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Africa during the Scramble: The Herero, the Nama and the Germans Part 1

By Gary Oswald

Hendrik Witbooi, Nama Leader, with Theodor Leutwein, German Governor, in 1896. Photo from the German Federal Archive and shared under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence

The residents of the area that is currently the country of Namibia arrived there in a series of different migrations. The first residents were the San, who had been there since at least 25,000 BC. Then various Bantu cattle driving pastoralists arrived in the area during the 1600s, the most powerful of which would become the Herero Nation. Then during the 1800s, there was a large level of migration leaving the newly British Cape Colony. Unlike the more famous Boer migrations, these were not white slave owners but rather the mixed race descendants of slaves. They were Christian and Dutch speaking but were racially classified as African and tended to have a history of combat with white Europeans. The most powerful of these newcomers would be known as the Nama Federation of various clans.

And then in the late 1880s the first Germans arrived. Prior to 1883, the German Empire’s policy outside Europe was often described as having Colonists but no Colonies. This was not just referring to the New World, where German immigrants made up significant parts of the population from Texas to Venezuela and Argentina to the Midwest. But also to Africa, where German traders made up the majority of Europeans active in ports such as Dakar and Lagos and this African trade flowed back to German ports like Hamburg and Bremen.

The Scramble however left these traders vulnerable. When acting in independent countries, such as Haiti, the traders could rely on German imperial might to bully their host countries into capitulating during conflicts. But the number of independent countries in Africa was rapidly falling and if the British or French were to act against the traders, such as when the British bought in an export tax for non-British traders in her Nigerian ports, Germany had less power to act. The obvious answer was for Germany to obtain her own African lands.

The German government under Bismark was initially very reluctant to take any step to do so but the pressure on it to do so was intense, not just from the merchants and their sponsors, but from the German Public in general who were obsessed with stories from Africa. The German population was expanding at a huge rate and hordes of urban workers were emigrating to other countries, the desire increasingly was for new German lands to populate. Africa was where riches could be found for the merchants, but it was also where land could be found for farmers. Germans working in Africa privately were heroes back home, and as Wild West fiction became increasingly popular, the Germans began to imagine having their own frontiers to tame.

In 1883, the first German trader arrived in Namibia. As unclaimed land, it was seen as a useful candidate for the hoped for German Colony. The traders bought land off the local Nama clans for a pittance in a bad faith treaty where the Nama thought they were selling much less land then they actually were. But the German Government refused to offer imperial protection at this point. They were still privately owned lands. In spring 1884, however Bismark finally caved to the pro colonial voices. He declared all German traders in Africa under the Reich’s protection and ordered all German warships to head to Africa, to land at a series of marked destinations where traders were and plant the flag. In some cases the Germans were too late, the French or British had beaten them to it, but in Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania and Namibia huge areas of land were successfully claimed, in Namibia's case while the British were still debating if claiming it would be worth it. Within months the Germans had magiced up what was, on paper, a vast empire containing over 1 million square miles of territory in Africa, more than five times the size of her territory in Europe.

But the German Government still didn’t really want to be directly involved. The original plan was for the traders to fund and organise their colonies themselves. The German Navy would guard them against other colonists but Bismarck still had no desire to send the German Army to fight African Wars. The plan was for the existing traders to fund the transformation of German South West Africa into a viable settler colony by finding vast mineral riches such as had been discovered elsewhere, and indeed such riches exist in Namibia. But despite several expensive attempts, the Germans simply didn’t know where such minerals were and couldn’t find them. With the traders rapidly losing money the Government were forced, to save face, to take control themselves. Dr. Heinrich Göring, probably best remembered as the father of Hermann Göring, was the first Imperial Commisioner.

The ruling Council of the Free Republic of Rehoboth, photographed with their constitution in 1872

He did not have an easy job. Berlin did not want to be there and did not want to send him resources. The Herero and Nama also didn’t want the Germans there. Some minor polities, the Free Republic of Rehoboth most notably, were happy to accept German overlordship, knowing that the Germans weren’t powerful enough for it to mean anything yet. But most of the Nama were very different. Though the Germans insisted on treating them like the wild savages they imagined Native Americans were, they were, as exiles from the Cape, a people intimately familiar with European politics, they still had newspapers from Cape Town posted to them and they recognised straight away the threat the Germans posed.

The Herero were more inclined to view the Germans as an opportunity. They were involved in a rather lengthy war against the Nama invaders that had just reached new intensity in 1885. An Alliance with this new power could change their fortunes. But the Germans had very few soldiers in Namibia and no desire to send more. As the war between the Herero and Nama raged, the Germans could do little to help their new Ally and so the Nama requests for peace and an alliance against the Germans were more tempting. Göring attempted to attract more German settlers by planting fake gold to simulate a rush but the scheme was found out quickly. Moreover his disrespectful actions towards the Herero, including building on a graveyard, caused them to break their alliance with him and forced Göring and the rest of his staff to flee the colony entirely.

The Reichstag debated washing their hands of the area entirely, they also debated a full campaign against the Herero and Nama. Bismarck ruled out both. Instead he sent a small unit of 21 soldiers under Curt von François to Walvis Bay. They would send a message to Britain that Germany still held this land and would fight for it but be too small in number to challenge the Herero or Nama.

Indeed von François was under strict orders to not provoke a war with Africans. Unfortunately, as the British had discovered against the Zulu, from Europe it was quite difficult to control your African governors. Such men tended to be ambitious and eager for battle. And von François was a veteran of service in the Belgian Congo where he’d learned a certain amount of ruthlessness. As such, he set out to start the very war he was ordered to prevent. With one hand he set about provoking the Africans, knowing that with only 21 soldiers, they had no chance of surviving such an encounter. And with the other, he asked Bismarck for more men, hoping the Chancellor would not be able to survive such an embarrassment as the loss of the entire German garrison of one of their largest colonies, which was an inevitable result of a war with the other powers of Namibia without more soldiers on the ground. In 1890, Bismarck gave in and sent him 41 more soldiers. This was still not yet enough to fight a full campaign, but two months later he was dismissed as Chancellor. The war camp had lost its most powerful opponent.

1890 was the last chance for the German Colony to be abandoned if Berlin had decided to do so, in which case it is likely the British would have moved in. The Nama debated wiping out the German soldiers while they still could, but they had been there 7 years at this point. They were rude and provocative but they weren’t the threat the Herero were so the decision was made to win the Herero war first then worry about the Germans. The Herero, on the other hand, noticed that Germany now had 62 soldiers and so renewed their old Alliance with the Germans against the Nama. The lack of German soldiers worked for them, nobody saw them as the greatest threat. With the Herero distracted both by the war with the Nama and with a succession dispute, the Germans began to build towns and farms and invite in the first few civilian settlers. It would now be a lot harder for Berlin to justify full withdrawal.

Hendrik Witbooi

In 1892 the Herero and Nama finally agreed a peace and Hendrik Witbooi of the Nama, one of the main driving forces behind the treaty, was free to concentrate on the Germans. Witbooi wrote to the Herero, warning them of the Berlin conference and the way the Europeans had divided up Africa. The Herero could never be allies with the Germans, he told them, they could only be their victims. Witbooi was interested in forming a united front against Germany, he was also interested in provoking trouble for the Germans at home. He would consistently send reports of German aggression and atrocities to the British and to European journalists so that articles could be published in Europe that contradicted German Propaganda.

Witbooi in many ways is the exact person who you’d create if you wanted to write an African Leader who’d survive European colonisation. He was Christian, he was informed, he was a secure competent leader, he led a fearsome army, was trusted by the merchants he needed to buy weapons from and understood the need to fight in the court of European public opinion, construct a united front of African nations and build contacts with rival European nations. But none of it would ultimately help him when set against the German Army.

Shortly after the peace was agreed, another 250 German soldiers arrived. With this new army, von François was able to go on the offensive. His opening shot was to ride to Witbooi’s capital without a declaration of war and burn it during the night, massacring the sleeping women, men and children he found there. Children as young as two years old were bayonetted and 80 women, including Witbooi’s daughter, were handed out to the soldiers as sex slaves. The atrocity, which was reported to the German Government as a defensive battle against armed raiders, was deliberate in its cruelty. It was designed to provoke a response, to invite Nama counter attacks and drive Germany into a war that Berlin would be forced to fight.

Von François got his war but, with Witbooi leaking the true story to Europe and handily defeating the German garrisons in pitched battles where both sides were actually armed, he was also dismissed by Berlin upon it being discovered that he planned to also attack the Herero before first defeating the Nama. Theodor Leutwein, who replaced him, was given reinforcements, most crucially in the form of artillery and machine guns, and orders to bring the war to a swift conclusion. In five months, Leutwein defeated the Nama but the peace treaties he enforced were lenient. Several leaders were killed but Witbooi himself was not only spared but given an annual stipend of 2,000 marks in compensation. And the Nama kept their own land and had complete sovereignty over it, with any whites operating within it having to obey their laws. There was in fact considerable anger in Germany that the treaty was not far more harsher.

But Leutwin had achieved his goals. The Herero were kept on side, still allies of the Germans and the Nama had agreed to recognise German overlordship and trade exclusively with them. Finally Germany’s position was strong enough for the trade and colonisation to continue unthreatened. More settlers could now arrive.

In theory this could be the end of the story. We have discussed in previous articles the way in which some African nations emerged from the Scramble relatively intact as protectorates. In theory, the Herero and Nama seem perfect candidates for passing the European racist purity hoops required. They were Christian, they were literate, they were organised, they ran schools for their children. The Germans were routinely impressed with how sophisticated they were. When, in 1896, the German colonial society held a ‘human zoo’ in Berlin in which hundreds of German citizens from across the Empire were displayed as grotesque curiosities for the German civilians, the Herero and Nama wore the European suits and dresses they always wore. Instead of showing the unbridgeable gap between the savages and the Europeans that the organisers spoke of, the people of Namibia appeared to be simply black Germans. They spoke Dutch as a first language and German as a second and were more charming than horrifying. The Herero leader Freidrich Maharero received love letters from German women for years afterwards.

So why didn’t they become a martial race, a favoured subject in the Empire? Why didn’t German South West Africa remain a German white City in Windhoek surrounded by loyal protectorates elsewhere? Why did Leutwin not von François become the outlier? What paved the road to the first Genocide of the 20th Century? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next article but it began with one of the defining moments of the Scramble, one of Africa's greatest tragedies, the 1890s Rinderpest epizootic which began with cattle the Italian Army bought to Eritrea in 1887 and would wipe out more than 6 million farm animals in Africa and drive cattle farmers like the Herero into poverty and starvation.


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