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Opinion - Shark Island: Desecrating the sanctity of a national shrine 

2021-11-09  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Shark Island: Desecrating the sanctity of a national shrine 
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An article appearing in the Namibian Sun newspaper edition of 4 November 2021, titled “Shark Island: Uproar Over Concentration Campsite”, caused some consternation among members of the general population. 

Either some government officials are insensitive to other people’s feelings or refuse to give importance to something considered as sacred or they are oblivious of history. Operating a campsite facility at Shark Island is a profane act. 

Shark Island was a concentration camp and a criminal mass grave - a burial site still containing many remains of victims of execution by Nazi Germany Schutztruppe between 1904-1908. Accordingly, this is a shrine and we must therefore show honour and reverence for the dead. 

The Shark Island or “Death Island” or “Extermination Camp”, originally Star Island, was one of the five concentration camps located off the town of Luderitz in the //Karas region. It is an area of about 50 hectares (99 acres). It was used by the German Schutztruppe as a prisoner of war camp, it also served as civilian interment camp during the Ovaherero and Nama genocide of 1904-1908. Shark Island is a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. It gets its name from the fact that its outline is vaguely similar to that of a shark. 

Origins of the Ovaherero and Nama revolt date back to the 1890s when tribes settled in the then South West Africa, now Namibia, came under immense pressure of German settlers wanting their land, cattle, and labour. Factors such as land rights, loss of property, and racial inequalities intensified the hostility between Ovaherero/Nama people and the German settlers. On 12 January 1904, the Ovaherero people revolted against German colonial rule under the leadership of Chief Samuel Maharero. Over 100 German settlers were killed near the town of Okahandja. Two months later, the Nama people broke out in a similar uprising against German settlers, under the leadership of Captain Hendrik Witbooi. Both groups continued fighting guerrilla warfare against the German colonial forces. 

The Germans mobilized their troops and over 15 000 German reinforcement under the command of Lothar von Trotha defeated the Ovaherero warriors at the battle of Waterberg in August 1904. Following the German Lothar von Trotha’s policy of exterminating Ovaherero and Nama people within the borders of German South West Africa, his troops denied them access to waterholes, sweeping the bush clear and removing them either voluntarily or by force, to designated concentration camps. 

Death toll

Records of Ovaherero prisoners-of-war being held in Lüderitz Bay as early as 1904, the first references to a camp at Shark Island, and the transfer of large numbers of Ovaherero prisoners from Keetmanshoop are in March 1905. Large numbers of Ovaherero died in the camp, with 59 men, 50 women and 73 children reportedly dying by May 1905. Despite high initial rate of mortality on the island, which with its cold climate, was unsuitable for habitation, the German authorities continued to transfer Ovaherero prisoners from the interior to the island, because they wished to use the prisoners as labourers in constructing a railway connecting Lüderitz with Aus. 

The precise number of deaths at the camp is however unknown. A report by the German Imperial Colonial Office estimated 7 682 Ovaherero and 2 000 Nama dead at all camps in German South West Africa, of which a significant portion died at Shark Island. A military official at the camp estimated 1 032 out of 1 795 prisoners held at the camp in September 1906 having died. It is estimated that eventually, only 245 of these prisoners survived. In December 1906, an average of 8-5 prisoners died per day. 

By March 1907, according to records that do exist, 1 203 Nama prisoners had died on the island. The overall figure of deaths at the camp has been estimated as being 3 000. Combined with deaths amongst prisoners held elsewhere in Lüderitz Bay, the total exceeded 4 000. The vast majority of these prisoners died through execution, typhoid and scurvy exacerbated by malnutrition, over-work and the unsanitary conditions in the camps. 

Whilst the Germans initially followed a policy of sending people from the south to concentration camps elsewhere, meaning the Nama prisoners mostly went to concentration camps around Windhoek, by mid-1906, Germans in Windhoek were becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of so many prisoners in the city. In August 1906, the Germans began to transfer Nama prisoners back to Shark Island, sending them by cattle trucks to Swakopmund and then by sea to Lüderitz Bay and Shark Island. 

Although the Nama leader Samuel Isaak protested this, as it had not been part of the agreement under which they had surrendered, the Germans ignored these protests and by late 1906, 2 000 Nama people were held as prisoners on the island. The policy of forced labour officially ended when prisoners-of-war status for the Ovaherero and Nama was revoked on 1 April 1908, although the Ovaherero and Nama continued to labour on colonial projects after this.

In summary, it is at Shark Island concentration camp where captured women prisoners were forced to boil heads of their dead inmates, some of whom may have been their relatives or acquaintances and scrape remains of their skin and eyes with shards of glass, preparing them for export. An estimated 300 skulls were sent to German universities for examinations. 

It is also there where enslaved prisoners were exploited as human guinea pigs in medical experiments. 

Shark Island holds the remains of those denied identity in death. They are spaces of intimate sorrow for loved ones. And, they are places of public record - proof that heinous events took place there which must never be forgotten. Notably, ours is a human history marred by massacres and executions, in which so often those responsible have not only walked free, but are later even celebrated, with statues erected in their memory. But in contrast, killing sites and mass graves are unacknowledged, unprotected, unpreserved, desecrated or destroyed. Is this not a crime? 

Fred Cornell, an aspiring British diamond prospector, was in Lüderitz when Shark Island concentration camp was being used. Cornell wrote of the camp: “Cold-for the nights are often bitterly cold there - hunger, thirst, exposure, disease and madness claimed scores of victims every day and cartloads of their bodies were every day carted over to the back beach, buried in a few inches of sand at low tide, and the tide came in, the bodies went out, food for the sharks”. Shark Island is, therefore, a shrine of great historical importance and should therefore not be treated with disdain. 

2021-11-09  Staff Reporter

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