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Compiled Bill Torbitt
The strange history of the harbour town
Even though Walvis Bay was fully incorporated into Namibia in 1994, to many Namibians it still has a slight feeling of ‘otherness’. Maybe this is because of its confused colonial history and many years as an enclave, or even an ‘exclave’! There is evidence of settlement of the Topnaar and other local peoples in the area for several thousand years, but the first contact with European ‘discoverers’ was by the famous Bartholomeu Dias in 1487. The location subsequently became recognised as the only safe deep-water harbour for hundreds of miles, and was relatively popular for whaling activities, hence the name Walfisch.
Primitive compared to Swakopmund
Just before the outbreak of World War I, a civil servant from the Cape visited both Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. He found that whereas the denizens of Swakop resided in well-built houses (with most of the materials imported from Germany), those in Walvis lived in draughty wooden huts, with few facilities. There was no medical doctor, and for urgent medical attention you had to summon one from Swakopmund, at a cost of £25. This was quite a stiff sum, seeing in those days you could buy a modest worker’s house, in England, for £100!
Finally Walvis Bay becomes Namibian
In the 1970s, when the South African apartheid government was facing the prospect of granting independence to Namibia, South Africa attempted to salvage something by reverting Walvis Bay’s colonial status. The area was re-proclaimed as part of South Africa, the successor to the old British administration, and puzzled Walvis motorists were issued with new Cape Province registration plates! So when Namibia became independent in 1990, signs on Walvis train-station platforms bore the legend ‘Welcome to South Africa’. It was four years before the century-old anomaly was resolved and Walvis Bay returned to Namibian administration.
Annexation by Great Britain
The Walvis Bay area was half-heartedly claimed by different European powers, such as Holland and Portugal, which did not pursue the matter, perhaps dissuaded by the isolation and formidable hinterland. Only in 1878 did Great Britain annex it, since it was viewed as the only useful part of Namibia at the time. When Germany took over the rest of Namibia, the inevitable messy border dispute ensued. In one confused agreement, the southern boundary of Walvis Bay apparently extended to the Orange River! Eventually, in 1911, the problem was sorted out by an early ‘international consultant’, a Spanish law professor. This led to the strange shape of the enclave with its pointed corner (Rooibank), near where the present airport is situated.
Incorporated into South West Africa
On the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany in August 1914, the now peaceful Swakop riverbed was, briefly, a World War I front line. A British navy unit based in Walvis shelled the Swakopmund customs house, now the museum, and destroyed the bridge over the river. The remnants of the concrete plinths of the old bridge now make a popular route for beach walkers. The German administration soon collapsed in the wake of a South African invasion, and the Walvis Bay area was incorporated into South Africa’s South West Africa military administration. It remained part of ‘South West Africa’ for many years when, after the war, the territory was mandated to South Africa by the League of Nations.
A port with a bright future
Since then Walvis has become a pleasant coastal city with a thriving tourist industry. It is one of the driest established cities in the world, with an annual rainfall of only 10 millimetres. As Namibia’s main port, with recently extended capacity, advantageously positioned for shipping to Western Europe and South America, the future of Walvis Bay should be bright.
This article was first published in the Flamingo April 2011 issue.