On 28 December 1931 it is 80 years since the former Reichskommissar and Landeshauptmann of German South West Africa, Curt von François, died at the age of 79. He only spent five years of his life in South West Africa but nevertheless he left a remarkable legacy. Curt von François is seen as the European founder of Windhoek and Swakopmund. In Windhoek a monument was erected in his honour which shows him wearing the Schutztruppe uniform. Few know that von François was not only a soldier but in the first place a talented cartographer and a researcher who contributed significantly to the development of the former German colony.
Curt von François arrived in German South West Africa in 1889. He was 36 years old and had already spent several years elsewhere in Africa. Born on 2 October 1852 in Luxembourg, he was the third of five sons of a Prussian officer of Huguenot nobility. After high school in Posen he was intent on a military career. When he volunteered for the Franco-Prussian War he was 18 years old. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and was awarded the Iron Cross after Paris was occupied by the Prussian army.
Curt von François interrupted his military career in 1883 to take part in the Kassai expedition led by Hermann von Wissmann into Central Africa. After that he joined George Grenfell, a missionary, to explore the catchment area of two tributaries of the Congo River. Von François was an excellent cartographer and was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross for his contributions to the exploration of Africa. The order was created especially for him by the King of Belgium and was never awarded to anyone else. On his return to Germany in 1887 von François was promoted to the rank of captain.
Later that year the Foreign Office sent him to the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo in his capacity as surveyor and researcher. But his task was also to sign friendship treaties with the most important tribal leaders. Apparently it was only thanks to the human qualities and negotiation skills of von Francois that the expedition did not end in a bloody dispute with the local population. The expedition was still in progress when von Francois received a request by the German Colonial Society to become commander of the colonial forces, the Schutztruppe, in the newly established colony of German South West Africa.
On 24 June 1889 Curt von François landed in Walvis Bay with 21 soldiers. He marched to Otjimbingwe and set up his headquarters there. Reichskommissar Heinrich Ernst Göring had previously been based in Otjimbingwe. Due to unrest between Namas and Hereros he had fled to Walvis Bay, which was British at the time, several months before the arrival of the first Schutztruppe contingent.
At the insistence of Curt von François the seat of government was soon moved further inland. He chose Windhoek because it was located in a ‘no-man’s land’ between Hereros and Namas and strong springs supplied plenty of water. On 18 October 1890 the first stone was laid for the fort Groß-Windhoek (now the Alte Feste), from which Namibia’s capital evolved.
Von François was appointed Reichskommissar in 1891 and two years later became the Landeshauptmann of German South West Africa. On 12 September 1892 he founded Swakopmund to establish a harbour for the colony which so far had to rely on Walvis Bay, earlier annexed by Britain.
In 1892 Hereros and Namas made peace after 40 years of war. Since the Nama under Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi had never recognized the German protectorate or the colony, Germany now feared that Namas and Hereros would combine forces.
The Schutztruppe was reinforced with an additional 225 troops from Germany and on 12 April 1893 von François attacked Hornkranz. German soldiers killed at least 80 people, among them many women and children. Witbooi himself was able to escape with almost all the men who were fit to bear arms. Historic sources disagree on the question whether von François went against a general order from the foreign office in Berlin to refrain from military action or whether the instruction had been changed as the Schutztruppe was reinforced. The massacre at Hornkranz was discussed by the international press for several months. The true number of victims was never conclusively clarified.
The lack of success in dealing with the Nama tribes allied with Hendrik Witbooi soon caused discontent in German South West Africa as well as in Germany. Von François was more of a cartographer and explorer at heart than a soldier. From 1890 to 1892 he had invested a lot of time into mapping the country. On the basis of his cartographic work it was possible to draw the first military maps of the colony a few years later. In early 1894 Major Theodor Leutwein was detached to assist von François.
When von François’ term as Reichskommissar ended that year he was succeeded by Leutwein. Von François was appointed Commander of the Schutztruppe in German South West Africa but was released from his position only eight months later, discharged with pension and called back to Berlin. He was assigned to the foreign office as an expert. In this position it was possible for him to follow his real passion: For study purposes he travelled to north and east Africa as well as to South Africa. In 1905 he visited South America. In numerous publications he reported on the results of his expeditions or discussed the various aspects of German colonial policy.
Curt von François was married twice. During the five years that he spent in German South West Africa he married Amalia Gereses, a Damara princess. A daughter was born from the marriage. After Amalia’s death he again married in 1896 when he was 44 years old. With his second wife, Margarethe Meyer zu Bohmte, he had four children. After the couple‘s divorce in 1911 von François lived in Zernsdorf until his death on 28 December 1931. He was buried in the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin, a cemetery where many of Germany’s most highly regarded personalities found their final resting place in those days. His grave no longer exists.
The Curt von François memorial was inaugurated in Windhoek on 13 October 1965. As part of the celebrations to mark the capital’s 75 years of existence, Windhoek was also awarded town status. Von François’ daughter from his first marriage, Josephine, attended the festivities. The youngest daughter from his second marriage, Praxedis, had also travelled to Windhoek but the two half-sisters did not meet each other.