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 SĂĽdwestafrika 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.

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