The Genocide That Began the Twentieth Century
26 August is Herero Day in Namibia, celebrating the day in 1923 that the paramount Herero Chief Samuel Maharero was brought home and buried amongst his ancestors.
The reason that Samuel Maherero had been buried away from his ancestors in the first place went back nearly 19 years to 2 October 1904 when the German General Lothar von Trotha issued the order to exterminate the Herero people:
“I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Hereros. The Hereros are German subjects no longer. They have killed, stolen, cut off ears and other parts of the body of wounded soldiers, and are now too cowardly to want to fight any longer I announce to the people that whoever hands me one of the chiefs shall recieve 1000 marks, and 5000 marks for Samuel Maherero. The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the long tube [canon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.“
Von Trotha’s genocide order was the reason that Maherero died outside of his Namibian homeland, but it was not what started the chain of events that led to the Herero and Nama genocide. That started more than a century-and-a-half earlier when the Bantu speaking Herero appeared on the veld with their cattle in the mid-1600s and enslaved the native San. By 1861, using weaponry brought by the European settlers, the Herero had asserted supremacy against the other tribes in the area, including the Nama.
But it was in the 1880s that Germany took control of what was then called South West Africa, and the settlers from Germany began to arrive in earnest. In 1885, the first treaty between Germany and the Herero people was signed by Ernst Goering (whose last name may be familiar due to his son, Hermann, who was himself embroiled in his own genocide scheme). And by 1903 there were more than 4500 European settlers in the area.
European settlers treated the Africans horribly. They were frequently used as slave labor, and their lands were confiscated and given to the arriving settlers. Matters reached their peak in January 1903 when a German trader named Dietrich was given a ride by the son of a Herero chief and his wife. Dietrich settled down in camp to become quite drunk and assaulted the Herero man’s wife. When she refused to let him rape her, he shot the poor woman.
Dietrich did go to trial, but was found not guilty, as he was obviously suffering from “tropical fever” and “temporary insanity.” The natives in the area became restive – events had gone too far. Were white settlers just allowed to rape and kill locals with impunity?
Seeing the dangerous undercurrents, the German governor, Theodor Leutwein, brought Dietrich in for a second trial even though he was subjected to accusations of being a “race traitor”. At this second trial Dietrich was found guilty of manslaughter, but the anger of the natives was not assuaged.
Later in 1903, the Herero received the news that the German government was planning to put all Africans on reservations and divide their grazing lands with a railroad line.
It was too much.
Led by Samuel Maherero, on 12 January 1904 the Herero warriors attacked and killed 123 people in the village of Okahandja. By 14 January, the Herero had also captured a military station and killed all German soldiers stationed there.
The Herero used the same methods on the Germans that they used on cattle thieves. A thief was held down, while their ears were cut off and the tribesman said, “You will never hear Herero cattle low again.” Next the thief’s nose would be cut off while the tribesman said, “You will never again smell Herero cattle.” Then the lips were cut off while the tribesman said, “You will never again taste Herero cattle.” And finally the thief’s throat was cut.
The Germans were not able to respond with any effect immediately. Instead, an incandescent Kaiser Wilhelm sent General Lothar von Trotha and several thousand more troops to Namibia. They reached the African outpost in August, and with little delay the Battle of Waterberg took place.
With a few thousand soldiers, but an abundance of the newest military equipment, the German soldiers faced nearly 6000 Herero warriors and their family – a total of 30,000 to 50,000 people. The Herero were not prepared for battle, and had come to the area to discuss peace.
General von Trotha had no interest in discussing peace. Instead he surrounded the Herero on three sides, leaving an escape only into the deadly desert. Any who tried to head a different direction was killed.
The Herero sent into the desert were expected to die as well. Hounded by German soldiers, who poisoned water wells, they were pushed beyond their endurance. Tens of thousands died of thirst in the sands. Often German soldiers would find bodies scattered around holes up to forty feet deep; desperate people had dug until they died searching for just one drop of water.
Maharero himself managed to reach British Bechuanaland (now Botswana) with 1000 of his warriors. Others were not nearly so lucky.
The extermination order was soon rescinded, but General von Trotha held onto his ideas of getting rid of the “troublemaking” African tribe. Those who survived the desert but did not make it to Bechuanaland were captured and brought to Shark Island to use as forced labor.
Shark Island was a concentration camp off Luderitz. Ostensibly a work camp, in reality so many died in such horrifying conditions that it was, in practice, a death camp. Rape was rampant. Inmates were given one handful of unprepared rice per day, and no way in which to prepare it. Conditions were brutal – the island was freezing cold, and no cover was provided for inmates. Disease was rampant, and maltreatment with the sjambok, a hippo-hide whip, was constant.
Perhaps one of the most horrifying aspects of Shark Island, an omen of what was to come under the Nazis, were the medical experiments. Even after death the tribesmen were not left alone. The women held on Shark Island were tasked with boiling the heads of those who had died and then scraping all flesh off the bone in order to send the skulls to Germany for further eugenic study.
By 1908 the concentration camps were closed. By this time between 34,000 and 110,000 Africans had been killed or died of thirst. But the Herero were not merely allowed to go back to their ancestral lands.
The German government required that the Herero be distributed to settlers as laborers. Each Herero over the age of 7 was required to wear a metal disc inscribed with their labor registration number. And just in case the Herero might have any hope of getting through, saving, and buying their independence and more cattle – native Africans were banned from owning land or cattle.
The start of World War I brought singular changes to German South West Africa. For one, the British (through the Union of South Africa) took control from the Germans. It was the British who allowed Samuel Maherero to be brought home in 1923.
But the South African government had its own xenophobic views, and the decimated Namibian tribes had to fight against those as well. It was not a coincidence that the Namibian movement for independence chose Herero Day for the beginning of the Namibian War of Independence in 1966. The day was already deeply meaningful and symbolic.
In 1985, the United Nations published the Whitaker Report, which undeniably classified the massacres that took place in the Herero Wars as a genocide. In 2004 the German government apologized for the atrocities committed in German South West Africa, and in 2015 they admitted that what had taken place was the “equivalent of genocide.“
The heads of the Herero tribesmen that had been boiled by their female family members and sent to German universities were repatriated back to Namibian soil.
But nothing has been forgotten. And every year in August the Herero and Nama tribesmen remember.
- August 15, 2020