Nationalism in Early Colonial Namibia. The Case of the 1904-08 Herero and Nama War

On the Origins and Nature of these Uprisings in German South West Africa

Essay, 2014
9 Pages


Nationalism in Namibia: the case of the 1904-08 Herero and Nama war

With regards to the 1904-1908 conflicts in German South West Africa (Namibia), it is hard to categorize the risings of the Herero and then the Nama as instances of nationalist response to European rule. The risings certainly cannot be seen as a unified nationalist struggle as firstly it is unclear whether the Herero and Nama considered themselves ‘nations’ and secondly the Nama did not rise until after the Herero had suffered a huge blow at the Battle of Waterberg (August 1904) and were no longer considered a threat to German hegemony in the region. The aims of this paper are therefore threefold, firstly to discuss what is meant by resistance to European rule, secondly to discuss the origins of the 1904-1908 conflict and finally to establish if these risings are not nationalist then how they should be classified.

In terms of the historiography of resistance in African history, pre c. 1970 the concept of African resistance was primarily seen as nationalist[1], which in all likelihood was due to increasing challenges to colonialism throughout the continent. However, moving into the later 1960’s, early 1970’s and beyond, these interpretations were seen as overly simplified and were judged to have missed the complexities of resistance in African history. Resistance and collaboration to/with European rule was now viewed, as a rational strategy by Africans to defend their interests in the face of colonialism.[2] The issue with this revision is that it leads to the assumption that Europeans united African societies in the common purpose of defending against alien occupation.[3] As such it fails to recognize that Africans would or could have had agenda’s other than the defence of their traditions from European influence. A theory pioneered by Terence Ranger suggests that the modern nationalist struggles of the 1950’s, 1960’s and also later, were somehow connected to earlier forms of violent resistance to the imposition of colonial rule.[4] Whilst it is true that modern nationalist struggles did use historical examples of resistance as fuel for the nationalist fire, it does not necessarily mean that the original conflicts were nationalist in their nature.

This anachronistic approach has several pitfalls, notably there is a tendency to view any resistance to colonial encroachment as being synonymous with nationalist aims, that being to restore national independence.[5] Neville Alexander, however, suggests that a form of proto-nationalism can be ascribed to the situation in German South West Africa.[6] He proposes a sense of Namibian national consciousness was present before the 1904 uprisings that placed the polities that made up the central and southern regions of the country on the opposite side to the German colonial administration. Yet, this feels like somewhat of an oversimplification, whilst, there can be seen to be a feeling within these nations that the colonial forces were not allies, it is equally not apparent that either of these polities considered them to be total enemies. At the very least, the colonial forces were viewed as being important in that the indigenous polities could utilise them to fight age-old conflicts. Evidenced by the fact that Witbooi supplied troops to Germany during the Battle of Waterberg in August 1904, even after Samuel Maharero had sent his know renowned “let us die fighting” letter. Suggesting that the idea of unity in the face of intrusion was in fact a little known entity at the time.

It would then be more apt to argue that the first signs of proto-nationalism in Namibia became a prominent part of the national psyche during and in the aftermath of the genocide perpetrated by the German colonial forces. In the wake of this, the native ordinances and suppression of the indigenous populations pastoral way of life, through prohibiting them from owning land or cattle[7] meant they had to renegotiate their positions in German South West Africa. This was important then in creating more unity amongst similarly oppressed people, where beforehand the colonial forces could be viewed a necessary evil that could be utilised; they were now clearly a hostile force that needed to be opposed. These nationalist tendencies were then built upon during the South African period, where the first phases of popular colonial resistance began to arise[8], revealing how a national consciousness was becoming more consolidated.

The origins of 1904-1908 conflicts are hotly debated within the historical community of this region; J Bridgman (1981) argues that the conflict is an instance of ‘secondary’ resistance showing that a call to violent rebellion was clearly raised[9] and was clearly in response to European rule with the aim of dislodging German supremacy in the area. Putting forward that the risings had a distinctly nationalist agenda due to the Herero being concerned with the German occupation of land and in particular the construction of a railway through the Herero heartland. Whilst the railway and the land issues were certainly a concern for the Herero, Bridgman overemphasizes its impact on the route to war in 1904. The sale of land was certainly not the force that Bridgman argues; rinderpest had come into Hereroland in the latter years of the nineteenth century with horrific consequences. At least two-thirds of cattle in the territory were killed and in some cases communities lost up to ninety five per cent of their cattle.[10] Thus the sale of land was in many ways a rational response to the disaster of rinderpest, as it gave the Herero a source of income from a resource (land) that was at the present time not of paramount importance to them due to the lack of cattle.

In addition Helmut Bley challenges the majority of commentators who see the origins of the war as a planned and pre-meditated revolt due to the land issue and instead argues that it was the belief that German expansion would never stop and that they would not honour their peace treaties that meant that the native headmen were resolved to go to war.[11] Bley is certainly correct in bringing to light that the Herero and Nama were concerned that German expansion was going to continue to encroach upon their land, labour and way of life. On the other hand his assessment that the chiefs were resolved to go to war because of this is debatable; the origins of the war are more likely to be discovered in the interpretations of the colonists and the settlers rather than the Herero or Nama.[12]


[1] Walraven, K V, Abbink J. Rethinking Resistance: Revolt and Violence in African History, (Leiden 2003; 2)

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, 3

[4] Ibid, 1

[5] Steinhart, E. ‘ The Nyangire Rebellion in Bunyoro, 1907: anti-colonial resistance and nationalism’, Asian and African Studies, Vol. XII, (1976), Pg. 43-61

[6] Dreschler, H. Let us die Fighting, (London 1981)

[7] Gewald, JB. Herero Genocide in the Twentieth Century: politics and memory, (2003)

[8] Emmet, T. Popular Resistance and the Roots of Nationalism in Namibia, 1915-1966, (1999)

[9] Bridgman, J. The Revolt of the Hereros, (University of California Press LTD 1981; 6)

[10] Gewald, J. Herero Heroes, (James Currey 1999; 112)

[11] Bley, H. South West Africa under German Rule, 1894-1914, (London 1971; 133-4)

[12] Gewald, J. Herero Heroes, (James Currey 1999; 142)

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Nationalism in Early Colonial Namibia. The Case of the 1904-08 Herero and Nama War
On the Origins and Nature of these Uprisings in German South West Africa
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
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nationalism, early, colonial, namibia, case, herero, nama, origins, nature, uprisings, german, south, west, africa
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Thomas Cripps (Author), 2014, Nationalism in Early Colonial Namibia. The Case of the 1904-08 Herero and Nama War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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