Posts Tagged ‘walvis bay’

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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Swimming in the bay at the breakwater (Mole), standing on the jetty and marvelling at the sunset – that is as much part of a holiday in Swakopmund as salt belongs in the ocean. Imagine that both of these attractions are simply the result of a few quirks of history. It is quite likely that they would not exist if the bay of today’s Walvis Bay, 30 km further south, had not already been in British hands at the end of the 19th century and had Imperial Germany not declared the south-western part of Africa a protectorate and done its utmost to build a harbour for the country…

 The breakwater and jetty are the remains of the first and third attempt to give Swakopmund a pier for mooring the ships – as alternative to the expensive deepwater harbour of Walvis Bay. Construction of the breakwater started on 2 September 1899. Three-and-a-half years later, in February 1903, the small harbour was ready. It was intended for smaller vessels which would ferry goods and passengers to and from the big steamers anchored in the roads. However, after just one year the breakwater basin had silted up to such an extent that even light boats could make it to the pier only at high tide.

Early Simmentaler import, issued in 1993, artist: Carola Kronsbein-Goldbeck

Early Simmentaler import, issued in 1993, artist: Carola Kronsbein-Goldbeck

Thus a different approach was tried in 1904: A jetty with a length of 280 metres was built at a headland south of the breakwater, sporting three sets of tracks – one for cranes and two for railway wagons. Completed in April 1905, the jetty was used for unloading boats. Spruce timber had been the main building material – apparently untreated because at some stage it was noticed that the wood was eaten by woodworm.

Finally, in 1912, a real job was made of it and a new jetty was built from iron and concrete. It was supposed to become 640 m long, jutting out far enough into the sea to avoid the area where the heavy breakers form. The approach to the clearing area was planned to be 490 m long and 7.50 m wide, while the clearing area itself was going to be a platform of 150 m long and 20 m wide. The pylons, consisting of an iron core protected by a concrete case, were driven more than 2.5 m into the solid granite rock of the ocean floor.

The wooden jetty with cranes and railway tracks.  Source: National Archives

The wooden jetty with cranes and railway tracks. Source: National Archives

Construction work was very complex. The holes for the pylons were drilled with the help of divers and heavy machinery, then an iron pipe was sunk into it, followed by the iron abutment. Next the cavity was filled with small pieces of metal and concrete and finally the iron pipe was removed and used for making the next pylon. Construction work was delayed if the drilling equipment hit a layer of Nagelfluh (a concrete-like conglomerate of stones, sand, mud and lime) on top of the granite. Therefore only 260 m of the jetty had been completed by August 1914. The outbreak of the First World War put an end to further construction work and under the subsequent South African administration the deepwater port of Walvis Bay was used of course.

Since the iron jetty was built just a few metres south of the wooden predecessor not even the part that was ready was ever used for its original purpose, not even provisionally. As far as is known it happened only once that a ship moored at the jetty: almost choked with emotion, old Swakopmunders tell you that in 1952 the South African destroyer ‘The Acteon’ moored at the jetty. The whole town was astir and cheered the crew and invited them to the next bar for a roaring party.

Cattle is brought ashore at the breakwater in Swakopmund – as an alternative to the expensive harbour in Walvis Bay (as shown on the stamp).  Source: National Archives

Cattle is brought ashore at the breakwater in Swakopmund – as an alternative to the expensive harbour in Walvis Bay (as shown on the stamp). Source: National Archives

Otherwise the jetty served as a tourist attraction, a photo scene, a meeting place for dates, the start or finish of swimming competitions and also as the backdrop of a restaurant. In the late seventies the jetty was in danger of collapsing and was repaired provisionally. In the late nineties its further existence was at stake when serious damage was detected once more. After several years of public fundraising the City of Swakopmund finally made funds available for the thorough restoration of the jetty’s front part. The far end was eventually saved by businessman Quinton Liebenberg who had the platform repaired and in 2010 opened an oyster bar there.

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99, philately@nampost.com.na

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When you pass ‘Martin Luther’ just outside Swakopmund and have heard the story of the road locomotive you will probably chuckle spontaneously. But is the story that is told about the monstrous steam engine in fact correct? Was the whole idea really that crazy?

The discrepancies already start with the name. According to historians the famous words “here I stand, I cannot help it”, which Martin Luther is supposed to have uttered in 1521 after his interrogation by the Imperial Diet in Worms were never spoken. The derisive name for the vehicle, which got stuck 1.5 km outside Swakopmund and was abandoned there, is therefore on shaky ground. The time of naming is also wrong: The joke about ‘Martin Luther’ was already doing the rounds before the steam engine had even driven its first few metres in the Namib…

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

But back to the start. As more and more settlers arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century, the volume of goods increased as well. Ox wagons were the only mode of transportation for heavy loads. However, almost 100 km of desert had to be negotiated on the way from the coast into the interior. There was nothing to feed on for the oxen and they were worn out completely. Many oxen died and the route was lined by their skeletons. The surviving animals needed months to recover from the ordeal. Therefore only three return trips per year could be made from the coast to Windhoek. It was still very early days for automobiles and plans for a railway line remained shelved because of the costs.

In this situation senior lieutenant Edmund Troost had the idea to import a traction engine. His steam ox, as he jokingly called it, was supposed to drive from Swakopmund via Nonidas and Goanikontes to meet the ox wagons at Heigamgab and save them half the trip through the desert. “The route up to almost 2 km out of Swakopmund was (…) hard, of a rocky nature”, Troost stated. He also felt that enough water for the steam engine was available along the route. At his own expense he shipped the vehicle from Germany after obtaining the government’s assurance that public goods would be transported with his vehicle.

However, even the vehicle’s arrival in 1896 started with a glitch: It could only be off-loaded in Walvis Bay and the departure to Swakopmund was delayed by business in Cape Town and unrest among the country’s Nama and Herero population until the contract with the engine driver had expired. As Troost reported later on, the nickname ‘Martin Luther’ had already been coined at that stage. First an American gold hunter, and after him a Boer, tried to drive the vehicle. The deep sand became a gruelling obstacle: The behemoth got stuck every 50 metres and shovelling it clear was a tedious process. Labourers simply stayed away, water had to be obtained up to 30 km away. Three months passed before the steam ox finally huffed into Swakopmund.

Martin Luther Swakopmund, 9 Cent, issued in 1975, artist: Arthur Howard Barrett

But there was no end to the problems. The engine had to be stoked for three hours before the vehicle was able to move. Troost lamented that at times it was operated for only three hours per day because the engine driver insisted on his breakfast and lunch break. In retrospect he also said that the 2-metre tow bar to the wagons proved too short, causing them to swing off heavily to the sides on the uneven surface. A 10-metre tow bar would also have been an advantage when crossing sandy riverbeds because at least the vehicle and the wagons would not have gotten stuck together.

The last blow for the steam ox already came after less than ten transports. Some 1.5 km out of Swakopmund several pipes melted in the boiler because apparently there was not enough water in the steam system. Repairs were not worth the effort since in the meantime governor Theodor Leutwein had received confirmation from Germany that a narrow-gauge railway line was going to be built from Swakopmund into the interior…

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99, philately@nampost.com.na

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