Shark Island Concentration Camp
|Location||Luderitz, German South-West Africa|
|Operated by||Imperial German Army|
|Original use||Officially a prisoner of war camp, in reality a civilian internment camp, described by some as a death camp or even extermination camp|
|Killed||unknown (estimated at least 1,032 up to 3,000)|
Shark Island Concentration Camp or "Death Island" (Konzentrationslager auf der Haifischinsel vor Lüderitzbucht ) was one of the five Namibian concentration camps located on Shark Island off Lüderitz, Namibia. Just 1,300 yards form north to south and 300 yards wide, Shark Island lies in the harbour and is connected to the mainland through a small causeway. It was used by the German empire during the Herero and Namaqua genocide of 1904–1908. Between 1,032 and 3000 Herero and Namaqua men, women, and children died in the camp between its opening in 1905 and its closing in April 1907.
By 1904, war broke out between the Herero and the German colonial administration in Namibia. The Herero uprising in northern and central Namibia and the Nama uprising in the south caught the colonists off guard during the periodic initial stages of the war. After six months of fighting and the Battle of Waterberg, the picture changed for the Herero and Nama nations. The Herero and Nama quickly attempted to flee and spread across the Kalahari Desert to escape German patrols. Those who did not reach Botswana either surrendered to the desert or were captured by German patrols and placed into concentration camps such as Shark Island. According to the Kuhlman missionary group, 487 Herero prisoners arrived and were ordered to work on the railway between Lüderitz and Kubub. By 1906, the island had a steady inflow of prisoners including the Nama prisoners who on 9 September 1906 had 1,790 arrive. Approximately, 80% of those who arrived on Shark Island never left. Prisoners suffered from minimal food rations, forced labour, uncontrollable diseases, beatings, and even rape. The concentration camp closed by 1907. Today, a caravan park exists where Shark Island once stood. At the entrance of the park are several German monuments honoring the German soldiers who died between 1905 and 1908. The Namibian camps do not have any memorials or monuments.
On 12 January 1904, the Herero people rebelled against German Colonial Rule under the leadership of Samuel Maharero. Origins of the Herero revolt date back to the 1890s when tribes settled in Namibia came under pressure from the growing number of German settlers wanting their land, cattle, and labor. Factors such as loss of property, increasing debt in an attempt to resettle lost herds, low wages on white-owned farms, and racial inequalities only intensified the hostility between the Herero and the Germans. When the Herero rebelled, they killed over 100 German settlers near the town of Okahandja. Over 15,000 German reinforcements under the command of Lothar Von Trotha defeated the Herero force at the Waterberg River in August 1904. Two months later, the Nama people broke out in a similar rebellion against German colonists. Traditional rivalries prevented the Herero and Nama from joining together, however both groups continued fighting guerrilla warfare against the German colonial forces. Following the abandonment of Lothar von Trotha's policy of exterminating Herero within the borders of German South-West Africa by denying them access to water holes, the colonial authorities adopted a policy of sweeping the bush clear of Herero – both civilians and rebels – and removing them, either voluntarily or by force, to concentration camps. Trotha proclaimed his intentions publicly:
The Herero are no longer German subjects.... The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won't accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them.
Shark Island in Lüderitz bay was chosen as a site for a camp due to the difficulty of escape or rebellion, the nearby presence of large numbers of German soldiers, and the need for labour in the region.
Although there are records of Herero prisoners-of-war being held in Lüderitz Bay as early as 1904, the first references to a camp at Shark Island and the transfer of large numbers of Herero prisoners from Keetmanshoop are in March 1905. From early on, large numbers of Herero died in the camp, with 59 men, 59 women and 73 children reportedly dying by late May 1905. Despite this high initial rate of mortality on the island which, with its cold climate, was unsuitable for habitation, particularly for people used to the dry, arid climate of the veld, the German authorities continued to transfer people from the interior to the island, ostensibly because of a lack of food in the interior, but also because they wished to use the prisoners as labour in constructing a railway connecting Lüderitz with Aus. One account from Swakopmund in 1905 discusses a group of Herero informed that they were to be sent to Lüderitz. Out of fear, one prisoner attempted to commit suicide through drilling his fingers into his neck. The camp conditions further explain why the Herero deeply feared Shark Island.
Conditions at the camp
Word quickly spread among the Herero of the conditions at the camp, with prisoners in other parts of German South-West Africa reportedly committing suicide rather than be deported to Lüderitz due to the stories of harsh conditions there in late 1905. The Cape Argus, a South African newspaper, also ran stories describing terrible conditions at the camp in late September 1905. One transport rider who was described as having been employed at the camp in early 1905 was quoted as saying:
The women who are captured and not executed are set to work for the military as prisoners ... saw numbers of them at Angra Pequena (i.e., Lüderitz) put to the hardest work, and so starved that they were nothing but skin and bones [...] They are given hardly anything to eat, and I have very often seen them pick up bits of refuse food thrown away by the transport riders. If they are caught doing so, they are sjamboked (whipped).
August Kuhlmann was one of the first civilians to visit the camp. What he witnessed shocked him as he described in September 1905:
A woman, who was so weak from illness that she could not stand, crawled to some of the other prisoners to beg for water. The overseer fired five shots at her. Two shots hit her: one in the thigh, the other smashing her forearm...in the night she died.
Of the photographs taken on Shark Island by the German officers, most of them show the prisoners being humiliated often representing German domination. The German officers published some of the photographs as postcards often captioning the photographs with visual forms of schadenfreude. One of Lieutenant Düring's photographs captures a young boy with his stomach bloated due to malnutrition staring at the ground.
As in other Namibian camps, rape was common on Shark Island. The sexual exploitation of women was often celebrated. Many cases of rape of prisoners by Germans were reported at the camp. Although some of these cases did result in the perpetrator being successfully punished where a "white champion" took up the victim's cause, the majority of cases went unpunished.
Other factors such as minimal food rations, uncontrollable diseases, and maltreatment led to high mortality rates. Prisoners typically received a handful of uncooked rice. Diseases such as typhoid spread quickly. Prisoners were concentrated in large, unsanitary living quarters with low medical attention. Beating occurred frequently as the German officials often used the sjambok to force prisoners to work.
Arrival of the Nama
Whilst the Germans initially followed a policy of sending people from the south to concentration camps in the north, and vice versa, meaning that Nama prisoners mostly went to concentration camps around the city of Windhoek, by mid-1906 Germans in Windhoek were becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of so many prisoners in their city. In response to these concerns, in August 1906 the Germans began to transfer Nama prisoners to Shark Island, sending them by cattle-car to Swakopmund and then by sea to Lüderitz. The Nama leader, Samuel Isaak, protested this, saying that their transfer to Lüderitz had not been part of the agreement under which they had surrendered to the Germans, however, the Germans ignored these protests. By late 1906, 2,000 Nama were held prisoner on the island.
The prisoners held on Shark Island were used as forced labour throughout the camp's existence. This labour was made available by the German army Etappenkommando for use by private companies throughout the Lüderitz area, working on infrastructure projects such as railway construction, the building of the harbour, and flattening and levelling Shark Island through the use of explosives. This highly dangerous and physical work inevitably led to large-scale sickness and death amongst the prisoners, with one German technician complaining that the 1,600-strong Nama work force had shrunk to a strength of only 30–40 available for work due to 7–8 deaths occurring daily by late 1906. The policy of forced labour officially ended when prisoner-of-war status for the Herero and Nama was revoked on 1 April 1908, although Herero and Nama continued to labour on colonial projects after this.
Conditions on Shark Island circulated through Berlin by November 1906. The decision to terminate the camp was not the result of an end to extermination policy, but due to the shift in the balance of political power. Power shifted from German colonialism advocates Governor Friedrich von Lindequist and Governor Oskar Hintrager to Major Ludwig von Estorff. The decision to close the camp was made by Major Ludwig von Estorff, who had signed the agreement under which the Witbooi (a Nama tribe) had surrendered to the Germans, after a visit to the camp in early 1907. After the closing of the camp, prisoners were transferred to an open area near Radford Bay. Whilst mortality rates were still high initially in the new camp, they eventually declined.
The precise number of deaths at the camp are unknown. A report by the German Imperial Colonial Office estimated 7,682 Herero and 2,000 Nama dead at all camps in German South-West Africa, of which a significant portion died at Shark Island. A military official at the camp estimated 1,032 out of 1,795 prisoners held at the camp in September 1906 having died, it is estimated that eventually only 245 of these prisoners survived. In December 1906, an average of 8.5 prisoners died per day. By March 1907, according to records that do exist, 1,203 Nama prisoners had died on the island. The over-all figure for deaths at the camp has been estimated as being as many as 3,000. Combined with deaths amongst prisoners held elsewhere in Lüderitz bay, the total may well exceed 4,000. Deputy Governor Hintrager conducted a census of the Name in the beginning of 1908. He recorded 13,000 alive in the colony compared to the prewar population estimated at about 20,000. The Herero people met a similar fate as their population had been decimated from about 80,000. Eighty percent of their prewar population had either been killed or driven out of the colony.
The vast majority of these prisoners died through preventable diseases such as typhoid and scurvy exacerbated by malnutrition, over-work and the unsanitary conditions in the camps. The German garrison itself and commander von Zulow used the name "Death Island" for the camp.
Research was conducted by the doctor Eugen Fischer on the skulls of dead prisoners and on prisoners with scurvy by Dr Bofinger. In 2001 a number of these skulls were returned from German institutions to Namibia. The captured women were forced to boil heads of their dead inmates (some of whom may have been their relatives or acquaintances) and scrape remains of their skin and eyes with shards of glass, preparing them for examinations by German universities.
- German South-West Africa
- Congo Free State
- Herero Wars
- Herero and Namaqua Genocide
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