• September 25th, 2020

Shark Island Relived: Chronic pain amid intellectual discourse

On May 12th 1883 the Germans raised their flag on the coast of Namaqualand. The indigenes, the Nama, resisted. The invaders launched a war of extermination and all these culminated in the construction of concentration camps, in which prisoners were exposed to hard labour and starved to death, in conformity with Germany’s scorched earth policy vis-à-vis Namaqualand and Hereroland of the time. 

A good 20 years later, the soldiers and bureaucrats who had administered these concentration camps and the racial theories upon which these annihilation actions were based, would play a critical role in the formation of Nazism and the extermination of the Jews in Europe. 

I spent a day in Lüderitz in the company of some visiting friends who had fresh curiosity to understand the backdrop to Shark Island and we had a few hours listening and observing this chronic pain that lives and, each time voices are raised pertaining to this rape of a nation, tears are obvious. 

On 14th January 1905, Imperial Chancellor Bernhardt von Bulow dispatched a telegram to General Lotha von Trotha, latter commanding the German forces in both Hereroland and Namaqualand of the time, which lands were hard hit by the extermination orders and concomitant Genocide. 

Von Bulow directed von Trotha to set up concentration camps in various places in the territory of then South West Africa, in which the defeated and scattered Nama and Ovaherero were to be locked and required to work. To this effect five concentration camps were created throughout Namaqualand and Hereroland and the largest of these was created in Windhoek, with the capacity of over 7000 prisoners of war. 

Other such concentration camps were created at Okahandja, Karibib, Swakopmund, and Lüderitz, with smaller catchment areas at places like Omaruru, Osire, Keetmanshoop, Gibeon, Bethanie and others. Lotha von Trotha went ahead and created these camps but as extension of his scorched earth policy, because in these concentration camps people were starved to death and died of rampant diseases.

In 1906, three migrant workers from Cape Town were quizzed by the authorities in Cape Town and gave some illuminating testimonies. They described the plight of the prisoners, women in particular, in the Swakopmund concentration camp and this is some of what they said: “These unfortunate women are daily compelled to carry heavy iron for construction work. When women fell under the load, they were thrashed and kicked by the soldiers… it was common to see women going about in public almost naked. The women who are captured and not executed are set to work for the military as prisoners.” 

One testimony read: “A woman so weak from illness she could not stand crawled to some prisoners to beg for water. The guard fired five shots at her; two shots hit her, one on the thigh, the other smashing her forearm. In the night she died.”
The very first prisoners of war to arrive in Lüderitz  were a group of 28 Hereros in mid-1904. These were followed by about 500 Herero prisoners. They were locked in a concentration camp at Shark Island, boxed into a barbed wire fence three layers thick, with no sanitation, no physical protection for women and children and no privacy of any kind. 

In September of 1905, 2000 Nama men, women and children arrived in Lüderitz as prisoners of war. They had surrendered to the German forces in Namaqualand because they were promised to be pardoned and as this did not happen they faced the same fate as the Ovaherero prisoners who had already entered the Shark Island camp of death. 

The German authorities had allocated a physician by the name of Doctor Bofinger, who ran a field hospital. Prisoners refused to go to this hospital because no one had left this hospital alive. After six months of toiling in bondage, 70 percent of the Nama prisoners had perished and more of them would follow. In the same year, German Missionary Emil Laaf who worked in Lüderitz desperately wrote to the German Authorities about the extent of the suffering of the Nama: “The dying among the Nama is frighteningly high. There are often days when as many as 18 people die… if it continues like this, it will not be long before the entire people have completely died out.” 

The people of Namaqualand were destroyed by the invading German forces and their land was confiscated for the German Crown and to this day they remain paupers on their ancestral land. These experiences vindicate the prophetic note of Hendrik Witbooi in response to von Trotha’s offer for a peace treaty on 27th July 1905: “…peace is the same as my death and the death of my people… all I see in your peace is the extermination of all of us and our people”. 

And, in this context, John Updike of Brazil was correct when he said: “The world itself is stolen goods. All property is theft and those who have stolen most of it, make the laws for the rest of us.”

New Era Reporter
2019-04-03 09:34:25 | 1 years ago

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