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Concentration camps were used by the Germans in South West Africa
Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

By Casper W Erichsen

In a recent M-Net documentary, Scorched Earth, an array of historians described how the deplorable and inhumane conditions in concentration camps accounted for the deaths of 27 297 Boers, as well as an estimated 20 000 black casualties.
The programme marked the centenary of the use of concentration camps in South Africa.

The ripples of the outcry that followed Emily Hobhouse's exposure of these British war atrocities are still felt today, as illustrated by the very emotional tone of the M-Net programme.

These emotions stand in stark contrast to the largely forgotten history of Namibia's equally sinister history of concentration camps.

There were five concentration camps in all in Namibia, then German South West Africa, between 1904 and 1908. They were called Konzentrationslagern in reports and succeeded South African camps by two years.

The anti-colonial struggles of 1904 to 1908 were characterised by two major uprisings: the Herero uprising in northern and central Namibia and the Nama uprising in the south.

In January 1904 war broke out between the Herero nation and the German colonial administration in Namibia. The colonists were caught by surprise and suffered many defeats in the early stages of the sporadic and uncoordinated war.

After about six months the picture changed. The battle at the Waterberg, in the north-east, on August 11 1904, marked the beginning of the end for the Herero, who fled in their thousands into the Omaheke sandveld, perishing in high numbers.

The Herero nation was literally uprooted as an entire people spread across the Kalahari, trying to flee German punitive patrols. Those who did not reach Bechuanaland, now Botswana, either succumbed to the desert or were picked up by German patrols and put in concentration camps.

In 1904 camps had been set up in Windhoek, Okahandja and at the coastal town of Swakopmund. In 1905 two new camps were opened in Karibib and Lüderitz.

In terms of mortality statistics, the Namibian camps were horrific. An official report on the camps in 1908 described the mortality rate as 45,2% of all prisoners held in the five camps.

The prisoners were typically fenced in, either by thorn-bush fences or by barbed wire. As the word concentration implies, thousands of people were crammed into small areas. The Windhoek camp held about 5 000 prisoners of war in 1906.

Rations were minimal, consisting of a daily allowance of a handful of uncooked rice, some salt and water. Rice was an unfamiliar foodstuff to most, and the uncommon diet was the cause of many deaths.

Disease was uncontrolled. An almost total lack of medical attention, unhygienic living quarters, insufficient clothing and a high concentration of people meant that diseases such as typhoid spread rapidly.

Beatings and maltreatment were also part of life in the camps - the sjambok was often swung over the backs of prisoners who were forced to work.

The concentration camp on Shark Island, in the coastal town of Lüderitz, was the worst of the five Namibian camps. Lüderitz lies in southern Namibia, flanked by desert and ocean. In the harbour lies Shark Island, which then was connected to the mainland only by a small causeway.

The island is now, as it was then, barren and characterised by solid rock carved into surreal formations by the hard ocean winds. The camp was placed on the far tip of the relatively small island, where the prisoners would have suffered complete exposure to the gale-force winds that sweep Lüderitz for most of the year.

The first prisoners to arrive were, according to a missionary called Kuhlman, 487 Herero ordered to work on the railway between Lüderitz and Kubub.

The island soon took its toll: in October 1905 Kuhlman reported the appalling conditions and high death rate among the Herero on the island.

Throughout 1906 the island had a steady inflow of prisoners, with 1 790 Nama prisoners arriving on September 9 alone.

In the annual report for Lüderitz in 1906, an unknown clerk remarked that "the Angel of Death" had come to Shark Island. German Commander Von Estorff wrote in a report that approximately 1 700 prisoners had died by April 1907, 1 203 of them Nama. In December 1906, four months after their arrival, 291 Nama died (a rate of more than nine people a day). Missionary reports put the death rate at between 12 and 18 a day.

As much as 80% of the prisoners sent to the Shark Island concentration camp never left the island.

Fred Cornell, a British aspirant diamond prospector, was in Lüderitz when the Shark Island 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 as the tide came in the bodies went out, food for the sharks."

During the war a number of people from the Cape, strapped for money, sought employment as transport riders for German troops in Namibia.

Upon their return to the Cape some of these people recounted their stories, causing debate in the local media. On September 28 1905 an article appeared in the Cape Argus, with the heading: "In German S. W. Africa: Further Startling Allegations: Horrible Cruelty".

In the article, Percival Griffith, "an accountant of profession, who owing to hard times, took up on transport work at Angra Pequena [Lüderitz]", related his experiences.

"There are hundreds of them, mostly women and children and a few old men ... when they fall they are sjamboked by the soldiers in charge of the gang, with full force, until they get up ... On one occasion I saw a woman carrying a child of under a year old slung at her back, and with a heavy sack of grain on her head ... she fell.

"The corporal sjamboked her for certainly more than four minutes and sjamboked the baby as well ... the woman struggled slowly to her feet, and went on with her load. She did not utter a sound the whole time, but the baby cried very hard."

These atrocities did not go unnoticed by the Germans, who wrote reports, articles and letters about the camps. Shark Island came up in a German Parliament debate in 1906, when the Social Democrats demanded to know what was going on there.

It seems, however, that generations since then have tried hard to forget this history.

The South African camps have memorials and written histories, the Namibian camps do not. On the site where Shark Island once lay now lies a caravan park. Even worse, at the entrance of the park is a monument to the German soldiers who died between 1905 and 1908 - a monument to the victor and not the victim.

The centenary of the 1904 war is just around the corner; perhaps Namibians will take the opportunity to reflect, not so much on what is remembered but rather on what is not.

-- The Mail&Guardian, August 23, 2001.

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