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World heritage: the writings of Nama Chief Hendrik Witbooi

Avatar of inke inke - 23. June 2017 - Discover Namibia

Hendrik Witbooi. (National Archives)

The legendary traditional leader of the Witbooi Namas, Hendrik Witbooi (1830-1905) kept a diary. In his leather-bound journal he also entered copies of letters, treaties and protocols of meetings. The journey of Chief Witbooi's journal from 1884 until it was inscribed into the 'Memory of the World' register of UNESCO in 2007, is an interesting tale.   

Werner Hillebrecht and his former boss, Ellen Ndeshi Namhila of Namibia's National Archives and her predecessor Brigitte Lau played a key role in this process. In 1989, the National Archives through its ARCHEIA series had published the English translation of Witbooi's journal, followed by a revised edition in 1995.   

Lau already then wrote that the documents of Captain Hendrik Witbooi - or 'Hoofd-Kapitain', as he called himself on his official seal bearing a lion - were a rare treasure. Hardly any other African tribal leader kept written records of his experiences, views, meetings and agreements or had handwritten copies made of his correspondence. The economical and political emergence of Witbooi and his struggle against Germany's imperial rule in the erstwhile German South West Africa could be followed by reading his journal and his other writings, Lau stated. 

The entries into the Chief's journal were made in Cape Dutch and neatly written by his secretaries. Witbooi lost his right thumb through a bullet during a battle against the Herero people. Writing became difficult for him afterwards so he mostly delegated this duty to his secretaries. Hendrik Witbooi was born around 1830 in Pella near the Orange River in South Africa's Northern Cape, where he also attended the mission school.   

He was a descendant of the indigenous Khoisan people from the Cape, who had by the 18th Century lost their land to European settlers and who dwelled as slaves on farms and towns. They were also called Orlams ('those who have nothing'). Many of them did not want to live in slavery anymore and organised clothing, horses and weapons and moved northwards away from the Dutch-British colonial government and the Trek Boers. 

The Northern Cape and the areas north of the Orange River (Gariep) - today's Karas Region - were hardly populated then. Under Hendrik's grandfather Kido (Kiddo) Witbooi, the clan started off from Pella to look for a new place to settle. After nearly 30 years of moving around in the Northern Cape/Namaqualand, Kido settled with his people and the Rhenish missionary Jacob Knauer at a fountain at Kachatsus near the Fish River in 1863. Kido named the place Gibeon. The village bears this name till today and is still the main residence of the Witboois.

Kido Witbooi died in 1875, his son Moses became clan leader. After his death in 1888, Hendrik succeeded him. He was baptised in 1868 and in 1884 left Gibeon with a huge following. At Hornkranz, south of Windhoek, Hendrik started a new settlement.   

In 1884, the area north of the Orange River became the protectorate German South West Africa under Imperial Germany. Witbooi's first journal - bound in red leather, with 183 pages filled in handwriting - started in 1884 and ended in April 1893. It was captured in a box with other documents of Witbooi during a hitherto inexplicable night attack on Hornkranz by German troops under Captain Curt von Francois on 12 April 1893.   

The box was taken to Windhoek and stored until 1925 in the administrative building, the Tintenpalast (ink palace). Since 1948, Witbooi's journal is kept in a vault in the National Archives with other documents of his, which could be traced over the years. The documents may only be viewed with special permission.

Witbooi started a new journal after the Hornkranz attack, followed by a third one with entries until 1901. These 2 journals found their way to Germany and were only returned to Namibia in the Nineties. In October 1904, the Witbooi-Namas joined the Herero uprising against Imperial Germany, which had started 10 months earlier. It is said that the German trader August Wulff found these 2 journals in a deserted house of one of Witboois' men at Gibeon. According to another version, Wulff saved them from Witbooi's own house at Gibeon. The house was burning.   

In 1934, Wulff sold them to the Übersee (Overseas) Museum in Bremen, Germany. It restored the journals professionally and gave them a new binding. Only in 1996 were they handed over to Namibia's National Archives.   

Witbooi's fourth and probably last journal was obtained by Germany's imperial troops during a battle at Rietmond on 5 December 1905. The approximately 80-year-old Witbooi was fatally wounded on 29 October 1905 during a battle against the Germans near Vaalgras.   

Information about this apparently dismembered fourth journal - now owned by a private collector in Munich - is sparse. It remains to be seen if it will ever be returned to Namibia. The collector sent photocopies to the Sam Cohen Library in Swakopmund.   Werner Hillebrecht and Ellen Namhila of the National Archives applied to UNESCO in June 2004 to have Witbooi's 3 journals entered into to the 'Memory of the World' Register. This register was started in 1992 to preserve valuable documents, manuscripts and writings for the future.   

Namibia's application was successful. In 2007 Witbooi's 'Letter Journals' were entered into UNESCO's world heritage register and can be read on the internet.

In May 2014, the Van Riebeeck Society of Cape Town published a reprint of his first journal. It had printed Witbooi's journal in Cape Dutch in 1929 with a foreword by Namibian pioneer Gustav Voigts, who had known Witbooi personally.   

Witbooi's Bible, which was captured 1893 during the attack on Hornkranz resurfaced in the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. Attempts are underway to return this Bible to the Witbooi descendants.  

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