Thursday, July 21, 2011

Famous Namibians : Hendrik Witbooi (Part 1)

Captain Hendrik Witbooi
The Life and Times of Hendrik Witbooi  (Part 1)             

The Origins of the Witboois

The Witbooi story begins in what is known today as “Cape Town”. At this stage they were known as the "Khoi Khoi" – which translated means ‘men of men‘, or ‘real people‘. Before the Dutch settlers landed at the Cape under Jan van Riebeek in 1652, they lived in little villages throughout the area now known as Cape Town.

Under the pressure of the colonial settlers and a later outbreak of smallpox in 1713 in which entire communities were wiped out, this caused a remnant to seek refuge amongst the Nama and other groups that were forming in the Northern Cape territory. They also merged with Free-Black trekkers, run away slaves and Baster-Khoi, descendents of Dutch and Khoi who later became known as the Griquas.

One of these groups which left the Cape came to be known as the Khowesin (beggars). The first leader among them was Kido Witbooi, (1783- 1875) to whom the Witboois trace their ancestry. He became their leader in 1805, when they lived around Pella in the Northern Cape, close to what was then known as Great Namaqualand, and what is now known as Southern Namibia.

Kido Witbooi was succeeded by his son Moses Witbooi (1808-1888) after Kido had died in 1875. Moses became thus the second in the recorded genealogy of the Khowesin or the Witbooi. Rhenish Missionary Olpp once described him as "the only son of Kido and an untraced mother". Moses Witbooi seems to have had several wives. The first wife  !Nanses (or Kaatje) apparently died in the 1864 smallpox epidemic.
Moses Witbooi became the father of the famous Hendrik Witbooi, the third in the recorded genealogy of the Khowesin. He is the subject of this paper.

We will have to pass over a lot of history to get to the story of Hendrik Witbooi. The Witboois settled at Gibeon in 1863 with a Rhenish missionary named Jacob Knauer. In 1873 missionary Olpp calculated the Witbooi to number approximately 3000 people living in 30 villages.

The political / social history of southern and central Namibia for the years 1870 – 1890 has hardly been touched upon by historians, so it is hard to understand all the details. What we do know is that the Witboois waged a war against the Orlam Afrikaners under Jonker Afrikaner (who resided at Windhoek), their power being broken in 1870.
This was followed by the Nama – Herero wars of 1880 in a very complex pattern of shifting, cross ethnic alliances involving the Rehoboth Basters, the Nama Swartbooi, the Herero under Maherero and Jan Jonker Afrikaner. By late 1882 there was a constant raiding by the Witboois of Herero and Baster cattle.
This was the general state of affairs at the time of Hendrik Witbooi’s ascendancy in 1884.

Hendrik Witbooi

Hendrik Witbooi was born in about 1830 at Pella, South Africa, close to the Orange River and what was then known as Great Namaqualand, today’s Southern Namibia. Hendrik was the third son of his parents and by 1884 the eldest surviving.
Witbooi was married to !Nanses (Katharina) who over 20 years bore him at least 12 children. She died in 1897.
While he was still settled at Gibeon, he and wife and his eldest son made the church their prime occupation. Witbooi was educated as a Christian by German Lutheran missionaries and spoke many languages, including several European languages. His meticulous diaries have been subsequently published.

They were baptized in 1868 by the Rhenish missionary J. Olpp (1837- 1920) who lived and worked in Gibeon from 1868-1879, and who left thereafter for health reasons. Olpp remained a friend to Hendrik Witbooi throughout very turbulent times and defended him in correspondence with other missionaries as well as to the German public.

Witbooi became a church elder in 1875. He also had learned carpentry from missionary Olpp, and used this skill for instance, by making his grandfather Kido’s coffin the night he died.

Hendrik Witbooi was without a doubt a confessing Christian. This fact is borne out in almost all his letters.

He learned to write a neat hand. His diaries  written in ‘High Dutch’ and containing numerous letters dating from 1884 to 1894, were published by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1929. He was a prolific letter writer as the ‘Hendrik Witbooi papers‘ testify.

The family name Witbooi (literally, 'white boy') referred to the white scarves they wore around their hats to distinguish themselves from the rest of the 11 Nama speaking sub-tribes.

According to his own record, preserved in his papers, his public actions were guided by divine revelation from 1880 onwards. He had a strong sense of destiny, and felt that this was the hand of God on him. In a letter to Rev. Olpp, dated 3rd January 1890 he makes reference to an experience which he had on the 23rd August 1880 (i.e. 10 years earlier).
Here follows  a  quote from that letter,

“… dear Pastor, on that day I experienced the power of our Almighty God, in expressible and wonderful, as He delivered me and my three men. When the Herero rose and surrounded us in order to kill us , they suddenly did something quite unexplainable even to themselves. Instead of killing me, they released me. They gave me a horse and told me to be off. So I set off for home. And when I came to the pass of the great Khanigukha Mountains, I received three amazing words through a voice which spoke to me. This was on 23 August 1880.
1. The time is fulfilled
2. The way is opened
3. I lay a heavy task on you

In 1884 Hendrik Witbooi prepared to leave the home of his father Moses Witbooi in Gibeon with a substantial amount of the citizens of Gibeon to move across Maherero’s territory with the aim of finding a land for themselves north beyond Maherero’s territory. This was quite in keeping with the Witbooi’s mindset, always viewing their present places of abode as temporary, and always in search of a promised land.

Witbooi told the Rhenish missionaries and his father Moses that this exodus, this move north was the will of God. He said,
“I knew that I would continue the trek which the old Captain could not complete. I would do it when the time was fulfilled, and the time has now come.”

There developed an almost biblical parallelism with the story of the Israelites who were persecuted, who had been enslaved, and who broke free and fled to a wandering life and in search of a promised land they could call their own.
It might be worth our while to pause  here and reflect on this restlessness of the Witboois. We need to remember where they came from. As the Khoi Khoi people of the Cape they had already experienced colonialism, slavery and dispossession of their territory in their earlier history in the Cape. This history had sensitized them,  as time and again they had faced attempts at suppressing their freedoms, whether it was  through  their fellow Nama people (e.g. the Orlams) or the Herero, or later the Germans. In this desire for a land of their own I cannot see that they were any different to the American colonists who had left their homes and countries, predominantly in Europe,  to find a land in the Americas, where they could be free from persecution.
This pattern may indeed be observed in the whole history of mankind and it is ironic that such people who had been oppressed in their own countries then become the very people who would dispossess the lands of the people they were colonizing.
People on the face of this earth  are always in search of a place of rest. They are always seeking to escape from each other, and little do they realize that our only true rest will be when Christ the Creator comes to restore all things. The Jews in the days of Christ upon the earth longed for the Messiah to restore their land which was currently under the cruel oppression by the Romans. It was for this reason that the disciples asked Jesus this question before His ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? ” (Acts 1:6)

In this quest for land, Hendrik Witbooi had a meeting with Herero chief Maherero in June 1884. He asked Maherero that he and his people might pass through their land in search for this new land  and it seems as if this meeting was initially successful. He was assured by Maherero that he could pass through his territory unmolested. 

A year later he moved with about 600 Gibeon Witbooi, ‘by all evidence the best educated, wealthiest, most highly considered, leading members of the Gibeon congregation’. He met again with Maherero to reaffirm the verbal agreement. They sat together to smoke a pipe when the Witbooi camp was surrounded by an overwhelming number of Herero warriors. An attack was launched in which the Witboois lost many of their horses and wagons, with 24 dead, among them two of Witbooi’s sons. This was a bitter experience for Hendrik Witbooi, and he mentions this act of treason many times in his letters. The great trek north therefore came therefore to a halt and he settled initially at a place called Gurumanas, whilst his following was quietly growing.

At this time he started consolidating the Nama tribes and subdued those who were not willing to go along. He killed his two principal opponents among the Namas,  Paul Visser (1888), who had murdered his father Moses Witbooi and Jan Jonker (1889) of Windhoek.

By 1891 most of the Nama chiefs had more or less submitted to Hendrik Witbooi. He had thereby achieved an unprecedented degree of political cohesion among the Namas. This was also what Hendrik Witbooi believed that he had seen a vision. He was convinced him that he was called by God to unite the Namas (or Red Nation) to lead them in a war against the Hereros. Up to this time they had only been a very loose grouping of tribes.

(Continued in  next blog)

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