Today Namibia is one of the more arid and barren, albeit visually stunning, countries in southern Africa. Low annual rainfall inhibits the wide raising of crops but enables pastoralism, and so, around 2,000 years ago, it attracted groups of hunter-gatherers known as the San and the Khoikhoi. Coming upon their heels, around 1,500 C.E., were Khoisan Nama herders of goats and cattle, who were followed by Bantu-speaking, semi-nomadic Himba, who in turn were followed, respectively, by groups of Herero herders and Ovambo agriculturists.
By the early fifteenth century, when the Hereros and Ovambos were established in the region, ships of European explorers began making their initial contacts with coastal Namibia. The first Dutch to encounter the San and Khoikhoi peoples referred to them as “Hottentots,” or stutterers, because their Khoisan language employs clicks to denote consonants, a feature of speech unsympathetic to European ears. Thus, the disparaging term “Hottentot” became a standard identifier of the inhabitants of southwest Africa on maps from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.
Namibia, in spite of its sparse landscape and its population of “stutterers,” also attracted the attention of Germany, unified in the late nineteenth century under its legendary statesman, Otto von Bismarck. Arriving late at the colonial endeavor, Germany declared Deutsch-Südwestafrika, or German South West Africa, one of its newest protectorates in April 1884.
As Germany’s latest real estate development, the colony of South West Africa received a fair amount of promotion. Settlers were needed to stake claims, establish farms, excavate mines, and build towns, roads, and railroads. Aspiring colonialists, the Germans set to work making maps to redraw the land in images more comprehensible to imperial ideas of space. They presented their colony as a land of opportunity to investors, as demonstrated on several maps published about twenty years after the colony’s creation.
The map above promotes the colony’s transportation and agricultural potential. On the transportation side, it shows completed and projected railroads, heliograph lines and stations, highways, postal routes, steamship routes, lighthouses, and piers. Also included to assist settlers were post offices, mission stations, local agencies, and aid stations.
The colony’s farming potential, however, served as its chief enticement. Major areas, color coded to denote products, appeal to farmers and ranchers by identifying sites suitable for growing crops and breeding animals, especially cattle.
Another map discloses the colony’s real source of wealth: its mines of gold, copper, marble, iron, manganese, topaz, cobalt, and guano. In just over twenty years after their confiscation, the lands of the original inhabitants had been divided into two imperial estates and twelve corporate concessions for mining. Profits from mineral mining, however, ultimately proved marginal for Germany.
During Namibia’s colonial era, which lasted only thirty years, its European population never exceeded 15,000, about one-fifth of whom were administrators and troops. What appears on the maps as a commercial paradise for Germans, however, had become hell, if mostly for the land’s original inhabitants.
Resistance to German rule commenced almost upon arrival, but circumstances much worsened by 1896, when imported European cattle, a source of rinderpest (a viral disease contagious to livestock), began infecting Herero herds. Cattle essentially being their source of sustenance and wealth, the Herero succumbed to social and economic devastation. The infestation likewise impacted the herds of neighboring Nama and Ovambo.
Continued confiscation of Herero and Nama lands and surviving cattle only exacerbated an inflamed situation. Fearing a division of their dwindling lands by a new railway line between the coast and the interior mines, as well as plans to place them in native reserves, the distressed Herero rose in revolt in early 1904. Unable to achieve a negotiated surrender with the Herero, the colonial governor requested troops from Germany, whose commanding officer, General Lothar von Trotha, entertained no thoughts of an agreement. As seen in the map above, most of the white settlements and mines were placed under military protection.
Having failed to defeat the Herero in the Waterberg wilderness in August 1904, von Trotha issued a Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order) in October. The surviving Herero were mercilessly gunned down and bayoneted, with a few fleeing into an area of the western Kalahari Desert known as the Omaheke, effectively cut off from escape and their watering holes. Most died from lack of food and water; the remainder were hunted down and shot. In the wake of the Herero uprising, the Nama and Ovambo also rebelled, but they, too, were suppressed by German tactics.
The resulting shortage of local laborers for commercial and colonial projects prompted German authorities to establish a system of forced labor in Konzentrationslagern (concentration camps), which operated in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. A few surviving Herero were allowed to surrender, but under the provision that they transfer all cattle ownership rights to German colonial farmers.
By 1908 up to 100,000 Herero had been killed (about 80 percent of their population at that time), while about 10,000 Nama, about half of their contemporary population, also perished, either by fighting, starving, or being worked to death in the concentration camps. This conflict between German colonials and native peoples is often labeled the first genocide of the twentieth century.
Germany failed in its combined roles as publicist, real estate developer, and ruler of Deutsch-Südwestafrika. After the Great War the country became a mandate of South Africa, and struggled violently at times until finally achieving independence in 1990.
Today Namibia owes its slight prosperity to diamond and uranium mining, of which the Germans, presumably to the relief of the locals, were never able to avail themselves. Descendants of the survivors continue to seek reparations in court; but, as of 2018, the only remittance received in full has been the repatriation of the skulls of their ancestors taken to Germany for “scientific” affirmation of white superiority.