Tuesday, February 11, 2014

No White Feathers: Misreading a Key Element of the Material Culture of the Witbooi Nama in 1904

At the outset of the German -Herero War in January, 1904, the white soldiers of the Schutztruppe and its reserves were bolstered by several hundred African allies.  The largest group of these native soldiers was a contingent of about 120 men from a Nama sub-group known as the Witboois. 

They were an Oorlam or mixed race people and the last of five Oorlam clans that made the the trek north from the Cape in the early to mid-19th century to settle in what is now south central Namibia.  Since then, the Witbooi have assimilated more thoroughly with the Nama,
referring themselves by the clan name ǀKhowesin in the Khoikhoigowab or Damara/Nama language, but during the German colonial period they more commonly used a variant of Afrikaans, and the name "Witbooi "means just what it sounds like in that language.

Hendrik Witbooi (d.1905) and others wearing the knotted white turban of their clan
Their leader during the critical period between 1885 and 1905 was Hendrik Witbooi, a remarkable person who fought against both the Germans and the Herero in the 1890s, then allied with the colonial power until October of 1904 when he lead his people in a guerrilla war of resistance.

Hendrick Witbooi and Nama Horsemen wearing Imperial armbands (likely late 1890s).
 The men riding with Hendrick Witbooi in the image, above, wear white turbans around the crown of their hats, and in one case, a pith helmet with a hatband in Imperial colors.  Many writers have concluded that the tail end of white cloth that extends above the knot on the top of the hat, clearly visible in this and other contemporary images as well as in versions of the Witbooi turban used today as ceremonial regalia,  is actually a white feather.  I believe this comes from a misreading of a section of Witbooi's  October 3, 1904 letter in which he announces his declaration of war ; 

"...I have now stopped walking submissively and will write a letter to the [German] Captain saying that I have put on the white feather and that the time is over when I will walk behind him ̧ The Savior himself will now act and He will free us through His grace and compassion...."
It is clear from the images provided here that this is not a correct interpretation of the meaning of Witbooi's (translated) words.
  It is the turban itself to which he refers, worn during times of war. A metaphorical feather, perhaps, is formed by the topknot, but there is no evidence that a real feather was ever stuck in the turban, nor is one used in modern versions of the same turban (color photos below courtesy of the Gibeon Village Council website).

Reverend Hendrick Witbooi (1934-2009) wearing the traditional knotted white turban covering the crown of his hat.

Honor guard at Rev. Witbooi's funeral, including horsemen wearing the knotted white turban.

An image of Lt. Gen. Lothar v. Trotha inspecting Witbooi troopers at Okahandja in June 1904 (source Bayer)
Fate was not kind to the Witbooi troopers who served under the Germans during the Herero War of 1904.  19 of them deserted with their arms after Hamakari and returned to Hendrik Witbooi at their home place of Gibeon.  It is said that they were alarmed that their people might be crushed just as brutally by the Germans as the Herero and that their report was part of what motivated Witbooi to declare war in October, 1904.  

The remaining 90 or more Witbooi auxiliaries were disarmed when hostilities began with the Nama and were sent in a group of 118 prisoners to labor in German Togo where at least 63 of them died of disease. The survivors were transferred to German Cameroon in 1905 along with more Witbooi Nama prisoners, and there were more deaths in exile until they were  finally repatriated to Southwest Africa by Governor Lindquist after the fighting found down and the Nama had been broken and decimated.

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