In the 19th century, Namibia, a country in southern Africa, was populated by several ethnic groups: the San, Damara, Ovambo, Nama, and Herero. The Nama and Herero, livestock farmers, were the country’s two main tribes. During the early period of colonization, the Herero people were far more economically and socially powerful than the Germans, keeping German colonization at bay.
In 1884, Germany invaded the Namibian territory and founded the German South-West Africa colony. The colonizers’ interest increased after the discovery of diamonds in 1894. The Germans began to take more and more land from the local African inhabitants. In 1897 the Rinderpest struck South-West Africa, killing up to 90% of the Herero herds. The plague significantly weakened the Herero, both physically, by destroying their source of protein, and economically, by decimating their source of wealth. With the Herero weakened, the Germans became ever more brutal in their colonial policies. Occasionally, a group of Herero or Nama would rise against the Germans, but to little avail. In June 1904, the German General Lothar von Trotha was sent to Namibia to suppress the Herero revolt. He arrived in Namibia with 10,000 soldiers and a war plan.
The order for the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua was given by General Trotha. He said “The nation of the Herero should immediately leave the country because they are no longer considered German citizens. Whoever doesn’t obey and is found within the country, with our without a gun or an animal, will be executed immediately. I am not going to show mercy to anyone. These are my commands and should be followed immediately…”
On August 11, 1904, at the Battle of Waterberg, German soldiers encircled the Herero and were under the order to take no prisoners. A few thousand Herero nonetheless succeeded in fleeing to the Kalahari Desert. German soldiers poisoned the few waterholes and were under the order to fire on any Herero attempting to return to their land. In just a few weeks, thousands of Herero died of hunger and thirst.
The order to kill all Herero was signed on October 2, 1904, by Von Trotha: “The Herero are no longer German subjects. Any Herero sighted within the [Namibian] German borders with or without a weapon, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, but will send them back to their people or let them be slaughtered.”
Between 1904 and 1908, more than 80% of the Herero population and 50% of the Nama population of Namibia were wiped out by German soldiers. In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of South-West Africa rose against the German colonizers in a war of rebellion.
In 1884, the German State declared South-West Africa a German colonial territory. By 1904, the tensions in the colony had risen to a peak. Under the leadership of their paramount chief, Samuel Maherero, the downtrodden Herero rose against their colonizers in a wide-spread rebellion. This rebellion quickly turned into a war. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was determined to defeat the Herero, sent thousands of troops, under the leadership of General Lothar von Trotha, from Germany. In August 1904, von Trotha and his troops cornered the Herero at Waterberg, where they defeated them in battle.
The Herero then fled into the Omaheke Desert, a waterless wasteland, where they were left to die of thirst and starvation. In 1905, the Nama in the south also rose against the German colonizers, starting the Nama-German war. With the use of guerrilla tactics, the Nama were able to engage the Germans in the war for over two years. During the war, all Nama and Herero people that the Germans came across, including women and children, were shipped off to concentration camps as ‘prisoners of war’. The prisoners from these concentration camps were used as slave labor to build railways, docks, and buildings throughout the country.
Many of the buildings in Namibia today were built by the slave labor of prisoners. The conditions in the concentration camps were so bad that it was estimated that half of all the prisoners in the camps died there. The 15,000 Herero and Namaqua (mainly women and children and very few men) who survived, were gathered by the Germans and led to concentration camps. One of these was Shark Island Concentration Camp. The prisoners were forced into hard labor as slaves for German businesses. They were given some rice for their efforts, but nothing more. Many died as a result of the poor diet and severely exhaustive work. Concentration camps were established in Swakopmund, Karibib, Windhoek, Okahandja, Luderitz, and perhaps most infamously, Shark Island.
While one-third of the people died on the journey to the camps alone, Shark Island gained a reputation for its extreme brutality and harsh living conditions. The disease was as rampant, and the Germans attributed the mass death tolls to its spread, covering up the reality of the violence imposed on the Herero and Nama. Methods of starvation, torture, dehydration, rape, and death by exhaustion were all utilized in the camps. These camps facilitated conditions that would see to the destruction of the Herero and Nama people; they were not just used to quell a rebellion. For those that did manage to escape into the desert, there was little hope for survival as German militants had poisoned most water supplies. The sharp decrease in their population, coupled with the rape and murder of many young Herero women later led to reproductive complications, a calculated way to prevent future reproduction. Racial science was also used to justify genocidal practices. Skulls of dead prisoners were sent back to German labs for experimentation, used to supposedly “prove” racist ideology of what they perceived as “African inferiority.”
German commander Trotha gave orders that captured Herero males were to be executed, while women and children were to be driven into the desert where their death from starvation and thirst was to be certain; Trotha argued that there was no need to make exceptions for Herero women and children since these would “infect German troops with their diseases”, the insurrection Trotha explained, “is and remains the beginning of a racial struggle”. Over 100,000 Hereros were killed and over 50,000 Namas were killed.