Who was the real Ernst Luchtenstein? In The Scourge of the Kaiserbird I tell the story of a young boy who arrived in the then German South-West Africa and grew up to become one of the wealthiest individuals in the country. Who was he really?
I tried to remain as close to the truth as possible, but readers must keep in mind that Ernst passed away in 1972, long before I knew of him. The image and character I created was based upon what I could read about him and what I could learn by interviewing two of his children, Margaret van Rooyen and the late Tudi Luchtenstein. The latter was initially reluctant to grant me an interview because he said that his father always shunned publicity. In the end he did give me an interview and told me many stories of his famous father.
Ernst Luchtenstein was born on 3 January 1893 in Schmalkalden, Germany and attended school in Tilsit. He arrived in Lüderitzbucht, now called Lüderitz, in 1906. He was with his mother Therese, sister Charlotte and brother, Ewald, of whom I had no information and left out of the story. When he disembarked from the ship he nearly drowned, a fact which I embroidered upon in order to suit my central plot.
The family was met by his father Joseph Luchtenstein, a transport rider. The family then crossed the Namib Desert in Joseph’s ox wagon. Somewhere along the route they were captured by a band of Nama warriors. Ernst’s mother fell on her knees before the leader and pleaded for their lives upon which the leader said, “Madam, kneel before God alone. We do not make war against women and children.” Later on I figured out that this man was Cornelius Fredericks, leader of the !Aman tribe of Namas of Bethanien.
Ernst’s mother Therese died very soon after their arrival in the country and Ernst was placed in the care of a one-eyed Keetmanshoop farmer, the Scotsman Robert McKay and his Nama wife. He learnt to speak the Nama language fluently and he had a good relationship with the Namas throughout his life. Once, he acted as touleier for one of McKay’s treks which turned out to be a disaster. Ernst was stuck in the desert for three weeks with only one Nama for company and a bag of maize meal as rations. Later on he recalled this time fondly.
During the First World war he was taken prisoner of war by the Union of South Africa forces but he managed to escape. He then lived a secret, solitary life in the Karas Mountains for 18 months. During this time he killed a leopard with a knobkierie and a knife.
Towards the end of the war he was again “captured” by two soldiers. He learnt from them that his flight into the mountains had been unnecessary because as a civilian conscript into the German army he would not have been interned. He was taken to Keetmanshoop to be employed as a hunting guide to a certain captain Tilley.
He became a transport rider, like his father, and started buying land until he eventually owned 500 000 hectares of farming land. He married Regina and they had four daughters and one son. In later years he contracted polio and he then turned to woodworking. Some of his finely crafted work survives to this day.
During his life time he made massive charitable donations, even to Protestant and Catholic churches. Many of the older people in the Keetmanshoop area still speak fondly of him.
I used this man as a symbol of who we could be, if only we decide to live a selfless life.
To the River’s End. Lawrence G Green. Howard B Symonds Cape Town: 4th Edition 1950
Lords of the Last Frontier. Lawrence G Green. Howard B Symonds Cape Town: 1952
Touleier to millionaire. Sam Davis. The Windhoek Observer p13.
Early days of a SWA pioneer. SWA Jaarboek. p68-69: 1962
“Touleier” on Trek. Ernst Luchtenstein. SWA Jaarboek pp 62-65: 1965
The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” is available from all leading bookstores in Namibia, through Namibian Book Market, and in South Africa from Upper Case, formerly Graffiti, in Menlyn Maine. Copies can also be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org