Herero and Nama Revolts

The attempts of both the Herero and the Nama peoples to extricate themselves from German colonial rule resulted in a protracted struggle between the native groups and the colonial army, although in the end both uprisings were brutally suppressed. In the period 1904-1905, both ethnic groups suffered imprisonment, starvation, and loss of life in concentration camps. Approximately 65 to 80 percent of the Herero people were killed in what many consider to have been a genocide.

Summary of Event

In the years leading up to 1904, the German colonists in Southwest Africa attempted to consolidate and secure their power in the colony by executing “treaties of protection and friendship” with the various indigenous tribes. This divide-and-conquer policy initially served the Germans well. However, discontentment grew among the Herero people as they continued to find themselves dispossessed of the land and cattle on which their economy was based. In contrast, the situation of the Namaqua, or Nama, people was somewhat different. They had a long history of animosity with the Herero, and when asked, they declined to support the Herero in their uprising. It was not until after the Herero rebellion was effectively quelled that the Nama decided to stage their own revolt. Some believe that this was in large part motivated by their comprehension of the brutality with which the German colonial government dealt with the Herero. Genocide;Southwest Africa
Herero revolt
Nama revolt
Imperialism;Southwest Africa
Revolts;German Southwest Africa
[kw]Herero and Nama Revolts (Jan., 1904-1905)
[kw]Nama Revolts, Herero and (Jan., 1904-1905)
[kw]Revolts, Herero and Nama (Jan., 1904-1905)
Genocide;Southwest Africa
Herero revolt
Nama revolt
Imperialism;Southwest Africa
Revolts;German Southwest Africa
[g]Africa;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
[g]Namibia;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan., 1904-1905: Herero and Nama Revolts[00990]
Trotha, Lothar von
Maherero, Samuel
Witbooi, Hendrik
Leutwein, Theodor
Bülow, Bernhard von
William II

There is debate as to whether the revolt of January, 1904, was intentionally initiated by the Herero or whether the conflict resulted from an escalating series of misunderstandings. Historians also speculate on the movement’s goal: Were the Herero intent on overthrowing the German colonial rule, or did they believe their society could not survive and so chose to fight to the death? Early in the war, the Germans were confident that their technological (if not numerical) superiority would lead them to certain victory. From January through July, 1904, however, the Germans were not able to garner a decisive victory over the Herero, and they acutely felt the loss of prestige. The stigma attached to being bested by people whom the colonial government considered mentally, morally, and militarily inferior was not one the Germans were willing to assume. Although Major Theodor Leutwein was willing to negotiate a peace with the Herero, Emperor William II found this policy untenable, and he replaced Leutwein with General Lothar von Trotha, who took command of German troops on June 11, 1904.

Von Trotha believed that the conflict in German Southwest Africa had degenerated into a race war and that negotiation was impossible; only annihilation would resolve the Herero question once and for all. On August 12, 1904, the German troops encircled the Herero people, who had gathered against a mountain called Waterberg, and attempted to engage them in a decisive battle. The majority of the Herero men, women, children, and livestock were able to escape this circle through a gap in the east, and they fled in the direction of the Omaheke Desert.

The military strength of the Herero was broken in this final battle, but von Trotha insisted that the German soldiers pursue the fleeing Herero farther into the waterless desert. The Herero population was effectively corralled inside the Omaheke. Most did not have the strength to cross it, and German military patrols prevented escape back into German Southwest Africa. Von Trotha followed this harsh action with his infamous Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination order) of October 2, 1904: “Within the German borders, every Herero, whether armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I shall not accept any more women or children. I shall drive them back to their people—otherwise I shall order shots to be fired at them.”

The Nama revolt also began in the early days of October, 1904. Although the most powerful Nama chief, Hendrik Witbooi, had remained on friendly terms with the Germans throughout the Herero rebellion and had even provided the colonial soldiers with a contingent of more than one hundred men, Witbooi realized that his people were headed for the same annihilatory treatment that had been meted out to the Herero.

The German struggle with the Nama was even more protracted than that with the Herero had been. After seeing what had happened to his neighbors, Witbooi refused to meet the Germans in open battle. Instead, he utilized the Nama’s intimate knowledge of the terrain to employ guerrilla tactics with great effectiveness. Witbooi was the uniting force of the Nama people, and after he died of wounds sustained during a raid on the Germans, it was increasingly difficult for the Nama to unite around one figure. As a result, they became markedly demoralized. Increasingly bad publicity in Germany, including criticism from Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, led the colonial military to seek an end to the war with the Nama. Von Trotha, reluctant as ever to negotiate with black Africans, was sent back to Germany in November, 1905. Although the subsequent surrender of various Nama leaders and their followers was arranged, the hardships of the native Southwest Africans were not over.

As labor became increasingly short in supply, German colonists proposed that the Herero and Nama who had surrendered to von Trotha’s army be used as forced laborers. The surviving Herero were detained in collection camps in their inland home areas beginning after the extermination order was revoked in December, 1904; in 1905, many were deported to the much cooler coastal areas of Swakopmund. After their surrender, the Nama were also deported; some were sent to work in other German colonies such as the Cameroons, but the majority were sent to Southwest Africa’s coastal areas. Of the various camps for laborers, the cold and damp Shark Island was the most notorious. There, as well as in the other concentration camps, already emaciated Nama were starved and kept in shelters that were unable to keep out the cold Atlantic winds. In many cases, the death rate was 50 percent or more, and in time it became obvious that individuals kept under such conditions would not be fit for labor of any kind.


The brutal suppression of the Herero and Nama revolts, which culminated in gross human rights abuses and genocide, had far-reaching implications. The postwar policies implemented in 1907 and 1908 sentenced the native inhabitants of German Southwest Africa to second-class citizenship; they were required to wear passes around their necks and their freedom of movement was restricted. The German conduct of the war and subsequent mistreatment of the indigenous peoples also provided fodder for British propaganda campaigns; during and immediately following World War I, the British leveraged evidence of German brutality to great effect, stripping Germany of its colonies and securing Southwest Africa for Great Britain. Although it was not until several years after World War II that South Africa became the official colonial proprietor of the territory, the German legacy of treating black Africans as second-class citizens only strengthened the power of apartheid. The connection between concentration camps in German Southwest Africa and those built by the Germans during World War II has been the source of a great deal of scholarship on race subjugation and extermination, although scholars are still studying the relationship between Germany’s brutal colonial policies in Southwest Africa and the Nazi-era atrocities and genocide. Genocide;Southwest Africa
Herero revolt
Nama revolt
Imperialism;Southwest Africa
Revolts;German Southwest Africa

Further Reading

  • Bley, Helmuth. South West Africa Under German Rule, 1894-1914. Translated by Huth Ridley. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971. Extremely detailed study that focuses not only on military aspects and government concerns but also on the policies’ psychological impact on natives and settlers.
  • Bridgman, Jon. The Revolt of the Hereos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Focuses on the military aspects of both revolts and updates some of the scenarios that Heinrich Drechsler suggested. Succinct and easy to read.
  • Drechsler, Heinrich, and Bernd Zöllner. Let Us Die Fighting: The Struggle of the Herero and the Nama Against German Imperialism. London: Zed Press, 1980. Definitive work draws on sources from German Federal Archive. Suggests that the Herero and Nama revolted against insurmountable odds to preserve their way of life.
  • Gewald, Jan Bart. Herero Heroes: A Socio-political History of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923. Oxford, England: James Currey, 1999. Challenges long-standing assumptions about the Herero revolt by providing alternate interpretations of several key events. Draws on broad source materials, including documentation from the National Archive of Namibia and religious institutions.
  • Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. Offers innovative treatment of the Herero genocide as well as long-term warfare policies of the German military.

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