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Walvis Bay: biography of a place – Part 1

Avatar of inke inke - 06. août 2018 - Discover Namibia

A tall ship moored in Walvis Bay harbour (1899-1900). (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

Brigitte Weidlich

Visitors to Namibia’s main harbour town of Walvis Bay find a modern and busy port, good shopping opportunities, restaurants and they can view flocks of pink flamingos and pelicans in the vast lagoon. Discovered in 1487 by Portuguese seafarers, ancient records claim that Phoenician mariners had landed in the ‘bay of whales’ by some 600 years B.C. when they completed a three-year roundtrip of Africa. 

It is little known that the history of this place is linked to a multitude of ownership claims involving Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and South Africa until as recent as 1994.

Caravels anchor in 1487

Portuguese mariner Bartolomeo Diaz was sent by Lisbon’s King Joao II, a nephew of the famous Prince Henry the Seafarer, to sail around western and southern Africa to find a sea route to India. Diaz’ predecessor, Diogo Cão had managed to sail as far Cape Cross north of Swakopmund in 1485, where he erected a ‘padrao’, a huge stone cross, which can be viewed today in a Berlin museum. A replica was placed at the original site.

Diaz anchored his caravel São Cristóvão with two others on 8 December 1487 at today’s Walvis Bay, calling it ‘Golfo de Santa Maria da Conceição’ (Gulf of Holy Mary’s Conception). The delta of the Kuiseb River is nearby. From 1506 onwards, this place was marked on Portuguese sea maps. Portuguese kings however did not formally claim ownership. The name of the ‘Golfo’ was later changed on their maps to ‘Bahia das Bahleas’ (Bay of the Whales) in the 16th century, according to Klaus Dierks in his paper Namibia’s Walvis Bay Issue. Archaeological finds reveal that the Topnaars - people of Khoisan origin - had been living along the banks of the Kuiseb River for hundreds of years, and still do today. The Topnaars were also familiar with Walvis Bay, its lagoon and Sandwich Harbour further south. 

Dutch interests

In the meantime, the Dutch East India Company (in Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie = VOC) of the Netherlands in its quest to enhance trade with India, had established a halfway/refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, today Cape Town, with Jan van Rieebeeck as its commander. In 1670 the VOC sent one of its ships, the Grundel to explore the south-west African coast in the hope of setting up more half-way stations to provide water, fresh meat and vegetables for crews on its sailing ships. 

The Grundel commanded by Captain Gerrit Ridder Muijs (later changed to ‘Muys’ in English documents) missed Walvis Bay but anchored a bit further south at Sandwich Harbour, where some of his men were involved in skirmishes with the Topnaar people. The Dutch hastily left. In 1677, another Dutch ship, the Boode [also spelt Bode] had a more friendly encounter with the Topnaars there, writes Namibian historian Wolfram Hartmann in his article Early Dutch-Namibian Encounters. Yet no plans materialised to set up a VOC half-way station.

In 1793, the Dutch ship Meermin was sent on a similar trip and anchored at Walvis Bay. Its Captain Duminy (also spelt Du Menie*) on 26 February 1793 formally declared Walvis Bay and Angra Pequena, today Lüderitz, to be henceforth under Dutch rule as well as Halifax Island. The Halifax Island is part of the Penguin Islands. Duminy had a beacon – or stone of possession – erected at Walvis Bay. It was the first real claim of occupation for the territory by a foreign power. In 1795 a British ship arrived (see below).

A blue whale is pulled ashore via the slipway for processing at the whaling station in Walvis Bay. It was completely destroyed by a fire on 31 May 1950. (Source: National Archives)

Whale hunting starts

Whaling at Walvis Bay started under the Dutch West India Whaling Company from 1723. From 1778 onward North-American whaling ships came to Namibia’s central coast to hunt for whales. At times up to 40 ships were counted hunting for whales. They replenished their fresh water reserves at Sandwich Harbour. They and Dutch ships acquired fresh produce form the Topnaar people. In 1804 the whaling ship “Hope” capsized at Sandwich Harbour. The “Hope” originated from Salem near New Bedford in the US State of Massachusetts. In 1846 the “American Whaler” from Salem had a similar fate south of Walvis Bay. A few Europeans settled as traders at Walvis Bay, which was at that point just a conglomeration of a few wooden huts. 

In 1844 the big international rush for guano began. Guano is faeces from seabirds and is till today a highly sought-after fertiliser. Shipping companies from the United Kingdom and the USA made good money with Namibian guano, which was removed with shovels from the small islands. 

Walvis Bay around 1880: The Union Jack flies on the magistrate’s building, next to it on the right the church of the Rhenish mission. (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

British interests arise

Until 1795 the British and the Dutch dominated the Indian Ocean and its lucrative trade routes. The Dutch controlled the Cape route and had the Cape Colony established. This was to change. Back in 1793, the new French Republic declared war on the Dutch Republic and on Great Britain. In 1794, the French invaded Amsterdam. William of Orange fled to Britain and instructed his colonial governors to cooperate with British occupation forces. The British Empire wanted control of the Cape Colony to protect the East India shipping route. On 3 April 1795, some 515 British soldiers were sent by ship to the Cape. The Dutch governor there at first fought against the British but surrendered on 15 September 1795.

The British ship Star also arrived at Walvis Bay in 1795. Its captain, Alexander had strict orders to take possession of all bays and islands from the Orange River mouth to the Kunene River mouth on behalf of the British Crown. By 1802, the Cape was Dutch again, but finally became British in 1806 and remained under the Union Jack until 1910. At the Vienna Congress in 1815 all Dutch and Portuguese interests for Namibia’s coastline ceased. 

An old plan of “Walwich Bay“ from 1885. (Source: Swakopmund Scientific Society)

German missionaries arrive

Around 1840, a Nama-clan Chief Jonker Afrikaner, whose people had moved from the Northern Cape across the Orange River into Namibia and were also of Khoi-San origin, made it clear to the Topnaars along the Kuiseb River that they fell under his jurisdiction. Jonker Afrikaner had roads built around 1842 to Walvis Bay, (the ‘Old Bay Road’) to join the trade there.  

German missionaries wanted to establish a mission station in the area, Jonker Afrikaner was asked for permission. Missionary Heinrich Scheppmann started the mission station in December 1845, at Rooibank several kilometres east of Walvis Bay.

In 1866, the Cape Colony annexed all twelve islands, off the Namibian coast.

Palgrave Commission

In 1876, the Cape government sent Commissioner William Coates Palgrave to Namibia to exploit the possible annexion of the entire coastline, which he recommended. The Cape government rejected this in the end. Two years later, on 6 March 1878, the British ship Industry under Captain Richard Dyer anchored in Walvis Bay. There, on 12 March, Dyer annexed Walvis Bay and the surrounding territory eastwards to Rooibank and northwards to the Swakop River and “ten miles” inland along the Swakop as far as a small black hill, called Nuberoff, for the British Crown. The text of the proclamation is printed in the book The History of the Port and Settlement of Walvis Bay, 1878-1978 by Jan Wilken and G. Fox. The total enclave covered 1,124 square kilometres.

Since 1878, the demarcation line of the Walvis Bay enclave ran along the Swakop river to a small black hill, called Nuberoff.

Imperial Germany competes

In 1883, German traders Adolf Lüderitz and Heinrich Vogelsang appeared on the scene. They “bought” Angra Pequena from Chief Joseph Frederiks for pittance and a few months later a vast tract of the hinterland. Lüderitz requested protection for his acquisitions from Berlin. Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was hesitant. Only on 7 August 1884, German South West Africa was officially proclaimed a colony. The name Angra Pequena was changed to Lüderitzbucht. 

Interestingly, on the same day, 7 August 1884, Walvis Bay and its enclave were officially incorporated into the Cape Colony. 

Border disputes ensue

Both empires had to conduct precise delimitation of the borders between The Walvis Bay enclave and surrounding South West Africa. Discrepancies between Rooibank (also called Scheppmannsdorf) and Rooikop were found. This was partly fixed through the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Germany and Britain in 1890. Three joint delimitation commissions afterwards unsuccessfully tried to solve the dispute until 1909. 

Spanish official steps in

Both imperial powers eventually agreed to accept Spanish King Alfonso XIII as arbitrator. The King appointed Joaquin Fernandez Prida, Professor for International Law at the University of Madrid. Prida visited the enclave from December 1910 to January 1911, accompanied by British and German commissioners. The main bone of contention was the southern boundary of the enclave. Britain regarded Scheppmannsdorf (Rooibank) and the Topnaar settlement Ururas as part of the enclave. Germany disputed this among others.

Professor Prida published his findings in a 33-page report on 23 May 1911. He found the demarcations made in 1885 by the British surveyor Philip Wrey as correct. Both Britain and Germany accepted Prida’s report. An English translation of the report could be traced by Gondwana News Online in the Sam-Cohen Library of the Scientific Society Swakopmund. 

After World War I

In 1910, the British colony South Africa became Union of South Africa. The same year, by the Act of Union, Walvis Bay was included in the Union on 31 May. Germany lost its colony South West Africa during World War I (1914-1918). The colony became a category C-Mandate by the League of Nations and was placed under administrative rule of the Union of South Africa from 1 January 1921, according to the Chronology of Namibian History of Klaus Dierks. This however excluded Walvis Bay, the surrounding enclave and all offshore islands. In 1922, the South African government passed a law, the ‘South West Africa Affairs Act’, which officially transferred the administration of Walvis Bay and the enclave to the (South African) administration in Windhoek. The offshore islands however remained under Pretoria’s administration.

The law of 1922 remained in place for 55 years until 1 September 1977, when the Pretoria government revoked the law and issued Proclamation R 202, placing the harbour town and the enclave again under South African administration. 


Namibia gained independence on 21 March 1990. It took four years of intensive negotiations by the new Namibian government with Pretoria to achieve the reintegration of Walvis Bay, the enclave and all offshore islands into Namibian territory on 28 February 1994. By then the town had 28,000 inhabitants, compared to 120,000 in 2018.  There were some obstacles to overcome (see our Gondwana article about the town’s reintegration). 

How did Walvis Bay develop from 1922 until 1990? Read about it in Part 2 of “Walvis Bay – biography of a place”. 

*Moritz, Eduard: Die ältesten Reiseberichte über Namibia, Teil I, NWG, Windhoek, 1999. 

A map of southern Africa from 1885. (Source: britishempire.co.uk)

Comments are disabled for this post.


Gerd Marschner

28. août 2018

Really interesting !!!

Keep it up !

David Moore

07. août 2018

This is one of the few historical articles I have read fully. This is fascinating and succinct. It gives a lot of perspective to the history of a confused region. Thanks

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