Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Germans and Strangers" in Distriktskommando Grootfontein (Battle of Uikomst Part IV)

At the beginning of 1904, German Southwest Africa had a number of administrative districts. Grootfontein was one of two military districts, lightly settled by Europeans and close to the frontier.  It was administered by Chef des Militärdistrikts Oberleutnant Richard Volkmann.  His Distriktskommando Grootfontein included the farm Uitkomst, along with at least 25 other European settlements and outposts scattered between Otjituo in the east, the Otavi Mountains, and distant Namutoni near Etosha Pan.

The region was a cultural crossroads.  To the north  and northeast of Volkmann's district were populous African kingdoms that were beyond effective German control.  Kambonde Kampinganae, King of the Ndonga Owambo, considered the Otavi Mountains, and especially the copper mines at Tsumeb, within his sphere of influence.  The settlement that was later to become Grootfontein was known to the North Herero as Oshivanda Tjongue, or Leopard Hill.  There were also Berg Damara and Hai||om bushmen living in the region.

European settlers in the Grootfontein district were far from numerous, and Germans were a distinct minority. The 1904 Deutsches kolonial-Handbuch includes yearly census data for the Grootfontein District that identifies a total of 215 European men, women and children living at 26 settlements; just 49 of these white residents were German.  Most of the rest were Afrikaners,  Boers who had come to the region in several waves, starting in the mid 1870s as part of an exodus from the Orange Free State and Transvaal in South Africa.  Known as the Dorsland Trekkers because they had traversed the dry Kalahari, they would ultimately reach arid southeastern Angola.  About 20 of these Boer families returned to the Grootfontein area and established the short-lived Republic of Upingtonia (1885-1887). 

Ochsenzug in der Grassteppe von Südwestafrika by Wilhelm Kuhnert

Malaria, a trade embargo imposed by Herero paramount chief Maharero kaTjamuaha who disputed the Boers rights to settle in what he regarded as his territory, and conflict with the Hai||om that resulted in the killing of one of the settlers caused this venture to be abandoned.  In 1891, the South West Africa Company (based in London with British and German investors) received a ten year concession to develop the mineral interests and transportation routes in this area and to allocate farms for settlement. 

Boer Kommandant Lombard (seated at left) with Gov. Leutwein and Samuel Maharero in 1895
By the mid 1890s, many Boers, including some who had been part of the earlier Upingtonia settlement and many more who emigrated from South Africa in yet another wave of Dorsland trekkers, received permission to settle in the Grootfontein area and purchase farms from the South West Africa Company.  When the northern boundary of Hereroland was demarcated by Governor Leutwein in a treaty with Maharero's son and successor Samuel, up to forty Boer families were given permission to farm in the Grootfontein District.  In addition to establishing permanent settlements they were required to become German citizens and perform military service.  Among them was a Boer named Joubert who was given rights to the farm Uitkomst, which in Afrikaans means "Deliverance".  In 1903 there were 17 white people living on this farm.  Only Strydfontein, the farm of the Boer Kommandant Jean Lombard, and Grootfontein itself had more white residents.

Given these demographics, it becomes clearer why the Herero leader Mbatona (Batona) would have warned the Boers of the Grootfontein District of his intentions and wanted them to remain nonbelligerent.  Oberleutnant Volkmann had no more than 25 riders of the Schutztruppe and some native police at his command to patrol the entire Grootfontein District, and some of these were scattered at remote outposts (Namutoni, with 7 German defenders, and Otjituo with 4).  Even with reservists and volunteers from the small German settler population, Grootfontein was isolated and vulnerable in the face of an organized and well armed Herero force.  The firepower of the Boers was essential to defending the District, but they had livestock and families to protect on their own farmsteads.  We will discuss how these factors played into the Battle of Uitkomst in a subsequent post in this series.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Commanders at Uitkomst: Mbatona of Osondema, Kamaihamagoani of Waterberg and the War Leader with the White Ostrich Feather(Battle of Uitkomst Part III)

The Southwest African leader identified as Batona or Batonna in colonial German accounts, but whose name would be more properly rendered in Otjiherero as Mbatona, was the overall commander of the Herero force that fought against Oberleutnant Volkmann's detachment near the farm Uitkomst in the Grootfontein District on January 18th, 1904.  Aside from noting that he was one of the most influential and wealthy (einflußreichsten und wohlhabendsten) of the North Herero leaders, contemporary German records offer little else that would shed light on who Mbatona was, or about his life before the fight that would end it.  Only Dr. Paul Rohrbach, in his Aus Südwest-Afrikas Schweren Tagen, offers the additional but critical biographical detail that Mbatona was from Osondema, a waterhole on the Omuramba-Omatako about 90 km South of Grootfontein.

Those few records that mention him at all need to be treated very carefully and critically, for they each reflect the values and biases of the various recorders and have been treated quite differently by subsequent researchers informed by their own historiographical traditions and political considerations. Rohrbach, for example, calls him "the one-eyed Herero Underchief Batona" - a fascinating detail - but then continues to describe him as one who was "always regarded as a secret bandit and unreliable, not to be trusted", so the possibility exists that this is merely a rhetorical flourish rather than a true physical description.

Still, there are one or two scattered clues, and perhaps further research will reveal more, not only from German diaries like Paul Rohrbach's dealing with the events in the Grootfontein district at this time, but also from possible accounts in Afrikaans.  Grootfontein at the time of the German-Herero War had a large number of Boer families as well as German settlers, and this fact becomes an important factor as we consider what Mbatona may have been trying to accomplish with his followers at the outset of the uprising.

The German General Staff's official history - Die Kämpfe der deutschen Truppen in Südwestafrika. Auf Grund amtlichen Materials bearbeitet (1906) - reports that seven "great men" of the Herero, including 'Batona', were among those killed at Uitkomst.  German settler Conrad Rust, owner of the Farm Monte Christo and the publisher of the Windhuker Nachrichten, goes further in his Krieg und Frieden im Hereroland : aufzeichnungen aus dem Kriegsjahre 1904 (1905) and identifies another Herero commander: an unnamed Schlachten-General from Okahandja.  This man, says, Rust, was recognizable by a large white ostrich feather in his hat, and according to him was likewise killed during the fight with Volkmann's patrol.  Rohrbach's diary confirms the details provided by Rust about the white feather and his position as one of Samuel's war generals.  Rohrbach identifies a third Herero leader who fell: "Kamaihamagoani of Waterberg".  I have yet to learn anything further about the man with the white feather or Kamaihamagoani aside from their presence and deaths at Uitkomst.

Contemporary German chroniclers believed that the Herero uprising had been planned for some time in secret, an idea that more recent historians such as Jean-Bart Gewald contest.  There is an ongoing academic and political controversy concerning translations and retranslations of a captured letter, originally drafted in Otjiherero (though perhaps not by Samuel Maharero himself), that some consider a war declaration.  It was not originally dated, but it was reported to be in German missionary hands by the third week of February, 1904.  Missionaries from the Evangelican Luthern Church that first translated it into German and the Church retains the original in its Windhoek archives.

The letter appears to be Samuel's instructions to Herero leaders about not (any longer) harming certain groups of people in the conflict.   In its various translations it specifically identifies Englishmen, Bastards, Berg-Damaras, Namas, Boers and Missionaries as categories of people that were not to have hands laid upon them.  Intriguingly, while Rust refers to Samuel's 'Manifesto' he does not provide a transcription.  He does, however, offer specific evidence that Mbatona, at least, considered the Boers in the Grootfontein district to be non-belligerents and wished to keep them out of the conflict.

"Dem Grobler hatte Batonna geraten, seine kinder aus der schule nehmen, damit sie beim gefecht bei Grootfontein, das er zu nehmen beabsichtige, nicht verwundet, auch solle er allen Buren bekannt geben, daß sie unbehelligt bleiben sollen, wenn sie nach Strendfontein zögen und sich am dem Gefecht bei Grootfontein nicht beteiligen würden (Rust:18)."

This I have attempted to translate as follows:

had advised
Grobler to take his children out of school, so that they would not be hurt in the combat around Grootfontein which he intended to undertake, and that he should also make known to all the Boers that they would not be molested if they went to Strendfontein and would not participate in the fighting near Grootfontein." 

The Boer Jean Lombard's farm "Strydfontein", Grootfontein District
Only Rust includes this detail, but it is interesting to note that Mbatona seems to have known the Boer Grobler well enough to advise him that his children were at risk at school.  This was probably the school at the Boer leader Jean M. Lombard's farm Strydfontein, which was the first school in the district and had just been established in 1900.  Perhaps the war leader with the white ostrich feather in his hat brought instructions from Samuel about not making war on the Boers, or perhaps Mbatona, as was the case with many Herero, was still finding his way in the new reality of war with settlers known to him. 

As it happened, the Boers sided with the Germans and a number of them fought as volunteers under Volkmann at Uitkomst.  We will discuss the composition of the opposing forces and consider what evidence exists about what they hoped to achieve, in a subsequent post in this series on the battle of Uitkomst.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Commanders at Uitkomst: Oberleutnant Richard D. Volkmann (Battle of Uikomst Part II)

Richard D. Volkmann was one of the "Alte Afrikaners", an old Africa hand of the German Protection Force in Colonial Southwest Africa.  He came to the colony in April, 1894 as a Lieutenant in the Schutztruppe, arriving in time to join the fight against Hendrick Witbooi in the Naukluft mountains.  He left twelve years later during in the Nama War in 1906 with the rank of Hauptmann and the thanks of his Kaiser after undertaking a campaign  in which he captured Kaptein Cornelius Fredericks and his followers from Bethanie.  During his service he held administrative posts of responsibility, was a Lieutenant in Hauptmann Ludwig von Estorff's Feldkompanie, and explored the far reaches of the Colony in the remote Caprivi Strip, that panhandle of territory extending deep into the interior of the subcontinent and connecting to the Zambezi River.

His most important posts, however, were those of District Chief: first in Omaruru (1894-1898) and later in the Military District of Grootfontein (1899-1904).  Especially during the latter assignment, with only a small Schutztruppe force of less than 25 men augmented by some 15 native police, he was expected to cover a vast territory at the northern extent of German administrative control, protecting settlers, traders and missionaries, managing relations with the indigenous population, and exploring the hinterland. 

In 1903, in response to the expulsion (and a killing) of some European traders and Catholic missionaries  from the Uakwangali territory in the Kavango Region located in the far Northeast  near the Caprivi Strip, now Oberleutnant Volkmann lead an armed force against Uakwangali King Hompa Himarwa Ithete and his nephew Kandjimi Hawanga zaShikongo.  After clashes with the local population, including a fight with the Uakwangali King on July 16, 1903, he reached Andara and secured permission from Mbukushu Chief Diyeye to found a Catholic mission.

Volkmann also established the first German military post at Fort Namutoni (Amutoni), the strategic water hole at the eastern edge of the vast Etosha Pan, which controlled access to the vast Oshiwambo-speaking kingdoms beyond.  Namutoni represented the furthest extent of the German military presence in the District.  It was here on the 28th of January, 1904, that 500 Owambo warriors under King Nahale of the Ndonga attacked the outpost's four Schutztruppen defenders and three reservists.  Lead by Unteroffizier Fritz Großmann, these soldiers were able to withdraw under cover of darkness toward Tsumeb and safety.  This was the only reported instance of the Owambo attacking the Germans during the Herero uprising, though they did shelter some Herero refugees who gained their territory after the battles at the Waterberg.

Along with some of his contemporaries, including von Estorff, Hauptmann Victor Franke, Hauptmann Kurt Streitwolf and others, Volkmann generally viewed the Herero (and their wealth of cattle) as important resources for the development of the colony.  He certainly seems to have commanded the respect and loyalty of those Herero who served in his District Police force at the outset of hostilities in 1904.  According to former East German historian Helmut Bley;

"Only Lieutenant Volkmann, Divisional Commander in Grootfontein, far away from the centre of the revolt, managed to establish real relationships.  His success is - among other things - a sign of the way in which German officers brought the Africans into their own ethos.  Volkmann had recruited fifteen young men from respected Herero families into the police force.  When news of the revolt reached Grootfontein, Volkmann gave these men the option of leaving the force, since he did not wish to force them to fight against their own people.  They were, he said, entirely free to leave, but he would 'solemnly curse anyone who leaves.'  Volkmann's standing among the Herero was such that they all remained to take part in the fighting (Bley, Namibia Under German Rule, pg. 179)."

This, then,  was the man in charge in the Grootfontein District at the outbreak of hostilities with the Herero in 1904.  He was a confident and strong willed leader who would go on to play a significant role later that year in August helping to contain the Herero forces at the Waterberg, leading a 200 man section that included a detachment that on his orders established a heliograph station on the very top of the plateau escarpment overlooking the enemy and the converging German sections below.  

That January, though, as news came in the Hereros has risen in arms and frightened settlers converged on Grootfontein from their remote farmsteads, Volkmann was worried about a significant enemy force gathering in the dolomite mountains not far to the West of town near a farm known as Uitkomst that belonged to a Boer named Joubert.    They were lead by a man the Germans knew well: one of the wealthiest and most influential of the leaders of the North Hereros in that region.  His name was Mbatona (spelled variously Batona/Batonna in the German sources), and we will discuss this enigmatic figure and the scanty biographical details that I've been able to glean from a few German sources, in a subsequent post in this series on the Battle of Uitkomst.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Battle of Uitkomst: Researching a New German-Herero War Skirmish Scenario (Battle of Uitkomst Part 1)

"Uitkomst" by Carl Becker
The outbreak of the German-Herero War in the middle of January, 1904 was a confused and fearful time.  As the conflict spread from the initial spark that ignited at Okahandja, the commanders of remote German outposts were hard pressed to protect the isolated farms and settlements within their districts.  Word soon came to Grootfontein District commander Oberlt. Richard Volkmann from Berg-Damara and Bushman informants that a sizable force of between 170-180 Hereros, partially mounted and armed with about 60 rifles and plenty of ammunition, was in the dolomite Otavi mountains near a farm named Uitkomst, located about 18 kilometers down a wagon road to the southwest of Grootfontein.  At that time, Volkmann could muster little more than a handful of Schutztruppe to oppose them, bolstered by reservists and volunteers.

What followed was one of the sharpest skirmishes and one of the few early German successes of this first phase of the war.  Other small outposts such as Otjituo and Waterberg were attacked during this same period by Herero forces and their defenders annihilated.  Volkmann not only defeated a Herero force much larger than his own, but he did so by launching a surprise cavalry charge through the thornveld  by a mixed force of soldiers, settlers and boers that scattered the Herero column. After the Herero rallied, and in the face of what the Germans called "Schnellfeuer" from the enemy rifles, he aggressively attacked the Herero center and fought both wings back to back.  After the Herero leader Mbatona (German sources wrote his name Batona or Batonna) was killed and other leaders and numerous fighters had fallen, the Herero withdrew and did not return in force to trouble the district.

Carl Becker's contemporary illustration, above, fancifully represents the moment when Volkmann's charge broke through the Herero column.  My own research indicates that it probably didn't happen like this, and it is more likely the charge was made in column (at least at first) rather than in line.  It shows only his Schutztruppe riders (too many of these) and Volkmann had a larger number of Boers, German farmers and reservists along with his small Schutztruppe detatchment. 

It has been hard to tell much for certain, because aside from short secondary accounts from contemporary German histories or memoirs, little else about the fight at Uitkomst is available to a web-based researcher and nothing at all in English.  There is at least one first person account from one of the German participants, though, which I located during the course of researching this series and will discuss in due course, as it challenges some of what was reported in other accounts and amplifies other aspects of the fight.  None of this takes away from Volkmann's accomplishment, but it has direct bearing on a more accurate understanding of the battle and the circumstances leading up to it.

I spent my first of 4 years in Namibia during the 1990s living about 10 kilometers north of Grootfontein, and I know this landscape well.  I used to drive to Otavi along a road that passes near Uitkomst where the fighting had taken place.  The grave of one of Volkmann's men, Unteroffizier Stadler, who whose right leg was shot up and who bled to death from a severed artery, lies in a German section of the Grootfontein cemetery. 

This engagement has peaked my curiosity, and now that the Jones/Alvarado Herero War Scenario and Rules book has been released, I am motivated to try to research this skirmish and develop an authentic and hopefully playable scenario based on the fight at Uitkomst.  I'm thinking of calling it Ambush at Uitkomst: Oberlt. Volkmann's Gambit, and the following posts in this series will track its research and development.