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Expedition of no Return

Avatar of inke inke - 21. October 2016 - Discover Namibia

Adolf Lüderitz on his last expedition in 1886 (Photo from the collection of Walter Rusch)

The mystery surrounding the death of German colonial pioneer Adolf Lüderitz has never been completely solved. On an expedition to the Orange River he and Steingröver, his helmsman, left the rest of their party on 23 October 1886. In a small boat they planned to sail from the river’s mouth up the coast to Angra Pequeña (now Lüderitz). The two men were never seen again... 

Adolf Lüderitz was a merchant from Bremen in northern Germany. On 13 June 1886 he landed in Angra Pequeña (Portuguese: little bay), to lead another expedition into the southern reaches of South West Africa. He planned to explore the possibilities of a settlement at the Orange River mouth and he also wanted to prospect for mineral deposits. His party consisted of mining engineer Iselin from Basle in Switzerland, Scottish miner Hodkins and his helmsman Joseph Steingröver who hailed from Essen in Germany. 

Just four days after arriving in the newly proclaimed protectorate of South West Africa they were on their way to Bethanien with two ox wagons, three saddle horses and a number of servants. In Aus they examined some copper deposits. On 30 August they continued from Bethanien to the Orange River, which they reached about two weeks later at Nabasdrift. The exploration trip down the river started on 20 September 1886 with two collapsible boats. For Lüderitz and Steingröver it turned into a journey of no return.  

Three years earlier the 52-year-old tobacco merchant from Bremen had instructed his assistant Heinrich Vogelsang to purchase the coastal areas around today’s harbour town of Lüderitz from Nama Captain Josef Frederiks. Imperial Germany granted protection to the acquired land and proclaimed all of South West Africa a German protectorate on 7 August 1884. 

Adolf Lüderitz initially invested large sums of money from his private funds into developing Angra Pequeña, buying land and purchasing mining concessions. When his financial means were exhausted the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika (German Colonial Society for South West Africa) came to his assistance. A sales contract for his operations in South West Africa was signed on 4 April 1885. Apart from the purchase price of half a million Reichsmark it gave Lüderitz a share in the trading rights. The Colonial Society also helped to finance his last expedition in 1886.

After a trying boat trip down the Orange River Adolf Lüderitz and his expedition made it to Ariesdrift on 17 October. There, some 100 km from the river mouth, Lüderitz wrote his last letter to his wife: 

“Emmy, my dearest heart

After a good journey we arrived here the day before yesterday.

The Orange River is beautiful and romantic, but it kept us very busy because we had to negotiate 52 rapids on the way from Nabas Drift. (...) Unfortunately it is impossible to send a messenger from here to Aus to get the wagons to fetch us and our luggage. Therefore Steingröver and I will return to Angra by ourselves. We leave tomorrow at 6 a.m. (...) I expect to arrive in Angra in about 8 days, and then I will send a messenger to Aus. (...) Nevertheless, it was an absolutely interesting trip. Nobody has ever navigated the river this far and our little boats have stood the test very well.” 

The group of explorers split up on 20 October. Iselin and Hodkins stayed behind with all the gear to continue prospecting for mineral deposits while waiting for the ox wagons to arrive from Aus. As soon as Lüderitz and Steingröver had made it to Angra Pequeña by boat he would send the wagons on their way. The two of them set off to the river mouth in the larger collapsible boat. The boat weighed about 40 kg (88 pounds), it was 75 cm (2½ feet) deep and had no keel. There was only one pair of oars and an old sheet served as a sail. 

On the following day the two men stopped at the wooden cabin of Raynier Coetzee, a farmer who lived at Kort Dorn on the riverbank, some nine miles from the river mouth. After the disappearance of Lüderitz and Steingröver he declared under oath on 12 March 1887 in Port Nolloth that he had warned the two men not to go ahead with their plans. His words were recorded as follows: 

“Mr Lüderitz, do not spare expenses and rather travel on land instead of taking such a small boat to sea. You will come to harm, the boat is too small for the ocean. Steingröver replied to this ‘I have been at sea for a long time. There is no danger’. Mr Lüderitz said ‘I trust Steingröver, he is an experienced man’. They spent the night at my house. The following morning at sunrise they started rowing towards the river mouth.” 

Coetzee was the last person to see Lüderitz and Steingröver alive. There was a light south-easterly breeze, the sea was calm. In the afternoon the wind picked up and on 24 October turned into a storm blowing from the northwest and causing heavy seas. 

Since then Lüderitz and Steingröver are missing. It is not known whether they drowned or made it ashore and perished in the Namib Desert. Their mortal remains were never found. 

Angra Pequeña was later renamed Lüderitzbucht by the Colonial Society in memory of one of the first German explorers in South West Africa. The name was also used for the settlement at the ‘little bay’ which soon grew into a small town.

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