The news is spreading like wildfire: shots have been fired in Okahandja. The strangers have taken up arms against us. We must stand together and fight as best as we can. On January 12, 1904, the Herero people take up the struggle against the Germans, who, 20 years earlier, had declared what we know as Namibia today to be a colony of German South West Africa. On October 3 the Nama people in the south of the country also rise in rebellion.
This year the beginning of the Herero and Nama wars a hundred years ago will be commemorated in Namibia and Germany with numerous events. Traces of the wars can still be seen in many places.
Such as in Warmbad, in the far south east. On October 25, 1903, the leader of the Bondelswarts Nama, Jan Abraham Christiaan, is shot by the deputy district commander, Lieutenant Walter Jobst, who makes the mistake of intervening in an internal dispute about a goat. Christiaan’s followers return fire and kill Jobst. But the famous goat is merely the last straw. In as far back as 1884, when land purchased by Adolf Lüderitz (a merchant from Bremen) comes under Germany’s protection, a conflict with the native population is foreseeable: the land is intended for settlement by Germans, who are emigrating in huge numbers during the age of industrialisation. As more and more land is bought from natives, less and less is left for the local inhabitants to graze their cattle. Traders are selling goods on credit and collect debts by having livestock confiscated. Disputes are settled by German officials who all too often are biased. The incident between Jobst and Christiaan has not been forgotten, and is commemorated by the Bondelswarts every year with a colourful cultural festival at the end of October.
When the Bondelswarts rise in rebellion, many units of the colonial forces are shifted south – an opportune moment for the Herero to take up arms. They are already in uproar: confiscation of cattle is particularly hard on them because of losses suffered during the cattle plague of 1896/97. Led by Chief Samuel Maharero, the rebellion starts in Okahandja, his headquarters, on January 12, 1904. Farms and police stations are attacked and several settlements come under siege.
One of them is Omaruru. Major Victor Franke, on his way south with his unit, turns back and after a tour de force relieves Okahandja at the end of January and Omaruru on February 4. Today the tower built to honour Franke, the “Franketurm”, is one of Omaruru’s tourist attractions.
At more or less the same time, on January 28, 1904, Owambo warriors unexpectedly attack Fort Namutoni. The military post in the north has been a thorn in King Nehale lya Mpingana’s flesh for quite some time. Opportunistically he uses the Herero rebellion and attacks the fort with 500 warriors. Seven Germans and at least one African defend Namutoni for a day. About 50 Owambo and the African are killed in action, and the Germans flee under cover of darkness. Nehale has the fort torched and retreats with his loot. It is later rebuilt, and today, after many restorations and additions, it serves as tourist accom-modation in the Etosha Natio-nal Park. The attack is commemorated by a plaque.
After several victories and defeats, the Herero warriors and their families and cattle gather at Waterberg. The new commander of the colonial forces, General Lothar von Trotha, plans to encircle them there. The battle begins on August 11, 1904. The Herero are defeated but manage to break through the circle and flee to the south east, into the arid Omaheke Region. Thousands perish of thirst. Only a few – including Chief Samuel Maharero – manage to cross into Bechuanaland, today’s Botswana. On October 3 General von Trotha gives the order that any Herero trying to re-enter the German-controlled territory must be shot. German war graves can still be found on the south-eastern slope of Waterberg, with graves of Herero chiefs close by.
On October 3, 1904, Nama Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi also declares war and calls on other Nama leaders in the south to follow suit. Until 1907 they engage the Germans in guerrilla warfare. War graves in many places testify to the heavy losses. Fighting even takes place in the Fish River Canyon. In June 1905 Cornelius Frederiks succeeds in escaping through the maze of gorges with 200 warriors, women, children and cattle. The lone grave of Thilo von Trotha can be found in the canyon. Sent as a mediator, he was killed in the confusion of battle.
The wars end with the defeat of both the Herero and the Nama. Their war dead are mostly buried in unmarked graves. Even the burial place of the great leader, Hendrik Witbooi, is unknown. In the aftermath of the war, thousands die in concentration camps in Swakopmund, Windhoek and Lüde-ritz. On Shark Island a memorial has been set up for Nama leader Cornelius Frederiks.
As a result of World War I Germany loses her colonies. Under a mandate of the League of Nations, South Africa takes over the administration of South West Africa. In 1923 Samuel Maharero dies in exile. He is buried in Okahandja on August 26. Since then Herero commemorators gather there every year during the weekend around August 26 to reflect on their culture and traditions. Other groups have started similar cultural festivals, including the Mbanderu’s Nikodemus Festival in mid-June in Okahandja, the Zeraua Festival in early October in Omaruru and the Witbooi Festival in early November in Gibeon.
The organisers agree that the events are aimed at coping with the suffering inflicted, as well as at looking for a joint road into the future.
In spite of the atrocities committed during the war of 1904 and in its aftermath, tourists – including Germans – are welcome guests at commemorations and cultural festivals. The Herero, who demand an apology and reparations from Germany, draw a fine line between the German government and German citizens. Taking photos is allowed, but for decency’s sake the organisers should be asked beforehand.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.