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The Namibian Genocide: at last an international hearing

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 31 March 2017

It has taken 113 years but at long last the descendants of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia are presenting their case to an international court. They are reliving what was without doubt one of the darkest chapters in Southern African colonial history when more than 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were killed during a savage war between 1903 and 1908.

Interestingly, until only very recently, the Namibian Government largely avoided seeking recognition and financial compensation for what took place in what was then German South West Africa. Now this seems to have changed following the Herero and Nama representatives filing a class action in New York against Germany.

The Namibian Government appears to have engaged lawyers in London to pursue the matter as a violation of human rights seeking both an official apology and remuneration from Germany. Quite possibly this may ultimately reach the International Court of Justice at The Hague. But this remains to be seen.


Germany did acknowledge in 2016 that a form of genocide had taken place in their former colony, but refused to consider reparations quoting the large amount of aid that Germany had provided to Namibia over the last 25 years.

The uprising by the Herero and Nama tribes against German colonial rule between 1903 and 1907 is largely forgotten today. But this was a war to end wars and the shattering aftermath resulted in concentration and death camps and the virtual decimation of two tribal races. Many argue that it was the first instance of a policy of genocide, and the use of body parts, to try and delineate the difference between civilised and primitive races.

In October 1903 a tribe in the north of the German colony rose in revolt against the German authorities. This uprising ushered in more than four years of outright war between the Herero and Nama people, and the German authorities, which would consume tens of thousands of lives, cost the German Government more than half a billion marks, and for some, change the very nature of what was to ultimately become Namibia.

The reasons for the tribal uprisings can be found in the attitude of German settlers and traders and the arrogance and brutality of the German soldiers and local administrators towards the indigenous population, and the overall feeling among the tribal people that their traditional land and tribal authority were being swept away.

At the beginning of 1904 the Herero rose in revolt. Never fully recovered from a devastating Rinderpost epidemic which saw a large proportion of their cattle destroyed, followed by a series of human epidemics plus the unscrupulous behaviour of local traders and settlers who pressured the Herero to cheaply sell their land, they rose in revolt.

Within a few days many local German farms and settlers were attacked and more than 120 Germans killed. The uprising seems to have taken the Germans by surprise and they struggled to contain it.


Germany saw things differently and despatched thousands of troops under the command of General Von Trotha, a veteran of the Boxer rebellion. Von Trotha preserved a vision of a "race war", of "whites against blacks" and saw the outcome as total extermination. After a major engagement the Herero retreated to the plateau of Waterberg where thousands of men, women, children and cattle gathered.

Against this, Von Trotha launched a major assault with 4,000 German troops supported by 14 machine guns and 36 pieces of field artillery. The ensuing bombardment forced the Herero to retreat into the adjacent waterless sand veldt and then into the Omaheke desert.

It was to be a death march as the Germans poisoned all local waterholes and barricaded the border. Thousands perished and those that tried to surrender were either shot or forced back into the desert. Eventually survivors were loaded on to cattle cars and taken to concentration or work camps. What was to follow was to see the emergence of two new terms in the German language,Konzentrationslager (concentration camp) and Endlosung (Final Solution) which some 35 years later would take on a much more sinister meaning.

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Peter Curson is the author of the author of Border Conflicts in a German African Colony: Jakob Morengo and the untold tragedy of Edward Presgrave. Arena Books, 2012.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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