Namibia: Migrations, missionaries and traders (1800-1884)

Updated August 2009

The rapid expansion of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope resulted in ever larger numbers of Khoekhoe such as the Koranna migrating into the interior to escape dispossession of their livestock and reduction to servitude, placing increasing pressure on the Khoekhoe of the Northern Cape such as the Lesser Nama, most of whom migrated to southern Namaqualand in Namibia to escape the turmoil (Kienetz 1977, 559, 560 Lau 1986, 29. See South Africa: Dutch colonialism, the destruction of the Khoekhoe and the rise of Chiefdoms (1652-1795) for details). The situation deteriorated in the late eighteenth century with the migration of the Griqua from the Colony to the banks of the Orange River where they founded a polity based on raiding and plundering made possible by their possession of guns and horses (Kienetz 1977, 559). Similar groups of renegade Khoekhoe servants, who had acquired their own arms, horses and livestock, were baptised Christians, were familiar with settler technology such as ox wagons and mobile warfare, practiced private property and knew some Dutch, began to settle in Namaqualand at the turn of the century in ever increasing numbers (Lau 1986, 29; Kienetz 1977, 560, 561).

By 1810 the settlers, called the 'Orlam', had reached such numbers that with their superior military technology they presented a serious threat to the Nama clans, with conflicts over cattle, grazing right and waterholes becoming common (Lau 1986, 30). To gain more secure access to guns, in 1805 the Bondelswart Nama invited missionaries of the London Missionary Society to settle among them near Warmbad and another was founded for Orlams at Bethany in 1814 (Kienetz 1977, 570). Fearing that they would lose their control over weapon supplies, the aggressive and predatory Afrikaner Orlam group based south of the Orange River forced the closure of the station at Warmbad in 1811 and in 1824 the Bethany mission was destroyed (Lau 1986, 30, 31; Kienetz 1977, 560 footnote 42, 570).

In 1823 the northern Nama invited Jonker Afrikaner to assist them in their struggle against Herero incursions and Jonker led a faction of the Afrikaner Orlam over the Orange River to the area south of Rehoboth and drove the Herero over the Awas Mountains for which service he was granted land in the Windhoek-Rehoboth area to settle his followers in 1825 (Kienetz 1977, 563, 564; Lau 1986, 32). The Orlam's numbers expanded with new migrations fleeing colonial expansion (in 1825 the Orange River was proclaimed the boundary of the Cape Colony) and they used their military power to disperse clans that opposed them and to take cattle, grazing rights and waterholes as they pleased (Lau 1986, 31; Kienetz 1977, 560, 561). The Nama reacted to the threat they posed by coalescing into larger political groups that were able to establish and maintain control over trading routes with the Cape by the mid 1830s and by the 1850s had wholly adopted rifles, horses and ox wagons (Lau 1986, 32). They also adopted the mobile system of warfare of the Orlam and the two groups, resembling one another increasingly as they acculturated to one another, began to intermarry in the 1840s and then to form joint political and military formations in the 1850s (Lau 1986, 32; Kienetz 1977, 563, 564). By 1884 the process was complete and the Nama-Orlam distinction had lost its significance entirely (Kienetz 1977, 566).

Increasingly the nascent Nama-Orlam culture was based on hunting with rifles for trade goods such as ivory, skins and ostrich feathers, on raiding their neighbours for cattle and on tribute extraction, rather than on nomadic pastoralism (Lau 1986, 33, 34). This was necessary to obtain guns, gunpowder and commodities such as building materials and tools, cooking vessels and brandy (Lau 1986, 33, 34). In the early 1850s, it was estimated, about 10 000 cattle were exported to the Cape every year (Lau 1986, 36). The breeding of cattle was neglected and wells were not maintained, whic led to a decline in pastoral based production and made the Nama-Orlam ever more dependent on plunder and tribute for survival (Lau 1986, 34, 35). Jonker Afrikaner, for instance, settled in Windhoek around 1840 and continued to pursue the Herero so that by 1852 he had wholly subjugated them and subjected them to heavy tribute payments (Kienetz 1977, 564; Lau 1986, 34). He moved his headquarters north to Okahanja and in the early 1860s began raiding into Ovamboland, with devastating effect (Kienetz 1977, 564; Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372).

Missionaries continued to enter the territory, with the Wesleyans reviving mission work in Warmbad in 1834, in 1843 they set up in Naosanabis and in 1844 established a post at Jonker's seat in Windhoek (Kienetz 1977, 570). The Rhenish Missionary Society established Lutheran stations at Bethany in 1842, in the Fish River valley in 1843 and at one among the Herero in 1844 (Kienetz 1977, 570). From 1843 onwards the missionaries were followed by itinerant traders from the Cape attracted by the huge profits to be made (Kienetz 1977, 571; Lau 1986, 36). Jonker built an ox wagon road from Windhoek over the Awas Mountains to Walvis Bay in 1843/4, greatly facilitating trade with the interior, and Walvis Bay developed rapidly as a trading port (Lau 1986, 36; Kienetz 1977, 561, 571).

Until the establishment of the port of Moçâmedes in southern Angola in 1840 the trading kingdoms of the Ovambo and Kavango formed part of the greater regional trade network that had been developed in the 16th century (see Late Iron Age (c1400 - 1800 CE)). Despite the outlawing of the slave trade by the Portuguese government in 1836, Moçâmedes became a smuggling entrepôt for slaves obtained in the interior and the development of the town and hinterland's economy was also dependent on slave labour (Gustafsson 2005, 33). Initially the Ovambos traded with the Portuguese through Imbangala middlemen, supplying ivory for beads and spirit alcohol, but in 1849 Portuguese slavers visited the dominant Kwanyama kingdom and established direct trading relations with the king who was willing to obtain slaves through raids on neighbouring groups to exchange for Portuguese commodities (Gustafsson 2005, 33). By the 1850s a small-scale trade in slaves with Moçâmedes had developed, into which the Ndonga kingdom was also drawn, but the main exports were cattle and especially ivory (Gustafsson 2005, 34; Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372).

In the 1860s the volume of trade began to increase in volume as the Ovambo kings developed an appetite for guns and horses while the rapid expansion of the economy of Moçâmedes fuelled the demand for slaves there, but ivory remained the dominant export (Gustafsson 2005, 34; Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372). In this period traders from Walvis Bay penetrated into Ovamboland in search of ivory primarily, but also ostrich feathers (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372; Gustafsson 2005, 35). The demand for firearms was fuelled by the bitter experience of the raids by Jonker Afrikaner, but firearms also dramatically increased the productivity of elephant hunts and the effectiveness of raids to capture slaves (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 372, 373). The Ovambo kings exercised tight control of the burgeoning trade, adroitly playing off the Portuguese and Walvis Bay traders against one another, and used their traditional right to extract compulsory 'gifts' from traders to supplement the meagre tribute they were traditionally entitled to; the kings were also entitled to demand military service for raiding through which slaves were obtained captives for sale to the Portuguese (Clarence-Smith & Moorsom 1975, 369, 370, 372, 373).

To the south, in the central highlands, the balance of power shifted as struggles between different Nama-Orlam groups were exploited by missionaries and traders that resulted in war between Jonker Afrikaner's successor, Christian, and a coalition of other groups led by the Rehoboth head Willem Swartbooi in 1863 (Lau 1986, 37, 38). Christian led an attack on his foes, but was driven off and after a second defeat several leaders of his Herero clients seized the opportunity to reassert their independence (Lau 1986, 37, 38). The war dragged on until 1870, with shifting alliances between the various groups, until Christian was finally defeated, but the true victors were not his Nama-Orlam opponents, but the traders and missionaries that had ensured their victory and were freed from Afrikaner's constraints on their activities and the Herero who managed to re-establish their independence (Lau 1986, 38).

One consequence of Christian's defeat was that in May 1870 seven Finnish Lutheran missionaries were able to reach Ovamboland where they established two stations, one in the Ndonga kingdom and the other in that of the Uukwambi (Gustafsson 2005, 36). Uukwambi was engaged in a slave raid against the Ndonga, but the missionaries brokered a peace and extracted a promise from King Nuujoma of the Uukwambi to desist from raiding, but by September he was sending out raids again and relations between the missionaries and the king deteriorated rapidly so that by March 1872 the mission was abandoned (Gustafsson 2005, 36, 37).

The expansion of the slave trade led to a higher number of raids and an increase also in their intensity as the Ovambo kings preyed on one another and on the peoples of southern Angola, but they could not raid to the south because of the military technology of the Nama-Orlam (Gustafsson 2005, 36-40). In the 1870s the Kwanyama kingdom was able to establish itself as the dominant slave trading state (Gustafsson 2005, 41). Matters were exacerbated by a three year drought that began in 1877 resulting in widespread famine by 1879, for the kings reacted to the crisis by intensifying their raiding activities so that a "vicious cycle of raids and counter-raids had developed between Ondonga and Uukwanyama by the end of the 1870s" that ended only in 1882 when, through the intermediation of the missionaries, peace was established (Gustafsson 2005, 40-45).

In 1868 a new influx of migrants from the Cape Colony reached the Namibian plateau, who styled themselves 'Basters' ('Hybrids'), consisting of 90 families that assembled at Warmbad over a two year period where they met up with smaller groups such as themselves that had migrated there in the early 1800s (Lau 1986, 38; Kienetz 1977, 561, footnote 46). The descendents of Trek Boers married to Koekhoe women, they were Afrikaans speaking and culturally Boers in terms of social and political organisation, military technology and religion (Kienetz 1977, 561, footnote 46; Minahan 2002, 292). In early 1870 they moved northwards to the Rehoboth area where the Nama-Orlam sold them land to settle on (Minahan 2002, 292; Kjæret & Stokke 2003, 584). Here they established a Boer style republic with an elected legislature ('Volksraad) and an elected executive presidency (Kjæret & Stokke 2003, 584).

In 1861 the penguin Islands off the coast were annexed to the Cape Colony by Britain and in 1878 Walvis Bay was unilaterally proclaimed British territory, although possession of the territory was undertaken only in 1884 when it was annexed to the Cape (Evans 1990, 563, 565).


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