Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Famous Namibians : Hendrik Witbooi (Part 2)

Last photo of Hendrik Witbooi taken in 1904

Part 1 -  see link below 
By 1889 he had firmly established himself in a mountain stronghold  called Hoornkrantz, west of Rehoboth.  It  was a fully fortified and strategically placed village with a well organized community, with its own church and central administration. From here he continued his ‘mission’ as the ‘king of Great Namaland’. He was known to his followers by the Nama name of Khaob INanseb/Gabemab (the little captain who disappears in the grass), a reference to his ability as a guerrilla fighter.

As his following grew, Witbooi conducted an unrelenting campaign against the Herero between 1890 and 1892,  during which time  he  drove off thousands of head of their cattle. Many people on both sides died in these raids and skirmishes.  

As the German empire expanded  its influence in the territory,  Maherero  signed a peace treaty with the Germans, but Witbooi consistently refused to place himself under German protection or authority. This began to incur the wrath of the Germans  upon him. 

Witbooi now began to change his mind  concerning his wars with the Herero, whom he had come to see as traitors and ‘sell-outs’. By the end of 1892 he had successfully negotiated peace with the Herero. He had come to see their conflict as secondary to the threat posed by German imperialism, which he passionately  and with penetrating insight analysed in letter after letter to fellow leaders at the time.  Here is  an extract from a letter he wrote to chief Maherero on the 30th May  1890,[1]

I  am writing  to you today as supreme chief of Hereroland because I received a letter from Dr  Göring… I learn from the  letter that you have given yourself into German Protection and that Dr Göring  has thus gained the power to tell you what to do…. I am amazed  at you, and take it very ill of you who call yourself the leader of Hereroland. That you are indeed.
This dry land is known by two names only, Hereroland and Namaland. Hereroland belongs to the Herero nation , and it is an autonomous realm. And Namaland belongs to all the Red nations, and those too are autonomous realms- just as it is said of the white man’s countries… these countries across the sea are  autonomous realms….

No  other captain or leader has any right to force his will; for every leader on this earth is merely a steward for our common great God, and is answerable to this great God alone , the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to Whom all who live under  heaven must render obeisance, and from Whom alone all may seek help, counsel and consolation, power and protection in all the afflictions of this life, for He gives freely to  all  who seek Him in prayer…”  

He then goes on to chastise Maherero  for  this thoughtless action  and says, you will eternally regret that you have given your land and your rule into the hands of white men, for this  war between us  is not nearly as heavy a burden as you seem to have thought when you did this momentous thing.

He also lets Maherero know,
“… you know that  this war… arose  from your sovereign deeds… from the murderous hearts of your people… which cannot be changed by constant preaching of the gospel, so that you cannot spare a single (of our)  persons you find in the veld, but  must plot to murder him without  guilt or provocation. To kill in war is legitimate work, but even in this respect you go too far. Inhumanly your people hack others to death, slit the throats of living people…. You regard no person  a human nature of God for whose sake God gave us this commandment: thou shalt not kill!”

He seems to disregard all this history between them  when he pleads Maherero to forsake his alliance with the Germans. He continues to write,
I am aware that you and Dr Göring  are of different nationalities…. and that you have formed this friendship solely in order to crush me. So did  Herod and Pilate, in order to get rid of the Lord Jesus…

To another Nama Chief, Joseph  Frederiks[2] he writes [3],    
The white  men’s laws are quite unbearable and intolerable to us red people…. This is why I take it hard of you, Chiefs of Great Namaqualand…. I see the Germans quite differently. They claim  that they want to protect you against other mighty nations , but it seems that they  themselves are the mighty nation seeking to occupy our country by force…I must tell you my dear Captain, that the Germans want me too to sign their Protection treaty. But I cannot accept that."

As the Germans were expanding their presence in central Namibia, Witbooi met with German  representative  Major Kurt von Francois to discuss the latter’s offer of German “protection”. Witbooi told him he did not understand how one could be both autonomous and protected at the same time.

He then referred to the ability of the “Red chiefs” (the Nama) to band together when danger threatened, and concluded,
“Come brothers, let us together oppose this danger which threatens to invade our Africa, for we are one in colour and custom and this Africa is ours. The fact that we possess a variety of chieftainships and, diverse territories does not imply any secondary division of Africa and does not sever our solidarity. The emperor of Germany has no business in Africa whatsoever.”[4]

That view  was held by Hendrik Witbooi. He saw himself as a sovereign  King under no ones jurisdiction but God’s. Would we disagree with such a desire today?  I think that most Christians would agree with that. We  would all resent heavy handed interference by other nations; we would resent  a heavy handed interference   of our churches even by our governments. We  Baptists,  in our long  history, have generally stood firm on the policy of  non interference by the state of  the church,  and vice versa, particularly  when it came to  freedom of worship. In fact the  concept of the separation of church and state was formulated by the Anabaptists of the 16th century.

But,  let us press on with  Witbooi’s  story …
The German government  through   Captain Curt von Francois  tried for several years to convince Witbooi to accept an offer of protection from its emperor Kaiser Wilhelm – a so called ‘Schutzvertrag’  (Protection treaty)  but as we saw, Hendrik Witbooi  did not agree to forfeit his people’s freedom by signing the proposed treaty. In all this  he shows a clear and remarkable understanding of international politics and colonial rhetoric.

Curt Von Francois eventually looses his patience and unexpectedly attacks Witbooi’s  stronghold  Hoornkrantz   on April 12, 1893. In this battle   88 people, mainly women and children were killed and their homes were destroyed.This event  led Witbooi  into  a protracted guerrilla struggle with the Germans.

Captain von Francois fell out of favour  with his superiors and was replaced in 1894 by Major Theodor  Leutwein. Leutwein  convinces Witbooi to sign a ‘Schutzvertrag’ (Protection treaty) on September 15, 1894, after  he had surrendered  at the Naukluft.

Witbooi returns to Gibeon,  which has become by now  their  ancestral land, and for about ten years peace is maintained with the Germans. Not only was peace maintained, but Witbooi collaborated with the German military by supplying troops for numerous campaigns against local warlords!
The peace however  did not last,  as the continued German occupation began to annoy many of   the   local  people.
Hendrik  Witbooi and some of his horsemen .
Note the white feather  on their hats

Witbooi wrote to the British governor of the Cape Colony warning that “a great war” would soon erupt if the Germans continued to occupy their lands and settlements without permission. He wrote,
We cannot tolerate that. We did not give our land away, and what has not been given by the owner, cannot be taken by another person...

Again, Witbooi tries to argue that God was responsible for the breaking of the ten year truce that existed with the  German colonial authorities. Months later Witbooi  led  the Namas in war against the Germans, but on October 28, 1905, at  the age  of  75,  he suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the thigh in a skirmish with German forces  at  Vaalgras  near Tses  (near Keetmanshoop). He died  and was  buried in an unmarked grave.

It is recorded  that Witbooi’s last  words  were, “It is enough. The children should now have rest.” Witbooi, the father of seven sons and five daughters, felt that the wars had taken their toll on his people and it was time for them to live in peace. Some of his descendants remained in Namibia, others crossed the border into South Africa and settled in various parts of the Northern Cape.


1.    As a politician  

Hendrik Witbooi was born into a decisive  time in African history. It is the  time  which  is  described  in a book  by Thomas  Pakenham  with the suggestive title, ”The scramble for  Africa[5]. The  year   was approximately 1885. It was  a time  when  some European nations,   greedy for  resources, were  aggressively colonizing  Africa and  ultimately carving  this continent  into various portions without much thought   concerning the will  and  the aspirations of the people of  Africa,   and without  much regard  concerning the demographics  of any  region. In Namibia  the Kwanyama’s (An Ovambo  tribe)  were for instance divided  by a border  drawn through  their  heartland. Roughly half of this tribe now lives in Southern Angola, whilst the other half lives in Northern Namibia. The Lozi people  had suffered an even worse fate. The Lozi kingdom   was  divided   among  5  countries – Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zambia  and Zimbabwe.

The   land  which  the  Witboois   occupied was at this time  known as “Greater Namaqualand“, today’s  Southern  Namibia. This  too  would be a part of the German colonialisation attempts of   what became known  as “German South West Africa”, a matter to which Witbooi never  agreed.   In minutes of meetings  kept of a discussion between  Curt von Francois and Witbooi on  9th June 1892, Witbooi declared,“This part of Africa is the realm of the red chiefs…”[6]

Hendrik Witbooi   was without doubt one of the most interesting and fascinating chiefs in Namibian history.The Introduction to the Hendrik Witbooi papers  [7] has this to say, [8]

“Hendrik Witbooi was one of the most powerful African leaders at the time when European imperialism began to carve up Africa into colonies. His realization that the conflicts  between Africans were secondary to a threat of entirely new, immense proportions namely conquest and colonization  by Germany which could only be staved off by African unity, makes him one of the wisest  pre-colonial rulers in Africa. The fact that  he  himself committed these thoughts and convictions to paper in the form of a journal containing diary entries, minutes of meetings and copies of correspondence… makes his record quite unique for the whole of Africa….” 

In his opinion, the Europeans had to be kept out of Africa by all means. For him it was one thing for  Africans  to fight  one another. He regarded it almost  as their natural right to do so, but  it was a  totally different story to hand African sovereignty over to a non-African power in order to gain an advantage over an African rival. The Germans, he thought  would under the cover of the so called protection treaties  in the end subjugate all Africans. His deep insight into the nature of colonialism, unrivalled at the time, made him see clearly the deep changes that the arrival of the Germans were to bring about.

In his letters to the German authorities, he always insisted on being on equal footing with the German emperor  and  with whom he was eventually forced to sign a protection treaty. By doing so  he  always emphasized the minor status of the governor  who after all was only a representative, not of highest rank himself.

It was especially his role as leader against the German Empire during the Namibian War of 1904-1907  that  made him a hero.  He  was  frequently referred to  as a role model   during the Namibian  liberation struggle against South Africa in the 1960 – 80’s.
For this reason his picture is found  on Namibian dollar notes.

2.    As a Christian

a. Hendrik Witbooi was  strongly  moved  by  Christian convictions.  The “Witbooi Papers”  are filled  with  abundant references to  God  and His  work and ways in the World. Interestingly  the name of the Lord Jesus is  mentioned only once in the Hendrik Witbooi Papers. At times his letter are almost sermonic  (e.g. the letter  to Hermanus van  Wyk – 9th June 1889 , pp  34-35 [9]).

b. He understood the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God very well
  •  In conversation with  Curt  von Francois he says: [10]“ God  gave you (German) people the skill and  knowledge to make firearms as part of his great design. He has appointed war to punish  the sins and injustices of nations. The sin and injustice of a nation cannot be driven out with a whip; the Lord chastises one  nation with another, and firearms are His rod.”  
  • During the peace negotiation with Captain Hermanus van Wyk  of the Rehoboth Basters he says  on the 6th August 1892,  “We humans cannot make peace; we can only pray earnestly that God who is the very foundation of peace may in His own time let it come to pass that one of the two combatants  shall ask for peace from his own heart.”
c. He deeply  respected his enemies. He  wrote respectfully to them, even though his  whole  being might have  militated against what they were doing. Here are some examples, 
  •       In writing to Captain Manasseh  !Noreseb,who had apparently at one time conducted a raid on  Witbooi’s people, killing some women and abducting children, he  introduces his letter in the following  manner,   “To my dear enemy, Captain Manaseh !Noreseb”. On the same day he also writes to Maherero and  addresses him, “Dear Captain Maherero, my enemy!” 
  •     A letter  on  20th May  1890  addressed to the Hereros as “my dear  Herero  children”.

d.  His  care for his community is evident: His care for the community  is seen  in a  letter to  the ‘chief  of provisions’, Mr Klaas Lebe  (1 September 1890) [11]. In this letter  he  entreats  him,  “To you dear  deputy, I entrust the place and its people, to act as their supervisor and their guard. Walk about the place; enter all the houses so that you may note all their circumstances, difficulties and needs. Have a real concern with all illnesses… Make it your business to give advice in all  cases of illness, not forgetting sound medicines …bury the dead decently and in a spirit of unitedness. And you, our women and children! I commend you and your  ills and needs to the mercy of  our Lord, as your shepherd and refuge. Yield yourselves into the  hands of the Lord, and bring your troubles to Him…pray for yourselves, pray for us, pray for the work we are doing. Do not expect to see us soon. There is hard work to be done. Let old Meritse treat  the lepers as best he can.”

e. He repeatedly stated that it was God Himself who gave him his orders.  We have seen that he  frequently had claimed  to be driven by divine revelations and imperatives. In his letters to the governor and to the missionaries, he explains his own mission in life in biblical terms. He was very strongly influenced by  the Scriptures.  It  seems  however that in this regard he was  not in   a constant  and accountable spiritual relationship with anyone. This may partially be explained by the fact that   he  moved around so much, so that he was not constantly  counseled  by wise and  sound spiritual advisers. A number of missionaries  for this very reason had strongly counseled him to settle  down at Gibeon.

f.  He  was undoubtedly a very complex person, full of contradictions. On the one hand he was probably one of the African leaders most deeply influenced by Christianity, even serving as a church  elder, yet on  the  other hand, he carried out constant  wars and cattle raids against the Herero. He warned Maharero concerning  the dangers of siding with the Germans, yet after his defeat by the German army in 1894, he  supported  the  Germans with the use of his skilled  warriors against the Hereros  until the decisive battle at the Waterberg, where the Herero were finally defeated.  
Under his leadership much blood was shed. He, like king David had blood on his hands. This has its own  spiritual implications.

g. It was the Old Testament, not the New Testament  whereby he could mostly relate to his own position.  Witbooi and his followers perceived themselves to be on an exodus like Israel of old. For some missionaries  his ideal of an exodus to the north in search of a  land of their own (and which  was motivated by a presumed divine calling) amounted to a form of ‘Schwarmgeisterei’ -  a fanatic  illusion  (letter by missionary  Hegner dated May 12, 1884).
And yet for others, Hendrik Witbooi assumed the role of a messianic prophet and leader  (letter by Pastor  Rust dated May 17, 1884).
In Witbooi’s  mind  Gibeon was but a temporary stop,  when the sun stood still on their journey to a promised land, somewhere to the north of the land of the Herero.
The extent to which the ‘exodus terminology’ was used to legitimate aggression towards the Herero and to eventually resist the colonial presence is  there for all to see.

Notwithstanding all the  criticisms which might be leveled against  him, there was a strange kind of integrity about him.  A poignant tribute was formulated by Theodor Leutwein   upon hearing of his death, [12]
The name of the little Captain will, however, remain engraved upon the history of South West Africa forever. His stubborn resistance against the mighty German empire at the head of a small warlike band, ragged and poor… I still see him before me… Modest yet self-possessed, loyal yet not without political cunning, never deviating from what he considered his duty or his right…’ 

Like every  true leader  we observe that  his  great strengths were  also combined with great weaknesses. That  is the price that  leadership  brings with itself. A leader’s life always  finds itself  scrutinized, criticized  and magnified. This we undoubtedly see in the life of Captain Hendrik Witbooi.

It is  a great pity that he was not able  to be laid to his eternal rest in a more  peaceful way, but that a  bullet should eventually kill him. 
I  for one trust that he died  in the Lord.

  • Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa
  •  The Hendrik Witbooi Papers: Heywood  & Maasdorp 
  •  Internet articles by Klaus Dierks 
  • History of the Church in Namibia:  GL Buys and SVV Nambala 
  • Internet article by Hendrik Bosman (University of Stellenbosch): Contextual readings of Exodus in Africa- Negotiating identity amidst contending narratives of origin and migration in Africa.

[1]  The Hendrik Witbooi Papers  : Heywood & Maasdorp , p.50
[2]  Joseph II Frederiks was the Captain of the !Aman from 1880 until 1893. His Nama name !Khoreb-||Naixab. He was the stepson and nephew of David Christian Frederiks who was killed in the Battle of Otjikango in 1880. He was the fourth in the recorded genealogy of the !Aman captains. Frederiks was connected to the selling of large tracts of land to the German merchant Adolf Lüderitz and his agent Heinrich Vogelsang (Angra Pequeña and surroundings: the "sale" was characterised by some fraudulent manoeuvres on the German side which exploited the seller's ignorance in terms of the English mile versus the German geographical mile). He also concluded a protection treaty with the Germans in October 1884 (with Gustav Nachtigal). Frederiks died on 20.10.1893 at Bethany. He was succeeded by Paul Frederiks (1893-1906). (Source : Klaus Dierks)
[3]The Hendrik Witbooi Papers:  Heywood and Maasdorp: p.90
[4] Klaus  Dierks: Internet article
[5] The book's central theme is the contrast between the humanitarian motives of David Livingstone, and the profit-taking of King Léopold, and how the different players dealt with the conflict. The book addresses underlying motives and economics, without losing sight of the individuals whose personalities and actions drove much of the Scramble. It has been reprinted a number of times since its first appearance in 1990.
[6] The Hendrik Witbooi Papers: p.  86
[7] Written by Brigitte Lau: The Hendrik Witbooi Papers
[8] The Hendrik Witbooi Papers:  Heywood & Maasdorp , p. i
[9] The Hendrik Witbooi Papers
[10] The Hendrik Witbooi Papers: p86
[11]  Hendrik Witbooi Papers p. 61
[12]  Hendrik Witbooi Papers, p.224 


Basilius M. Kasera said...

Hi Pst. Rieck,

I was quite fascinated by your summary of Witbooi's story especially of him as a Christian. I never took interest in studying any of our local heroes but this has motivated me to look for the "Witbooi Papers"

Anonymous said...

Deeply interested in the Namibian history, and especially in that of its leaders, this submission is much appreciated! Ferdie Lochner

Herman Binge said...

Thank you for this. It is fascinating. Herman Binge

Hans Achomba said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hans Achomba said...

Currently carrying out research for a Hendrik Witbooi documentary. Definitely have to organize an interview with you. Your articles are truly insightful. I have a copy of the Witbooi Papers I got from the National Archives of Namibia...very fascinating. Have been to Gibeon twice and for some reason, I am just drawn to this small almost neglected historic place and it's people.

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