EARLY RESISTANCE : The Bondelswarts 1922 uprising

By By Dr S V V Nambala
December2010/January 2011
NAMIBIAN history is characterised by periods of liberation struggles, rebellions, uprisings and strikes.

The 1922 Bondelswarts uprising is one of the main early resistance episodes recorded in Namibian history.

The Bondelswarts are a mixture of whites and Khoi-khoi people. They belonged to the Oorlam who migrated from South Africa, probably towards the end of the 18th century. They settled around the Warmbad District in the south of Namibia.

When the German colonial authority arrived in Namibia, the Bondelswarts had kindred relationships across the Orange River. Due to continuous colonial pressure from the Germans, they rebelled against the colonial government.

This led some of their leaders, among them Jacobus Christian and Abraham Morris to cross back into South Africa. When the Germans were defeated during World War I, the Union troops (of South Africa) arrived in Namibia and found the Bondelswarts in a reserve measuring approximately 175 000 hectares.

At this juncture Christian and some of his people decided to return to Namibia. Upon his return, he found Timoteus Beukes who had been imposed by the colonial government leading the Bondelswarts and acting as the group’s representative in dealing with the administration.

Beukes’ appointment was not welcomed by the group and Bondelswarts refused to recognize his traditional leadership. Hence with the arrival of Christian, his influence was supreme.

Under Christian’s leadership the Bondelswarts presented their petition to the Administration through the Magistrate of Warmbad in early February 1922. In the petition they questioned the reserve boundaries, requested a reduction of the Dog Tax tariff, and the issue of withholding cattle-branding irons from black cattle owners.

At that time Abraham Morris, who was outlawed under German regime, and considered dangerous and armed, also trekked back to Namibia. The Union Administration wanted to arrest Morris and four others for contravening the provisions of introducing live stock into the territory without a permit; possessing unlicensed firearms; and introducing firearms in the territory without the prescribed permit.

The Bondelswarts leadership refused to surrender him to the then authority. They even threatened to use violence if Morris and his four compatriots were arrested by force.

Because of this refusal to surrender Morris, Administrator, R. Hofmeyr dispatched Major van Coller, Divisional Inspector of the (South West Africa) SWA Police and three police men to Warmbadon the 12th May 1922 to investigate the circumstances of the refusal. The directive also included a warrant for Morris’ arrest by force, if possible.

While at Kalkfontein South, Van Coller invited Christian to meet him at Driehoek. Christian did not go. Instead Christian invited Van Coller to meet him at Haib. A Catholic missionary at Gabis, Father Monsignor Krolikowski, advised Van Coller that the five men when charged, “no fine or punishment” should be applied, otherwise the natives might be provoked to violence. This advice was not heard or adhered to.

After several attempts to convince Christian and Beukes to hand over Morris and others, the government pressed to arrest them by force. The Administration decided to reinforce Van Coller’s police force by recruiting volunteers from Windhoek, Keetmanshoop, Warmbad, Gibeon and Aroab.

A car, horses, and even two aeroplanes were organized for the operation. The Bondelswarts sniffed war in the air. They refused to entertain visits of certain white officials at their residence, Haib.

Soon thereafter, mobilisation was started at Kalkfontein from 23-25 May 1922. Swift steps were to be taken to block all strategic positions. The colonialists wanted to strike a decisive blow. Therefore, a large force of 370 armed men (blacks and whites) was established. It was composed of commanding officer, personal staff, regimental commander, four squadrons, artillery mountain guns, and the machine gun section. The first step was to occupy water holes at several places, and confine the Bondelswarts only at Guruchas and Haib.

The colonial offensive military operations against the “enemy” was started on 26 May and lasted until 8 June 1922. During the first engagement (26 May), there was one casualty on the offensive side and 19 on defensive.

The second skirmish was on 28 May where each side had one casualty.

One of the dead was Adam Pienaar, a leader from the defending side.
The third engagement was on 3 June where an estimated 49 people died on the defensive side including leaders Abraham Morris, Willem Oortman and Gert Gertzen.

The cutting off of water, artillery combined with air bombardments exerted so much pressure on the Bondelswarts. To avoid a massacre, Christian, Beukes and Hendrik Sneew decided to surrender on 7 June 1922.

The war was short-lived but the human loss was huge. Many people were wounded on both sides, many were arrested and about 14 000 livestock captured although some Bondelswarts escaped.

This was a war perpetrated by colonialists simply because the Bondelswarts protected their brother Morris (think of the war in Afghanistan and Bin Laden); refused to hand over a brother to a colonial regime and the wish to be an independent nation.

The report of this incident was read in newspapers of the time including the Cape Times editorial of 11 April 1923. It was also a matter of great debate in the British House of Commons on 25 July 1922.

Fortunately what the Bondelswarts stood for was continued about forty years later and final victory was achieved in 1990. Namibians, remember the past, treasure the present, and shape the peaceful future. PF

Cape Times, 11 April 1923.

Dewalt, F. (Ed.), 1976. Native Uprising in Southwest Africa. Salisbury, N.C., Documentary Publications.