Hendrik Witbooi Papers: Reflection of Identity


In March last year, Cabinet approved a celebration in honour of the inscription of Captain Hendrik Witbooi’s journals into the Unesco Memory of World Register. That has not happened yet, but is promised to take place this year, New Era reports.

By Catherine Sasman


Since the inception of the National Archives in 1939, the archive held an original letter-copy book of Nama Captain, Hendrik Witbooi. Because of the significance of the document, archivists, Werner Hillebrecht and Ndeshi Namhila, applied to Unesco to have Witbooi’s diary recognised as a significant contribution in the world’s list of archival and library items of “outstanding universal value” in 2004. This was approved in June 2005, which makes Namibia only one of four African countries that have been accorded such international honour. The other three African countries are South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia.

“The significance of the documents is that it is one of the rare written documents of indigenous Namibians that have been preserved,” said Hillebrecht from his office at the National Archive.

“Of special significance also lies in the content. The diary contains correspondence on political considerations which show how much aware Witbooi was of colonialism and why he resisted it. The diary even contains the concept of Pan-Africanism long before the word was invented.”

The diary, said Namhila, who serves on the Unesco International Advisory Committee of the ‘Memory of the World’initiative, is a “significant memory” that gives cultural and social evidence “that we were there”.

“The papers are very significant. As an African who has read classical theory where Africa is usually treated as a continent without history, or seen in the context of the varied and successive colonial powers, it is astounding to find – here – a chronological record that shows the importance of governance, of a well-organised society with clear structures and functionalities and responsibilities,” said Namhila.

“This diary speaks for millions of voices and makes Namibia proud. It is elevated out of its national and regional boundaries to international importance.”

The Unesco Memory of the World Register, said Hillebrecht, is considering 12 items from Africa for consideration.

Internationally, what has been put on the list is the first full-length feature film produced in the world from Australia. Also from Australia, are its criminal records. Slovenia has its folk songs listed; Sweden has its Nobel family archives listed; and Germany has the Goethenberg Bible listed.

The country of origin of the items is entitled to market these under the Unesco ‘Memory of the World’ register.

“There could be financial assistance which comes with an obligation to preserve the heritage,” said Hillebrecht.

The Journal

From their submission to the Unesco Memory of the World Register, Hillebrecht and Namhila in some detail depicted who Witbooi was to strengthen their nomination.

Witbooi (with his traditional name of !Nanseb/Gabemab, born in 1835 and died in 1905) was born into a traditional leadership position of the /Khowesin, or “Witboois”.

During 1884 and 1894, he fought German colonial attempts to gain colonial control over Namibia by urging other leaders to form a unified front against the inclusion of ‘protection treaties’.

“He is unanimously considered a national hero, and his portrait is familiar to the general public, most notably since it was chosen as a motif for the paper denominations of Namibia’s currency in 1992,” the two archivists wrote.

Witbooi was also well-known from earlier Namibian history on an international level. This the archivists deduced from scholarly studies, popular historic accounts, obligatory mention in any historical text that relates to Namibia on the period of the anti-German colonial uprisings at the turn of the 19th century, and fiction.

Witbooi’s journal – handwritten by different scribes, judging from the different handwritings, in an unassuming brown leather – bound accounting book of 366 numbered pages brought in the country from Cape Town, South Africa – contains a rare and original source on politics, diplomacy and philosophy of a traditional African leader in the face of the advent of European colonialism.

Witbooi, said Hillebrecht, used scribes not because he was illiterate and could not write, but because he had a “physical problem with writing” – his right thumb was shot off in one of the skirmishes with the Germans.

And written in mostly Cape Dutch, which was the lingua franca of diplomatic correspondence in the 19th century in Namibia – some entries are in Nama – the diary reflects and documents African attitudes to the intruding colonial powers, as well as different insights into the differences of African and European legal concepts, said Unesco.

“His style was usually quite direct, except when, for example, he wrote letters in 1904 to other captains to urge them to join the uprising; then the formulation was more cautiously done,” said Hillebrecht.

Namhila found it astounding that Witbooi had correspondence – at that time already – with countries and nations far beyond the boundary of Namibia: China and Japan.

“It is totally overwhelming and unbelievable when one considers the effort that must have gone into keeping records such as he has,” said Namhila.

“He has helped me, after reading European history, to come back home and see this country through his eyes. It makes you understand the context within which historical events took place. This is a reflection of an identity of a people who have contributed greatly to the Namibian culture. It gives one an understanding of Africa and its people of that time.”

So far, 460 items have been registered. Not all the Witbooi items are in the collection, with many still scattered in German files.

“We are still hoping to find more letters that are in private hands. There might be items in family archives in Namibia,” said Hillebrecht.

The diary consists of four – or possibly more – books into which Witbooi or his scribes entered in- and out-going diplomatic and administrative correspondence, treaties and proclamations.

In the first journal (dated 1884 to 1893) was taken by the German colonial forces under Curt von Francious when they attacked Witbooi’s head quarters at Hoornkrans in 1893. Some of the papers confiscated then reportedly got lost.

“We are not yet clear how this journal found its way back, but it has been kept by the South African administration since the 1920s,” said Hillebrecht.

The second journal, covering 1893 to 1901, consists of two books that were returned to Namibia from the Bremen Overseas Museum in June 1996.

German trader August Engelbert Wulff recovered these documents from Witbooi’s abandoned house in Gibeon burning house in 1904 after the German set it alight.

Wulff reportedly took these with him back to Germany, and gave it to the Bremen Museum in the 1935.

This second journal includes documents of a court case Witbooi instituted against a trade Otto, for not returning his oxcart. A default judgment was made against Witbooi because he did not show up at court.

“He did not show up because he could not. That was the time when von Francious started a war against him,” said Hillebrecht.

These are now bound in half-linen, with 84 and 103 leaves respectively.

The archive also received a fragment of three documents: one is a copy of a letter sent by German Govenor Leutwein to Witbooi; a letter to Samuel Maharero; and half a letter to Captain Johannes Christian. This letter, said Hillebrecht, is the only one of the entire collection that makes reference to Jakob Marengo.

The journals, of course, also reflect the human flaws of the leader, said Namhila. They, for example, show how indigenous groups fought each other, how they stole cattle from each other (“They were notorious thieves”; and one example is where Maharero asked Witbooi, “How could you steal my holy cow?”).

But all in all, said Namhila, it mirrors a leader without equal in bravery and guts.

“When I look at the Witbooi journals, I am saddened to see what is happening in the South – Keetmanshoop and Karas in particular – where one finds children who are not drunk but not sober begging. The social fibre of that society – that was once so well organised and people in charge of their destiny – has worn out completely. The Witbooi journals also teach us how to take care of society. If we do not preserve our national heritage, it will disappear and we will then sit with a distorted memory,” Namhila said.


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