Posts Tagged ‘german south west africa’

The question that often crosses people’s minds is why the Caprivi Strip, which reaches far into the heart of the Southern African subcontinent and has its independent multi-facetted history, was demarcated in its present form and is part of Namibia.

The area known as the Caprivi Strip became part of German South West Africa as a result of the so-called Helgoland-Zanzibar Treaty, which was signed between Germany and Great Britain on 1 July 1890. With this Germany was hoping to gain access to its land properties in East Africa via the Zambezi River. Although the main concern of the treaty was the exchange of the British island Helgoland and the German territorial claims on Zanzibar, Germany also insisted that it was allocated the land strip between the Okavango and Zambezi Rivers. The area was initially known as ‘German Barotseland’ or ‘German Zambezi Region’, but was later named ‘Caprivi’ Strip after the then German Imperial Chancellor Georg Leo Count von Caprivi. The borders of the area were demarcated according to geographical degrees of latitude and longitude or rivers without taking the local inhabitants into consideration. The exact demarcation of the various border sections was a long process and was only finalized in 1933.

Caprivi (map), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

Caprivi (map), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

The Caprivi Strip consists of the narrow piece between the Okavango and Kwando Rivers and the area of East-Caprivi situated east of the Kwando. Some Khwe and small groups of Mbukushu formerly occupied the mostly waterless West-Caprivi. In addition, it was an area of conflict between the BaLozi of Barotseland and the BaTawana of Ngamiland during the 19th century. Although some Khwe still occupy certain parts of it today, the area is a conservation area, which includes the Bwabwata National Park in the north.

The people of East-Caprivi, who form part of the Zambezi tribes, are not related to the other Bantu-speaking inhabitants of Namibia and comprise the BaLozi, BaSubiya, MaFwe, HaMbukushu, BaYeyi, MaTotela, MaMbalangwe and BaMashi, as well as some Khwe.

Since the 17th century the BaLozi, who were living in the Barotse Kingdom north of the Zambezi, dominated and enslaved these tribes. A temporary change was introduced by the terror regime of the Zulu chief Shaka in Natal in the early 1800s. As a result smaller tribes escaped to the north and as far as they proceeded, came into conflict with local groups. In 1830, a group of BaSotho origin, known as the MaKololo, settled under their chief Sebetwane in Old-Linyanti, which is the present Sangwali. They subjugated Barotseland and the area of East Caprivi and founded the Kololo kingdom. Under Sebetwane’s successor Sekeletu they gradually lost power and in 1864 the Lozi chief Sepopa defeated them decisively. The era of Sepopa and that of his successor Lewanika were characterized by cruel suppression and slavery. Only through the influence of the French missionaries 30,000 slaves were released in 1906. The language of the MaKololo, which stems from SeSotho, later became a mixed language, which took up many elements of SiLozi and is still used in the area today.

Border river between East Caprivi and Zambia: The Zambezi at Katima Mulilo. Photo: Archive of Allgemeine Zeitung

Border river between East Caprivi and Zambia: The Zambezi at Katima Mulilo. Photo: Archive of Allgemeine Zeitung

Although Germany had taken possession of the Caprivi Strip, it delayed the opening up and development of this remote area for a long time. Only in 1909 Captain Kurt Streitwolf was sent out as representative. On the banks of the Zambezi River he built a station, which he named Schuckmannsburg after the then German Governor Bruno von Schuckmann. Streitwolf immediately set out to create an administrative structure, which was based on the traditional political system of the local people. This effectively meant that the population was given the opportunity to rid themselves from slavery and dependence and to elect or reaffirm their own chiefs and representatives. During their five-and-half year stay in Caprivi, Streitwolf and his successors managed to gain the confidence of the population. The First World War ended the German era.

Continuation on further developments in the Caprivi in the next episode.


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The Order of Hildegard is a military decoration which was awarded by Imperial Germany for just a brief period of time and exclusively in the colony of German South West Africa. This order became the only officially recognized cloth variety of the Iron Cross.

At the start of the First World War in August 1914 Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany decided to reintroduce the Iron Cross in recognition of bravery and valour on the battlefield. He thus revived a tradition of his royal Prussian ancestors. King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia had first instituted the Iron Cross, in three classes, for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. King Wilhelm I brought back the medal in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War.

When Emperor Wilhelm II reintroduced the Iron Cross at the start of the First World War he also authorized the commanders of the Imperial armies in the German colonies to award the decoration on his behalf.

The Order of Hildegard (Private Collection Gordon McGregor)

The Order of Hildegard (Private Collection Gordon McGregor)

In German South West Africa the first major battle was fought on 26 September 1914 at Sandfontein. The Schutztruppe, even though outnumbered by far, was able to defeat the South African Union troops. After the battle, Schutztruppe Commander Lieutenant Colonel Joachim von Heydebreck suggested to the Governor, Dr. Theodor Seitz, to award the Iron Cross to several of his men.

However, because of the war the German colony was cut off from the motherland. A temporary solution had to be found until the medals would be sent from Germany. At that time the colony had no factory which could have made provisional medals. Therefore the governor’s spouse, Hildegard Seitz, proposed to award a provisional decoration made from cloth. This variety of the Iron Cross could be made by the ladies of the Women’s Division of the German Red Cross in the Colonies, she said, and it could be sewn directly onto the uniform.

The suggestion was accepted and a decree on awarding the provisional decoration, the ‘black cross with a white border ‘, was issued on 18 October 1914. Among the troops the handiwork was soon known as the Order of Hildegard. According to the decree it was a one-class decoration for officers as much as all other ranks. When awarding the ‘medal’ no difference between first and second class was made.

Hildegard Seitz, the wife of the Gouverneur of German South West Africa, came up with the idea to make a provisional cloth version of the Iron Cross medal.

Hildegard Seitz, the wife of the Gouverneur of German South West Africa, came up with the idea to make a provisional cloth version of the Iron Cross medal.

The first batch of Hildegard medals was awarded on 22 October 1914, the birthday of Empress Auguste Viktoria. Most of the 42 recipients were members of the 2nd regiment which had fought so valiantly at Sandfontein. The next list of 37 recipients (mostly from the 1st and 3rd regiment) was published in Aus on 27 January 1915, the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm II. It is not known how many others were awarded the Order of Hildegard because the relevant documents in the archives of Potsdam were damaged during the Second World War.

The two lists of names mentioned were drawn up on instruction of Lieutenant Colonel von Heydebreck who was tragically killed in an accident when new rifle grenades were tested in November 1914. His successor as Commander of the Schutztruppe in German South West Africa, Victor Franke, decided not to continue with the awarding of the Order of Hildegard but rather with the proper Iron Cross instead.

In German South West Africa the Schutztruppe surrendered to the superior strength of the South African troops on 9 July 1915 in the vicinity of Otavi. Active officers and men were taken to the internment camp at Aus. South African soldiers who were on guard when the Schutztruppe soldiers were moved from Otavifontein noticed the extraordinary decoration on some of the uniforms. What they saw was a white-rimmed black cross made from cloth – the provisional flash for the Iron Cross.

After the First World War the German military authorities replaced the Order of Hildegard with the Iron Cross 2nd class. The provisional decoration faded into obscurity until it was shown to the public for the first and only time at a colonial exhibition, held in Dresden in 1939.

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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 wearing a colonial uniform (source: Wikipedia)

Curt von François wearing a colonial uniform (source: Wikipedia)

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 Curt von François memorial in Windhoek (photo: Wiebke Schmidt)

The Curt von François memorial in Windhoek (photo: Wiebke Schmidt)

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.

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Farmers armed with rockets and rainmaker aircraft, a suicidal groom in the desert, German South West Africa holds its breath at the investigation into an armed robbery at the Kupferberg road… these and other episodes from Namibian 19th and 20th century history will provide guaranteed reading pleasure and information in this second edition of Gondwana History.

Time and again we cross Namibia’s borders: the story of the ever popular Biltong brings us to South Africa, the AK-47 rifle used in the Namibian independence struggle points us to the former Soviet Union and a memorial stone in Aus takes us back to the era of the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The 25 news flashes from the past in this anthology make ideal travel reading for guests from abroad. Namibian readers will gain insight into little known, sometimes curious aspects of our rich history and culture.

Gondwana History 2

Gondwana History II is available at the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops – in English, Afrikaans and Deutsch. The book can also be ordered from Demasius PublicationsNamibia Scientific Society and Namibia Book Marketing (nambook(at)mweb.com.na).

Gondwana Collection (Publ.): Gondwana History II, Windhoek 2011, ISBN 978-99945-72-54-0 (English), 978-99945-72-56-4 (Afrikaans), 978-99945-72-55-7 (German).

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