A Past Shrouded in Fog

I’ve spent the past several days traveling around southern Namibia, where traces of
Germany’s colonial past lie as if cloaked in the dense fogs surrounding the Skeleton Coast. The silence of this part of history seems present throughout much of the country. It’s clear that there’s little evidence os the genocide which took place here. Whether or not a deliberate attempt to blot out or just gloss over what happened, Namibia certainly does leave only historical traces of German prowess behind, while ignoring a dark past.

Lighthouse overlooking Shark Island, site of the world’s first death camp. Lüderitz.

Narrow Passageway connecting Shark Island to Lüderitz

A view from the Lighthouse on Shark Island.

Shark Island at sunrise.

Lüderitz railway station.

Plaques commemorating fallen German soldiers, Shark Island.

A plaque commemorating Adolf Lüderitz, Shark Island.

Shark Island, directly off the coastal town of Lüderitz in southern Namibia, was
largely borne of the German-Nama war in the early 20th century. As Kaiser’s Holocaust points out, war
became Lüderitz’s sole business during those years. The town was filled with soldiers arriving on
ships from Germany, and by opportunists and adventurers from across the world.

There were three concentration camps in Lüderitz. The most feared one stood on a
rocky outcrop at the end of Shark Island, where the icy cold south Atlantic
current mixes with the hot air from the interior to create a dense fog that blankets
the island in a cold mist. By the end of 1908, the death toll in the Lüderitz concentration camps totalled three to four thousand.

You have to look and listen deeply for this history, as most of it is hidden. The main sources of information are oral accounts of history from local Nama and Herero, and letters from early 20th century missionaries (again, as effectually discussed in Kaiser’s Holocaust). Most of the history of Lüderitz honors ethnic Germans lost in battles.

Today, the site of the Shark Island concentration camp is not memorialized by a statue
dignifying those lost, but rather the site of a modern day leisure camp ground. Most
campers have no idea about the history of the island, either. There are a few
statues and plaques in the center – one recognizing Adolf
Lüderitz, the German merchant who founded Namibia, others dignifying German
soldiers lost in battle. There is one statue which does pays tribute to Captain
Cornelius Fredericks, the Nama chief who was killed by German colonial forces
in 1904, and his clan. But there is no mention on the island of the

Searching for remnants of this history, I checked out the Lüderitz museum, located only a few kilometers from Shark Island. However, here, you’ll find information
about the local flora and fauna. A history about Germanic expansion into an
unchartered territory, and descriptive information about the local tribes –
including the Herero and Nama. In questioning the one museum guide as to whether there was information on the Herero Wars, she said no -  but rather handed me a book on the history of Lüderitz. 

The book was printed upside down, and was in German.

There was nothing to be found about the Nama
or Herero Wars, or the genocide. 

Plaque dedicated to Captain Cornelius Fredericks, Shark Island, Lüderitz.

Much of the railway system connecting Namibia was built by Nama and Herero slave
labor. Aus, a town 125 kilometers east of Lüderitz, houses a memorial dedicated
to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the completion of the Aus-Lüderitz railway line. You’ll note the date of completion of the railway line – 1906 – was during the time of the genocide and slave labor. 

Yet there is no mention of this, no accompanying memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in building the railway.

Plaque commemorating the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Aus-Lüderitz railway line in 1906, Aus.

Plaque commemorating the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Aus-Lüderitz railway line in 1906, Aus.

Railway tracks, Aus.

Traveling on to Sossusvlei, an arid region in the Namib desert adorned with a sea of magnificent,
ochre sand dunes, I met a man of both Nama and Herero descent. Stanley was very
keen to talk about the genocide. He told my guide and I that he cried every
night for his ancestors whose lives were lost and for whom there is no proper
memorial. He gave us a history passed down to him by his ancestors, drawing out battle lines and so forth in the sand. He described battles fought between the Nama and Germans in the
nearby Sessreim Canyon dating back to the late 19th century, which I
had never heard before. His wish was that his history can continue to be passed
down through the generations, so that his daughter and future generations can know of their history so that such atrocities can not be repeated again.

Stanley, of Nama-Herero descent, Sossusvlei.


More on Stanley, his daughter and Sessreim Canyon in the next post.

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