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The Lighthouse - A Monument to Harbour Dreams

Avatar of inke inke - 16. February 2018 - Discover Namibia

The lighthouse built in 1903 from hewn quarry stones. Source: Namibia Scientific Society

The lighthouse stands out on Swakopmund's "skyline". The citizens of the coastal town are proud of it and it features prominently in the old and new municipal coat of arms. Nevertheless it is rarely mentioned by sources on the history of Swakopmund. Is that perhaps because it was part of a project that failed? 

The lighthouse flashed its first light into the world on 12 February 1903. The tower was built of hewn quarry stones and supported a cupola that shone its beacon intermittently. The structure itself was 11 metres high, but since it stood on a dune it was some 22 metres above sea level and its light was visible over a distance of 14 nautical miles. Its signal was flashed to a 10-second rhythm: 7.5 seconds dark - 0.1 second light - 2.3 seconds dark - 0.1 second light. 

The lighthouse was an integral part of the harbour in Swakopmund, together with the pier (the "Mole"), the railways and the customs shed. When one stands at the far end of the Mole it is still easy to see that the lighthouse is aligned with the pier's axis. In 1905 the harbour authority became responsible for the structure and in 1921 the transport department of the South African administration took over, so some information about the lighthouse can therefore be found in the TransNamib Museum at the railway station in Windhoek. 

The harbour project in Swakopmund was ill-fated from the start. Construction work was delayed by rough seas and soon after its completion the tip of the pier was destroyed when it was battered by particularly heavy breakers during a storm tide. After the sea had washed enormous amounts of sand into the harbour, making it impossible for ships to berth there, the project was abandoned. A jetty was constructed a little further to the south, first a wooden one, then almost next to it, also to the south, an iron and concrete one, the remains of which are still there today. All attempts to turn Swakopmund into a harbour ended when German South West Africa was taken over by the Union of South Africa, as the deep-sea harbour at Walvis Bay, 30 km to the south, was already part of South Africa. 

It is often mentioned that the first lighthouse was built at the end of the pier. This, however, is a misconception. The "tower" on the pier was simply a beacon, 6.5 metres high with a light on top, marking the entrance to the harbour. This was swept away by the sea less than five months after the inauguration of the Mole. On 12 June 1903 the colonial newspaper, Deutsch-Südwestafrikanische Zeitung, reported acrimoniously on the event: "As a result of the continuously inauspicious seas, which on the morning of Sunday, the 7th of this month, were once again particularly rough, the tip of the Mole and the lantern post also collapsed during that night. Considering how other facilities, for example those in Cape Town, are ravaged by the ocean, it cannot come as a surprise that this harbour experiences similar rigours, even after far more funds will have been invested in the enterprise than the 2.5 to 3 million Marks which are a tiny sum considering the task to be accomplished. The battle against the sea will remain a continuous one. The colonial administration made the inexcusable mistake - which now comes back to roost - that it did not secure the natural gateway, the Walvis Bay, right at the beginning when the protectorate was proclaimed, and that it subsequently failed to take advantage of opportunities to acquire the place when such opportunities presented themselves." 

The lighthouse reached its height of 28 metres in 1911. The cupola was removed and put back into place again after the original tower had been raised by 16 metres. The light signals were now visible over a distance of more than 33 kilometres. Both construction phases of the lighthouse are still easy to distinguish. Other alterations hardly show on the exterior. A radio beacon was added in 1940 that beamed additional positioning signals to ships out at sea. In 1956 the lighthouse's intermittent light was automated and other technical improvements were made during the decades that followed. 

The buildings at the foot of the lighthouse, a storeroom and two dwellings, were expanded over the years. Originally they were the lighthouse keeper's accommodation.

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