Samuel Maherero (ca. 1854-1923) was the Supreme Chief of the Herero nation, who led his people in revolt against German occupation of Herero lands.
The scramble for Africa by the European powers at the close of the 19th century had tragic consequences for the Herero people of South West Africa. In its quest for a presence in southern Africa, the German imperial government claimed territory along the Atlantic Coast, north of British-and Afrikaner-settled South Africa, and south of Portuguese Angola. The Germans claimed it as German South West Africa (now the independent country of Namibia), and German interests vied for land with the cattle-herding Herero and Nama peoples of the territory. The settlers' demands for land and cattle and the ruthless policies of a German military leader resulted in the almost complete annihilation of the Herero people under the leadership of paramount chief Samuel Maherero.
In 1904, when Samuel Maherero led his people in an uprising against the Germans, the Herero population was approximately 80,000. In little more than a year, more than 64,000 had been killed in battle or died in the desert where they had been chased by German troops. Some historians consider the German policy of extermination of the Herero as a prelude to German policy of genocide against the Jews in Europe 30 years later.
Before 1884, the presence of Germans in South West Africa was limited to Rhenish (German) missionaries who had set up missions in the early 1800s under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. Later in the century, German and British prospectors came in search of gold and diamonds. The imperial German government raised its flag in 1884 over Angra Pequena and a stretch of coast purchased from a chief of the Nama people. At the time, the German foreign office was more interested in blocking the British from access to the interior than in settling the area; a governor-general and a small contingent of troops were sent to administer the territory.
Initially the presence of a few German civil servants made little impact. When the Germans arrived, the Herero controlled vast areas of the interior, running from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Kalahari Desert in the east. They had the largest population and were the wealthiest of the peoples of South West Africa. Unlike most Bantu-speakers, the Herero were nomadic cattle herders whose sole basis for wealth was the size of their cattle herds.
To the south of the Hereros lived the Nama, descendants of the Khoikhoin, a nomadic pastoral people who are thought to be the earliest inhabitants of southwestern Africa. With a population in the late 1880s of about 20,000, the Namas ranged from the Orange River in the south up to a rough border along the Swakop River, separating them from the Herero.
Despite the vastness of the area (320,827 square miles) and the small population groups, the several African chiefs and their people competed for control over grazing lands. The Nama asked the Oorlams, recent newcomers from South Africa skilled in the use of rifles, to help push the Herero out of their territory and back to the north of the Swakop River. Fighting as "commando" units, the Oorlams forced the Herero beyond the Auas Mountains to Okahandja. In doing so, the Oorlams took the Herero's capital for their own and called it Windhoek. In 1850, the Oorlams attacked the Herero at Okahandja and began a long conflict between the two groups. The raiding and fighting finally ended when Oorlam chief Jonker Afrikaner died in 1861. When Herero chief Tjamuaha also died in 1861, he was succeeded by Kamaherero, the father of Samuel Maherero.
Determined to be free of the Oorlams and their Nama allies, Kamaherero crushed them in a battle at Otjimbingwe in 1863 and so became a dominant force in the territory. Fighting and raiding among the groups continued until 1870 when Rhenish missionaries, who had settled in Otjimbingwe in 1864, negotiated a peace treaty that remained in force for ten years.
Fighting resumed in August 1880. In revenge for cattle stolen by the Namas, Kamaherero ordered the death of all Namas living in his territory. About 200 Namas are reported to have been killed. With the resumption of fighting, the British—who had had a minor presence in the area and who had offered the German missionaries some protection from the warring groups—retreated hastily to the port area of Walvis Bay, leaving the territory unprotected and open to the Germans.
In 1884, the German foreign office established an official presence in South West Africa when it raised the German flag over Angra Pequena, an area claimed by Adolf Ludderitz, and a strip of land along the coast running 20 miles inland that he had purchased from Nama chief Josef Frederiks for 160 rifles and £600.
The Germans were hoping to obtain land further inland but Herero supreme chief Kamaherero steadfastly refused to sell his people's lands. Since Herero land belonged to the community at large, the kapteins or traditional leaders did not have the authority to sell it. Europeans were given permission to use land, and when they died or moved the land reverted back to the tribe.
Wanting to keep costs and involvement in the territory at a minimum, the German foreign office sent out a few civil servants and a high commissioner to represent its interests. Heinrich Göring, the father of Nazi leader Hermann Göring, was appointed imperial commissioner to South West Africa.
Early German policy was to offer "Protection Treaties" to the local peoples. In theory, the Germans offered protection to the chief and his clan while supporting the chief's jurisdiction over his people. In exchange, the chief promised not to cede any land or make treaties with anyone else without German approval. The Herero signed a treaty with the Germans, hoping to buy some protection from the Nama. But the Germans never intended to get involved with tribal disputes. They were more interested in playing one group against the other.
In 1888, reports of a gold strike brought in German prospectors and renewed British interest in the territory. Though reports of the find turned out to be a hoax, German foreign policy became more aggressive because of British inroads in South West Africa. Britain had recently granted Bechuanaland (Botswana) protectorate status, and the Germans wanted to block British expansion. The German foreign office sent Curt von Francois in charge of a small force of men in June 1889 under strict orders not to antagonize the Herero. From German accounts, it is evident that Francois was not able to conceal his personal animosity toward the Herero. He requested reinforcements and six months later the German military presence increased to 50 soldiers and two weeks later to 150.
In October 1890, when the Herero had temporarily withdrawn from Windhoek to move south to put pressure on the Nama, Francois took advantage of their absence and occupied the Herero capital. Later that month, on the 27th, Herero Supreme Chief Kamaherero died. Although his son Nikodemus was first in line to succeed him, the choice fell to another son, Samuel.
The fighting between the Nama and the Herero continued unabated. From the German perspective, the intertribal fighting minimized any genuine threat to the Germans, but the unstable nature of the territory frightened away prospective German settlers. In 1890, Imperial Chancellor Göring wrote to Hendrik Witbooi, an educated leader of a Nama subgroup, and asked him to stop attacking the Herero who were under German protection. Witbooi wrote to Samuel Maherero suggesting they cease fighting. He said in his letter that peace between the Nama and the Herero was always a possibility. He also said that Maherero's alliance with the Germans was unnatural and that the only reason for it was that Maherero hated the Nama so much. Two years later, in November 1892, when the Herero learned that Boer farmers from the Orange Free State in South Africa were coming north to settle, Samuel Maherero agreed to a treaty with Hendrik Witbooi. Mediated by Hermanus van Wyk, kaptein of the Rehobothers, the treaty brought to an end nearly 100 years of fighting.
But the peace treaty between the two rival chiefs alarmed the Germans, and they made a preemptive strike against the Witboois. In preparation, the German foreign office sent out an additional 214 men and 2 officers. The reinforcements arrived in March 1893, and in April, under Curt von Francois, German troops made a surprise attack on Hornkranz, the Witboois' capital. The Witboois were soon joined by other Nama tribesmen, and their numbers swelled from 250 to 600 men. Starting out with 100 rifles and 120 horses, they had 400 rifles and 300 horses in six months of raiding German supplies. The German foreign office recalled Von Francois for his failure and replaced him with Major Theodor Leutwein.
At first, Leutwein left the Witboois alone as he attacked and subdued smaller tribes. Maintaining divisions among the Africans was essential to continued German domination. In the latter part of 1894, Leutwein set about to alienate the Herero from their land without fighting. First, he paid Samuel Maherero a salary of 20,000 marks in exchange for his agreeing to redefine the southern boundary of Hereroland. Then he obtained Maherero's agreement to establish a so-called Crown territory (land placed at the disposal of the German governor) in the north at the White Nosob. Most affected by this treaty were Herero headmen Tjetjo, Nikodemus, and Kahimemua, who were already distressed by Samuel Maherero's dealings with the Germans.
Alarmed at the growing opposition among the Herero to his succession and his dealings with the Germans, Maherero decided to withdraw from Okahandja and move to Osona. He sought out Leutwein, and at a meeting in June 1894 Maherero said he would be "pleased to ask for a German garrison to be stationed Okahandja to protect him." Thus, without a shot being fired, German troops occupied the Herero capital.
Leutwein boasted of his successful co-option of Samuel Maherero in a letter to the foreign office: "His friendship has enabled us to remain masters of Hereroland despite our modest protective force. In order to please us, he did more harm to his people than we could ever have done by relying on our strength alone."
With the Herero neutralized, Leutwein turned back to the task of bringing the Witboois under control. When reinforcements arrived, he went after the Witboois, who had hidden out in the Noukloof Mountains. In their pursuit, the Germans suffered heavy casualties, but they finally forced the Witboois to surrender after 18 months of warfare. In September 1894, the Witboois signed a Treaty of Protection and Friendship with the Germans. Deprived of all their cattle and dependent on handouts from the Germans, the Witboois agreed to fight against any German enemy.
Leutwein's divide-and-rule policy was effective. When two subgroups, the Herero Mbandjeru and the Nama Khauas rose up against German settlers and forces, Samuel Maherero was bound to fight against his fellow Herero in support of the Germans. And Hendrik Witbooi, in honor of his treaty with the Germans, did not support the Nama forces. Leutwein confiscated the cattle belonging to the Mbandjeru for the settlers and his troops. Several years later, he confirmed that he had seized 12,000 head of cattle from Mbandjeru between 1896-97.
The Herero came under further pressure in 1897 when rinderpest killed between 90 and 95% of their remaining cattle. Germans vaccinated their own herds and cut their losses substantially. With the diminished herds, the price of cattle soared, but the Herero could not compete in the market. In a few years' time, the settlers had acquired nearly 50,000 head of cattle. From then on, the white settlers entered the cattle market and began to raise cattle for a profit. The Herero were impoverished and many were forced to work for the Germans on the railway or in the mines in South Africa.
Increasingly, the settler population rubbed against the African people. Cheating the Africans out of their cattle, they took their land and gouged them in commercial transactions. In the two years between 1901 and 1903, the settler population had swelled from 310 to 3,000. The railway from Swakopmund on the coast to Windhoek was nearing completion. Having confiscated Herero land to build the railway, the Germans wanted an additional 12-mile-wide strip on either side, plus water rights. Maherero agreed to give up the land but nothing more.
In 1903, a subclan of the Nama, the Bondelswarts, rose up against the Germans in the southern part of the country. In response, Leutwein removed almost all his troops from Hereroland and sent them south to quell the uprising. In the absence of the troops, Maherero urged his people to rise up against the Germans. The Herero uprising began on January 12, 1904. In one stroke, Supreme Chief Samuel Maherero reversed his devastating policy of collaboration with the Germans and united the Herero people. Leutwein was forced to conclude a hasty peace treaty with the Bondelswarts so he could move his troops back north.
Several days before January 12, Maherero had sent a note to Witbooi, through the trusted emissary van Wyk, to ask the Nama to join the Herero against the Germans. Van Wyk betrayed Maherero's trust and delivered the note to the German military leader. In his note, Samuel Maherero said:
I appeal to you my brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some other calamity. Tell all the kapteins down there to rise and do battle.
Unaware of Maherero's appeal, the Nama contingents honored their treaty with the Germans and allowed them to concentrate solely on fighting the Herero.
For the first six months, the Herero were on the offensive. They had caught the Germans ill prepared and undermanned. In an encounter in April, when the Herero encircled the main German detachment at Oviumbo, Leutwein ordered his troops to retreat and remained on the defensive until reinforcements arrived. Toward the end of May, the Herero moved northeast to the Waterberg Plateau, away from the railway line and the German's supply lines.
Criticized by the foreign office for the retreat at Oviumbo, Leutwein submitted his resignation and awaited his replacement, Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha. Historian Horst Drechsler describes Von Trotha as a "veritable butcher in uniform, who embarked on a campaign of annihilation against the Herero." Arriving in June, Von Trotha issued what is referred to as his "Extermination Orders":
The Herero people must depart from the country. If they do not, I shall force them to, with large cannons. Within the German boundary every Herero, whether found armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot.
Von Trotha decided to engage the Herero at Waterberg. The Waterberg Plateau looms up out of the flat Namibian landscape, protected on three sides by the walls of the escarpment. On the east, it slopes into the Omaheke desert in Botswana. Von Trotha ordered six German detachments to spread out on the three sides of the plateau, with the smallest contingent in the southeast. The attack began on August 11 from the west where he had positioned the strongest detachment. With their superior weaponry, the Germans overwhelmed the Herero. The Germans had 30 artillery pieces and 12 machine-guns to the Herero's 6,000 rifles and dwindling ammunition supplies. Attacked from the west, the Herero had no alternative but to flee into the Omaheke desert to the southeast. A study of a report by the German general staff confirms that this was an intentional plan:
If, however, the Herero were to break through [in the east], such an outcome of the battle could only be even more desirable in the eyes of the German Command because the enemy would then seal his own fate, being doomed to die of thirst in the arid sandveld.
Once the Herero were beyond the waterholes, the Germans formed a line of defense along the 150-mile border, denying the Herero access to water. Those Herero who tried to go northward were repulsed by German troops. The cordon was maintained until mid-1905. Out of a population of 80,000, 64,000 Herero died, most of them from thirst and starvation in the desert.
As reports reached Witbooi of how wretchedly the Germans were treating the Herero, Witbooi and the entire Nama nation took up arms against the Germans in October 1904. A year later, in October 1905, Hendrik Witbooi was killed. Although the Namas continued the fight, engaging 14,000 German soldiers in guerrilla warfare for two more years, the Nama uprising had come too late. As Drechsler says, "It was nothing short of a tragedy that the Herero and Nama took up arms successively rather than simultaneously against the hated German yoke."
Following Witbooi's death, Von Trotha left South West Africa. With Von Trotha gone and the Germans realizing they could not win the war against the Nama, they finally negotiated an end to the war in 1907. By then half the Nama population of 20,000 had died.
Samuel Maherero and his three sons survived the desert. They made their way to British territory and eventually settled at Lake Ngami in Botswana. Samuel Maherero died in exile in 1923. His remains were returned to South West Africa, and he was buried with his grandfather and father in Okahandja. Every year, the Herero gather at the grave site to commemorate their leaders.
Further Reading on Samuel Maherero
Drechsler, Horst. Let Us Die Fighting. Akademie-Verlag, 1966.
Jenny, Hans. South West Africa: Land of Extremes. Southwest Africa Scientific Society. 1976.
Lau, Brigitte. Namibia in Jonker Afrikaner's Time. Namibia Archives, 1987.
Soggot, David. Namibia: The Violent Heritage. Rex Collings, 1986.