My history hero: Hendrik Witbooi (born c1830)

BBC film-maker and historian David Olusoga on why he admires teacher and soldier Hendrik Witbooi

Portrait of Hendrik Witbooi

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Hendrik Witbooi was born in the Northern Cape, in the tiny village of Pella near South Africa’s modern-day border with Namibia, some time around 1830. He was born into the Witbooi clan of the Nama people, who have mixed ethnic origins derived largely from the Khoisan (formerly known as Bushmen) but also from early Dutch settlers to the Cape. He was a teacher turned soldier who became head of his clan, and then leader of all the Nama, resisting German colonisation in the 1900s.

When did you first hear about Hendrik Witbooi?

As a student reading about the colonisation of Africa. But I started to read his diaries and papers over a decade ago when researching a book and documentary about a genocide of the Herero carried out by the German army in Namibia at the dawn of the 20th century.

What kind of a person was he?

Although only 5ft tall, he was a feared military commander who possessed a razor-sharp mind. He was also a devout Christian who believed it was his religious duty to free his people from German subjugation, and used his skills as a diplomat and guerilla fighter to try and achieve this.

What made him a hero?

What’s important about Hendrik Witbooi for me is that he was the exact opposite of the standard 19th and early 20th-century image of an African leader. Here was a man who was highly literate. He kept meticulous diaries and maintained a stream of correspondence with other African leaders, his German enemies and the British authorities. He had a good grasp of world events; he knew, for example, about the 1884 Berlin Conference in which Europe’s great powers planned to carve up the continent.

Witbooi was a modern-style military commander. He led his men into battle armed with modern rifles, and deployed them according to the latest Boer commando tactics. Even his enemies understood he was a force to be reckoned with. One German governor wrote that he would have been “an immortal in world history” if he’d not been “born to an insignificant African throne”.

What was Witbooi’s finest hour?

In 1904 the Germans and the Herero were at war. When Hendrik Witbooi grasped the true horror of what the Germans intended towards the Herero – genocide – he realised that the Nama people were likely to be their next target. Hendrik galvanised the Nama clans and rose up to fight against the Germans.

He launched a brilliant guerilla war. Despite the fact that the German army was committing atrocities against the Herero, Hendrik ensured that his men fought according to the Nama’s military traditions and rules. This meant that German women and children were given time to evacuate and were not harmed by Nama soldiers.

It was during this struggle that Hendrik was killed in battle in 1905. The war continued until 1908, by which time about half of the Nama, and around 80 per cent of the Herero, had died – on the battlefield, in concentration camps and through starvation.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I think most heroes are flawed in one way or another and Hendrik is no exception. If he’d buried the hatchet with the Herero people earlier and united these African peoples they might have had a better chance of resisting German power.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I wish I had a fraction of his strength and determination. All I can say that we have in common are a couple of things to do with our birth and identities. I was born on the African continent too, in Nigeria, and my racial heritage is also mixed. Also, neither of us like writing in our own hand with pen and paper. I type because I have virtually illegible handwriting whereas he had the far more impressive excuse of having lost a thumb in battle, so he dictated his letters and journal entries to a scribe.

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David Olusoga was talking to Clare Hargreaves. David Olusoga will present The World’s War, a series on the African and Asian troops who fought in the First World War, on BBC Two in August