Namibia: German annexation and African resistance (1884-1915)

Updated August 2009.

A German adventurer named Adolf Lüderitz negotiated agreements with traditional leaders in 1883 by which he gained control of mining, land and trading rights over the coast from the Orange to the Cunene rivers in exchange for weapons and gold; he persuaded the German government to declare the territory a protectorate in August 1884 and it became a crown colony in 1890 (Longmire 1990, 200; Saunders 2008, 826; UNESCO 1974, 134). Agreements between Germany and Britain in 1884 and 1890 obtained British recognition of the annexation and established their mutual borders in the south and in the east, while a treaty with the Portuguese in 1886 established its border with Angola, but only in 1911 was the boundary with Walvis Bay determined by arbitration (Innes 1981, 61; Gustafsson 2005, 51; Evans 1990, 563). Effective occupation of the territory was another matter, for the German government attempted to minimise expenses by shifting the responsibility for exploration and administration of the territory to businessmen, to which end the Deutsche Kolonial Geselschaft für Südwest Afrika was created (Longmire 1990, 201, 202).

Initial activities focused on extracting mining and trade concessions and on obtaining land in the plateau for settlement by White ranchers from traditional leader in exchange for German "protection" (Longmire 1990, 200). The centre of German expansion in the central highlands was the military post founded at Windhoek in 1890 that, because of its strategic location and adequate water supply, developed into the capital of the territory (Weigend 1985, 165, 166). To free themselves of dependence on British controlled Walvis bay the Germans developed Swakopmund as a port and they facilitated the colonisation of the interior by building a railway line to Windhoek that was completed in 1902; Lüderitz, where German penetration of the territory had first begun, was too far south to be of use in the colonisation of the highlands and was left to stagnate (Weigend 1985, 166, 167).

The progressive alienation of land by the German colonial authorities for distribution to German settlers was increasing resented by the indigenous people and led to a series of rebellions (Longmire 1990, 203). In the early 1890s a rebellion of some Nama groups was suppressed with difficulty (Kiljunen, K 1981, 145). In March 1896 a joint rising of groups of Hereros and of Bondelswart Namas was followed by a series of smaller rebellions, all of which were brutally suppressed (Blackshire-Belay 1992, 240, 241; Kiljunen, K 1981, 145). The situation of the colonised became more desperate with the outbreak of the rinderpest plague that wiped out 95% of the Herero's cattle in 1897, with similar devastating effects on other peoples of the territory (UNESCO 1974, 134, 135). A third Bondelswart rebellion in 1903 escalated into a territory wide conflict when in early 1904 a universal Herero revolt followed and by the end of the year they were joined by the Namas as a whole (Blackshire-Belay 1992, 241; Kiljunen, K 1981, 145). Poorly armed Herero led forces managed to force the Germans from Windhoek (Kiljunen, K 1981, 145).

Once reinforced, in late 1905 the Germans began their campaign of genocide against the rebels in general and the Hereros in particular, so that by the end of the war in 1908 hardly 20% of the Hereros survived and perhaps only half of the Nama and the Damara (Kiljunen, K 1981, 145, 147; Kiljunen, ML 1981, 90). As early as 1907 a forced labour policy was introduced that bound Africans in the central highlands to their White employers on the farms and in the towns, for the rapid development of the economy combined with the mass exterminations create acute shortages of labour in the territory (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 378). The rebels were dispossessed of their land and the Herero and Nama were forbidden to own cattle, all measures aimed at forcing the survivors into providing wage labour to settlers to provide to survive (UNESCO 1974, 135). Traditional social structures had been destroyed, expressions of indigenous culture were outlawed and mass conversions to Christianity amongst the Herero followed (UNESCO 1974, 135; Gewald 2002, 107).

By the mid-1880s the trade in big game products, especially ivory, that had financed the purchase of western commodities by the Ovambo ruling elites had been destroyed by large scale hunting and the Ovambo kings turned their guns from hunting to intensified raiding of their neighbours to obtain captives to sell as slaves to the Portuguese and Ovimbundu in Angola and cattle to sell to the Portuguese (Gustafsson 2005, 44, 49; Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372-374). A new market fot cattle developed in eastern Botswana in the wake of the opening up of the pioneer road and the booming demand for food for travellers it created (Gustafsson 2005, 44, 49; Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372-374). The latter route was especially valuable for both the Portuguese and Germans had cut off sales of guns into the interior and an alternative source was needed (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 373, 374). Nevertheless, the sale of cattle and slaves did not make up the shortfalls created by the collapse of the ivory trade and the kings resorted to ever heavier taxation to fuel consumption; this, the outbreak of the rinderpest in 1897 that destroyed more than 90% of the cattle stock and a series of droughts reduced the general population to penury (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 374, 376, 377; Gustafsson 2005, 48, 54). Ovambos were thus increasingly forced to resort to contract labour to survive (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 374, 376, 377; Gustafsson 2005, 48, 54).

Plans to extend German administration into Ovamboland after the war were blocked by the Reichstag, which was appalled by the conduct of the war and feared that the massive costs would not be justified by the gains from a territory bereft of minerals or land for settlement (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 378). Instead a series of treaties were signed with the Ovambo kings in 1908, with the assistance of the missionaries, aimed at securing contract labour for the south from the north (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 378). The "police line" demarked by the German colonial authorities thus reflected the difference between the territory that they claimed and what they were effectively able to occupy, for the areas of Ovamboland, the Kavango and the Caprivi Strip never fell under the sway of their administration and remained peripheral to their interests (Kiljunen, K 1981, 146; Gustafsson 2005, 51). The majority of the population of German South West Africa was concentrated in this densely populated and relatively well watered agricultural area with its highly developed political institutions and trade networks and proved to be a valuable source of migrant labour for the colonial economy south of the police line (Kiljunen, K 1981, 146).

The drawing in of Ovamboland as a source of labour into the economy proved to be critical, for colonial exploitation the territory was greatly expanded in the wake of the suppression of the uprising of 1904, even as its genocidal suppression created massive labour shortages (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 378; Innes 1981, 61, 62). German soldiers demobilised after the war were encouraged to remain and settle in the territory, vast tracts of land were alienated in 1906/7 to allocate to them cheaply for farming and research farms were established to assist them in developing karakul, cattle, ostrich and horse husbandry (Weigend 1985, 161, 162; Longmire 1990, 205). Copper mining commenced at Otavi in 1906, the diamond fields at Lüderitz were opened up in 1908 and the Tsumeb area provided a treasure trove of minerals, while rail, road, seaport and communications infrastructure were initiated or greatly expanded (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 378; Weigend 1985, 162). By 1913 the population of German South West Africa was 94 386, 84.3% of whom were Africans and the remaining 15.7% were White settlers (Blackshire-Belay 1992, 239).

German policy towards Africans was harsh and directed at ruthless exploitation. Strict racial segregation was enforced in all areas of social, religious and economic life, including the prohibition of marriages between Whites and Africans (UNESCO 1974, 135; Weigend 1985, 163). African were confined to reserves from where they were recruited as labour for the colonial economy by a system of short term contracts through local traditional authorities to ensure that African mobility could be tightly controlled and a permanent African urban presence be avoided (Melber 2005, 138; tvedten 2004, 400). This was bolstered by pass laws, prohibitions on property ownership and segregated residential areas in the towns (Tvedten 2004, 400; Weigend 1985, 163).

The Rehoboth Basters had entered into a treaty of "friendship and protection" with the Germans in 1885 and had assisted them in suppressing resistance to colonial penetration by other Africans (Kjæret & Stokke 2003, 584; Minahan 2002, 292). However, once the Germans had consolidated their power south of the police line they set about reducing the Basters to the same subjugation as other Africans, arbitrarily redrawing boundaries and alienating land from them for allocation to settlers (Kjæret & Stokke 2003, 584, 585; Minahan 2002, 292). The Basters found that their protestations were disregarded and that they were powerless to resist, but when South African troops invaded the colony in 1915 during the First World War they joined with them and rose up in revolt, having been promised that their lost territory would be returned to them by their new ally; their spirited resistance greatly facilitated South Africa's swift conquest of the territory (Kjæret & Stokke 2003, 585; Minahan 2002, 292).


BLACKSHIRE-BELAY, CA 1992 "German Imperialism in Africa: The Distorted Images of Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, and Togo", Journal of Black Studies, 23(2), December, 235-246, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

CLARENCE-SMITH, WG & MOORSOM, R 1975 "Underdevelopment and Class Formation in Ovamboland, 1845-1915", Journal of African History, 16(3), 365-381, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

EVANS, G 1990 "Walvis Bay: South Africa, Namibia and the Question of Sovereignty", International Affairs, 66(3), July, 559-568, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

GEWALD, JB 1998 Herero heroes, Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press.

GUSTAFSSON, K 2005 "The Trade in Slaves in Ovamboland, ca.1850-1910", African Economic History, 33, 31-68, [www] [opens new window (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

INNES, D 1981 "South African capital and Namibia" IN Kiljunen, ML & Kiljunen, K (eds) Namibia: the Last Colony, Essex, Longman, 59-86.

KILJUNEN, K 1981 "National resistance and the liberation struggle" IN Green, R, Kiljunen, ML & Kiljunen, K (eds) Namibia: the Last Colony, Essex, Longman, 145-171.

KILJUNEN, ML 1981 "The land and its people" IN Green, R, Kiljunen, ML & Kiljunen, K (eds) Namibia: the Last Colony, Essex, Longman, 23-29.

KJÆRET, K & STOKKE, K 2003 "Rehoboth Baster, Namibian or Namibian Baster? An analysis of national discourses in Rehoboth, Namibia", Nations and Nationalism 9(4), 579-600, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

LONGMIRE, P 1990 "Land and Labour in the Namibian Economy" IN Konczacki, ZA, Parpart, JL, Shaw, TM (eds) Studies in the Economic History of Southern Africa, Vol 1; the Front Line states, Frank Cass Publishers.

MELBER, H 2005 "Land & Politics in Namibia", Review of African Political Economy, 32(103), March, 135-142, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

MINAHAN, J 2002 Encyclopaedia of the stateless nations : ethnic and national groups around the world, Vol 4, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press.

SAUNDERS, C 2008 "Namibia: Recent History" IN Frame, I (ed) Africa South of the Sahara 2008, London, Routeledge, 826-832.

TVEDTEN, I 2004 "A Town Is Just a Town: Poverty and Social Relations of Migration in Namibia", Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, 38(2), 393-423, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 11 Mar 2010).

UNESCO 1974 Racism and apartheid in southern Africa: South Africa and Namibia, Paris, Unesco Press.

WEIGEND, GG 1985 "German Settlement Patterns in Namibia", Geographical Review, 75(2), April, 156-169, [www] [opens new window (accessed 11 Mar 2010).