Jan-Bart Gewald. Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923. Oxford: James Currey, 1999. x + 310 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8214-1245-9.
Reviewed by Marion Wallace (Research and Editorial Services Department, Public Record Office, UK)
Published on H-SAfrica (April, 2001)
The 1904 Herero and Nama uprisings against German rule are among the best-known events in the history of Namibia. One of the strengths of Jan-Bart Gewald's book, however, is that it seeks to lift Herero history out of the imprisoning paradigm of the 1904-8 war. Thus, he places it within a wider context that begins with the de facto imposition of German control, and ends with the burial of Samuel Maharero--Herero chief under the Germans and a supremely ambiguous figure--in Okahandja in 1923.
The book is the published (and largely unaltered) version of Gewald's 1996 PhD thesis, 'Towards Redemption' (University of Leiden). It forms part of an outpouring of new work on Namibia since independence, and in particular, in this field, of Dag Henrichsen's 1997 PhD thesis, 'Herrschaft und Identitaet im vorkolonialen Zentralnamibia: Das Damara-und Hereroland im 19. Jahrhundert' (University of Hamburg), and Gesine Krueger's work on the social history of the 1904 war, Kriegsbewaeltigung und Geschichtsbewusstsein: Realitaet, Deutung und Verarbeitung des deutschen Kolonialkrieges 1904 bis 1907 (Goettingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1999).
Gewald begins by looking briefly at the emergence of the power of Maharero and other important Herero leaders in the early 1860s, and then moves on to the period after the death of Maharero in 1890. He gives a detailed account of the relations formed by the German authorities in Namibia with various Herero leaders, and the variety of circumstances in which their independent power was effectively curtailed. Thus, Samuel Maharero's succession to Maharero was made possible only by German support; at the other end of the scale, the eastern leaders Kahimemua and Nikodemus Nguvauva were executed for insubordination in 1896. In the same period other leaders such as Manasse Tjiseseta were effectively brought under German authority by a combination of diplomacy and force.
If this history is, in outline, well known, Gewald's account nevertheless makes a major contribution. Not only does he give considerably detailed accounts of these events, but, more importantly, he makes African agency the central plank of his narrative. He starts from Samuel Maharero, not Leutwein; he both assumes and shows (as he writes later in the book) that Herero leaders 'knew how to approach and manipulate' the authorities (p. 251); and he explains in detail the politics of the various Herero polities. All this makes a refreshing change from older histories of this period.
In later chapters, Gewald explores the historical importance of the rinderpest of 1897-8 and its devastating effect on cattle, the main means of production of Herero. He then moves on to the war of 1904 with an intriguing analysis of its causes. The orthodoxy that the war constituted a pre-planned attack on Germans by Herero, under the leadership of Samuel Maharero, is, he argues, a myth that was invented later by the authorities in order to justify their actions. Rather, the war was precipitated by a series of events in the town of Okahandja and by the misreading (based on settler paranoia) by Germans of Herero actions. Once in train, it continued because of the unwillingness of the Germans to negotiate.
No doubt this reading of the evidence will lead to great controversy in Namibian circles. Gewald's key argument revolves around a number of letters by Samuel Maharero, which have hitherto been seen as evidence that the war was pre-planned. Gewald argues that the dates of these letters were tampered with by the Germans and that they have also been misinterpreted. This explanation is a possibility--although it is regrettable that he chose to analyse the German translation rather than the Otjiherero original of at least one of the letters (p. 157 n. 86)--and it would help to explain Samuel Maharero's apparent volte-face. On the other hand, however, it tends to deny the importance of the possible long-term causes of the war, and it presents the Germans as the main aggressors who pushed Herero into the war, without fully explaining why they would have done this. Given the economic losses suffered by many Herero since 1890, one might equally well ask why war did not break out sooner. On the question of the immediate causes, publication of facsimiles of the letters would be a useful next step.
After dealing with the uprisings, Gewald goes on to a detailed history of the last years of German and the first of South African rule. Here, he accepts, extends and provides further evidence for recent arguments that Herero were able to begin rebuilding their herds well before the end of German rule, and that they were able to use the spaces afforded by the South African occupation of 1915 to enhance their position. Again, African agency is brought to the fore. With this account, Namibian historiography has definitively moved on from Drechsler's position that the power of the colonial state was total until 1915.
The book ends with a description of Samuel Maharero's funeral in 1923. Gewald argues, as others have done, for the symbolic significance of this event, but interestingly its chronological position in this work makes us read it as a climax to processes of the reconstitution of Herero identity, rather than part of an ongoing process.
If this book has many strengths, however, there are also weaknesses. Its self-definition as a 'socio-political' history is undermined by the approach of chapters two and three, which deal with the dispute over the succession to Maharero and Herero-German relations before 1897. The agency here may be African, but it remains that of a small male elite: in effect, a narrow model of political history has been used, and African politicians inserted as the political actors.
Even at the political level, this does not fully work. To start with, the idea of 'Germany' or 'Imperial Germany' is never deconstructed. Apart from a few biographical details about Leutwein and other major figures, and (at a later point) another retelling of the conflict between Leutwein and von Trotha over the conduct of the 1904 war, we are given little idea of the objectives of and contradictions and tensions within the German body politic, either in Germany or Namibia. A more satisfactory analysis would have placed Herero societies within the context of the nature of the forces confronting them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the development of the early colonial state and its concomitant demands for labour.
Secondly, Gewald too often shows us a world driven by the negotiations of leaders and the force of circumstance, in which social and economic processes play only a marginal role. It is true, for example, that he refers to forced removals from the land (under the new treaties with Leutwein, and enforced by Samuel Maharero's people as well as German troops) as a major cause of disaffection among Herero in the 1890s (p. 92). But there is little analysis of the extent of these removals, the numbers of people they affected and where exactly they occurred. Clearly German power and Samuel Maharero's need for land was beginning to bite, but without a more nuanced picture claims about the political effects of these processes must be treated with caution.
Other broad statements raise some questions. Exactly how far did the rinderpest of 1897-8 break, as Gewald claims, 'the economic basis of Herero society' (p. 133)? His own account shows that not everyone lost their herds during the epidemic. Did it lead to a greater economic differentiation of Otjiherero-speaking groups? Were some areas more affected than others? And is it valid to treat 'Herero society' as a whole in this context?
On the basis of my own work I would also take issue with one of Gewald's particular arguments in the early part of the book. He claims (on p. 23) that political forms among Herero in the mid-nineteenth century owed much to Nama political structures. This may well be true, and the author makes a good case more generally that Herero social structures were strongly influenced by their positioning on the Cape frontier. However, his use of linguistic evidence is flawed. On the one hand, he argues that the Otjiherero words for leader (omuhona) and law (oveta) are derived from words in Nama/Dutch, and on the other that religious or ritual authority (whose vocabulary derives from proto-Bantu) did not become a basis for the rise to power of the later nineteenth century leaders, with the exception of Kahimemua. The latter argument misses the point, however. While Herero society seems not to have been fertile ground for the rise of individual prophets or healers (ozombuke and ozonganga), much ethnographic writing shows that, from at least the mid-nineteenth century, male heads of household were leaders (called ovarangere and later ozondangere) in the ceremonies around the holy fire (which included healing). These ritual functions were one of the bases on which these men built their power.
As a whole, I would argue, the insights and analysis of this book would have been greatly deepened by the use of understandings derived from anthropology and cultural history. Gewald argues, for example, that Samuel Maharero's succession to Maharero's inheritance was against tradition, because the former was a Christian. This approach, however, treats tradition as fixed and unchanging. Since Christianity had only been introduced among Herero in the previous half century, the exclusion of Christians from inheriting position and property must have been a fairly new 'tradition'. Where did this ruling come from, and was it widely accepted, or was it just another move in the complex games of luck and skill played out around the succession issue?
The biggest problem with the intellectual underpinnings of Herero Heroes is, however, its treatment of 'the Herero' as a unitary concept. While other historians of Namibia are moving towards an approach that treats ethnicity as neither fixed nor inevitable, Gewald hardly pauses to discuss what he means by the term 'Herero'. His first chapter, revealingly entitled 'for the want of a nation', sketches a narrative in which certain Herero groups move out from under Nama domination to claim their rightful place under Herero leaders. It is true that his narrative reveals that Herero never achieved political unity, and that 'Herero society, if such can be defined, was riven by tension and splits' (p. 286). It nevertheless speaks of a trajectory in which Herero have been (self-)defined as such for a very long (if unspecified) time and where the divisions between Ovaherero, Ovambanderu and Ovahimba 'appear to be historically true and significant' (p. 12). He places Herero in Namibia as early as A.D. 1100 (p. 12). This is debatable at best: other sources place their migration into Namibia at a much later date, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and gives them a common myth of origin with Ovambo peoples. In the light of all this, Gewald's statement at the end of the book that 'ethnic divisions were far from clear-cut, and very porous' (p. 286) is an after-thought that has not impinged on his narrative.
Finally, the book is disappointing in its inaccuracies and its use of sources. Although a huge range of primary sources has been consulted, they are frequently quoted in too great a detail and many would benefit from deconstruction. On the other hand, Gewald seems not to have carried out any oral history, which would have been an extremely valuable resource for every chapter of this book. Some terms in Otjiherero also need correction: in particular, the correct term for the patrilineal descent group is oruzo, not oruzuo. Despite these problems, Gewald's work represents a significant contribution of new research. It will remain valuable both for the evidence he presents, and the new arguments on important aspects of Namibian history.
. Horst Drechsler, Let us Die Fighting: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism, 1884-1915 (Akademie-Verlag, 1966), ch. 5.
. See especially Gesine Krueger and Dag Henrichsen, "We have been captives long enough: we want to be free" in P. Hayes, J. Silvester, M. Wallace and W. Hartmann, Namibia under South African Rule (London: James Currey, 1998).
. See Frieda-Nela Williams, Precolonial Communities of Southwestern Africa (National Archives of Namibia, Windhoek, 1991), chapters 3 and 4.
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Marion Wallace. Review of Gewald, Jan-Bart, Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the Herero of Namibia, 1890-1923.
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.