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The Issue of Forced Labour in the Onjembo: German South West Africa 1904–1908

  • Jan-Bart Gewald (a1)


Visitors to the sea-side resort of Swakopmund on the Namibian coast will have often stood on the northern banks of the Swakop river and marvelled at the sea of sand dunes that commences on the opposite side of the river. Very few of them will ever have realised that they were standing upon, and wandering amongst, the mass graves of Herero and Nama prisoners of war, who between 1904 and 1908 were employed as forced labourers. As I write the mass-graves of Swakopmund are used by recreationers as a testing ground for their four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles, perhaps in the future the true nature of these graves will come to be realised and appreciated.



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1 Omaheke is translated from Otjiherero as dry coarse sands, and is generally used to refer to a specific region of Namibia.

2 For a detailed blow by blow account of the war see Pool, Gerhardus, Die HereiXHipsland 1904–1907 (Cape Town 1979).

3 Rust, Conrad, Krieg und Frieden im Hererolande. Aufieichnungen aus allem Kriegsjahre 1904 (Berlin 1905) 386.

4 The use of pounds as legal currency for monetary transactions in German South West Africa was widespread. Unlike German East Africa no local currency was minted, though the German authorities did prohibit the use of foreign copper coins after 1893. It was only following 1 February 1905, that German Marks became the sole legal currency in Germany's protectorates and thus also in GSWA. Schnee, Heinrich, Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon (Leipzig 1920). With thanks to D. Henrichsen for finding this reference.

5 Literal translation of Otjiherero language document found in Botswana National Archives (BNA) R.C. 11/1, with thanks to Kovihende Kaotozu for the translation. A German copy of the text is to be found in Namibian National Archives (NNAW), ZBU D.I.a Band 3–4, Blatt 165. With thanks to Mr. W. Hillebrecht for finding the text.

6 NNAW, ZBU 454, Telegram Von Trotha in Windhuk, 5/1/5 to Reichskanzler. A short while later Von Trotha was forced to rescind this order as well and henceforth only ‘troublemakers’ were to be chained. NNAW, A. 508, Telegrams 1905, Donor: Dr. U. Sinke, 1988; 7f, Telegram from Von Trotha in Windhuk 16/1/05 regarding Herero POWs (photocopies of originals in the Potsdam archives RKA 2089).

7 NNAW, STR Kniserliehe Schutztruppe für DSWA, STR 1 Gefangene wahrend des Aufstandes, Subfile 1 a5.

8 NNAW, ZBU 454, Kaiserliches Bezirksamt Gibeon, 18/8/04 an das Kaiserliche Gouverne-ment. Author's translation.

9 NNAW, ZBU 454 DIV1.3. Band 1, Telegramm des Reichskanzlers an das Gouvernement, eingegangen am 14 Januar 1905.

10 Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN), V. Chroniken Omaruru 1905 & II 9.1,7 Privatbrief von Missionar J. Bohm aus der Aufstandszeit 1904 ff aus Walfischbay.

11 NNAW, BWI 406, Akten E.V.8 Kriegsgefangene Eingeborene generalia begonnen 1/4/05–31/3/09. Rundverfugung Windhuk, 6 April 1905, der Kaiserliche Gouverneur in Ver-tretung Fecklenburg. Abkommen des Gouvernements mit der Militar-behorde betreffs Uberweisung von Kriegsgefangenen.

12 NNAW, ZBU 454, D IV 1.3. Band 1, Bericht, Etappenkommando I b 7957, Windhuk 29/3/05. Author's translation.

13 ELCIN, VII 31.5 Swakopmund, H. Vedder in Swakopmund 31/12/0 6 to K. Ritter, regarding the escape of Herero prisoners from the Woermann camp.

14 NNAW, ZBU 4547 Telegram Fuchs in Swakopmund 13/2/05 to Von Trotha. Author's translation.

15 Numerous letters written by various civilian companies for POW labour are to be found in NNAW, ZBU 454, Band Mil.

16 NNAW, ZBU 454, Band I-III. For children one look at the various photographs in the Namibian National archives will suffice to show the employment of minors by the German troops. See particularly the photographs in Ace. 109 which carry the following appellation Eingebomen Kinder helfen Kraal bnuen.

17 Ibid. & ELCIN II 9.1,7 Privatbrief von Missionar J. Bohm aus der Aufstandszeit 1904 ff aus Walfischbay.

18 NNAW, ZBU 454, Leutwein in Windhoek 12/2/05 to Bauamt.

19 With the outbreak of the war all Herero living in Swakopmund, and those captured along the railway line towards Karibib, where placed onto the ship SS Eduard Bohlen, which at that stage was anchored off the coast at Swakopmund. Not really knowing what to do with the prisoners the authorities decided to offer the male prisoners to South African labour contractor A. Hewitt as labour for the mines. Hewitt gladly accepted these prisoners, but argued that, as the prisoners were already embarked and at sea, he need not have to pay customs duty nor 20 mark per labourer as demanded by the German authorities. Hewitt did not have to pay and on 20 January 1904 the SS Eduard Bohlen, with 282 prisoners on board, set sail for Cape Town and the mines of the Rand. NNAW, BSW 7, folio 110, Letter from the Kaiserliches Bezirksamt Swakopmund to the Kaiserliche Gouvernement Windhuk dated 12/2/04.

20 ELCIN, V. 31 Chroniken Swakopmund. The author of the text, Dr. Heinrich Vedder, would later become an acclaimed national socialist, anthropologist and historian of Namibian affairs. Following WWII Vedder was appointed to the South African senate as representative of the black population of Namibia. His election led in part to the majority of Herero leaving the Rhenish Mission church and establishing their own independent church.

21 NNAW, ZBU 454, Dr. Fuchs in Swakopmund 29/5/05 to Kaiserliche Gouvernement. Author's translation.

22 ELCIN, VII31 Swakopmund 1, Eich in Okahandja 14/6/05 to Vedder, acting o n German military reports mentions the death of 59 men, 59 women and 73 children in the Luderitz camp. Conditions in Luderitz were so bad that during the course of 1906 Major von Estroff who was in charge of the military authorities in Luderitz disobeyed the order of his commanding officers and had the camp moved to a healthier setting.

23 NNAW, ZBU 454, Etappenkommando in Windhuk 30/3/05 to Kaiserliche Gouverne-menL Author's translation.

24 See for instance NNAW, ZBU 454 D IVI 3 Band 2 Kriegsgefangene, Bestandsnachweisung uber Eingeborene Kriegsgefangene, Windhoek, 18/8/1906.

25 NNAW, Bezirksamt Swakopmund 107 (SD63–182) Totenregister fur Eingeborene. Another aspect that needs to be mentioned here is the conducting of medical experiments on POWs. Hinck, Carla Krieger, in her thesis Über die Medizinische Versorgung der ehemalzgen Kolonie DeuLsch Südwest Afrika (München 1973) , basing herself on the Sanilätsbericht iber die kaiserliche Schutztruppejwr SWA wahrend des Hereto und Hottentottenaufstandes für die Zeit vom 1/1/04–31/3/07, Band I (Berlin 1909) 105106 , refers to these activities and to the post-mortems conducted on POWs who had died in the camps. Being more interested in the medical aspects of death Krieger Hinck mentions that in 1906 the 778 post mortems conducted provide a good record of die causes of their death. In later years these activities were followed up by the collection of skulls, which Herero women prisoners of war were forced to scrape clean with the aid of glass shards. NNAW, ZBU 2027. SAWW.II.d.8 Eingeborenangelegenheiten Herero Alte Akte Generalia. Der Staatssekretar des Reichs-Kolonialamts, Berlin 31/7/08, an den Herrn Gouverneur in Windhuk. Specifically deals with Prof. Klaatsch's (University of Breslau) request for Herero skulls. And Mane Kriegs-Erlebnisse in Deutsch-Sudwest-Ajrika, von einem Offizier der Schutztruppe (Minden i.W. 1907) 114, which carries a photograph with die following text: ‘A chest of Herero skulls was recently sent by troops from German South West Africa to the pathological institute n i Berlin, where they will be subjected to scientific measurements. The Skulls, from which Herero women have removed the flesh with the aid of glass shards…’ With thanks to Ms. G. Kruger for this reference.

26 NNAW, BLU 220, SPS 49 Strafprozesssache gegen die Hererofrau Anna. NNAW, BLU 221, SPS 85 Strafprozessache gegen die Herero Kriegsgefangene Justine; SPS 81 Strafpro-zessache gegen die Hererofrau Johanna & SPS 80 Against a number of runaways. NNAW, BLU 28 (Old notation ZD 96–523) Eingeborenenangelegenheiten E.l.K Eingeborenen Unruhen.

27 NNAW, BSW 107 (Old notation SD 68–204), Endaufen von Eingeborenen nach Walfisch-bay, UA 10/2.

28 ELCIN, V Chroniken 31 Swakopmund RMG, H. Vedder. All sections of the now destroyed Herero society were to be found amongst those who fled German South West Africa via Walvisbay. One of the many to flee the country was the former Omuhona of Omaruru, Michael Tjisiseta, who led more than 130 fellow prisoners in a break out from the Swakopmund camp.

29 NNAW, BWI 406, Akten E.V.8 Kriegsgefangene Eingeborene generalia begonnen 1/4/05–31/3/09. Windhoek 3 April 1908 Durch Verfugung des Kaiserlichen Gouvernements vom 26 Marz 1908 ist die Kriegsgefangenschaft der Hereros mit dem 1 April 1908 Aufge-hoben.

30 For an overview of labour legislation see Emmett, Tony, ‘Popular Resistance in Namibia, 1920–1925’, in Lodge, Tom ed., Resistance and Ideology in Settler Societies. Southern African Studies IV (Johannesburg 1986) 10 . NNAW, Ace 508. The carrying of metal disks had initially been recommended by Von Trotha three years earlier.

31 NNAW, ADM 43, Major O'Reilly in Omaruru 20/11/16 to Secretary for the Protectorate. In die case of Omaruru the registers were retained through into the period after South Africa's occupation of Namibia in 1915.

32 Lau, B., ‘Uncertain certainties. The Herero-German war of 1904’, Mibagus (Windhoek 1990) 5 .

* This paper was prepared for the ‘Forced Labour in Comparative Context’ session of the International Economic History Congress, Milan, September, 1994. With sincere thanks to the staffs of the archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia; Namibian National Archives Windhoek; Bundes-Archiv Potsdam; Botswana National Archives in Gaborone and the Cape Archives Depot in Cape Town, and to the Office of the President of the Republic of Botswana for permission to conduct research in Botswana. For financial assistance thanks to the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Netherlands foundation for tropical research (WOTRO).

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The Issue of Forced Labour in the Onjembo: German South West Africa 1904–1908

  • Jan-Bart Gewald (a1)


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