I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Pope Francis has called the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 the “first genocide of the 20th century.” While it is good to see someone of such prominence calling out the Turks over an atrocity for which they refuse to take responsibility, the Armenian carnage wasn’t the first ethnic cleansing of the last century.
In the second half of the 19th century, several European nations realized that Africa was a storehouse of treasure other than the slaves in which they had previously traded.
Explorers were sent out into the jungles and plains to find out what resources of value there might be on the continent that were worth plundering. This led to what Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad referred to when describing the exploitation of Congo as, “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”
The Herero and Namaqua peoples in the south-west corner of Africa found that European greed for their resources would cost them their lives.
Congress of Berlin Settles Territorial Claims
The most prominent countries involved in the “Scramble for Africa” were Britain, Portugal, and France.
When claims to territory were made squabbles inevitably erupted, most of which were sorted out at the Congress of Berlin in 1884–85. No African representatives were invited to attend the meeting.
The continent was carved up, mainly among the major players; a few crumbs were tossed the way of Germany, Italy, and others. One of those crumbs given to Germany was South West Africa (today known as Namibia).
South West Africa Inhospitable but Valuable
The south-western corner of Africa is rich in minerals but poor in water.
Along the coast is the Namib Desert and to the east is the Kalahari Desert; in between, is a dry central mountain plateau.
In the late 19th century, German settlers started to arrive and claim the land. Inconveniently, the territory was already occupied by the Namaqua and the Herero tribes who herded cattle on the thin grasses.
Herero Rebel Against German Colonial Rule
As the Africans were pushed farther and farther off their traditional land they became destitute.
Peace Pledge Union, an anti-war group based in the U.K., records that, “In January 1904, the Herero, desperate to regain their livelihoods, rebelled. Under their leader Samuel Maherero they began to attack the numerous German outposts.”
A propaganda machine was cranked up. The picture below depicts the killing of a young German woman settler at the hands of Herero men. In truth, the Herero were not violent towards women and children and, on occasion, protected them. But, the sentiments stirred up by misinformation meant revenge had to be exacted.
Germany sent Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha to deal with the revolt.
He brought with him a well-trained army and a reputation for ferocious bloodletting. The lieutenant-general had previously dealt with tribes in East Africa who objected to having their land stolen from them.
Lothar von Trotha wanted there to be no doubt about what kind of man he was. He told the colony’s governor, “I know the tribes of Africa. They are all alike. They only respond to force. It was and is my policy to use force with terrorism and even brutality. I shall annihilate the revolting tribes with streams of blood.”
Rebellion Put Down with Ruthless Ferocity
Methodically, the general moved his forces towards the Waterberg Plateau, in the north-central region of the country, where the Herero were still grazing their cattle.
Von Trotha had 4,000 seasoned soldiers armed with machine-guns, cannons, and rifles. Samuel Maherero had perhaps 6,000 troops, but they had a motley collection of arms and little experience in battle.
On August 11, 1904 the two sides clashed and the battle is described in vivid detail by Jon Bridgman in his 2004 book The Revolt of the Hereros. Initially, the Africans gave the Germans a hard time in close skirmishes, but the German bombardment of the Herero camps to the rear caused devastation and Samuel Maherero withdrew from the battle.
Bridgman quotes one combatant, Hendrik Campbell, as saying: “When the fight was over we discovered eight or nine Herero women who had been left behind. Some of them were blind. They had food and water. The German soldiers burned them alive in the huts in which they lay.” It was a portent of what was to come.
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Herero People Hunted Down and Killed
The survivors of the battle were driven into the desert where they died of starvation and thirst.
In 1907, Von Trotha issued the command: “I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero . . . the Herero are no longer German subjects . . . they must leave the country. If they do not leave I will force them out with the big gun.
“All Herero, armed or unarmed, will be shot dead. I will no longer accept women or children, they will be forced out or they will also be shot.”
He added that “Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. No prisoners will be taken. This is my decision for the Herero people.”
Guards were posted at waterholes and other sources of water were poisoned. In the parched desert, the Herero died by the score. A few tried to return and they were shot; Von Trotha proved to be a man of his word.
In The Mail Online Sean Thomas writes about the harrowing reports of eye-witnesses to the massacre “Children went mad among the corpses of their parents; the buzzing of the flies was deafening. Paralyzed people were eaten alive by leopards and jackals.”
The Peace Pledge Union says that “those who still lived were rounded up, banned from owning land or cattle, and sent into labour camps to be the slaves of German settlers. Many more Herero died in the camps, of overwork, starvation, and disease.” Roughly 65,000 people perished.
And so it was that an entire people was almost exterminated in what was called by Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg in their 2003 book The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings “the 20th century’s first genocide.”
- In 2007, members of the von Trotha family travelled to Namibia to apologize to the Herero: “We, the von Trotha family, are deeply ashamed of the terrible events that took place 100 years ago. Human rights were grossly abused that time.”
- After 120 years, Germany officially apologized for the Herero massacre. In May 2021, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today's perspective: genocide.” Financial aid of $1.34 billion will be extended to Namibia.
Shark Island: a Precursor for the Holocaust
- “Namibia 1904.” Peace Pledge Union, undated.
- “Battle of Waterberg.” Namibia 1-on-1.com, undated.
- “The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings.” Levi, Neil; Rothberg, Michael (2003). Rutgers University Press.
- “The Revolt of the Hereros.” Jon Bridgman, 2004. University of California Press.
- “Germany Admits Namibia Genocide.” BBC News, August 14, 2004
- The First Holocaust: Horrifying Secrets of Germany’s Earliest Genocide Inside Africa’s ‘Forbidden Zone.’ ” Sean Thomas, Mail Online, February 7, 2009.
- “German Family’s Namibia Apology.” BBC News, October 7, 2007.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Suzie from Carson City on August 28, 2017:
Rupert. What you say is pure fact and I do understand "we" all must face up to the past and it's horrifying realities. My initial reaction is just so visceral, it's beyond my control. I am actually grateful for this.....otherwise, I would not be the compassionate, empathetic human being I am...and I surely would not like me!! LOL..........Yes, so much of the History of mankind is heart-wrenching and wicked.
As you say....there are hardcore lessons to be learned....we can only hope and do our part to do so.. I have had the opportunity to be very cognizant of the past and ongoing plight of our Native Americans, living right square in the middle of several Indian reservations here in WNY. The good news is they are thriving, advanced and successful, living very well, in this neck of the country. :)
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 28, 2017:
We have to bear witness to these things, horrible though they be. We always hope that this time the "wake-up call" will be the last but it never is.
Yesterday, my wife and I went to a play called Ipperwash. It was about how the Canadian government seized land from our Native People for use as a military base in 1942. They left the place contaminated by chemicals and unexploded ordinance. Only recently did the clean-up begin and it will be 20 years before the people can return to their ancestral land.
It is just one more example of how we people of European descent have abused our fellow human beings.
Suzie from Carson City on August 28, 2017:
Rupert....While your work is always very educational and fascinating, I have to say that I'm sorry I read this. It's near impossible for me to handle such egregious human behavior.
As far as I can possibly stretch my imagination, I cannot accept such blatant greed, absence of regard for human life & the sheer madness of mass genocide.
I am both saddened & sickened by this true story of an entire people, robbed, tortured, enslaved & murdered at the whim & will of soul-less, heartless savages....CRIMINALS against humanity. This "History" has burdened my heart.