Namibia's Island of Death: Shark Island, off Namibia's Coastal Town of Luderitz, Was the Venue of a Brutal Concentration Camp during German Colonial Rule. Casper W. Erichsen, an Alumnus of the University of Namibia, Writes about an Island of Suffering and Death
Erichsen, Casper W., New African
Between 1904 and 1908 a series of wars were fought by the indigenous people of Namibia against German colonial forces. The most famous was waged by the united Herero nation, the occupants of central Namibia, who in the initial battles and skirmishes defeated the German colonial army. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II soon sent reinforcements from Berlin and at the end of the war in 1908, the Herero nation was all but destroyed: socially, culturally; economically, psychologically and physically. Over 80% of Herero men, women and children were wiped out.
Many southern Namibian communities suffered the same fate when they took up arms against the Germans in 1905. In fact, only 50% of the Nama people of the south were still alive after the war.
There is, however, another aspect of the Namibian genocide that has remained almost entirely forgotten in the years that have passed since 1904-08.
Following the defeat of the Herero, the German army set up five internment camps for "prisoners-of-war", strategically placed around the colony. The concept was borrowed from South Africa, where only a few years earlier the British had been responsible for thousands of deaths, using concentration camps in the Boer War.
As such the new German camps were called Konzentrationslagern and throughout the colony the scattered members of the defeated Herero nation were rounded up and sent to these camps. Original files of the German Colonial Administration, now kept in the National Archives of Namibia, reveal this sinister chapter of Namibia's violent heritage.
Enter Shark Island. In the far south of Namibia lies the coastal town of Luderitz. The town is famous for being the bridgehead of German colonialism and the discovery of diamonds in 1908.
Flanked by sea and desert, the landscape is rough and unforgiving; old German colonial houses stand on solid rock, built to resist the cold ocean winds that besiege Luderitz for most of the year.
The most westerly point of this ocean town was, and still is, Shark Island. Poised on the vast South Atlantic, the island is barren and wind-swept. Its surface is entirely covered in solid granite rock, carved into surreal formations by the hard ocean winds.
In 1905, Shark Island was home to one of the colony's biggest and most feared concentration camps. Placed on the far, most exposed tip, facing the open ocean, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire and was guarded around the clock by German colonial troops, the Schutztruppe. The Shark Island camp had no buildings, only standard issue military tents and improvised shelters made from blankets and what little building material was made available to the prisoners.
Marooned on the far end of Shark Island, the Herero and later Nama prisoners would have felt isolated and forgotten.
The history of Shark Island is a study of human cruelty. It is not exactly certain when the first prisoners arrived on the island. The German missionary Kuhlmann, described in September 1905 a group of 487 Herero imprisoned on the island and noted that they were in a sad state.
Yet already, in late May 1905, another German missionary Vedder had written to his colleague about the misery among prisoners in Luderitz, counting 59 men, 59 women and 73 children as being held there. He added that the mortality rate was "incredibly" high.
In June of the same year, the learned and respected Herero teacher, Samuel Kariko, who was working for a German mission, was sent with his family to do God's work among the prisoners on Shark Island.
His task was to convert prisoners and provide spiritual support to those already converted. When Kuhlman visited the island in September 1905, it was to meet with the "evangelist Samuel".
In 1918, after the British had taken over the colony in World War I, Kariko was interviewed for the somewhat controversial Blue Book (published by the British government in 1918 and partially serialised in New African in recent editions), giving a chilling description of Shark Island: "I was sent down with others to an island far in the south, at Luderitz. …