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History of Namibia

Discover the history of Namibia



Africa Specialist
Published on

10 Sept 2020

Updated on

29 Jan 2021

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Namibia’s history stretches back to 25,000 BC, when predecessors of the present-day San Bushmen settled in the Huns Mountains in the southern part of the country, with the area home to some of the oldest rock-art sites in the world. Further north, in the Brandberg Mountains of Damaraland, there are rock art sites that date back to 2,000 BC, including the famed White Lady of the Brandberg, although debate still rages as to whether these sites were created by the San Bushmen or the indigenous Damara people who also lived in the area.

More recently, the modern-day tribes of Namibia, namely the Ovambo, Kavango, Himba and Herero, all Bantu speaking people migrated here from Angola, Zambia and the lakes of East Africa. These migrations took place as far back as the 17th Century, with the tribes originally settling in the north-west of the country, before moving further south in the 19th Century. The Himba however have remained in this Kaokoland region, with a visit to this region offering the best chance enjoy a genuine cultural interaction with this fascinating nomadic tribe.

FACT: 8 major tribes are found in modern-day Namibia.

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19th Century Namibia

Aside from a few localised tribal conflicts, Namibia remained a relatively peaceful land, right through to the 1830s when its era of turbulence began. The catalyst for this was the movement of Boer farmers through the northern part of South Africa. They were moving as part of the Great Trek, a mass migration away from the Cape to escape the burden of taxation and laws from the newly installed British Government of the Cape. As the Boers reached the Orange River, they encountered a tribe of indigenous Khoisan people, known as Oorlams who were forced across the river and into modern-day Namibia. The Oorlams adopted a number of Boer customs, most notably an adaptation of their language as well as their use of guns, the latter of which eventually forced them into conflict with the Nama and Herero people, the original settlers of the area. The superior firepower of the Oorlams with their modern weapons led to the death of many of the indigenous people and started a long history of conflict between settlers and the tribes of Namibia.

German South-West Africa

German interest in Namibia started as far back as 1840, initially in co-operation with the British as the London Missionary Society worked in conjunction with the German Rhenish Missionary Society to bring their beliefs to the people of Namibia. Tensions began to arise in 1878 when the Germans started to make claims to annexe the deep-water port of Walvis Bay, a key stopping point for British ships on their route to the colonies of south and eastern Africa. The situation escalated in 1883 as Adolf Luderitz purchased the town then known as Angra Pequena from a local Nama chief, renaming it as Luderitz and establishing a German port there. In 1884 the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismark decaled the land a German colony, renaming it as German South-West Africa. Germany further strengthened its hold on the country in 1890 when it took control of the region now known as the Caprivi Strip, in an initially amicable exchange with Britain, ceding their claims to the east African island of Zanzibar in return. The discovery of diamonds along the coast meant that the area became a hugely valuable source of income for the burgeoning German Empire. However, this control inevitably led to conflict, particularly with the Herero people, culminating in the battle of the Waterberg in 1904. The conflicts led to between 24,000 and 65,000 of the Herero losing their lives, with many others feeling across the borders. Indeed, as recently as 2007 the descents of the German leaders of the time apologised in full to the Herero people for the conflict and the impact it had on their people.

FACT – The German influence in Namibia is still evident today in the architecture of many of the buildings, especially in Windhoek.

Herrero-German Genocide

The German depredations of Namibia’s indigenous Herero population took place between 1904 and 1908, making them the first genocide of the 20th Century. The spark for the killings was the massacre of some 100 German men by the Herero, under the leadership of Samuel Maherero, in the area around Okahandja, between Windhoek and the Etosha National Park, in the January of 1904.

Intended as an act of rebellion against German colonial rule, the response from the colonialists was predictable brutal, with the Battle of the Waterberg in 1904 seeing the defeated Herero driven into the deserts where they simply died of dehydration. A similar rebellion in October saw the Nama people also driven to their deaths as the Germans responded with extreme force. Over the subsequent four years, between 24,000 and 100,000 Herero died in the conflict with the Germans, losing their lives in battle as well as from starvation and dehydration in the concentration camps where the prisoners were sent.

Other indigenous people were also caught up in the conflict, with the Nama people seeing some 10,000 deaths as well as many San Bushmen, although their nomadic and undocumented lives made their death toll impossible to calculate. The events were finally recognised as a Genocide by the United Nations in 1985, declaring it a deliberate policy of attempting to exterminate the native populous by the German colonialists. As with many of the unsavoury legacies of colonial rule, Germany eventually recognised and apologised for the events in 2004, although no reparations have been made.

South African Colonial rule

The onset of World War 1 saw South Africa assume colonial rule of South-West Africa in 1915, using its position as a member of the British Commonwealth to do so. It didn’t take long for conflict to arise, with February 1917 seeing the killing of the last king of the Kwanyama people of Ovamboland – Mandume Ya Ndemufayo – as he resisted colonial rule.

In December 1920, under the mandate of the League of Nations, South Africa formally took control of South-West Africa, with its position as the pre-eminent economy of Africa supposed to guarantee the wellbeing of the inhabitants of the country.

The era between the wars was one of relative stability in the region, although things escalated somewhat in 1946 when South Africa refused to surrender its hold on the region, rather seeking to expand its control and incorporate it in to South Africa, a desire that grew stronger with the introduction of apartheid. The territory was represented in South Africa’s “whites only” Parliament, with the capital city of Windhoek seeing protests similar to those in South Africa, culminating in the killing of 11 protestors who were resisting being moved from the white area of the city in 1959.

As South Africa steadfastly refused to relinquish its powers, two significant groups started to gain major influence in the country, namely the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), with SWAPO using the newly independent Angola as a base for launching attacks on South African forces. Throughout the 1970s international pressure was brought to bear on South Africa, its control made more challenging with the sanctions they faced because of apartheid, finally leading to the country’s first elections taking place in 1989.

TOP TIP: Many South Africans, especially from older generations, still refer to Namibia as “South West” to this day.

Modern Day Namibia

The 21st March 1990 saw Namibia formally come in to being, with Sam Nujoma formally declared as the first President of the country. His rule lasted 15 years until he was succeeded by Hifikepunye Pohamba in 2005 who would rule for a further 10 years. Hage Geingob succeeded him in March 2015.

Much of the early years was spent undoing the legacy of South African colonial rule, returning land to its rightful owners, the tribespeople who had inhabited the country since the 17th Century, as well as sign pacts with neighbouring countries, most significantly Angola, to help promote peace in the area.

These days Namibia a microcosm of modern Africa, a country rapidly moving in to the 21st Century, albeit one with significant social and political challenges. Tourism remains a huge part of the Namibian economy, with visitors travelling throughout the year from all over the world, whilst the diamond industry continues to thrive and provide significant income to what remains one of the world’s youngest countries.

As with much of Africa, tourism has played a significant role in Namibia’s post-colonial history, providing much-needed employment, encouraging improved infrastructure and ensuring the conservation of the country’s unique desert wildlife. A relative latecomer to the tourism world, Namibia’s first significant year for tourism was 1989 when 100,000 non-domestic tourists visited the country, by comparison, in 2018 they saw just over 1.5 million arrivals. Almost a third of these visitors came from neighbouring South Africa, whilst Germany, the UK, France and Belgium are the other major source markets.

FACT: With under 3 people per km², Namibia is the third-least densely populated country on earth, with only Greenland and Mongolia ranking below them.

Wondering when to visit? Take a look at this guide on the best time to visit Namibia.

Looking for some more inspiration? Take a look at our best safari holidays ideas, our favourite family safaris, our big five safari guide or our top African safari honeymoon suggestions.

If you'd like to plan a holiday to Namibia, give our friendly experts a call on 01768 603 715 or fill in our enquiry form.

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