Herero Revolt 1904-1907

Related articles

Herero executions in German South West Africa (Namibia today), 1907

Present day Namibia was once a part of the imperial German empire. As was common during the scramble for Africa in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the territory was claimed and occupied by an expansionist European power, in this case Germany. Their rule was oppressive and the indigenous cultures were gradually being destroyed. A rebellion by Herero people in Namibia broke out in January 1904 and continued until 31 March 1907. The Herero had possibly migrated earlier from further north in Africa to settle in Namibia.

The Herero people's freedom and culture became heavily restricted as German control grew and on 11 January 1904 the leader of the Herero, Samuel Maharero ordered the extermination of all White people excluding the English, Boers, Namas, Basters, Berg-Damaras and missionaries in the German protectorate. There is some contention regarding this order and some researchers believe that the Herero wrote a letter with these instructions after the revolt had already begun. All preparations for the revolt were kept secret and the White victims had no time to prepare or protect themselves.

On 12 January several hundred mounted Herero invaded Okahandja. They killed 123 people, most of them German, and set buildings alight. The conflict rapidly escalated and Germans who had escaped several farm attacks flocked to urban areas for protection.

By 14 January the violence had spread as far as Omarasa, north of the Waterberg, and the Waldau and Waterberg post offices were destroyed. The Waterberg military station was occupied by Herero and all soldiers under the command of Sergeant G. Rademacher were killed. Maharero, the Herero leader, allowed missionaries with a small number of German women and children free passage to Okahandja. They reached their destination on 9 April 1904. On 16 January Gobabis was besieged and a German military company was ambushed near Otjiwarongo.

The conflict continued but eventually the Herero were overwhelmed. Governor T. Leutwein was prepared to negotiate a settlement, but his government was determined to suppress the revolt with arms. On 11 August the Herero resistance was crushed. The Herero people were scattered and many of them died of starvation and thirst as they fled through the Omaheke desert. About 12 000 of the remaining Herero were forced to surrender and were placed in concentration camps where medical experiments as well as daily executions took place.

80% of the Herero population of Namibia was wiped out during the 1904 revolt. General Von Trotha, a seasoned African campaigner, had been sent to crush the resistance and he ordered that,"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". He proceeded to poison watering holes. In a report published in London in 1918, January Cloete of Omaruru stated under oath that, when they defeated the Herero, German soldiers killed unarmed women and children.

The Herero - Nama Wars and Genocide in South West Africa

In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of South-West Africa rose up against the German colonisers in a war of rebellion. This war, and the extermination order issued by General Lothar von Trotha that followed its end, is considered by most historians to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

In 1884, the German State declared South-West Africa a German colonial territory. The Germans began to take more and more land from the local African inhabitants, instituting laws and policies that served to undermine and oppress the local population. During the early period of colonisation, the Herero people were far more economically and socially powerful than the Germans, keeping German colonisation at bay. In 1897 the Rinderpest struck South-West Africa, killing up to 90% of the Herero herds. The plague significantly weakened the Herero, both physically, by destroying their source of protein, and economically, by decimating their source of wealth. With the Herero weakened, the Germans became ever more brutal in their colonial policies. Occasionally, a group of Herero or Nama would rise up against the Germans, but to little avail.

German soldiers used recently invented Kodak film to take home mementos of the war

By 1904, the tensions in the colony had risen to a peak. Under the leadership of their paramount chief, Samuel Maherero, the downtrodden Herero rose up against their colonisers in a wide-spread rebellion. This rebellion quickly turned into a war. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was determined to defeat the Herero, sent thousands of troops, under the leadership of General Lothar von Trotha, from Germany. In August 1904, von Trotha and his troops cornered the Herero at Waterberg, where they defeated them in battle. The Herero then fled into the Omaheke Desert, a waterless wasteland, where they were left to die of thirst and starvation.

In 1905, the Nama in the south also rose up against the German colonisers, starting the Nama-German war. With the use of guerrilla tactics, the Nama were able to engage the Germans in war for over two years.

During the war, all Nama and Herero people that the Germans came across, including women and children, were shipped off to concentration camps as ‘prisoners of war’. The prisoners from these concentration camps were used as slave labour to build railways, docks and buildings throughout the country. Many of the buildings in Namibia today were built by the slave labour of prisoners. The conditions in the concentration camps were so bad that it was estimated that half of all the prisoners in the camps died there.

By 1907, the Germans had suffered humiliation losses to the Nama. The general population in Germany was sick of the war and demanded that there be an end to it. On 31 March 1907, under the pressure of popular opinion, the Governor of South-West Africa, Friederich von Lindequist, declared the war officially over.

The execution of Herero prisoners of war, 1907

When the war finally ended on 31 March 1907, the Herero and Nama societies as they had existed before the war were completely destroyed. In the end the German war against the Nama and Herero had claimed between 65,000-80,000 Herero lives and around 10,000 Nama lives, almost completely annihilating both peoples. The survivors lost their homelands, their cattle and their freedom. They became exploited wage labourers for the Germans, and the British who came after.

The genocide of the Herero and the Nama is an incredibly important but also brutal part of Namibia’s history. Since the early 1990s, the Herero and Nama people have been working hard to ensure that this brutal crime that was committed against them is not forgotten. 

• Liebenberg, J. (2004). 'Namibia's dirty little secret revisited'
• Wallis, F. (2000). Nuusdagboek: feite en fratse oor 1000 jaar, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.
• Potgieter, D. J. (ed) (1972). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Vol.5, Cape Town: NASOU, pp. 493-4.
• The Sunday Independent, 2 May, 2004.
• Adhikari, Mohamed, (2008). 'Streams of blood and streams of money': new perspectives on the annihilation of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia, 1904-1908', Kronos, vol. 31, pp. 303-320.
• Bosam, Hendrik (2011). 'A Nama 'exodus'? A postcolonial reading of the dairies of Hendrik Witbooi', Scriptura Vol. 108, pp. 329-341.
• Dedering, Tilman (1993). 'The German-Herero War of 1904: Revisionism of Genocide or Imaginary Historiography?', Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 19,  pp. 80-88.
• richsen, Casper, (2005).'The angel of death has descended violently among them': Concentration camps and prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904-1908. Enschede, The Netherlands: PrintPartners Ipskamp. [available at]
• Erichsen, Casper and Jeremy Silverster [undated], Lüderitz’s Forgotten Concentration Camp, available at: [Accessed 06 February 2015]
• Gann, L.H. and Peter Duignan, (1977). The Rulers of German Africa, 1884-1914, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
• Gewald, Jan-Bart. (1999). Herero Heroes: A Socio-political History of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923.  Cape Town: David Phillip Publishers.
• Melber, H. (2000). ‘Economic and social transformation in the process of colonisation: Society and state before and during German rule’. in Keulder, C. State and society in Namibia, pp. 7-24.
• Olusoga, David and Erichsen, Casper W (2010). The Kaiser's Holocaust. Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. London: Faber and Faber
• Schaller, Dominik (2013). ‘The Genocide of the Herero and Nama in German South-West Africa, 1904-1907’,in Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons (eds), Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Routledge, pp. 89-114.
• Schaller, Dominik. (2011). ‘Genocide in Colonial South-West Africa: The German War against the Herero and Nama, 1904-1907’, in Samuel Totten and Robert Hitchcock (eds), Genocide of Indigenous Peoples: A Critical Bibliographic Review. New Jersey, USA: Transaction Publishers, pp. 37-60.
Further Reading:

Last updated : 17-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011