Murder Hill – Reminder of a bloody Battle - News - Gondwana Collection

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Murder Hill – Reminder of a bloody Battle

Avatar of inke inke - 25. August 2017 - Discover Namibia

Murder Hill in Okahandja, next to the western bypass.

"They [the Hereros] had just left when we were startled by heavy rifle fire in the vicinity. (...) We were certain that this was the dreaded signal for attack. Women and children, some of whom had already been robbed of their ornaments, fled to us fearful and panic-stricken and reported that the Namaqua [Oorlam/Nama] were approaching. We withdrew into our house. (...) And there we sat, awaiting our death (...)."

This is what missionary Friedrich Kolbe wrote into his diary about the bloody attack which the Afrikaner-Oorlam, led by Jonker Afrikaner, launched on Herero chief Kahitjene in Okahandja on 23 August 1850. The assailants are utterly ruthless. They simply chop off women’s hands and feet to get hold of the coveted iron bangles on their arms and legs. Children are not spared either. Kahitjene tries to flee with some of his men but he is cornered at a rocky outcrop where his followers are killed one by one. Only Kahitjene himself manages to escape, as if by a miracle... 

Today, anybody travelling from Windhoek to the coast by car passes the site where the bloody massacre took place on 23 August 1850. It is an inconspicuous rocky outcrop on the right-hand side of the dual carriageway which bypasses the western outskirts of Okahandja. Few people know that the little outcrop has a name: Murder Hill. Proclaimed a National Monument in 1972 and now fenced in with barbed wire, it remains a reminder of the battle fought between Herero and Afrikaner-Oorlam back in August 1850.

The attack on Kahitjene had been ordered by Jonker Afrikaner who was based in Windhoek and had Berg-Damaras and Mbanderu-Hereros on his side. When missionary Carl Hugo Hahn, who was in charge of the mission station at Otjikango (Groß Barmen), learnt that Jonker was on his way to Schmelens Erwartung (Okahandja) with a large party he sent a messenger to warn Kahitjene. It was the night before the attack and Kahitjene did not waste any time. After clearing the huts and rounding up the cattle he and his followers were on their way to Otjikango to seek shelter with missionary Hahn, hoping that Jonker would not attack the well-established mission station. 

But Jonker was faster than expected. Missionary Kolbe, who had come to Schmelens Erwartung less than half a year earlier, noted in his report that Jonker’s men arrived around 9 a.m., just as Kahitjene was leaving. According to Kolbe there were some 350 assailants, 150 of them arned with rifles and 40 on horseback. They massacred men, women and children wherever they caught sight of them.  

Kahitjene asked Kolbe to grant protection to him and about 20 of his men. The missionary advised them to hide in the church. Jonker’s men were aware that Hereros had taken refuge in the church, but Kolbe was right - they did not dare to attack them there. Instead they came up with a ploy: they pretended to withdraw. And Kahitjene fell for the trick. When all was quiet he and his men slipped out of the church and set out for Otjikango. When they heard the Oorlam warriors rushing after them on horseback it was too late to turn back. They tried to find shelter at the rocky outcrop as best they could. But they were trapped there. According to reports it was an uneven battle. Jonker’s men had rifles and fired whenever somebody moved. Only when Kahitjene rose to his feet, apparently determined not to die without a fight, and shot an Oorlam warrior from his horse with a well-aimed arrow, the attackers retreated. Thus he was the only one who was able to flee. 

Kahitjene arrived at the Otjikango mission station in the middle of the night. He was totally distraught. A note from Kolbe was delivered the following day, saying that Jonker was still looking for Kahitjene. Hahn advised him to flee and Kahitjene retired to his northern outpost at the Omatako Mountains, some 75 km north of Okahandja.

According to reports written by missionaries and traders in those days, raids of this kind were nothing unusual. The Hereros, a Bantu people, had migrated from the north into the area of today’s Namibia where they encountered the Oorlam and Namas who were Khoisan people advancing from the south. But the different Herero groups also fought bloody battles among themselves. Usually their disputes were about cattle. The wealth of a leader was measured in cattle and sheep. Cattle could be traded for rifles, horses and other European commodities, and cattle was also used to reward allies for their support against enemies. 

But apparently there was more at stake when Jonker Afrikaner and Kahitjene clashed in battle. One source mentions the possibility of a vendetta. After an unsuccessful raid Jonker had invited several Herero leaders to his camp and murdered them to take possession of their livestock. According to that source one of the victims had been Kahitjene’s half-brother. Kahitjene had then tried to attack Jonker but had been fought off, the report said. Jonker might have gone after Kahitjene as a pre-emptive measure. However, it seems more likely that Jonker felt his supremacy challenged. Kahitjene had settled at Okahandja soon after Kolbe had moved there in April 1850. Mission stations were popular because they were contact points for traders and good sources of information.  

It is impossible to say with certainty how many Hereros lost their lives on 23 August 1850. Some sources talk of 700 dead. Historians doubt this number as much as the number of attackers which was given then. Some also think that the reports about cruelties were exaggerated. They point out that portrayals of violence between the different peoples were intended to justify interventions by the Europeans – the mediation efforts of missionaries as much as the protection treaties which followed under German colonial rule.   

The battle at Murder Hill was not only a bloody one, but it also had an important outcome. Kahitjene suffered a crushing defeat. His followers left him and joined other Herero leaders or sought shelter at the Otjikango mission station. Even though he managed to escape Jonker he died only a few years later as a result of a dispute about inheritance. Thus Jonker achieved his goal to assert his supremacy for many years. Several Herero leaders subsequently asked him for help when they had been raided and wanted to recover the livestock which the attackers had driven away. 

The battle also put a temporary stop to the mission station in Okahandja. Missionary Kolbe and his wife had been spared by Jonker’s men but they chose to leave the place and moved to Otjikango. Soon afterwards Kolbe continued his work in Otjimbingwe. In 1852 he left the Rhenish Mission Society and settled in South Africa. 

Much more significant for the course of Namibia’s history, however, was the fact that after the attack on Kahitjene another winner emerged, who discreetly remained in the background - Herero leader Tjamuaha. His settlement east of the Okahandja River at the foot of a mountain was never raided, and his followers and his herds of cattle were left alone. There is no proof that he had a hand in Kahitjene’s downfall but it certainly must have been convenient for him that a potential rival had been eliminated. It is likely that Tjamuaha and Jonker had secretly come to an arrangement whereby Tjamuaha respected Jonker’s supremacy and in turn was not challenged either. 

When both leaders died in 1861, Tjamuaha’s wealth and influence were passed on to his son Maharero who finally broke the supremacy of the Afrikaner-Oorlam in central Namibia with the help of European traders Frederick Green and Charles Andersson. He was awarded the status of Paramount Chief of the Hereros, which at his death in 1890 he passed on to his son Samuel Maharero. In 1904 Samuel rose against the German colonial power and after the battle of Waterberg fled to the neighbouring British protectorate of Bechuanaland. Five months after his death on 14 March 1923 his mortal remains were brought to Okahandja. On 23 August 1923, exactly 73 years after the Murder Hill massacre, the Herero peoples gathered there for the burial. Since then they mark their memorial day every year on the weekend following 23 August with a solemn procession in Okahandja.

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