Astucious strategist – the “Black Napoleon” - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Astucious strategist – the “Black Napoleon”

Avatar of inke inke - 23. September 2016 - Discover Namibia

Jakob Marengo on a mural in the Canyon Village. (photo: Gondwana Collection)

It happened only once in the history of the German Empire that British security forces were decorated with a German military medal, the South West Africa Commemorative Medal with the bar “Kalahari 1907”. This medal was awarded during the Herero and Nama uprising from 1904 to 1908. The “Kalahari 1907” clasp refers to one particular event which triggered cooperation between the authorities in German South West Africa and British police and soldiers stationed in the Cape Colony. 

Jakob (or Jacob) Marengo, dubbed the Black Napoleon, was a thorn in the flesh of the German colonial authorities during the Nama and Herero uprising. In July 1904 he started raiding farms in the southern parts of the colony, ransacking and killing the inhabitants. He took care not to clash with the Schutztruppe. Every so often he and his men evaded capture by retreating across the border into the Cape Province and thus onto British territory. 

Marengo had a Herero father and a Nama mother but he also spoke German, English and Afrikaans fluently. It is said that a missionary took him to Europe for one-and-a-half years. Marengo’s political goal was to have the territory change from German to British colonial rule. In March 1906 German forces started a major offensive against Marengo, who promptly fled to the Cape Province again. 

However, by then he was also wanted by the British authorities. In May 1906 he turned himself in and was detained. Germany’s request for his extradition was refused. After his release Marengo went to Upington. He was put under police surveillance but soon dodged his reporting instructions and went into hiding close to the border of German South West Africa where he was immediately able to gather supporters. 

The German authorities urged their British counterparts to remove Marengo from the border area. Emperor William II himself got involved and offered a reward of 20,000 Marks for the capture of Marengo. Finally the British administration at the Cape ordered the police in Upington to establish a special force to detain Marengo consisting mainly of members of the Cape Mounted Police, reinforced by soldiers of the Cape Mounted Rifles. Under the command of Major FAH Elliot this unit together with Schutztruppe officers tracked down Marengo on 17 September 1907. 

He did not show up for proposed talks at a place called Longklip but instead retreated further into the Kalahari with his followers. Major Elliott subsequently gave orders that Marengo be pursued and apprehended. He was spotted two days later in the hills of Eenzaamheid where he had entrenched himself with about 30 men. After a battle lasting one-and-a-half hours Marengo and many of his followers were dead and the remainder had fled into the desert. The special unit had sustained one casualty. The unit rode back to Upington on the same day, and since it had completed its mission it was disbanded. 

The operation is well documented thanks to the two German liaison officers who were permitted to work with the British unit. The governor of German South West Africa, Bruno von Schuckmann, was extremely pleased about the success of the mission and sent an application to Berlin for permission to award the South West Africa Commemorative Medal in Bronze to the British special unit. Before agreeing to the proposal, Emperor William II asked King Edward VII for his consent. 

Altogether 105 of the unit’s 111 members were awarded the South West Africa Commemorative Medal and 92 of the medals had clasps with the inscription “Kalahari 1907” attached to the ribbon. The medal was only awarded to the men who had been actively involved in the battle against Marengo. Six African scouts were not recognised with the award. The medals came with a parchment bearing the name of the recipient and the date “Windhoek, 22 August 1908”, signed by Major Georg Maerker, the deputy commander of the Schutztruppe in German South West Africa. At the outbreak of the First World War the wearing of the medal was banned by King George V.

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