By Gary Oswald
Warning: This is an article about a Genocide and will be tough reading.
As discussed at the end of the last article, the first blow to the good relations between the Herero and the Germans was the Rinderpest epizootic. Rinderpest is an infectious viral disease that arrived in Africa during the Italian Campaign in Somaliland because Cattle from India were bought in to supply the Italian troops. The infection spread like wildfire through cattle herds in Africa, killing millions of farm animals and dooming a lot of African people to poverty and starvation.
In 1897, it reached the Herero. The worst hit areas saw 95% of their cattle die. This was their source of wealth and food and losses of this magnitude were catastrophic. The malnutritioned Herero died of diseases where they did not die of starvation. Attempts to compensate by growing new crops were unsuccessful, Namibia is a desert, drought and locusts meant the crops died too.
Thousands of Hereros began to arrive at the German settlements, looking for work and charity. The previously largely independent Herero started acting as farm workers, administrators, maids and prostitutes for the German settlers. The forts and Garrison houses built during 1898 and 1899 were built by Herero labour. And more importantly, in order to buy goods at inflated prices, the Herero began selling more and more of their land and their remaining Cattle to the Germans, allowing them to extend their ranches.
The crisis was relatively brief, within a few years the Herero had found their feet again, but the balance of power had shifted slightly and the Germans had seen a glimpse of a world wherein their proud neighbours were instead humble workers. And more and more Germans had been arriving. Namibia was never the top destination for emigrants from Germany given its climate but the German Empire didn’t have many places for Settlers. It was either Windhoek or go outside the Reich.
As more ranches were built and more settlers arrived, the Germans concentrated on building up infrastructure. The forts, the copper mines which funded the forts, the port which meant they didn’t have to use the British port to bring men to and forth and railways to allow quick movement between the port, the capital and the mines. As the Germans expanded, they were still a minority in number around a 1,000 strong, but their ambitions expanded too. Soon the plan was that instead of all of Hereroland and Namaland being off limits to the Germans there would merely be reserved lands, based on the US Indian reserves, within them, where in their law would still rule. In 1903, frustrated at the slow progress a German official went as far as to forge the signature of various Herero chiefs on treaties as a way of justifying the seizure of the non ‘reserved’ lands.
Instead of the relationship between the Germans and the Herero improving, it was consistently worsening. Why and was it inevitable? Part of it is quite simply racism, it is almost impossible to overstate how many virulent racists were involved in the German Higher command and how much war against Africans was seen as an aim in itself. But well the British and French were also deeply racist Empires and yet pragmatic relations were able to still form, for that matter Germany had much less problems with maintaining good relations in Cameroon. To an extent the problem was simply how important Namibia was, as the only viable settler colony the Germans had, it took up an importance that it simply could never had for the British. And because the desire was to get land for Germans, the natives would always be an obstacle.
Another problem was precisely how 'westernised' the Herero and Nama were, namely they understand the worth of their property. So as they recovered from the Rinderpest, cattle and land became more valuable and rose in price. Most of the Herero and Nama leaders were by 1904 charging thousands of marks for cattle or plots or else refusing to sell land at all but merely rent it. Settlers would arrive in Windhoek and then be unable to purchase their own farms and cattle herds. This frustration led to drunken Germans beating, raping and killing Africans that were arriving to trade for ‘disrespect’ among other real or imagined crimes. The Court would then tend to find them guilty but hand out the lowest sentences possible, enraging both sides. The Germans also often began trying to earn money by raiding Herero graveyards to sell their skulls to scientists and museums back in Europe.
What we are seeing here is a reversal of what we saw in the Zulu war. The Governor, Leutwein, was inclined towards peace but the average man in the colony wanted war. This means it is difficult to avoid some kind of trigger point. In OTL the trigger was an undisciplined German soldier shooting dead a Nama leader over a dispute about a goat and getting shot in return. This could have been resolved peacefully but there was simply no will on the German side to do so. Both in Berlin and in the Colony, there was a desire for war, a desire to forcibly take land from the natives.
With rumours of war spreading, German soldiers posted in the Herero lands jumped to the wrong conclusion upon seeing hundreds of Herero gathering in order to sort out a land dispute and, assuming it was an active rebellion, opened fire. The Herero, under attack, retaliated. Many German settlers and soldiers, caught alone and unprepared, would be killed before they even knew the Herero had joined the war. While Leutwin defeated the rebellious Nama without the majority of that people rising up, another war had been started without his knowledge.
The Herero understood, as the Zulus did, the importance to fight in a way that would not allow them to be painted as the wrongdoers. British and Boer traders were not attacked and less than 5 German women and children died during the war. What they didn’t understand, was that this didn’t matter. They were painted as savages regardless of their behaviour and so the German Army felt no need to be constrained by the rules of war.
Leutwein, whose initial instinct was to try and negotiate with the Herero leader, Samuel Maharero, was replaced, after being defeated in battle, by Lothar von Trotha, a man known for his brutality and racism. He would more than live up to his reputation. The Herero had at this point driven out the German settlers around Hereroland and they had no desire to attempt to attack the German forts around their capital of Windhoek. Instead they were debating fleeing Namibia entirely and taking refuge with the Tswana. But that involved crossing the desert which would not be feasible for another six months during the wet season. Von Trotha, having declared martial law in the colony, resolved to destroy the Herero before they had a chance to escape. A lot of the Herero were also convinced that they could agree a favourable peace with the Germans, like the Nama had years earlier. They were used to Leutwein, who had been sidelined for arguing against their extermination, and did not realise how the stakes had changed. They were therefore not as alarmed as they should have been by the Germans slowly building up forces to completely surround them.
The Herero nation numbered about 80,000 at the moment of the German attack and von Trotha gave orders for no prisoners to be taken and for civilians to be killed too. Nothing living was to be spared, every Herero with no exceptions found within German lands was to be killed. The Army was broken quickly and tens of thousands of Herero fled into the desert towards Botswana. Pursued for several weeks by the Germans, unable to gather up their supplies and in the middle of the dry period, they died in their droves to heat and thirst. In order to prevent the Herero turning back to Namibia, von Trotha gave the orders to fill up watering holes and shoot anyone approaching them.
Von Francois had lied to his superiors about the massacres he committed, von Trotha boasted about them openly. His higher ups received reports on what he had done and initially approved of it, it took weeks for the German Reichstag to convince Kaiser Wilhelm II to revoke the extermination order von Trotha had issued. Of the 80,000 Herero people, around 50,000 had died in those weeks and only around 1,500 made it to Botswana. But despite von Trotha’s best efforts, and the gangs of men he sent around Hereroland shooting any African left alive, as many as 30,000 still lived in Namibia. And now they could no longer all be round up and shot.
They would instead be placed in concentration camps and used as slave labour. There they were literally worked to death while given inadequate food supplies. At least 50% of the camp prisoners died.
Hendrik Witbooi, who had seen his infant son killed by the Germans and his daughter handed out to be raped, had held to the terms of peace he had negotiated with Leutwein for ten years. Upon hearing of the Herero extermination and demands from German settlers that the Nama be next however he arose in rebellion anew. The Nama aimed to drive the Germans out of Namibia entirely, though again, like the Herero, they attempted to obey the rules of law and proclaimed that Germans with no weapons would not be killed. Witbooi’s troops repeatedly not only spared women and children but escorted them to German positions. He had no trust, however, that von Trotha would do the same. His own civilians were evacuated back towards the Cape Colony where they had originally fled from.
The Nama fought in the Boer way, small bands of armed commandoes avoiding direct combat and picking off stragglers, and for months the Germans could not bring them to ground. They also recruited the survivors of the Herero, the San and, in one case, a white Australian to boost their numbers. This resistance was effective enough to force the resignation of von Trotha but ultimately German numbers told. Witbooi was killed and a lot of the Nama surrendered. Von Trotha’s replacement, Friedrich von Lindequist, offered good terms for the first surrendering bands in order to convince the remainder to give up their arms too. But he had no interest in keeping those terms, once they had all given up the Nama were also taken to the concentration camps.
The stronger Nama and Herero were used as slave labour to build railways, wherein 70% of them died and rape was rampant. The ones not strong enough to be used as slave labour were taken instead to the camp at Shark Island wherein the death and rape rates were often even higher. It wasn’t until 1907, two years after the end of the war, that these camps were finally closed. By 1908 the Nama numbered only 60% of their pre-war population and the Herero numbered less than 20% of their pre-war numbers. We haven’t talked much about the original inhabitants of Namibia, the San, but it’s almost certain that thousands of them were mistaken for either Herero or Nama and killed as well. The White settlers, 12,000 strong by 1914, became the only land owners of note.
We talk about this largely because it illustrates the stakes which the conflicts during the Scramble were fought over. For the Africans, to lose meant not just to lose land but, sometimes, to be wiped out as people, to be reduced to slaves. The Herero and Nama alive today are still far poorer and less powerful than their ancestors. They rarely own their own land or farms.
This was an appalling crime even by the standards of the Scramble of Africa and the obvious question on an AH site is can it be avoided?
Yes, it can.
As the first article explained, there wasn’t that much enthusiasm for the colony in Berlin. It is entirely possible for the British to claim the area instead, and the UK has a lot more fish to fry, it’s unlikely to care enough about Namibia to commit to the colony the way the Germans did nor would it become such a point of pride to exterminate the people in the way. There was plenty of other, more fertile, areas the British could send settlers.
But is it possible to have a German South-West Africa without the genocide? That’s harder if only because they had a reasonable man as governor and they sacked him because he was against extermination. The desire for genocide was not that of a small elite who could be removed, but rampant throughout the army, the royal family, the settlers and even the civilians back home, who bought postcards decorated with pictures of dead and dying Herero. And moreover it was a desire felt by people who had lived alongside, and been allied to, the Herero for over a decade.
The crime of this was not an aberration, it was an obvious escalation of standard practice. It happened because the Herero and the Nama had land and the Germans wanted it. Focusing on the incidents that led to the war is irrelevant, if it had not been that, it would have been something else. Unless you can change the widespread resentment over the fact that there were African people in the colony who held their own land, it will happen. And given the fact the Herero were a westernised, christianised people who had never fought a war with the Germans and this still wasn't enough, it is difficult to think of a way to change it beyond simply impoverishing them entirely during the Rinderpest epizootic so that that they didn't own any land the Germans wanted.
To an extent genocide is the general end result of settler/native conflict everywhere. It tends to happen whenever settlers exist. Every step that led to this genocide, the bad faith treaties, the biased colonial courts, the massacres, the forced labour, it all happened elsewhere. Is it possible for widespread colonisation of Africa to occur without a genocide like this? Yes, but it is far more likely that it would.
It is tempting to imagine a happier Africa wherein colonialism was less brutal but in that case you’re no longer accurately representing colonialism as it is. After all, the Germans are not even the first nation that come to mind when you think about Colonial brutality in Africa.
That would probably be the topic of the next few articles, the Belgians.