How Boer War camps brought a new breed to the game

The Rugby Paper - - Feature -

BRI­TISH Pris­oner of War camps on St He­lena in the mid-At­lantic and even more so in Sri Lanka played a sur­pris­ingly big role in the de­vel­op­ment of South African rugby.

Be­fore the Sec­ond Boer War (18991902) rugby in south­ern Africa was very much the game of the English­s­peak­ing set­tlers on the coast in Cape Town and Dur­ban, and the Boer elite in the thriv­ing gold city of Jo­han­nes­burg. It was not played in ru­ral Boer ar­eas and was vir­tu­ally un­known in the Free State.

Come the con­flict and the Boer mili­tia was com­prised mainly of those ru­ral set­tlers from Transvaal and the Free State, and 24,000 of them were cap­tured and sent to Bri­tish POW camps, no­tably at St He­lena and Sri Lanka (then known as Cey­lon).

At the two camps on St He­lena, Dead­wood and Broad­bot­tom, rugby fa­natic Som­mie Morkel – who was to tour Bri­tain and France with the 1906-7 Spring­boks – was one of the pris­on­ers and, once a Dutch Red Cross con­sign­ment had ar­rived, in­clud­ing eight rugby balls, he set about teach­ing his many non-rugby play­ing com­pa­tri­ots the game.

With no chance of escape from the re­mote is­land, the Bo­ers were al­lowed plenty of leisure time and quickly took to the phys­i­cal­ity of the game and be­fore long weekly in­ter-camp games and matches against the gar­ri­son were be­ing or­gan­ised.

As the Boer War in­ten­si­fied and the num­ber of pris­on­ers in­creased, St He­lena be­came over­crowded and the Bri­tish started trans­port­ing Boer pris­on­ers to camps in In­dia and Sri Lanka. It was in the lat­ter, with a longer wet sea­son and more turf to play on, that rugby was again adopted as the game of choice in the five camps.

The epi cen­tre of the rugby revo­lu­tion was the large camp at Diy­ata­lawa, with its 4,000 ‘res­i­dents’ where there were matches six days a week with reg­u­lar ‘Test’ matches be­tween Transvaal and the Free State be­com­ing a reg­u­lar fea­ture of camp life at­tract­ing crowds of more than 1,500 spec­ta­tors, while there were also chal­lenge matches against the gar­ri­son reg­i­ment, the Glouces­ter’s.

It was as a teenager at the Diy­ata­lawa that fu­ture Spring­bok Koot Rey­necke, pre­vi­ously a stranger to the game, learnt how to play rugby.

Within months of the war end­ing and the pris­on­ers re­turn­ing, new clubs were be­ing formed in Bloem­fontein and through­out the Free State and when Mark Mor­ri­son’s Lions of 1903 ar­rived they found the op­po­si­tion much tougher in the Afrikaaner heart­lands, los­ing twice to Transvaal and scrap­ing a 17-16 win against Or­ange River County in Bloem­fontein.

POW camps had ex­posed rugby to a rugged breed of South Africans who quickly made the Spring­boks into one of the most pow­er­ful rugby na­tions on earth.

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