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.

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