Centenary of the 1922 Bondelswarts Uprising

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This year marks the centenary of the Bondelswarts Uprising in Namibia – then South West Africa – between late May and early June 1922, and its prompt crushing, which resulted in Jan Smuts’s British Empire-supporting South African Party government attracting significant national and international criticism. What drew attention was the manner of this historically Nama group’s suppression: by military aircraft using bombs and machine guns against impoverished, lightly armed tribesmen and their communities and livestock. This tragic episode followed a long history of fierce Bondelswart resistance against intrusion into their independence.

The Bondelswarts’ last hopeless struggle invokes pathos, and was personified most particularly in its finale by Abraham Morris – the most famous of the Bondelswart fighting leaders – and his ragged collection of men, against police and local white volunteers under Captain Hendrik Prinsloo. Ironically, Morris would die at the hands of someone he knew – a local police commander who had had dealings with him over several years and felt something of an admiration for Morris’s desperate courage.

Prinsloo understood that Morris and his people had been treated unjustly, but was duty-bound to play a central part in the state’s imposition of its authority. Prinsloo’s intimate knowledge of the harsh landscape south-west of Warmbad along the Orange River made him South West Africa administrator Gysbert Hofmeyr’s obvious choice for pursuing Morris’s band, as the fugitive Bondelswart leader played out the only strategy he knew – guerrilla warfare within the formidable terrain which, less than two decades earlier, had served his men so well against German colonial forces.

Former German fortified gate and tower in Warmbad

Sign at the fortified gate [The text on this historical sign contains the pejorative term for Khoikhoi that readers may find offensive.]

Bondelswart origins lie in their ancestors’ being one of successive south-migrating Khoikhoi/Nama groupings which, over centuries, scattered across present-day Namibia and the old Cape Province. One settling, just across the Orange River and north-east of today’s Springbok, referred to themselves as Gami-Mu, meaning “black bundles”. From the early 19th century, these and other Namibian Nama tribes were regularly infused with successive waves of Oorlams, or Drosters – semi-nomadic, cattle-raiding, colonial-outcast communities descended from the offspring of the Cape settlement’s white colonists and Khoikhoi women or female slaves.

The shifting 17th and 18th century Cape frontier conflict ensured the Khoikhoi’s defeat and subjugation by white Trekboers and these indigenous people’s subordinate partnership, including commando duty during conflict with the San, remaining Khoikhoi groupings and Xhosa chiefdoms. Khoikhoi indigenous culture disintegrated; their language was supplanted by the Trekboers’ Dutch variant, while colonial material influences were absorbed, not least firearms, wagons, dress and, for some, an austere acceptance of Old Testament teachings. The Oorlam freebooters reflected these transitions, but also sought independence beyond white settlement. Such attitudes were strongly integrated into Bondelswart identity, being reflected in their armed rebellion against violently overbearing German colonial rule, grotesquely best exemplified in the 1904 genocidal treatment of the Herero.

The admiration Morris held among his people drew its inspiration from his military leadership exploits during the 1904–1906 Khoikhoi War, where, after observing the Herero fate, legendary central Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi joined an armed insurrection already initiated by the Bondelswarts. Scores of German troops had fallen to Bondelswart rifles in the parched, inhospitable topography of rocky koppies, dry riverbeds, stony plains and sand dunes immediately north of the Orange River, stretching over 200 kilometres eastward from the Fish River Canyon.

A journey today across this timeless landscape introduces travellers to remaining schanzes built on strategic heights by German soldiers, and the Schutztruppe’s neat, white headstoned graves at remote ambush points.

Remaining schanzes

German grave (1906)

Ultimately, unendurable privations had forced the Bondelswarts to surrender; the terms imposed were harsh, their land was further vastly reduced, and their fighting leaders, including Morris, were declared outlaws.

Unusual among the Bondelswarts with his non-Afrikaner surname, Morris was the product of a Scottish missionary father and Nama mother. Fleeing German capture and certain execution, Morris exiled himself to the Cape Richtersveld. It was during the First World War that Prinsloo, as a member of the Union forces invading German South West Africa in 1914–1915, first met Morris, who offered the South African military his services as a guide; the only extant photograph of Morris dates from this period. Part of his motivation was the hope of personally avenging his brother’s 1906 death at the hands of a German officer. In a personal recognition of Morris’s services, Prinsloo presented him with a rifle – a .303 Lee-Enfield.

Morris’s formidable fighting reputation made a strong impression on Prinsloo, who at age 11 during the Anglo-Boer War had been a camp follower of his father’s Carolina commando, witnessing his heroic death during the 1900 Battle of Leliefontein near Belfast. By 1922, Prinsloo was a police commander at Keetmanshoop; his childhood experiences had inevitably prompted respect for the underdog fighting against numerically overwhelming odds.

Germany’s 1914–1918 war defeat resulted in her African colonies being lost to selected Allied countries as mandates of the League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations. South West Africa was thus to be administered by South Africa, according to stipulations stressing indigenous peoples’ protection and eventual, albeit distant, right to self-determination.

In April 1922, Morris, then around 50 years old, decided to return home, intending to spend his final years among his people in Guruchas, the Bondelswart “capital” 55 kilometres directly north-west of Warmbad. The reserve they now inhabited was a minuscule four percent of their land holdings before German colonial rule, where they had once hunted and grazed their stock – territory roughly bounded in the west by the Fish River and extending northwards beyond Keetmanshoop. Most of this original loss is attributed to a cataclysmically ill-considered 1889 sale by their leader, Willem Christian, who, seduced by trade goods, particularly alcohol, signed away his tribe’s best grazing to a British prospecting company – with much of this land later to be portioned out as farms for German settlers.

The aggrieved Bondelswarts noted that the invading South African troops were accompanied by Union Jack flags, and hoped for restoration under Union government administration – assuming such by being assured by their alliance with the former Cape Colony government. From 1870, Christian, for a small salary along with firearm gifts, had agreed to assist colonial policing within Namaqualand against San and assorted Oorlam bands that were raiding miners and traders around the copper diggings, where some Bondelswarts had also taken work.

Such hopes were quickly dashed: the German farmers never left, while the Bondelswarts’ remaining territory was further compromised by the arrival of additional settlers – now white South African farmers, many of them war veterans. Those Bondelswarts who were increasingly forced, through need, to seek farm work, bitterly resented their pitifully low wages, along with the pass and widely defined vagrancy laws. Union government officials, although not as callously brutal as the Germans, still insisted on strict adherence to all legal obligations; the Bondelswarts found some of them – such as expensive hunting dog taxes – financially beyond their means, curtailing their remaining means of an independent livelihood.

Morris noted the marked poverty and seething discontent, accompanied by a hope of change occurring due to his much-welcomed reappearance after so many years – the precolonial times of seeming plenty being easily within living memory. But direct confrontation with the new administration was sparked by Morris returning with a rifle and stock animals without the requisite permits. Once his presence was known to authorities, Hofmeyr instructed for Morris’s arrest; the assigned policeman sent to Guruchas – one Sergeant Van Niekerk – was forcibly prevented from arresting him by a hostile crowd. Riding off, a humiliated Van Niekerk purportedly shouted angrily: “Nou sal die lood van die goevernement op julle velle smelt!” which the Bondelswarts understood as a war declaration.

Hofmeyr was aware of Bondelswart resentments: they had lost not only land, but also, during the recent war, thousands of stock animals confiscated by the Germans and never properly compensated for by the Union government. Hofmeyr had received numerous reports of wider unrest brewing – demands from the Hereros, Nama clans and the Rehoboth Basters for the return of lands and privileges usurped by the Germans. Uncomfortably conscious of German military difficulties during their Khoikhoi War, Hofmeyr feared that any prolonged Bondelswart rebellion could trigger an escalation across the territory, requiring a large, expensive military intervention and hard questions from Smuts, who gave no clemency to civil servants he judged as incompetent.

Hofmeyr pursued negotiations through officials in Warmbad, but dogmatically insisted on Morris’s arrest, along with the surrender of all arms and ammunition. From Guruchas, word of impending conflict spread, and about 1 200 Bondelswart men, women and children came in from across the reserve, brandishing firearms ranging from modern German service weapons to ancient muzzle-loaders. Organised parties seized several rifles through intimidating isolated farmers; a few months earlier, near Lüderitz, a farmer’s wife had been shot dead by Nama men doing the same, further whipping up ill-feelings among a local white community already well aware of Bondelswart hostility to Union segregation laws and suspicious of their future intentions.

Hoping to keep the suppression an internal matter, Hofmeyr – having travelled down from Windhoek – was reluctant to call on the Union government for support. Despite having absolutely no military experience, he assumed for himself a colonel’s rank, citing the urgency of the hour as justification for taking immediate responsibility. His small force consisted of 400 local volunteers, stiffened by Prinsloo’s policemen and defence force personnel, plus four Vickers machine guns and two artillery pieces – disassembled German mountain guns able to be transported by animals. Hofmeyr had accepted the inevitability of limited government support after Prinsloo had suggested that bombing the Bondelswarts’ precious stock would quickly ensure surrender; two DH.9 biplanes commanded by war veteran Colonel Pierre Van Ryneveld were flown to Karasburg (then Kalkfontein).

The strategy was to occupy all the reserve’s waterholes, forcing every Bondelswart into Guruchas and demoralising them there with overwhelming firepower, while cutting off any escape to the Orange or Fish River gorges. Bondelswart plans were those of 1904–1906: ambush the enemy and capture weapons to build up their poor stock of arms – barely one rifle per four men. One group under Morris started advancing upon Warmbad, intending to split Hofmeyr’s force and divert them from the reserve. The Bondelswarts had never seen aircraft, let alone faced them in war, nor had they any comprehension of aerial reconnaissance capability in open country.

The first clash occurred near the Driehoek waterhole, where a police/volunteer squadron narrowly evaded an ambush and killed, wounded or captured 21 Bondelswarts for the loss of one man, forcing Morris to abort his plans of fighting on an extended front with such limited arms. A second ambush failed, too – but another volunteer was shot dead, and, to the fury of his comrades, the retreating Bondelswarts stripped off his uniform.

As Hofmeyr’s men surrounded Guruchas, the concealed Bondelswarts pinned them down with rifle fire. The settlement was then shelled and attacked from the air during the late afternoon; a bomb burst through a hut roof, killing and wounding several women and children, while cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats, fleeing in terror, were mutilated by shrapnel or mown down by machine gun fire. A second, equally devastating aerial attack followed at dawn the following morning, resulting in Hofmeyr’s troops, now exhausted after several days of being exposed to the harshest terrain, observing white rags being waved. They found 900 bewildered women and children, along with 70 older men. The huts were razed and the captives bundled off as prisoners, along with 14 000 assorted livestock.

To Hofmeyr’s fury, the younger men – over 400 – had slipped through the cordon during the night; having split into three groups, they were moving south towards the river 70 waterless kilometres away. With 45 volunteers, Prinsloo followed the fugitives, who he knew were heading for the formidable Gungunib gorge, where Morris had successfully ambushed German soldiers 16 years earlier. Familiar with these tactics, having conversed over the years with German veterans, and knowledgeable regarding the terrain through hunting, Prinsloo skirted the gorge and headed directly for the river, cutting off Morris’s retreat.

The difference now was the aircraft; being so unfamiliar with this modern war machine, Morris’s men failed to realise that their positions were easily exposed by their campfire smoke. On 2 June, Van Ryneveld and his crews wreaked havoc among them with bombs and machine gun fire within the confines of the gorge. The battered Bondelswarts buried their dead and moved on, but under regular aerial observation.

Informed now of Morris’s movements, Prinsloo’s men replenished their supplies at the Goodhouse farm, then resumed operations, following the Bondelswarts’ tracks into the Haib River canyon. On 3 June, Morris was located laying an ambush at the Bergkamer waterhole; Bondelswart snipers opened fire prematurely, wounding seven government men, but the hardy Prinsloo scrambled with his policemen up above his opponents and inflicted heavy casualties – 49 killed and several captured. Prinsloo personally severely wounded Morris, who, although carried away by his men, died later the next day due to loss of blood, his body being found and identified by Prinsloo.

Over the next few days, reinforcing volunteer and police parties ran down the remaining Bondelswarts – exhausted, dispirited and with limited rifles and ammunition. Most surrendered without any fight, with their weapons being permanently confiscated. Several other leaders were tried and imprisoned, despite attempting to lay all the blame on Morris. Virtually all the other fighters and those arrested at Guruchas were allowed back into the reserve; their stock animals were returned, while officialdom attempted some belated poverty alleviation: rations and medical assistance were offered, and schooling was encouraged.

But even during times when the government, just three months previously, had dealt ruthlessly with armed white strikers on the Witwatersrand, there were official elements of doubt regarding how the Bondelswarts’ uprising had been crushed. Severe criticism followed both locally and internationally: Hofmeyr’s assumption of command without experience was ridiculed by newspapers in Cape Town and Johannesburg, while some British newspapers described the event as a betrayal of the mandate trust. In a report by the Union’s Native Affairs Commission, one commissioner supported Hofmeyr, but the other two guardedly censured him.

Although backed by Smuts, Hofmeyr was requested to appear before the League of Nations Permanent Mandate Commission, who condemned his prior negotiation methods and his combining of the roles of administrator and military commander. Even Deneys Reitz, one of Smuts’s closest confidants and minister of lands in 1922, after visiting the Bondelswarts three years later, remarked on them being “now a fear-haunted people, so terrible was the reckoning by our machines. … The impression they left was that of being more sinned against than sinning. … I doubt whether to this day they knew what it was all about.”

Prinsloo, a lifelong loyal Smutsman, passed away in 1966 at Ermelo after a long and distinguished police and military career; Morris’s grave remains unmarked somewhere out in the formidable landscape he knew so well. A visit I made several years ago turned up just a very small Bondelswart Uprising display at the Keetmanshoop Museum – including a disabled aerial bomb from Guruchas. As I was looking around the dusty, poverty-stricken Warmbad, a man clearly down on his luck identified himself as a Bondelswart and guided me through the ruined, deserted German buildings. These included the former jail, later taken over by the Union administration, the cells once so familiar to a wretchedly unfortunate people, finally overwhelmed a century ago by the remorselessness of history.

The former German jail (Warmbad)

  • Photos: Rodney Warwick
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