Shark Island – reflecting a dramatic historical past

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Text and Photos by Andreas Vogt

There are few places where Namibian history is as tangible as on Shark Island, the wind-swept and barren rocky promontory protecting Lüderitz harbour. The historical reminders and monuments on Shark Island reflect the last 120 years of Namibia’s dynamic history most vividly, and are as interesting and dramatic as the historical processes that shaped the town of Lüderitz itself.

E merging from the dark middle-ages, all major European powers took turns in establishing their colonial empires overseas, first Portugal, then Spain, then the Netherlands, and finally Britain. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that Germany decided its time had come to join the ranks of the major European colonial powers. Unfortunately for the German colonialist, little had been left of the hitherto non-colonised world, and they had to console themselves with barren portions of land, such as the desert stretch between the Orange and Kunene rivers in south-western Africa.

On May 1, 1883 Heinrich Vogelsang (1862–1914), mandated by the German entrepreneur F A E Lüderitz, bought the bay (Angra Pequena, or Little Bay, as it was called then) and surrounding land extending five miles inland from the Nama Captain Joseph Fredericks from Bethanie for £100 Sterling in gold and 200 rifles. On August 25, 1883 the contract between the same parties was extended once again, whereby Lüderitz this time bought the entire coast between Namibia’s southern border, the Orange River, northwards up to the twenty-sixth degree latitude. But instead of giving the mileage in the conventional way as ‘geographical miles’, Vogelsang and Lüderitz gave it as ‘nautical miles’ in the second contract. Thus, under false pretenses, they had acquired a strip of land extending 140 km inland instead of only 32 km, as it would have been in the case of normal geographical miles. This time the purchase price was sixty Wesley-Richard rifles and £500 Sterling in gold.

Vogelsang died in 1914 in Bremen. He is commemorated by a small plaque on Shark Island bearing the words: Dem ersten Pionier Heinrich Vogelsang 1883 (the first pioneer, Heinrich Vogelsang 1883).

But it was the trader Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz (1834–1886) who is regarded as the real founder of Lüderitz. He had learnt his trade from his father, a tobacconist in Bremen, founded a factory in Lagos in 1881 and bought Angra Pequena in 1883. While it was his intention to bridge the barren desert belt between the coast and the interior and to start trading with the indigenous people in the hinterland, he was also bent on mineral prospecting. In 1886, however, he ventured on an expedition to the Orange River, with the intention of returning to Lüderitz in a small boat. It capsized on the open sea and Lüderitz and his crew all drowned. After his death, the small harbour town was named Lüderitzbucht to commemorate this bold, enterprising man. The name was later changed to Lüderitz.

plaque
luderitz

In 1953, the Senate of the Free Hansa City of Bremen donated a commemorative plaque to honour Adolf Lüderitz, which was also placed on Shark Island. It commemorates October 12, 1883, the day Lüderitz set foot on Namibian soil for the first time. The other dates (16/07/1834 and 22 /10/1886) are the dates of his birth and death. On the commemorative table at Shark Island, Lüderitz is depicted with his characteristic spectacles and moustache, wearing the cap with neck protection commonly used by the early African explorers.

Penguin and Seal islands were two of the twelve offshore islands along the Namibian coast that fell within the British sphere of colonial influence. They lie to the north of Shark Island and can easily be seen from there. In a lonely position at Nautilus Point, a few hundred metres from the beach near the fishing factories opposite Penguin Island, is another commemorative stone. The so-called Lüderitz Beacon commemorates the hoisting of the German flag on August 7, 1884, when a member of the crew of the German cannon boat SMS Elisabeth formally took possession of Lüderitz Bay on behalf of the German Empire.

Over a period of years a cemetery was laid out around the Lüderitz Beacon, where members of the German Schutztruppe and some civilians were buried. Their remains were later re-interred and the headstones of the graves neatly rearranged in a semi-circle on Shark Island. A white marble cross and a black memorial stone containing the words: Hier ruhen die Gebeine der Toten vom alten Friedhof am Nautilus. Errichtet im Jahr 1976 (Here rest the remains of the dead from the old Nautilus [Point]. Erected in the year 1976) commemorates the number of fallen German soldiers and civilians who were among the first to be buried at Lüderitz.

In Namibian history books, Shark Island is associated with another tragic incident, namely the internment on Shark Island of Nama warriors with their wives and children during the ruthless Nama war that raged between 1904 and 1908. Only recently, a striking white memorial in the form of a grave’s toppled headstone, with the inscription: We commemorate our Heroes. Captain Cornelius Fredericks. 1864-1907. With 167 men, 97 women, 66 children, the sons, daughters and children of !Ama Community Bethanie Namibia was unveiled on Shark Island. With the image of a Nama captain clutching a smoking rifle, this memorial is a solemn reminder of the grimness of the concentration camp-like conditions in which numerous members of the Nama communities from the south lost their lives under German colonialism.

Finally, another memorial tablet recalls an epic journey embarked on for the purposes of sea rescue research. The Klink Plaque reads: In recognition of the achievement and courage of Capt. AMY KHAN KLINK of Brazil when he rowed and drifted alone in the specially designed lifeboat the PARATY across the South Atlantic from Lüderitzbucht, South West Africa/Namibia to Sao Salvador Bahia in Brazil in ONE HUNDRED DAYS as from 10 June to 18 September 1984 in a research project on survival at sea, the Lüderitzbucht Foundation deems it fitting to erect this plaque in the vicinity of Captain Klink’s starting point. FOR THOSE IN PERIL ON THE SEA.”

Today the northernmost point of Shark Island is a somewhat down-beat camping site. A hospital was built on Shark Island during the German colonial period for infectious patients to be isolated from the community. This building and the adjacent lighthouse have been converted into tourist accommodation that is managed today by the Namibian Wildlife Resorts Company.

This article was first published in the Flamingo February 2005 issue.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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