Day 11: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

Abraham-Morris
Abraham Morris, unsung hero of the Nama War, here as a scout for the Union of South Africa forces when they invaded German Southwest Africa during the First World War. He expected South Africa to reward him by allowing him back into his motherland. He was wrong.

One of the unsung heroes in “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird” is Abraham Morris. I used Abraham as a minor character, but in truth he is larger than life. His story has already inspired one novel, “The Return” by James Ambrose Brown, so I did not want to pursue his exploits further in my own rendition of the weird, wonderful and tragic happenings of the Nama War of 1904-1908, these dates being very arbitrary, as we will see shortly.

The man Abraham Morris was born in Warmbad, Namibia, around 1872 out of the marriage between a Scotsman and a Bondelswart Nama woman. He grew up deeply religious, probably in the Catholic tradition which dominated the deep south of Namaland.

The most remarkable thing about Morris is the fact that his involvement in the Nama War places the dates of the war into a controversial argument. It is generally accepted that the Nama War started with a declaration of war by Hendrik Witbooi on 3 October 1904, just two months after Witbooi had still acted as an ally to the Germans in the war on the Hereros.

Yet, one year earlier, on 25 October 1903 to be precise, a small incident about a billy goat in the town of Warmbad led to some German soldiers taking a Nama man prisoner. At the police station a group of Namas gathered to protest, among them Abraham Morris and Jakob Morenga.

The situation escalated when lieutenant Walther Jobst used force and shots were fired. Two bodies lay in the sun, that of the young lieutenant and that of the Nama leader, Jan Abraham Christiaan. This incident sparked a Nama uprising or rather a Bondelswarts Nama uprising.

Morris and Marengo fled into the Karas mountains and a fully fledged guerilla war followed, to such an extent that the governor of the country, Leutwein rushed down south to come and restore the peace. His absence allowed the Hereros in the north to rise up and to organise their rebellion. When the first shots of the Herero war were fired Leutwein was still down south trying his best to negotiate peace. Morris and Morenga were not included in the peace talks. Instead Leutwein made the fatal mistake of placing a price on their heads.

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Long before Hendrik Witbooi’s declaration of war on 3 October 1904 Abraham Morris and Jakob Marengo were already fighting the Germans as witnessed by this photograph taken at Uhabis in the territory of the Bondelswarts. Note the date of 8 November 1903.

Events in the north forced Leutwein to go back to fight the Hereros, leaving the Bondelswarts to his men at Warmbad. During the time of the Herero war, January to August 1904, the Bondelswarts were involved in numerous skirmishes with the small band of Germans at Warmbad. On 10 December the Germans under colonel von Burgsdorff, aided by Hendrik Witbooi and his Khowesin and !Aman Namas won a battle against the Bondelswarts but two days later, on 10 December the Bondelswarts defeated lieutenant Böttlin in the battle of Hartebeestmund, wounding the lieutenant and some of his men.

A remarkable thing happened. Morris and Marengo took the wounded Böttlin and his men across the Gariep river to the Roman Catholic mission station at Pella for treatment. Within the context of the Nama war this was extraordinary because no such mercy was ever shown to any Nama or Herero soldier.

The Bondelswarts continued their resistance during 1904 while Hendrik Witbooi was still on the side of the Germans. Witbooi changed his mind, probably when he witnessed first hand the cruelty of the Germans during the Herero war. Then, on 3 October 1904, came his declaration of war against Germany. He was immediately joined by his former enemies, the Bondelswarts of Morris and Marengo.

I contend that the Nama War had started a year earlier when Jobst and Christiaan were killed at Warmbad, not with Witbooi’s declaration. Abraham Morris was there, at the real start of the Nama War, on 25 October 1903, and he would be there also, the very last casualty of the Nama War, 19 years later, as we shall see. The end of the Nama war did not occur as historians hold it out to be in 1907, or 1908. It really only ended when Morris was killed in a most atrocious incident for which South Africa would eventually pay the price many decades later, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Marengo, an educated man who had spent time in Europe became a legend of the Nama War. He fought hard and clever, frustrating the Germans and inspiring the Namas. He was a master strategist. He also was wounded several times. He led his men through the valleys, kloofs and bush of the Karas Mountains and surprised the Germans around every corner, with Morris at his side. When things got too hot for his liking he retreated across the international border, the Gariep river, to the safety of the Union of South Africa. During one such an expedition he was apprehended by the police and placed into custody. He was later released but surprised again and killed. The war was all but over, with the resentment of the Namas festering under the surface. By that time Witbooi was killed and Cornelius Fredericks, another important leader of the Namas and hero of my book, was imprisoned on Shark Island. Simon Koper, the only other Nama leader stayed on the eastern border of the country, fleeing into Bechuanaland when threatened by the Germans. Koper was finally driven away on 16 March 1908 in the great battle of Seatsub, a story for another day.

Morris, with a price on his head, remained in the relative safety of South Africa. He lived there for the next two decades, banished from his home country, eking out an existence as a subsistence farmer, greatly respected by everyone. He was a family man and happily married.

In 1914 the First World War broke out and General Louis Botha, prime minister of the newly formed Union of South Africa, decided to fight with the King and his allies. His first task was to invade his neighbour, the German colony called German Southwest Africa. He did so on no less than four fronts, one of them the south of German Southwest Africa and the others Lüderitz, Swakopmund and Rietfontein.

The south of Namibia, adjoined to the northern Richtersveld of South Africa, is one of the most desolate, wild and dry places on the face of the earth, even today. The invading Union troops of general Botha needed scouts to show them the way and the drinking places. Abraham Morris volunteered as one on these scouts. After all, he had an axe to grind with the Germans. Morris was convinced that his services would not go unrecognised and that the South Africans would treat his people better than did the Germans. How wrong he was.

During the South African expedition into German Southwest Africa he made the acquaintance of a young soldier, Hendrik Prinsloo who later wrote very favourably about the Nama scout.

Morris completed his scouting services for the Union Defence Force with distinction, but after South African rule was consolidated no invitation to come back was issued. Instead his banishment was confirmed! Despite acting as scout for South Africa he was not allowed back into Southwest Africa. He had no option but to continue living on South African soil.

On 24 May 1922 his wife passed away and Morris wrote these bitter, tragic words, “MIjn hart is warlijk droog van de bywonerskap. Naar mijn land (of moeder’s land) terug te komen, dat is mijn vast plan en ook mening. Maar om geen moelikheid te bringen, zal ik goedkeuring zoeken…Dat het den Here behaagd om zijn wil uit te voeren en heeft (Hij) de ziel van mijn dierbaren echtgenoot uit die leven weg geroepen (opde) 24ste Mei: Zodat ik nu mijn leven op aarde alleen moet voortzetten”.

Loosely translated this desperate cry from the heart reads, “My heart is bone dry of life as a beggar. I am determined to go back to the land of my mother, but to prevent any trouble I will seek permission…God has decided to call the soul of my dear wife from this life and that I shall live alone”.

Abraham Morris crossed the river back into “the land of his mother,” now called South West Africa. He was soon confronted by the police who wanted to take him into custody. Yet his people, the Bondelswarts Namas, now crowded into the Bondelswarts reserve by South African decree, had welcomed his return. They hailed him as their saviour who had come to lead them from the oppression of the South Africans. The Bondelswarts took heart and within days a full rebellion started. Abraham Morris, the hero of the many glorious battles of 1903-1907 against the Germans became the unwilling leader.

In Pretoria General Jan Smuts dispatched his air force and from Windhoek came the self styled “colonel” Gysbert Hofmeyr with cannons and machine guns.

The Bondelswarts fled into the mountainous terrain and several skirmishes followed. Eventually the aircraft, under the leadership of the famous Sir Pierre Van Ryneveld bombed the men, women and children as well as the animals of the Bondelswarts into oblivion. A search party under Captain Hendrik Prinsloo was dispatched. Prinsloo followed Morris and his few men for days on end and eventually shot and killed him, on 4 June 1922.

As it was night Prinsloo retired to the headquarters but confirmation was needed that Morris was indeed dead. Prinsloo came back, found the grave, exhumed Morris and reburied him again. To this day the site of this grave is unknown. Last year I went on a futile search expedition. I came away from that dry, rough, desolated, quiet wilderness with a deep sadness about this man’s forgotten legacy.

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This is the area where the Bondelswarts were attacked by the full force of the South African Defence Force, including the aircraft under the leadership of Sir Pierre van Ryneveld.

 

Only when Abraham Morris was dead, was the resistance of the Namas finally crushed, never to rise again. I contend that the Nama War only ended when Morris died. He was there in the real beginning, on 25 October 2903, and he was there when it really ended, on 4 June 1922, a true hero to the very last, but sadly never honoured. He does not even have a proper grave.

Following the aerial bombardment and the indiscriminate machine gunning of the Bondelswarts people, South Africa was reprimanded in the League of Nations. An investigation that lasted two years found that South Africa had violated the trust the world had placed in South Africa as custodian of “The land God made in anger” as John Gordon Davis named Southwest Africa. This international distrust of South Africa continued when the United Nations replaced the League of Nations. Perhaps, if this had not happened, Namibia would now have been South Africa’s tenth province. 

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 bestellings@kaiserbird.com

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