Samuel Maherero was the last of the leaders of the central Herero while they were an independent people. In many ways, he is an enigma. Firstly, he did not seem to be intended for chieftainship, neither by nature nor by inclination. Secondly, in some respects he was a pawn of the German colonial administration, which thrust him into prominence in order to further its own aims. Thirdly, in spite of all, Samuel Maharero led the uprising against German expansionism, with the result that he ended his life in exile, defeated but celebrated as the symbol of Herero aspirations and hopes.
The Herero are a Bantu-language people who arrived in Namibia during fairly recent centuries, probably having migrated from somewhere in the Lakes region of Central Africa. First came the group known as the Mbanderu or eastern Herero who finally settled to the east of Windhoek. Then came the group simply known as the Herero (or central Herero) who settled in the area that stretches north from Windhoek to around the Waterberg and the Ugab River. A third group, the Himba, settled in Kaokoveld in north-western Namibia, a region that was on the migration route of the Herero.
Two figures dominated central Namibia during the mid-19th century - Jonker Afrikaner and Maherero. The latter, Samuel's father, was a prominent chief among the central Herero. There were two central issues in Maherero's chieftainship: One was the never-satisfied desire of the Herero for more, better, and safer grazing for their cattle (in other words, an expansionist tendency) and the other was the superior might of Jonker Afrikaner and his people, who forced back and held the Herero herdsman behind the line of the Swakop River (in other words, a constraining reality). In fact, for a considerable period of Maherero's youth, the central Herero were virtually vassals of Jonker Afrikaner, regularly paying tribute in cattle. Indeed, for a time during his teens, Maherero lived in Windhoek and commanded a group of young Hereros whose task was to seize cattle from other Hereros for Jonker Afrikaner. At that time Maherero's father, chief Tjamuaha, was forced to live in close proximity to Jonker Afrikaner, thus demonstrating the hold that the one had over the other.
The fulcrum for this sway of forces between the Oorlam Afrikaners and the central Herero was the area around Windhoek and Okahandja, with the former mainly having their centre of power in Windhoek (as it is now called) and the Herero in Okahandja. Contestations between the two parties over cattle, land and water, which were frequent, usually occurred in a band that stretched east and west through these two centres. However, while the Afrikaners were superior in arms, they were able to raid much further afield to seize cattle, causing considerable suffering amongst Herero communities that lived even 300 kms or more north of Windhoek.
Jonker Afrikaner and Tjamuaha died in the same year, 1861, and, as the eldest son, Maherero immediately took over the chieftainship. He moved his household, followers, and the cattle he was herding for the Afrikaners to Otjimbingwe, about 100 kms south-west of Okahandja. There he prepared for the struggle that he hoped would release him from the overlordship of the Afrikaners. When the Afrikaners and their allies attacked, they were defeated and their new leader, Christian Afrikaner, son of Jonker, was killed in the battle. Subsequently, Jan Jonker, Christian's brother and the new leader, attacked Otjimbingwe on a number of occasions, seeking revenge and restoration of the Afrikaner's dominant position over the central Herero.
The young Samuel witnessed all these events. At the same time, he came under the influence of the Rhenish Lutheran missionaries at Otjimbingwe and attended school together with his older brother, christened Wilhelm by the missionaries. Samuel got his name when he was christened in 1869.
By 1870, Maherero had gained the ascendancy and the Afrikaners sued for peace. As he grew into manhood, Samuel's brother, Wilhelm, began to play an increasingly important role as his father's right hand man while Samuel seems to have remained in the background. However, this changed dramatically in 1880, when Wilhelm was killed in battle during an outbreak of hostilities with the Oorlam Afrikaners and their allies. After that, his father began to entrust more duties to Samuel.
At this time, Germany was beginning to look at south and central Namibia as a sphere in which it could expand its influence. With hostilities boiling between the Hereros and the Oorlam-Namas, amongst whom Hendrik Witbooi was beginning to play an important role, Maherero accepted the offer of a protection treaty with the Germans. However, in 1888, having received no protection because there were no German troops in the territory, he declared that the treaty was null and void and began to flirt with the possibility of making an agreement with the British government. The German response was to send Captain Curt von Francois with a detachment of 21 soldiers to Namibia in the following year. The era of active German involvement had begun.
Contemporary accounts by missionaries state that neither Maherero nor Samuel attached much importance to written treaties and signatures, which they regarded as being on the same level as spoken agreements, to be re-negotiated and re-discussed from time to time as circumstances changed. Another source of misunderstanding between the Hereros and the Germans was the fact that all Herero land was tribal land, which they could allow others to occupy for shorter or longer periods, but which could never be alienated by being bought and sold in the European manner.
October 1890 was a significant month for central Namibia because in that month Maherero died and the Germans adopted Windhoek as their base, strategically situating themselves between the central Hereros and Hendrik Witbooi and his forces. When Samuel took over the chieftainship, he was faced with a European power that was determined to advance its interests, while having to deal with the fact that his position was not secure because of the complicated Herero inheritance customs. For instance, he faced competition and challenges not only from the Germans and Hendrik Witbooi, but also from fellow Herero chiefs. The new German representative, Major Theodor Leutwein, exploited the situation by throwing his political and military weight behind the new chief, thus strengthening Samuel's position at the expense of his rivals.
A significant event occurred in 1896 when a revolt against spreading German influence in the Gobabis area, about 200 kms east of Windhoek, provided the pretext for the arrest of the eastern chiefs Nikodemus and Kahimemua. Although the whole episode was engineered by the Germans, Leutwein ensured that Samuel was present at every stage, including the trials and executions. With Witbooi defeated and quiet behind a treaty with the Germans, Samuel's position was much stronger.
However, the storm clouds were gathering fast, in the matter of the large pieces of land that were being sold to Europeans, thus depriving the Hereros of some of their best grazing areas. Most of this land was sold to defray debts to traders; a considerable number of these debts were incurred by Samuel and his councillors, who bought hard liquor as well as other imported European goods on a grand scale. Pouring oil on a fire that had already been lit, the colonial administration also announced that it intended to establish reserves for the Herero which, although they would preserve tribal land from further alienation, were also much smaller than the areas over which the Herero had been accustomed to graze their cattle. As dissatisfaction mounted, more and more Hereros, including chiefs and headmen, began to call on Samuel to lead a revolt that would restore their land to them.
The almost inevitable armed clash started when Samuel issued an order addressed to ‘all the headmen in my country' on 11th January 1904. Interestingly, he instructed his people not to harm any missionaries, English, Basters, Bergdamaras, Namas, or Boers. It was an order that was obeyed with only a few exceptions. In addition, according to the Herero code of war, women were not harmed.
The Hereros not only had the advantage of surprise but also, probably with foreknowledge, had begun hostilities at a time when Leutwein and a sizeable portion of the German military force were fighting in the deep south of the country. German settlers were killed, towns and garrisons were besieged, and the Hereros achieved a number of military successes. However, with more and more Hereros and their leaders gathering around Samuel, severe logistical problems began to arise. One of the most severe was the simple question of how and where sufficient grazing and water could be found for the scores of thousands of cattle that were now gathered together in one place.
As Leutwein began to organize his campaign, the tide of war turned. After two hard-fought battles that left the Germans bloodied but victorious, Samuel withdrew to the Waterberg, not only because it was remote but also because it provided good supplies of water. Here the whole Herero nation awaited the attack by the German forces.
Following criticism that Leutwein's approach to the war was ineffective, in May 1904 Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha was appointed to replace Leutwein as military commander. Von Trotha, who had served in German East Africa (now Tanzania), had a simple and forceful approach to colonial wars: Crush and destroy the enemy. As he said later, his plan was to encircle the Hereros at Waterberg, annihilate them if possible, hunt down the survivors, and capture and hang the leaders. Von Trotha waited only long enough to receive reinforcements and to organise his forces before he moved on the Hereros to do battle.
The confrontation finally took place on 11th August at Hamakari. Although fiercely contested, the resources and discipline of the German force won the day. That night, the Hereros, including Samuel Maherero, began to slip away towards the east. At this point, it is worth noting that historians have debated, and continue to debate, why Samuel remained still and passive for so long. In fact, the Germans were amazed to find that in spite of the fact that they had been based there for so long, the Hereros had not made any specific preparations for the battle. The general opinion is that Samuel expected and hoped that there would be a negotiated settlement, as, for instance, had taken place between the Germans and Hendrik Witbooi ten years earlier. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Samuel entered the final battle reluctantly and only when he was forced to it.
For the Hereros, the result was disastrous. They retreated eastwards into the dry Sandveld of the Kalahari, away from water and sustenance. In October, Von Trotha issued his notorious order that all Hereros should be exterminated. It read,
I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero nation. The Herero are no longer German subjects. ...… All Hereros must leave the country. If they do not do so, I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German borders, every Herero, with or without cattle, will be shot. I no longer shelter women and children. They must either return to their people or they will be shot at. This is my message to the Herero nation.
A fence was constructed to keep the Herero survivors from the water holes, which were guarded by soldiers. Later, when the 'extermination order' was rescinded after protests in Germany, the surviving Hereros were rounded up to be interned in concentration camps, where they were used as slave labour on public and private projects. The same fate befell the Oorlam/Namas of the south when they rose against the Germans and were defeated in turn. The camps were operated specifically to provide slave labour, with no concern for the welfare of the inmates. Indeed, there is evidence that in some camps the conditions were deliberately designed so that most of the inmates were certain to die. For instance, this was the case at the notorious Shark Island camp at Luderitz, which housed captured combatants from the conflict in the south.
It has been estimated that by the time the camps were closed in 1909, more than three-quarters of the Herero and Nama people had died in the short space of less than five years through warfare, privations, and exhaustion during slave labour. As sites for slave labour and extermination, the concentration camps in Namibia were in lineal descent from the concentration camps that the British established in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and were forerunners of the notorious extermination centres that the Nazis operated during the Holocaust.
The most fortunate of all the survivors were the few thousand Hereros who made it to safety in Botswana (then British Bechuanaland). These survivors included Samuel Maharero. As a depressed fugitive without a country, Samuel lived in poverty and despair until he was approached by an agent who recruited labour for the gold mines in the Transvaal, soon to become a province of the new Union of South Africa. The deal was that Samuel and a number of his people would be provided with a farm in the Transvaal. Every male occupant above the age of 18 years would work in the company's gold mines for half a year at the going rate. Samuel accepted and during mid-1907 he and his followers, together with their cattle, moved to the farm. However, the life was not to his liking, and he and his followers later left the farm and spread out over the Transvaal. As the years passed, Samuel yearned to return to the country of his birth. When this was refused, he moved to Bechuanaland, where he died in Serowe on 14th March 1923.
Finally, Samuel did return to his home, when the coffin containing his remains arrived by train in Okahandja, to be buried at the Herero Grave Complex, on 23rd August 1923. There he was buried, amidst a great crowd of mourners that included not only Herero notables but also representatives of the South African administration in South West Africa, this being the new colonial power that had replaced the Germans during the First World War and now administered the territory in terms of a mandate that was granted to the British government by the League of Nations. The South Africans continued and intensified the German policy of confining the Hereros to reserves that were not only inadequate in size but were mainly located in barren and unfertile parts of the country.