The Herero, who speak a language belonging to the Bantu subfamily, arrived in Namibia after a long migration that started in the Great Lakes region.
As cattle herdsmen, the Herero people used to often have clashes over the entitlement of the lands they needed for grazing their cattle with other populations of the central highlands, especially with the Nama, a people of cattle breeders and hunters, but in 1884, the Herero lands came under the influence of the Germans, who established there the so-called German Colony of South-West Africa.
The first German settlers moved to the area in 1892 and allegedly tried to negotiate with the Nama to purchase the lands on which to build their farms, but what actually happened was that the natives were dispossessed of their land to the benefit of the settlers protected by the German Army.
In 1897, the situation worsened because of an outbreak of cattle pest that killed most of the Herero and Nama cattle, which first forced these people to be indebted with the foreign settlers in order to survive in such a difficult situation, and when they were no longer in a position to repay their debt, their remaining cattle was seized.
The only alternative for the Herero to survive was to rise up, and in 1904, the Herero and Nama people started fighting the Germans, with terrible consequences for both of them.
After the first victories on the part of the Herero, the Germans organized themselves better and asked for reinforcements from their homeland; from 1904 to 1907, as many as 15,000 German soldiers arrived to Namibia, led by Gen. Von Trotha, the first person in history to use the term “vernichtungspolitik”, i.e. “extermination policy”.
That is how the humankind witnessed the first genocide in history as the German soldiers were ordered to shoot any native person on sight, including women and children.
The German authorities did not merely aimed to suppress the uprising, but rather to exterminate the Herero nation through military operations first, followed by the deportation and confinement of the Herero people in the desert, where those who had not been killed right away or abandoned in the desert were taken to concentration camps.
The results of the genocide were striking: 70% of the Herero population was suppressed in three years, and the population fell from over 80,000 to 15,000-16,000; even the Nama suffered considerable losses, with about 45% of their population killed.
The massacre only ended after great pressure exercised by missionaries and German Christian circles, who forced the central government to recall Gen. Von Trotha and revoke the order of extermination.
The natives were then used in the slave labour, that officially ended on April 1st 1908, when the Herero and Nama people had their status of war prisoners revoked, although the slave work continued beyond that date.
After the outbreak of World War I, the German colony was invaded by South Africa and the Herero tried to join South African forces but were refused for racial reasons.
In 2004 only, on the occasion of the centenary of the suppression, Germany acknowledged its responsibility and guilt for the crimes committed against humanity, but despite the communities have repeatedly asked for compensation, the German government has never taken that into consideration.
Today about 130,000 Herero live in Namibia and South Angola and they account for 7% of the total Namibian population.
A recent study has estimated that, if the genocide had not occurred, the Herero population would now be of 2 million individuals, and although this estimate is a projection, it makes us understand what would their fate have been otherwise.
Life, tradition and culture of Herero people
- Herero economy
- Herero history
- Herero’s rituals and religious beliefs
- Herero villages
- Herero traditional medicine