Boer War Prisoner Of War Art - A Curious Find With A Potentially Fascinating Story

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Welcome to this week's instalment of 'Blog Post Monday'!

A couple of weeks ago now I found a rather fascinating piece of art work which, by the looks of it, dates from around the late 19th to early 20th century.  You'll have to read on for the reasons why I find it quite so fascinating, but let's just say, after hours of research, I may have found some rather tenuous links between this piece of art and a gruesome period of British history.

So, as always, get that kettle on and let us respectfully look into the fascinating elements of this antique and a possible link with the Second Boer War.



You'll see from the image above why I was drawn to this piece and I why it is full of intrigue.



Firstly, you'll see that it appears to have been made from cut outs of different materials, almost like the artist was forced to use whatever they could find to create this picture.  This gives it an almost three dimensional effect. 



Secondly, it has been created on the back of a section of cargo crate, again, suggesting that this was made with whatever the artist could lay their hands on.



Thirdly, the naive but superbly done carving to the front of the wooden frame suggests an artist with skills in many crafts.



And, the final interesting element for me is the actual subject of the painting.  A small lone church sat within a range of hills and mountains.  A religious element portraying hope, perhaps.



Now, I've owned a few pieces of trench art and prisoner of war art in my time, so this instantly entered my mind when I saw this piece.  However, I've also owned pieces of folk art in my time, which, I guess, have similarities, in the sense that they express a cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics.  Not to mention, these pieces were often also made out of whatever resources these communities had.



So, was this a piece of art folk art or a piece of prisoner of war art?  My research started with the clues I had and the most glaringly obvious one was on the back of the painting.  Stamped onto the piece of cargo crate is the wording "produce of Travancore India", and it was this clue that lead me to research, in detail, the second Boer War.



I learnt some horrendous things about this war.  Whilst I've always known the heinous reasons for Britain's decision to enter this war, particularly for a second time (!!), I'd not known about the absolute brutality, horror and dirty tactics used by them to win this bloody battle.


Image:  Boer women and children in a concentration camp - wikimedia commons


One particularly disturbing fact was that the British rounded up tens of thousands of civilians, particularly women, children and the elderly, and kept them in what we'd now call concentration camps.  They were insanitary and the diet was very poor.  More than 27,000 died in these camps.


Image:  A victim of one the concentration camps - Photo by Elria Wessels


However, very few adult men were detained in this manner, mainly because they were either combatants or likely to be seen by the British as potential combatants.  28,000 were detained as Prisoners of War and almost all of them were shipped out of South Africa to prisoner of war camps in other parts of the world.


Image:  Boer prisoners at a camp


Initially, they were held on the island of St Helena.  However, when that proved too small, they were sent to Bermuda in the Caribbean, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and to India.  

With my painting's link to Travancore, it was the camps in India that I needed to look into, where, by the end of the war, more than 9,000 Boers were held in about twenty military camps across India.

**above information obtained from The Wire


The camps in India were in the following locations:

- Kakool (Kakul) near Abbottabad

- Ahmadnagar

- Bellary

- Bhim Tal, near Naini Tal

- Dagshai and Solon

- Fort Govindgarh, (Gobindgarh) , Amritsar

- Kaity (Keti,Kaiti) in the Nilgiris, near Ootacamund.

- Satara

- Shahjahanpur

- Sialkot

- Trichinopoly

- Umballa, now Ambala.

- Upper Topa, near Murree


Image:  Boer prisoners at Kakul, India - courtesy of


I studied each of these camps to see if there were any possible links to my painting, i.e. similar terrain, nearest places of worship and links to Travancore.  And, this is when I found the camp at Kakool (Kakul).  This particular camp was stationed in an identical terrain to that in the painting.  I also learnt that it was situated just 5 kms northeast of Abbottabad. 


Image:  St Luke's Church, Abbottabad


Quite spookily, it was in Abbottabad that I discovered St Luke's Church (pictured above), which was built in 1864.


Image:  St Luke's Church, Abbottabad 



It has been difficult to find old photographs of St Luke's, but I should imagine that its surroundings may have been very different 120 years ago.  Certainly, I kept finding images that suggested it was once a very different scene (like the picture above).  Just look at the similarities between St Luke's and the church in the painting (above).  They are of course from different angles, but nevertheless, very similar, don't you think...?


 Image:  Boer prisoners under escort


According to recorded accounts the Boer prisoners of war landed in Bombay and then traveled by train to Rawalpindi.  From there, they travelled by camel and foot via some rest houses, to Abottabad.  The first prisoners to arrive at Abbottabad camped on the northern side of the town while the camp was being completed.

This sentence in particular appears to link in with our painting, "The nights were cold and the men could see the snow-clad mountains in the distance".



According to one source (Elria Wessels)the Kakool (Kakul) camp was one of the smallest and short lived in India.  Prisoners were initially housed in eight rows of tents on what had been a plowed field.  As a result it was not very level and they experienced some difficulty in keeping their belongings dry when it rained.  There were eight cooking huts and a wash house.  Large wooden huts were later built and they moved into them.  While they were still in the tents there were eight to ten men to a tent.  There were twenty-four men in a hut of 90ftX20ft.  A high barbed wire fence surrounded the camp with elevated guardhouses overlooking the camp.


Image:  A variety of Boer POW handicrafts - courtesy of Meurig Jones


The Anglo-Boer Wars Blog Spot by Meurig Jones, which you can read here, explains that, "One of the noted past-times of the Boer prisoners of war was to create handicrafts from whatever local materials they could find.  These items are highly collectible today. Handicrafts from the bigger camps such as on Bermuda and St Helena are not hard to find, those from smaller camps are rare and Kakul items must rank amongst the rarest due to its small size and short life.

The items illustrated above come from a collection of 16 Boer POW handicrafts collected by a British soldier who guarded the camp at Kakul. Eight of the items are marked 'Kakul'".


Image:  St Luke's Church, Abbottabad 


So, there you have it.  Is my find a piece of prisoner of war art from the second Boer War?  Is the church in the painting St Luke's in Abbottabad?  Or is this a piece of folk art?  I know what I think.  Let me know what you think in the comments section below.



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  • Stephen (Source Vintage) on

    Hi Ilse,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I did so much research into this piece. Your reference to your great grandfather being a prisoner of war at the Kakul camp sent a shiver down my spine. I’ve sent you an email. Thanks again. All the best, Stephen

  • ilse on

    Dear Stephen,
    My great grandfather was a boer prisoner in Kakul according to British concentration camp records from South Africa.
    He was 45 at the time of capture and his name was Pieter Wiese.
    Would you know if there are any names associated with those artifacts?


  • John "Jaypee" Philbrick on

    You really seem to enjoy this! Superb research!

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