The Origin of Concentration Camps

The long, silenced history of oppression

Concentration camps or internment camps are any mass imprisonment of people without charges, typically of citizens of an enemy or anyone suspected of terrorism. Often times, these camps are not called concentration camps or interment camps, as the intention at first may vary. No matter the original intent, concentration camps or interment camps always seem to evolve into situations where death reigns.

For many people of many backgrounds, the words “concentration camp” or “internment camp” bring up memories of trauma. For those who haven’t experienced these ordeals first hand or who don’t carry family stories about the interment of their ancestors, it likely conjures up history book pictures of the Nazis and the places the kept people before taking them to extermination camps or labor camps.

A pregnant woman and her children arriving at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Despite many people claiming that the Nazi concentration camps where the first instance, it was not the first time these situations arose. People will often cite the Boer Wars and the concentration camps of 1900–1902 in South Africa as inspiration to Hitler. They will also cite Spain’s concentration camps in Cuba and the US policy with Native Americans. The US actually has the longest history of concentration camps starting with the Cherokee forced removal in 1838.

Many of the concentration or internment camps were originally established for humanitarian purposes, such as temporarily sheltering people before they were transferred to other locations. Sometimes the other location they were sent to was less hospitable than the camps themselves. Other times they were released to other governments. Sometimes they were allowed back into the same country. Most of the time, there was never too much of a distinction between prisoners of war and civilians placed in internment camps. This intensified how badly civilians were treated, especially during US wartime. The following are an overview of well known situations where concentration and internment camps arose, but there are likely many other instances with Native Americans since the line between prisoner of war and civilian were blurred many times. However, I leave out all the reservations, because I consider those prisoner of war camps.

Trail of Tears Historical Marker, by J. Stephen Conn

In 1838, the US government established several “emigration depots” at Ross’s Landing, Fort Pane, and Fort Cass. Over 4,800 people were held at Fort Cass on July 25. These people had arrived over several of the preceding months. The first group departed sometime in September and the last group departed December 5. The unsanitary conditions lead to outbreaks of disease. Several people would die in one day. The conditions lead to many lives lost as they were waiting for better traveling weather.

Contraband Camp, Richmond, Virginia, 1865, by Matthew Brady

In 1861, the Union forces created “contraband camps” to “store” the slaves whom came from their Confederate owners. Conflicted over what to do when a group of slaves whom had come to Fortress Monroe, Gen. Benjamin Butler decided that slaves should be confiscated under the international laws of contraband. These laws allowed property which was being used to wage war to be seized by a belligerent nation. Gen. Butler decided that if the Confederates were going to see the slaves as property, the Union could take advantage of that. The slaves were still property of the Union until the 13th amendment was passed four years later on December 18, 1865. During those four years many slaves signed up for service in the Union Army, initially none received any pay. An unknown number of slaves died. The number must have been great due to the awful conditions at many of the makeshift camps. Since these people were held against their will without a trial and lived with these terrible conditions, these camps easily qualify as internment camps.

Dakota internment camp, Pike Island, winter 1862, by Benjamin Franklin Upton

From September 1862 through May 1863, one thousand six hundred Dakota people where held in an internment camp on their sacred homelands of Bdote. They were held on Wita Taŋka Island which become known to the settlers as Pike Island, located right below where Ft. Snelling was constructed. Only 303 people where charged and sentenced to execution in December, but President Lincoln pardoned all but 38 of them. Approximately 300 people died over the winter. They were moved to Crow Creek in South Dakota where there was a drought. Four years later many of the survivors moved to the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska. The 277 whom had commuted sentences were taken to an interment camp in Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa. In April of 1866, the surviving 177 were taken to the Santee Sioux Reservation to join those who had survived the drought in Crow Creek.

Diné people being watched by a guard.

Starting in the Spring of 1864, all 20,000 of the Diné (Navajo) people were marched 300 miles to the internment camp in Bosque Redondo. By the Spring of 1865, approximately 8,500 Diné and 500 Mescalero Apache were interned. The number would continue to rise until all the rest of their fellow citizens joined them. They remained there until The Treaty of Bosque Redondo in 1868. This internment camp was meant to be a model for future reservations, but by the end of 1865 only 6,000 people had survived. A loss of over 13,000 Diné people was sustained.

Cuba’s Ten Years’ War raged on from 1868 to 1878. In 1869 Spain adopted the policy of relocating — or reconcentrating — people into a small area strategically along the military communications lines. The people moved into these areas where called reconcentrados. This lasted for 9 years until 1878. This was the first time in history that any word having a meaning related to concentration (in the sense of population density) was used to describe a technique of relocating people into one specific area or set of areas.

Baltimore Sun Newspaper Archives, Mar 24, 1898, p. 2

During the Cuban War of Independence, in February of 1896, Spain’s General Valeriano Weyler ordered towns to be fortified and for all the eastern rural population to be concentrated. Those towns were overwhelmed with tens of thousands of reconcentrados. This was the second time the island encountered this treatment. Recent estimates point at 400,000 to 600,000 people were reconcentrados. The elite of the cities expected the reconcentrados to grow their own food. They were also shunned because people thought they might carry disease. Over 170,000 people were killed due to inhumane conditions. This situation was the trigger to the Spanish-American War.

During the Philippine-American War, the provinces of Batangas and Laguna where taken by Brig. Gen. Franklin Bell in 1901. He ironically instituted a policy of reconcentration, just as the Spaniards in the struggle against Cuban independence. Approximately 298,000 people became reconcentrados. According to Smith and Stucki: “In the ‘concentration zones’ in the
Philippines tens of thousands of people died in the space of a few months from malnutrition and disease.”

Second Boer War concentration camp Krugersdorp, by Unknown

The Ten Years War and the Cuban War of Independence colored the wording used in reporting on future camps, even while the government insisted that they were temporary shelter camps. Over 154,000 African and Boer civilians were held in concentration camps — slightly more than half the number of Philippine citizens held in camps during the same time frame. Still, this incident paled in comparison to what the Spaniards did during the Cuban War of Independence.

As the 20th century continued on, the was an explosion of the use of concentration camps in both WWI and WWII. Many countries participated in creating concentration camps to assert their power. In WWII Nazi Germany was absolutely horrendous; the scale of the death, torture, and inhumane treatment perpetrated by them will leave an enduring mar on the face of humanity. During WWII even more nations imprisoned their fellow humans, especially people of Japanese, German, Italian, Hawaiian, and Jewish descent. It was also during this time the Funter Bay and other interment camps were created to keep Aleut “safe” from the Japanese who had already taken over Attu Island and taken the islanders as prisoners of war. Unfortunately, the conditions in the interment camps lead to deaths of 10% of the Aleut people interned in the camps.

Haitian refugees at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, Sept. 7, 1994. AP Photo/Doug Mills.

To this day, people still use internment camps as a tactic for exercising political power — no matter how abhorrent of a tactic it really is. The most recent uses are in China and the US. In the 1970s the US starting capturing any Haitians whom had made it to shore and immediately deported them(if caught). In the 1980s, after it was decided that Haitians were economic refugees and not political refugees, the US would use the coast guard to intercept Haitians fleeing the country by boat and would repatriate them to Haiti (this was referred to as interdition). None of them would be granted asylum. In the early 1990s, there was a military coup, and people began to flee by the thousands. This lead to the US deciding to stage refugees at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. In 1992 alone, over 37,000 Haitians had been processed through Guantanamo. The humanitarian workers who were allowed access complained of how hopeless the conditions were. Food had maggots. Broken windows were never fixed, just taped over with trash bags. While Bill Clinton had been campaigning, he said he disagreed with the camps, but when he took office he kept George H. W. Bush’s policy in effect. In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that only those refugees whom made it to US soil could apply for asylum. In 1994, Operation Sea Signal started and once again opened the doors of Guantanamo to Haitian and Cuban refugees. A maximum of 21,000 Haitians and over 30,000 Cubans were detained at any one moment. The number of Haitians at Guantanamo dwindled until May 1995. It still remains policy to interdict refugees fleeing by sea and process them through Guantanamo.

De-extremation in China.

In China anywhere from 120,000 to over 1,000,000 of the Muslim Uyghurs are being held in “reeducation camps”. Half a million children have been ripped from their parents and families and placed in preschool like prisons. This parallels the POW camps in which the native peoples of the Americas were placed. It also mirrors the American Indian boarding schools in the US and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Using the available sources, there were likely around 1,000,000 native children separated from their families between the years 1879 to 1978 in the US.

Average daily population of detained immigrants held by the United States government for the fiscal years 1994–2018. By Carwil.

The US has detained people for as long as they have been coming over. Ellis Island once had facilities for detaining people. Mandatory detainment has been current practice since 1996, when both the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) and Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) were passed by the House of Representatives and Senate and signed into law by Bill Clinton. IIRIRA placed strict limits on who was considered an admissible alien and laid out procedures for mandatory detainment. It also allows the Attorney General to allow local enforcement officers to arrest and transport aliens they deem to not have been admitted to the US. AEDPA limited the number of habeas corpus claims to one claim. The only exception is if the denial was unreasonable within the context of Supreme Court precedent. This lead to an increase in mandatory detainees on top of a system not designed to handle so many asylum seekers. This has lead to what is effectively a man-made disaster, just like so many of the other internment camps. People may argue about nomenclature, but the historical similarities are quite clear.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer.

Jillian Ada Burrows

Written by

I am very odd. One day, I’ll one-up myself and get even. If you like what I write, please share it.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

Jillian Ada Burrows

Written by

I am very odd. One day, I’ll one-up myself and get even. If you like what I write, please share it.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

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