“A Character Who Makes History”: Hendrik Witbooi and the Evolution of German Imperial Policy in Colonial Namibia
Depictions of colonized African peoples from Southwest Africa (DSWA, present-day Namibia), Germany’s first overseas colony, were prevalent throughout the German metropole at the turn of the twentieth century. Tobacconists catered to the erotic fantasies of colonial enthusiasts with images of Herero girls in their advertisements. Coffee companies used portraits of black African women to affirm the quality of their beans. Youth magazines allowed children to escape into “exotic” domains where their imaginations could wander unhindered by “civilized” social expectations. Anthropologists shifted the paradigms of scientific analysis by studying “natural peoples” as faceless objects. Novelists published romanticized accounts of faraway conflicts, a practice that over time made the realities of colonial bloodshed palpable for a continental audience.
Though characterizations like these typified the contemporary discourse on Africa and epitomized Europe’s dominance over the continent, they belie the significant degree to which Africans in turn influenced German conceptions of identity and the evolution of the imperial project in southern Africa. Hendrik Witbooi and the Witbooi Namaqua he led shaped German imperial policy more than any other factor in Germany’s formative colonial period. In the span of ten years (1884-1894), what started as a minor commercial enterprise in DSWA grew into an important extension of the German state.
A focus on the Witbooi Namaqua—the largest ethnic group of the Khoikhoi community indigenous to the Cape Colony (present-day South Africa) and the Bechuanaland Protectorate (present-day Botswana)—reorients our understanding of the relationship between Germany and its empire in southern Africa. In particular, they illustrate the prominent role of Africans in German colonial history and also reveal how peoples in distant places like Windhoek, Otjimbingwe, and Hoornkrans manipulated German efforts to control and exploit the colony.
After the colonial administration raised the imperial flag in DSWA, Witbooi tested the limits of German power using a variety of methods. He attacked rival communities aligned with the colonial government, rendered trade routes that ran through his territory impassable, forbade white settlers from prospecting on his land, and refused to sell cattle, supplies, and property to imperial forces. He also wrote letters to colonial officers, missionaries, and foreign diplomates where he mused on religious matters, his relationship with rival African societies, and the inherent violence of European imperial occupation.
In a letter dated 27 September 1886 to Heinrich Ernst Göring, colonial governor of DSWA and father to the future Nazi leader, Herman Göring, for example, Witbooi upended the political power dynamic in the colony. “I understand that you want to negotiate piece, you who call yourself a ‘deputy.’ How shall I respond? You are someone else’s representative and I am a free and autonomous man who answers only to God. I have nothing further to say to you.” On another occasion in April 1893, Witbooi admonished Germany’s violent attacks on Namaqua peoples in a letter to John J. Cleverly, the British magistrate in Walvis Bay. “Kaiser Wilhelm II [sent] his soldiers to Africa to kill innocent women and children. … I did not think that so great a power in men and ammunition and [so] mighty a captain of a civilized power would make war with such a smart, disesteemed people as mine.”
In these letters, as well as in his conduct diplomatically and on the battle field, Witbooi compelled German leaders to recognize the preeminent station of African peoples in the colony. In these ways, he not only exposed the inaccuracies of European pre-colonial beliefs, but also pressed German administers to expand their imperial occupation. Though colonialism was a controversial issue in Germany, the increased attention given to DSWA in newspapers and political speeches elevated the Witbooi Namaqua’s acts of resistance into a national story. After Witbooi unmasked the realities of colonial life to settlers and citizens in the metropole, German officials grew more determined to neutralize non-compliant African populations and increasingly relied on the colonial protection force (Schutztruppe) to impose their policies. As calls to suppress them grew louder in the colonial and national press, the German government moved to expand its role in southern Africa, culminating in its declaration of DSWA as a settler-colony in March 1893.
Witbooi played a significant role in this political transformation: his refusal to accept German authority forced colonial officers to confront their administrative limitations in the colony. Most significant, however, Witbooi shattered the illusion of German cultural superiority. When the façade of imperial fantasy gave way to colonial reality, German policy makers increasingly sought to fortify their presence in DSWA using juridical and physical acts of violence. In spite of its controversial reception in the metropole, armed aggression emerged as the principal instrument that colonial authorities used to defend their Africa empire in the immediate years before the start of the First World War.
The full article, “From Boondoggle to Settlement Colony: Hendrik Witbooi and the Evolution of Germany’s Imperial Project in Southwest Africa, 1884–1894” in the Journal, Central European History is available to download for free until May 1, 2018.