Today Hendrik Witbooi (1840 – 1905) is the face on Namibian bank notes. To his followers he was known as by his Nama name of Khaob !Nanseb /Gabemab, which means ‘The captain who disappears in the grass’, a reference to his renowned ability as a guerrilla fighter.
Hendrik was born in 1830 into a family of leaders. His father, Moses Witbooi, took over leadership of the Witbooi Nama tribe after the death of Hendrik’s grandfather, Dawid Witbooi (Kido). Hendrik’s uncle was Jonker Afrikaner, perhaps the most famous of all Nama chiefs.
Hendrik Witbooi assumed leadership at Gibeon in 1888, long after the death of Jonker Afrikaner in l861 caused a power struggle among the various groups for paramount leadership. Several battles involving various leaders ensued until Hendrik finally defeated his remaining chief rival, Paul Visser, in July 1888 and took over leadership at Gibeon. By 1890, Hendrik Witbooi was signing all his letters, ‘King of Great Namaqualand’.
Hendrik Witbooi was a religious man. The same year that he declared himself ‘King’, Hendrik told missionary Olpp in a letter at Gibeon that God had spoken to him about leading his people from Gibeon to the north of the country. He wrote that on his way home from being captured and released by the Hereros, he had a vision telling him to move north with his people and also said that God also directed him to wage war against his enemies. Later, during the war with the Germans in 1904-1905, Witbooi rallied his people with the conviction God had guided them to fight for their freedom from the imperialists.
Although Witbooi was only the chief of a comparatively small group of people in an isolated corner of a huge continent, his far-sightedness and understanding of events would have shamed many leaders with far better education and with access to the most modern sources of communication. For instance, at a time when the Germans were expanding their presence in central Namibia, Hendrik met with the German commander, Major Kurt von Francois to discuss the latter’s offer of German ‘protection’. Witbooi replied that he did not understand how one could be both autonomous and ‘protected’ at the same time because, said Hendrik, ‘When one chief stands under the protection of another, the underling is no longer independent, and is no longer master of himself, or of his people and country.’
He then referred to the ability of the ‘Red chiefs’ (the Nama) to band together when danger threatened and concluded, ‘Come brothers, let us together oppose this danger which threatens to invade our Africa, for we are one in colour and custom and this Africa is ours. For the fact that we Red chiefs occupy our various realms and homegrounds is but a lesser division of the one Africa.’
On 12 April 1893, Von Francois launched a full-scale attack against the Witbooi settlement at Hoornkranz, which was near the Gamsberg on the escarpment to the south-west of Windhoek. It was a shameful and unprovoked onslaught in which mainly women and children were killed and homes were destroyed. Witbooi then led his people in a protracted guerrilla struggle. In September 1994, after 18 months of fighting and with no end to the fighting in sight, Hendrik accepted the offer to negotiate a peace contract.
Respecting the treaty, Hendrik agreed to become an ally to the Germans, amongst other things, and also sent small contingents of warriors to assist the Germans in fighting other ‘rebellions’. After the peace agreement, Hendrik wrote to the British Governor of the Cape Colony warning that ‘a great war’ would soon erupt if the Germans continued to occupy their lands and settlements without permission, saying that, ‘We cannot tolerate that. We did not give our land away, and what has not been given by the owner, cannot be taken by another person.’
In October 1904, ten months after the Herero had launched into full-scale war on the Germans, Hendrik Witbooi led Namaland against the Germans. At the age of 80 years, Hendrik fought with his soldiers until he died on the battle field from a wound in the thigh that he received on 28th October 1905 near Vaalgras.