Our last instalment concluded with the observation that, by the end of 1904 most of Namibia’s Nama communities had taken up arms against the Germans, whose military records reveal over 200 engagements in which their troops suffered significant casualties.
The core of the Nama resistance comprised some 3,000 armed horsemen, who were initially mobilised into commandos under the following group Kaptiens: /Khoenesen or Witbooi led by Hendrik Witbooi (up to 1,000 armed men); !Kharakhoen or Fransman under Simon Kooper (700 armed men); Gaminun or Bondelswarts of Johannes Christian with Jakob Marengo and Abraham Morris (500 armed men);!Aman or Bethani under Cornelius Frederiks (500 armed men); Hawoben or Veldschoendragers under Jan Hendrik (200 armed men); and Khaikhaun or Red Nation under Manasse !Noreseb, (100 armed men).
German attempts to force the Nama commandos into open battle led to a series of larger engagements at the end of 1904, which resulted in considerable casualties on both sides. While detailed information about Nama losses is incomplete, the extent and timing of the German casualties are reflected by the military graves yards that still dot the Namibian landscape, as well as in historical documents.
A major setback for the Nama, however, occurred on January 15, 1905, when the Germans managed to pin down and defeat a substantial Nama commando at the battle of Swartfontein. A series of further skirmishes culminated in a second near disaster at Narudas.
Although the Nama suffered severe losses in men and material, with Gaminun Kaptien Marengo amongst the wounded, the majority managed to escape. Days later the Nama turned the tables by successfully ambushing a German force at Uchanaris, recovering some of their earlier material losses.
In the wake of continued losses to the Nama, Von Trotha was apparently willing to contemplate a missionary mediated cessation of hostilities. But his heavy-handed offer to grant ‘mercy’ instead convinced the Nama to fight on. An English translation of Von Trotha’s of April 22, 1905 Proclamation to the ‘Hottentots’ [Nama]: “The mighty and powerful German Emperor will grant mercy to the Hottentot people and will spare the lives of those who voluntarily surrender. Only those who at the beginning of the uprising murdered whites or who ordered others to do so will forfeit their lives in accordance with the law. I announce this to you and further say that those few who do not submit will suffer the same fate as the Hereros...I ask you where are all the Hereros today, where are their chiefs?...
“The Hottentots will suffer the same fate if they do not surrender and give up their weapons. You should come with a white piece of cloth on a stick together with your whole village
You will get work and receive food until the war ends at which time the Great German Kaiser will regulate anew the conditions in this territory. He who believes that mercy will not be extended to him should leave the land for as long as he lives on German soil he will be shot - this policy will go on until all such Hottentots have been killed.”
Following the October 1905 death of Hedrick Witbooi, leadership of the Nama resistance rested with Marengo and Simon Kooper. With their supply routes and sanctuaries in Bechuanaland and the Cape Colony, and ability to survive in the arid reaches of the Kgalagadi, the audacious duo kept on hitting the Germans skirmish after ambush after lightening raid. Their exploits further inspired the other commando leaders, including Hendrik’s son Isaak !Nansemab Witbooi, to continue their struggle. This pattern continued for the duration of the war with both the Nama forces and their German counterparts often in either flight or pursuit into Bechuanaland and the Northern Cape. The Germans as well as Nama are also known to have quietly established bases inside supposedly British ruled territory.
By the end of 1905 over 2,000 Nama, mostly women and children had sought refuge in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Besides being a place of retreat and refuge the western Kgalagadi region, from Ghanzi in the north to Upington in the south, was also crucial to the Nama resistance as a source of munitions and other supplies. In the process the war came to involve people, black and white, on both sides of the border, on both sides of the conflict.
In the above context, the Germans did in fact communicate to the British their belief that Sekgoma Letsholathebe’s Batawana and Sebele’s Bakwena were giving aid and comfort to the Kaiser’s enemies.
A key factor in the relative success of the Nama resistance, beyond the munitions they received from trans-Kgalagadi smugglers, was their superior ability to sustain themselves, their horses and livestock on tsamma melons and other desert resources. In this they had the advantage of years of conditioning as well as their indigenous knowledge.
After finding that their own horses could not be readily adapted to tsamma consumption, the German military responded by introducing camels into the region in an effort to also master the desert. The Bechuanaland Protectorate Police followed the German example.