Scramble for Africa
In the last few decades of the 19th century the Portuguese, the British, the French, and Leopold II of Belgium were starting to embark on the famous 'Scramble for Africa'. Germany had long eschewed the creation of colonies, and Bismarck is widely quoted as stating: 'So long as I am Chancellor we shan't pursue a colonial policy.'
However, in March 1878 the English government of South Africa's Cape formally annexed an enclave around Walvis Bay. (The British had been asked earlier by missionaries to help instil order in the heartland of Namibia, but they didn't feel that it was worth the effort.)
In late 1883 a German merchant called Adolf Lüderitz started to buy land on the coast. He established the town named Lüderitzbucht – usually referred to now as Lüderitz – and began trading with the local Nama groups. (It was news of this act that was said to have finally prompted Britain to make Bechuanaland a protectorate.)
Faced with much internal pressure, Bismarck reversed his policy in May 1884. He dispatched a gunboat to Lüderitz and in July claimed Togo and Cameroon as colonies. By August Britain had agreed to Germany's claims on Lüderitz, from which sprang the German colony of South West Africa. Lüderitz itself was bought out a few years later by the newly formed German Colonial Company for South West Africa, and shortly after that the administration of the area was transferred directly to Germany's control.
In May 1884, Portugal proposed an international conference to address the territorial conflicts of the colonial powers in the Congo. This was convened in Berlin, with no Africans present, and over the next few years the colonial powers parcelled Africa up and split it between them. Amongst many territorial dealings, mostly involving pen-and-ruler decisions on the map of Africa, a clearly defined border between Britain's new protectorate of Bechuanaland and Germany's South West Africa was established in 1890 – and Britain ceded a narrow corridor of land to Germany. This was subsequently named after the German Chancellor, Count von Caprivi, as the Caprivi Strip.
German South West Africa
After a decade of relative peace, the 1880s brought problems to central Namibia again, with fighting between the Hereros, the Basters, and various Nama groups, notably the Afrikaners and the Swartboois. However, with German annexation in 1884 a new power had arrived. For the first five years, the official German presence in South West Africa was limited to a few officials stationed at Otjimbingwe. However, they had begun the standard colonial tactic of exploiting small conflicts by encouraging the local leaders to sign 'protection' treaties with Germany.
The Hereros, under chief Maherero, signed in 1885, after which the German Commissioner Göring wrote to Hendrik Witbooi – the leader of the Witbooi Namas who occupied territory from Gibeon to Gobabis – insisting that he desist from attacking the Hereros, who were now under German protection. Witbooi wrote to Maherero, to dissuade him from making a 'pact with the devil' – he was, perhaps, ahead of his time in seeing this German move as an opening gambit in their bid for total control of Namibia.
In 1889 the first 21 German soldiers, Schutztruppe
, arrived. More followed in 1890, by which time they had established a fort in Windhoek. That same year Maherero died, which enabled the German authorities to increase their influence in the internal politics of succession which brought Samuel Maherero to be paramount chief of the Herero. By 1892 the first contingent of settlers (over 50 people) had made their homes in Windhoek.
A fair trade?
The 1890s and early 1900s saw a gradual erosion of the power and wealth of all Namibia's existing main groups in favour of the Germans. Gradually traders and adventurers bought more and more land from both Nama and the Herero, aided by credit-in-advance agreements. A rinderpest outbreak in 1897 decimated the Herero's herds, and land sales were the obvious way to repay their debts. Gradually the Herero lost their lands and tension grew. The Rhenish Missionary Society saw the evil, and pressurised the German government to create areas where the Herero could not sell their land. Small enclaves were thus established, but these didn't address the wider issues.