allegiance to the British crown.
After the conclusion of peace, the role of the Green Point camp changed completely. Whereas it was originally a camp to accommodate POWs before they were sent overseas, POWs were now being sent there before being sent to the various districts in the former republics. Eventually fewer POWs were being sent from overseas camps to South Africa, and the Green Point camp was closed. Only the camps in Simon’s Town and Umbilo (Natal) were used for this purpose
In Green Point the prisoners were housed in double-storied buildings which had balconies running round them. Here they used to spend many hours of the day, for not only could they see what was going on around the Camps but also have a good view of the sea and passing ships. Each room held six men, and there was besides a large mess-room downstairs in each building which held about ninety people. Each Boer officer had a room for himself. When, later on, the number of prisoners of war was increased, tents had to be erected to accommodate them; but this could hardly be considered hardship in the climate which prevails at the Cape, and cannot be compared to what at the present moment the soldiers of the Allies are enduring in the trenches. The tents were put in a line of twenty each, and each score had a building attached for the men in that line to use as a dormitory if they chose. Excellent bathrooms and shower-baths were provided, together with a plentiful supply of water. The feeding of the prisoners of war was on a substantial scale, the daily rations per man including:
Bread 1¼ lb. Meat (fresh) 1 lb. Sugar 3 oz. Coal (or) 1 lb. Wood (or) 2 lb. Coal and wood 1½ lb. Vegetables ½ lb. Jam ¼ lb., or 6 oz. of vegetables in lieu. Coffee, milk and other items were also in like generous apportionments.
The clothing issued to the prisoners, as asked for by them, to give the month of June, 1901, as an instance, was:
Boots 143 pairs Braces 59 pairs Hats 164 Jackets 133 Shirts 251 Socks 222 pairs Trousers 166 Waistcoats 87 and other small sundries.
At Green Point Camp ample hospital accommodation was provided for the sick, and there was a medical staff thoroughly acquainted with the Dutch language and Boer habits. There was electric light in every ward, as well as all other comforts compatible with discipline.
In the first six months of 1901 only five men died in the Camps, the average daily strength of which was over 5,000 men. As for the sick, the average rarely surpassed 1 per cent., amongst which were included wounded men, the cripples, and the invalids left behind from the parties of war prisoners sent oversea to St. Helena or other places.
The hospital diet included, as a matter of course, many things not forming part of the ordinary rations, such as extra milk, meat extracts, and brandy. A suggestive fact in that respect was that though the medical officers in charge of the Camps often appealed to Boer sympathisers to send them eggs, milk and other comforts for the sick prisoners, they hardly ever met with response; and in the rare cases when it happened, it was mostly British officials or officers' wives who provided these luxuries.
The spiritual needs of the prisoners of war were looked after with consideration; there was a recreation room, and, during the time that a large number of very young Boers were in Camps, an excellent school, in which the headmaster and assistant teachers held teachers' certificates. Under the Orange River Colony this school was later transferred to the Prisoners of War Camp at Simonstown, and in both places it did a considerable amount of good. The younger Boers took very kindly and almost immediately to English games such as football, cricket, tennis and quoits, for which there was plenty of room, and the British authorities provided recreation huts, and goal posts and other implements. The Boers also amused themselves with amateur theatricals, club-swinging, and even formed a minstrel troup called the "Green Point Spreemos."
In the Camps there was a shop where the Boers could buy anything that they required in reason at prices regulated by the Military Commandant. Beyond this, relatives and friends were allowed to send them fruit or anything else, with the exception of firearms. In the Boer laagers were coffee shops run by speculative young Boers. The prisoners used to meet there in order to drink coffee, eat pancakes and talk to heart's content. This particular spot was generally called Pan Koek Straat, and the wildest rumours concerning the war seemed to originate in it.
Now as to the inner organisation of the Camps. The prisoners were allowed to choose a corporal from their midst and also to select a captain for each house. Over the whole Camp there reigned a Boer Commandant, assisted by a Court of "Heemraden" consisting of exlandrosts and lawyers appointed by the prisoners of war themselves. Any act of insubordination or inattention to the regulations, sanitary or otherwise, was brought before this court and the guilty party tried and sentenced. When the latter refused to abide by the judgment of the Boer court he was brought before the Military Commandant, but for this there was very seldom need.
The prisoners of war had permission to correspond with their friends and relatives, and were allowed newspapers and books. The former, however, were rather too much censored, which fact constituted an annoyance which, with the exertion of a little tact, might easily have been avoided.