Shark Island, in Shark Bay (obviously)
in what was at one time German South-West Africa is famous as a
centre for scuba-diving but it has another, less savoury past - it
was the site of the first “death camp” in modern history. It's a
common occurrence to find human bones with manacles attached washed
up on the beaches.
I only recently found out about this
through the traditional method - buying a bunch of books at a charity
shop – one of these books was “Let Us Die Fighting: the
Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism,
,” by Horst Drechsler. Reading that sent me on a
search for more information.
Briefly, In late 1903, some Namaqua
tribes rose in revolt against German colonial rule (which seems to
have been even more brutal than most). In January 1904, the Herero
people (originally a tribe of cattle herders living in Namibia.) also
rebelled . The average German settler seemed to view the natives as a
source of cheap labour - just as most other white settlers in Africa
did. Among the reasons for this rebellion were the seizure of the
cattle on which the native economy was based, land rights and a new
policy on debt collection.
In 1894, Theodor Leutwein became
governor of the territory. His policies with the native Africans,
which he called the "Leutwein System", was a mixture of
diplomacy and military coercion. His relationship with the indigenous
tribes was tenuous at best. Conversely, he was often criticised by
German colonists as being too lenient with the Africans.
The new debt collection system he
introduced in late 1903, is described in the extract from Wiki:-
|For many years, the Herero population had been in the habit of
borrowing money from white traders at great interest. For a long
time, much of this debt went uncollected, as most Hereros lived
modestly and had no means to pay. To correct this growing problem,
Governor Leutwein decreed with good intentions that all debts not
paid within the next year would be voided.
In the absence of hard cash, traders would often seize cattle, or
whatever objects of value they could get their hands on, in order to
recoup their loans. This fostered a feeling of resentment towards the
Germans on the part of the Herero people, which escalated to
hopelessness when they saw that German officials were complicit in
The Herero fought a guerilla war, which
the German troops in the area could not cope with. Leutwein was
forced to ask Berlin for reinforcements and Lieutenant-General Lothar
von Trotha was appointed Commander in Chief of German South-West
Africa on May 3, arriving with a force of 14,000 troops on June 11.
This von Trotha was, by his own account, a genocidal racist. He said
"My intimate knowledge of many central African tribes (Bantu and
others) has everywhere convinced me of the necessity that the Negro
does not respect treaties but only brute force"
He also said "I believe that the
nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by
tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country...This will
be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are
occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find
the small groups of nation who have moved backwards and destroy them
In October 1904, before the Battle of
Waterberg, von Trotha issued a Vernichtungsbefehl
(extermination order) which included the following "Within the
German borders, every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or
without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or
children. I shall drive them back to their people — otherwise I
shall order shots to be fired at them."
His orders for this battle specified
that his troops were to surround the Herero on three sides, leaving
them an escape route into the Omahekke (part of the Kalahari desert).
He also poisoned the water-holes.
He didn't stop there though, he
instituted a series of measures which were later industrialised by
Nazi Germany. These measures? Simply this – Death Camps.
There were five of these in what is now
Namibia, the biggest of which was probably Shark Island. Wiki again:-
Survivors, mostly women and children, were eventually put in
camps, such as that at Shark
Island. The German authorities gave each Herero a number and
meticulously recorded every death, whether in the camps or from
even including the name of each dead person in their reports. German
enterprises were able to rent Hereros in order to use their manpower,
and workers' deaths were permitted and even reported to the German
authorities. Forced labour, disease, and malnutrition
killed an estimated 50–80% of the entire Herero population by 1908,
when the camps were closed.
An official report on the camps in 1908
described the mortality rate as 45.2% of all prisoners held in the
five camps. The prisoners were fenced in, either by thorn-bush fences
or by barbed wire, and people were typically crammed into small
areas. The Windhoek camp held about 5000 prisoners of war in 1906.
Food rations were minimal, consisting of a daily allowance of a
handful of uncooked rice, some salt and water. Rice was an unfamiliar
foodstuff to the Herero and Namaqua people, and the uncommon diet may
have contributed to the high death rate.
An unintended result of these camps may
have been the racial purity nonsense perpetrated by the Nazis, as a
certain Eugen Fischer, a noted geneticist (at this time genetics
pretty much equalled eugenics) visited these camps to carry out
medical experiments based on racial grounds. He wrote a couple of
books which had great influence on Nazi racial theories. These were
“Foundations of Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene
“ and “The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation
among Humans “.
From 1927 to 1933, he (Fischer) was
head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity,
and Eugenics, where one of his students was a Dr. Joseph Mengele.
All statements attributed to von Trotha
come from “Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the
Herero of Namibia 1890 – 1923,” by J.B. Gewald (thank god for
This link gives another perspective: