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January 1905. The steamship Professor Woermann lies in the roads off Swakopmund. Leaning against the rail young Schutztruppe soldiers, bound for Lüderitzbucht, are staring at the aspiring harbour town.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

From 1905 anchorage in Swakopmund was shifted from the harbour a little to the south, where a wooden jetty had been built. In 1912 construction of an iron jetty started right next to the wooden one.

One of them is Albert Plietz: “The first glimpse of the mainland was a very desolate one. There was nothing to meet the eye but the yellow sand of dunes. At that moment probably most of us wondered what we had let ourselves into. It was really saddening to see the look on the comrades’ faces. The sun was hot as hell. Hopefully the south is better, because everybody was glad that they did not have to disembark here, in Swakopmund.” This even though Swakopmund is boasting 40 houses at the time, making it a rather sizeable place compared to conditions elsewhere in the German colony.

Swakopmund was created out of necessity because the German colony urgently needed a harbour. The bay 30 km to the south, Walvis Bay, was already in British possession when South West Africa was declared a protectorate of Imperial Germany. In 1892 the Reichskommissar (commissioner) of the German colony, Curt von François, started to search the central part of the coastline for a site suitable for a harbour.

“After the way he sounded off in August 1889 it was to be expected that the Cape’s official in Walvis Bay would do anything to prevent troops and munitions from passing through in transit. He was less interested in preventing the passage of provisions for the troops since most of the provisions were shipped from Cape Town. It was advantageous for Walvis Bay that the settlers spent their disembarkation fees etc. on British territory, had to find their first accommodation and buy their first necessities there. More than ever it therefore seemed vital to me to build landing facilities in Swakopmund in the near future.” (von François 1899, p. 157)

On 4 August 1892 the crew of the gunboat Hyäne discovered a spot where the coast could be accessed – later the pier (Mole) was built there – and marked it with two beacons. This date is celebrated as the day when Swakopmund was founded. Another reason for building a harbour in this particular spot was the availability of potable water in the Swakop River mouth nearby. Von François set up a military station slightly to the north, which consisted of accommodation facilities and a storage shed put together with corrugated iron.

The surf boat and eleven Kru sailors, requested by von Francois for the landing operations in Swakopmund, arrived in January 1893. In August that year the first steamship, the Marie Woermann, called at Swakopmund with 120 Schutztruppe soldiers and 40 settlers onboard.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments.

The Walvis Bay trading company Mertens & Sichel opened a branch in Swakopmund in 1893. The following year 19 inhabitants were recorded for the settlement. One of them, Kurd Schwabe, who was appointed station commander of Swakopmund in the end of 1893, described life between the desert and the sea in a letter to his family back home.

“My abode consists of two parlours (if you want to call them that), a larger one and a hole where I have set up my bed. (…) Windows – none, but the wind makes up for that and whistles through a thousand gaps. Every now and then I take the time to plug the cracks with tow, assisted by Schneidewind. In the absence of floorboards the floor is the fine sand of the higher lying area, teeming with millions of sand fleas. Boxes and crates serve as furniture, some of them for sitting on, others for storage. (…) Barely 20 paces from my palace towards the sea a cave has been dug into the sandy precipice of the higher level and boxed up with boards. The roof across huge whale bones, which you find scattered everywhere in the sand, consists of corrugated iron, pieces of sailcloth and scraps of roofing paper covered with a layer of sand. This is not the dwelling of jackals, oh no, but that of a father and son by the name of Unglaube. They have set up their field smithy in front of their mansion. Both are industrious and skilful, making good money with wagon repairs and similar.”(Schwabe 1904, p. 115f)

In early 1895 the Damara & Namaqua trading company arrived on the scene, built three accommodation facilities and set up its business. Soon afterwards the first zoning map was designed for Swakopmund, a postal agency was opened and a scheduled postal cart connection to Windhoek was established. Now the little settlement started to grow; in 1897 it had 113 registered inhabitants.

In 1897 construction work started on the narrow-gauge railway line to Windhoek. Each kilometre of railway that edged forward through the Namib towards east shrunk the distance which had to be covered by ox wagon. Railway traffic from Windhoek to Swakopmund started on 19 June 1902, boosting the economy. The long waiting periods for transport opportunities inland had become a thing of the past.

Soon afterwards the pier (Mole) in Swakopmund was completed. It had taken three-and-a-half year to build. Inauguration festivities took place on 12 February 1903. Steamers finally moored in the harbour now. Together with the pier the lighthouse was put into operation. Initially 11 m tall, its intermittent light was visible 14 sea miles out at sea. The German colony was proud of its artificial harbour and the railway line into the interior. And Swakopmund’s inhabitants were very pleased that they scored a water pipe when the harbour was built.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

Swakopmund’s first lighthouse around 1900. In the following ten years it was raised twice.

After the turn of the century colonial-style houses were built of stone. Previously the street scene had been characterised by prefabricated wooden structures. In 1901 the railway station was completed; the building is part of the Hotel and Entertainment Center now. Other historic buildings include Ludwig Schröder House, built for the Woermann Shipping Line in 1903, and Woermann House with its striking tower and two gables. Completed in 1905 as headquarters of the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company this building was originally known as Damara House.

Elisabeth Brock, who arrived from Germany in December 1903 with her husband, described Swakopmund with approving words: “Early on Monday, the 28th all passengers were taken ashore with the large lighter. (…) Swakopmund looks quite impressive even from a distance, and on arrival I also found it to be a very pleasant place. There are several charming buildings – the railway station, the lighthouse and the telegraph office are particularly noteworthy. A beautiful large store is being built for the Damara Company. It looks similar to the shipping line’s premises in Hamburg (…). Of course you are still wading through sand a lot but there are already quite a few cemented sidewalks and proper steps to the higher lying streets, even some facilities and gardens.” (Brock, s. 16)

Since the pier silted up more and more, to an extent where after just two years steamers were rarely able to sail into the harbour, a newly-built wooden jetty was taken into use in 1905. It soon became clear that this structure would not be able to defy the forces of nature for very long. In 1912 construction work started on an iron jetty right next to the wooden one. The new jetty was to have a total length of 640 m, but when it was 262 m long the First World War put a sudden end to construction work. Imperial Germany lost its colony in south-western Africa. Naturally, the subsequent South African administration used the deep-sea port of Walvis Bay. Swakopmund lost its importance as a harbour town and turned into what it still is today: the most popular holiday resort in Namibia.

The Gondwana History series is a selection of memorable glimpses of Namibia’s history. Collections of the stories are also published as several small volumes in English, German and Afrikaans. Gondwana History III is available since early June at the offices of the Gondwana Collection in Klein Windhoek (42 Nelson-Mandela-Avenue), all the Gondwana lodges and in bookshops.

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The previous issue discussed the futile efforts of the first Trek Boers to establish the Republic of Upingtonia around Grootfontein.
Although the Republic of Upingtonia, which was founded in 1885, was short-lived, it formed the basis for later Boer-settlements in the Grootfontein District. The German government also recognized the validity of the land purchase made by W.W. Jordan. The South West Africa Company, which was founded in 1892 in London, became the beneficiary of its concessions, which mainly included mining rights and the development of roads and railways, as well as the partition of land into settler farms.In 1891, some Transvaal-Boers, amongst them commandant Jean M. Lombard and B.D. Bouwer, who had occupied the farm Strydfontein during the time of the Republic of Upingtonia, requested the German Consul in Pretoria to settle in ‘Damaraland’. They also asked to return to their former farms in the Grootfontein District. The area however, had changed owner and now belonged to the South West Africa Company.

Dorslandtrek, issued in 1974, artist: Kobus Esterhuyzen

Dorslandtrek, issued in 1974, artist: Kobus Esterhuyzen

In March 1892, some one hundred Boer-families left Transvaal and trekked via Rietfontein, along the border of Hereroland and Otjituwo to Grootfontein. Most of them proceeded further to Angola. Forty families stayed behind and were subsequently settled there in 1893 by the representative of the South West Africa Company, Dr Georg Hartmann. The S.W.A. Company was most accommodating towards the Boers, as they wanted to keep them there. They were encouraged to purchase land, for which they were allowed to pay in the form of cash and/or farm products.According to Dr Hartmann, there were 98 Trek Boers living around Grootfontein in October 1894. J.M. Lombard, C. de Jager, G. Kriek, I. du Toit, D. Jordaan and M. Botha were living at the fountains of Grootfontein, while H. du Plooy, A., H. and B. Smith, G. Fourie, H. Joubert and J. Diderikzen occupied the farms Volstruisfontein, Gemsboklaagte, Kereefontein and Kalkfontein. As from 1895 more farms, some of which had already existed in the 1880s, were allocated to the Boers. Among them were Strydfontein, where commandant Lombard settled, Venterspost, Kransfontein, Spitskoppe, Jagersfontein, Uitkomst, Khusib, Okamambuti(fontein) and Olifantsfontein, where the German farmer Carl Heinrich Schulz settled in 1896. Other Boers, who arrived from Omaruru, included Dreyer, de la Porte, Nieuwenhuizen, Barnard, Siemens, Britz, Poolman and Prinsloo.

Signing of agreement between governor Leutwein, commandant Lombard (left), Dr Hartmann (2nd f.l.) and Samuel Maharero (right); standing translator Kleinschmidt; Grootfontein, 1895. Photo Collection: National Archives of Namibia

In August 1895, the German governor Leutwein visited Grootfontein and found a ‘friendly Boer settlement’there. During his visit the northern border of Hereroland was demarcated. Furthermore an agreement was signed with the Boers, which stipulated that 40 families, who had to become German citizens, would be allowed to settle on the land of the Company. They also had to commit themselves to permanent settlements and perform military services.In September 1895, Lieutenant Steinhausen was dispatched to Grootfontein to become the first District Head. 1896/97 brought some excessive rains, which was followed by a severe fever epidemic in Grootfontein. Although the Boers had erected 6 dwellings and a church already, many of them left the unhealthy place and settled at Omaruru. Meanwhile Dr Hartmann and Lieutenant Steinhausen had also left. Dr Philaletes Kuhn, who became Steinhausen’s successor as from 1897, laid dry the swamps and thereby improved the health situation in Grootfontein, which prompted the Boers to return. As they did not have a market for their products, many of them made a living by becoming transport drivers. In 1899, Grootfontein became an independent district from Outjo.

Commandant Lombard remained a renowned and leading personality in Grootfontein throughout his life. He was not only instrumental in founding the first school of the district in 1900 at his farm Strydfontein, but was also elected into the German ‘Landesrat’ in 1906 as representative of the Boer community in the country.

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The previous episode focused on the history of the Caprivi until the German administration, which ended with the First World War.

As from 1914 the area was placed under South African military rule. In 1921, the British High Commissioner for South Africa administered it as part of Bechuanaland. According to this regulation the East Caprivi fell under the responsibility of the commissioner at Kasane, while the magistrate of Maun was responsible for the West Caprivi. In 1929, the area was handed over to the South West Africa Administration. The administrative centre of East Caprivi was moved to Katima Mulilo in 1935. As from 1939, the area east of the Kwando River resorted under the Minister of Native Affairs, later the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, while the administration of West Caprivi was placed under the authorities in Windhoek.

An ox-drawn sleigh with water barrel in the eastern MaSubiya-area (1980). Photo: Antje Otto; Collection: National Museum

An ox-drawn sleigh with water barrel in the eastern MaSubiya-area (1980). Photo: Antje Otto; Collection: National Museum

As a result of increasing poverty, discriminatory laws and the Administration’s failure to provide education and medical services the people of East Caprivi felt neglected and oppressed. In 1958, nationalism gave rise to the formation of the short-lived Caprivi African National Union (CANU) and its president was Brendan Kangongolo Simbwaye. In 1972, the East Caprivi area received its own Legislative Assembly with limited powers, which substituted the old order of a magistrate or native commissioner. The launch of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) in 1977 introduced the process of returning the people of East Caprivi into the administrative ambit of South West Africa.

After years of underlying tribal conflicts between the MaSubiya and MaFwe regarding the demarcation of the borderline, the South African Administrator-General for South West Africa in 1982 announced a border commission headed by the experienced government ethnologist, Dr Kuno Budack. However, both parties rejected the proposals, which were made after in-depth investigations.

A further reason for the conflicts was a power struggle between the two major tribal groups, the MaSubiya and MaFwe, as the former demanded a superior position in the area. In May 1993, the so-called ‘Katima Declaration of National Reconciliation’ was signed under the chairmanship of the Minister of Local Government and Housing, Dr Libertine Amathila. Although the equal status of both groups and their chiefs was reaffirmed, tensions between the two groups soon mounted again. In addition, disappointment and mistrust was growing among the BaYeyi, who no longer supported the MaFwe alliance of which they had been loyal supporters for more than a century. In 1993 they elected their own chief, who was confirmed in his position by the Namibian government according to the Traditional Authorities Act in 1995. Two years later the BaMashi under chief Mayuni also split from the MaFwe.

Caprivi (ox-drawn sleigh), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

Caprivi (ox-drawn sleigh), series of four stamps, issued in 1986

During the mid-1990s, a group of secessionists, who called themselves the ‘Caprivi Liberation Army’, started a unified resistance under the leadership of Albert Mishake Muyongo. The movement was mainly aimed at identifying the people of Caprivi as ‘Caprivians’ and not as ‘Namibians’ and conceiving Caprivi as a separate independent nation. An armed attack, which was planned on 2 August 1999, was uncovered and many of the leaders were arrested, while some managed to escape into exile.

Since Namibia’s independence repeated demands were put forward to replace the German names ‘Caprivi’ and ‘Schuckmannsburg’. Yet, there is no uniformly accepted name for the whole area of East Caprivi. Controversial opinions relate to the often-suggested name ‘Itenge’ and its exact boundaries. To indicate small specific areas within the East-Caprivi the local population used other names, e.g. ‘Kuhane’ and ‘Livanga’. The name generally favoured is ‘Lyambai’ – the SiLozi name for the Zambezi River. The indigenous name for Schuckmannsburg is ‘Luhonono’, which is derived from the many large Terminalia sericea trees, which grow there.

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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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January 1677. At the tip of Africa, where a supply station has been established at the foot of Table Mountain, the Dutch ship ‘Bode’ sets sails to explore the coastline north of the Gariep/Orange River mouth. In early March the ‘Bode’ arrives at Sandwich Harbour. The crew goes ashore but is attacked by Khoisan who live there. After a brief skirmish the sailors retreat aboard ship and leave the bay. Thus the inhabitants of today’s Namibia have put up resistance against European intruders for more than three centuries.

Adventurers, explorers, hunters and traders travelling north from the Cape start to cross the Gariep/Orange River in the late 18th century. Missionaries soon follow suit. Often they are in fact called by tribal chiefs because they are seen as attracting traders. Livestock is exchanged for European merchandise, most notably weapons, because Nama, Oorlam and Herero clash repeatedly.

Namibia Independence, 45 Cent, issued in 1990, artist: Theo Marais

However, the European influence on the country’s fate begins only at the end of the 19th century. In 1884 Imperial Germany extends its protection to a coastal strip in the southwest which Adolf Lüderitz, a merchant from Bremen, acquired from the Oorlam in Bethanien. In 1886 Germany and Portugal agree on the northern border of the German protectorate. Like all the European colonial powers, Imperial Germany wants cheap sources of raw materials for its aspiring industry, but the vast country is also interesting for settling. In the beginning of the 20th century local population groups rise against German rule.

This first battle for independence (1903 until 1908) is lost, however. Herero, Nama and Oorlam are defeated by the technically superior Germans, some of their numbers are heavily reduced and they are now subjected to a strict regime. Most of their land is confiscated and sold to settlers. The position of these population groups does not change much when South African troops invade the country after the outbreak of the First World War and defeat the German colonial power in 1915. South Africa is granted a League of Nations mandate for the administration of South West Africa in 1920 and aspires to annexe the territory as its fifth province.

After the Second World War South Africa tries to maintain ‘white’ minority rule over the country’s ‘black’ majority with the Apartheid system. In Namibia the removal of people from the ‘Old Location’ in Windhoek to Katutura causes a violent rebellion in 1959. A total of 13 people are shot dead by the police. Three months later, on 21 March 1960, the massacre of Sharpeville in South Africa causes a worldwide outrage. Sam Nujoma goes into exile, becomes the leader of SWAPO which was established shortly before and takes up the armed struggle through its military wing, PLAN. The first battle is fought at Ongulumbashe on 26 August 1966.

Resistance leader becomes president: Sam Nujoma is sworn in by the Chief Justice Hans Berker on 21 March 1990. Photo: National Archives

Resistance leader becomes president: Sam Nujoma is sworn in by the Chief Justice Hans Berker on 21 March 1990. Photo: National Archives

Now the power is no longer divided as unequally as it was during colonial times. Resistance fighters are equipped with modern weapons and receive foreign support. In 1966 the United Nations withdraw South Africa’s mandate for Namibia’s administration and recognise SWAPO as representing the majority of the population. But the Cold War helps to sustain South African policies – on the African continent the West needs South Africa as ally against Communism.

The road to Namibia’s independence is paved when the collapse of the Eastern Block becomes imminent in the late 80s and South Africa has to realise that it cannot win the battle against SWAPO by military means. In early 1989 the United Nations despatch an UNTAG force for the transition, Sam Nujoma returns to Namibia in September and elections for the constitutional assembly are held in November. The assembly approves the constitution in February 1990 and chooses Samuel Daniel Shafiishuna Nujoma as the country’s first president. Namibia, ‘Africa’s last colony’ celebrates independence on 21 March 1990 – 30 years after the Sharpeville massacre and 313 years after the skirmish at Sandwich Harbour.

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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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