Namibian Concentration camps
Earlier this year we ran an article dealing with the
Shark Island Concentration camp that existed in Luderitz between 1905 and 1907. The purpose of that article was to revive a forgotten history and to make people aware of the sad fate of the many prisoners who lost their lives.
In 1998 an article described the UNAM History Society's visit to the coast, where they were looking for traces of the Swakopmund concentration camp (1904 - 07). The following year an American scholar, Jeff Gaydish, who was doing research on the Swakopmund camp, wrote a second article on the topic.
The anti-colonial struggles of 1904 - 08 were characterised by what have traditionally been referred to as the Herero and Nama uprisings. In January 1904, war broke out between a united Herero nation and the German colonial administration. The colonial power was caught by surprise and suffered many defeats in the early stages of the war. After about six months, however, the picture was changing. The battle at Hamakari, near the Waterberg, on August 11 1904, marked the beginning of the end for the Herero, who fled in their thousands into the dry Omaheke sandveld, perishing in high numbers. A couple of hundred Witbooi fighters had been conscripted by the German forces to take part in the fighting against the Herero leading up to the battle of Hamakari. A number of these deserted, fleeing back to the south where they told gruelling tales of mass-murder and racism. These stories were one of many factors that led to Hendrik Witbooi's rebellion against his former German allies. With the Witboois up in arms, much of the south soon followed suit, resulting in a further three years of armed conflict in the territory.
With large parts of the Herero nation either dead or in exile and the south in a state of war, the German colonial venture was facing a considerable labour crisis. Newly confiscated lands could not be properly utilised without labour, nor would any other wheel in the colonial machine be able to turn without access to unskilled and inexpensive labour. There were therefore two options for the German administration: either Herero still hiding in the country and those in exile be lured back into German territory and forced to labour, or alternatively a military expedition be launched against the Owambo kingdoms to enable a more systematic labour recruitment there. The former was deemed the more sensible model as the German army, already facing fierce resistance in the south, did not want to fight a war on two fronts.
The first step to encourage the repatriation of Herero was a promise that those who returned would have nothing to fear. The German officer Von Estorff wrote: "I do not lie, I will issue letters to you so that nothing will happen to you". Under this assumption many Herero came out of the bush. Most were directed towards the collection points at Otjihanena and Omburo which, to emphasise the 'peaceful' German intentions, were run by the evangelical mission. Missionaries were the only Europeans that had any credibility left with the Herero.
According to Missionary Dannert of Omaruru, the response of a Herero elder to a proposed return from the bush was: "We know our Omuhonge (teachers), they will not try to trick us". He was wrong. From the collection points and mission stations, starved and demoralised Herero were sent directly to the nearest concentration camp under military escort.
The largest of the concentration camps were found in Swakopmund, Karibib, Windhoek, Okahandja, and Luderitz. In these camps the prisoners would typically be fenced in, either by thorn- bush fences or by barbed wire.
Thousands of people were cramped into small areas: the Windhoek Camp held a little under 5 000 prisoners-of-war in 1906. Rations were minimal, consisting of a daily allowance of a handful of uncooked rice, some salt and water. Disease was uncontrolled as the lack of medical attention, unhygienic living quarters, insufficient clothing and high concentration of people meant that diseases such as typhoid spread rapidly. Beatings and maltreatment were also part and parcel of life in the camps - the sjambok often swung over the backs of prisoners who were forced to work. The mortality figures of these camps are comparable only to losses suffered during the Holocaust. In statistics compiled by the German High Command in 1907, 7 682 prisoners-of-war are calculated to have died. Of an estimated 17 000 prisoners, that's a mortality rate of 45,2 per cent. The frightening part is that these were mere estimates, other official figures were even higher, and some camps were not closed down for another two to three years, leaving further casualties to be added to the morbid list.
The histories of Namibia's concentration camps have long been forgotten, if not silenced. Lately, however, a growing number of researchers are devoting their studies to this relatively uncovered part of Namibia's past. In Germany a former solidarity worker, Joachim Zeller, has published an article dealing with the Swakopmund Camp; and in the United States, Jeff Gaydish of the University of Arizona has completed his MA also on the Swakopmund camp.
Dag Henrichsen from Basel recovered a lost report on the camps and has sent it to the History Department at Unam. It is apparent that there is a real interest in the issue both domestically and abroad. This was emphasised by the Deputy Prime Minister, Reverend Dr Witbooi, who in the NBC program Open File stated: ''We will leave no stone unturned until we find out what actually happened there on that island (Shark Island)''. In fact, there has been an altogether positive response to earlier suggestions that this history not be swept under the carpet. In the article about Swakopmund's concentration camp graveyard in 1998, it was suggested that efforts be made to stop dune buggies and other vehicles from driving over the graves of the Swakopmund prisoners-of-war. In a conversation with a local constructor in Swakopmund, Japie Coetzee, it was disclosed that the Municipality are in the process of putting up a suspended steel-wire fence around the desecrated site. And, with reference to Shark Island, the Deputy Prime Minister vowed that government would do its best not to lose the site.
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