Day 7: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

The “Scourge of the Kaiserbird” begins with the arrival by ship in 1906 of the young Ernst Luchtenstein, his little sister Charlotte, and their mother Therese at Lüderitzbucht, later renamed simply Lüderitz.

Their father and Therese’s husband, Joseph was waiting for them. He had been in the country for three years when they came. He was a transport rider meaning he used ox wagons to transport goods from the bay of Lüderitzbucht to Keetmanshoop in the interior, 325 kilometers away. German Southwest Africa was a young colony then having been appropriated by Adolph Lüderitz in a dubious transaction in 1883, a mere 23 years earlier.

Joseph Luchtenstein, like all transport riders in that area, faced a serious challenge. He had to move his family across 125 kilometers of Namib desert without a ready supply of water. In fact Lüderitzbucht had no water of its own. All its water had to be imported from the Cape, by ship. The German colonists built desalination plants but these often were out of service. The thirsty oxen, horses, mules and humans had to share the limited water supply imported from the Cape, or produced by the dodgy desalination plants.

The heavily laden ox wagons then also had to overcome the thick sand, the ferocious east winds in their faces, the scorching heat by day and the freezing cold at night. On top of it all Germany was in the midst of a war against the indigenous Nama people with Nama commandos ever ready to pounce on transport columns.

It often took an ox wagon weeks to cross the Namib desert and to arrive at Aus, a “mere” 125 kilometers from Lüderitz. It was common practice for the oxen to pull the wagons a few kilometers into the desert, then to be outspanned and driven back to Lüderitz to drink some more of that expensive water and then to be driven back to the wagons in the desert for more of the same. When they had crossed the halfway mark between Lüderitz and Aus the animals would be driven forwards towards Aus, then called Kleinfontein, to drink at the big waterhole at Klein Kubub.

The ordeal was a challenge which only the toughest of men and animals would survive. For a long time I struggled to get my mind around the problem. When you view this inhospitable landscape you find it difficult to believe that anybody could succeed in doing it. It cost me a lot of research and many rewrites before I managed to understand how they did it. It was only then when I could present a credible story.

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An antique map showing some of the transport routes between Lüderitz and Aus. This map helped me to understand how the transport riders managed to survive this ordeal of trekking across the Namib Desert.

One of the things which helped me to understand was when I discovered an antique map of the ox wagon routes showing the presence of some fountains and collections of water in the desert. The treks between Lüderitz and Keetmanshoop mostly didn’t take a direct route over the Tschaukaib plain where the current tar road and the old railway tracks are. Instead they mostly veered south to make use of the little water at Ukamas, sometimes spelt Ukama, and Kaukasib. Without these sources the treks would have been all but impossible.

In one of the stories I related it took one trek six weeks to trek from Lüderitz to Aus. This was based on documented evidence. It proves how hardy these men were.

Once the ox wagons reached Aus, the rest was easy. There were plenty of fountains and grazing between Aus and Keetmanshoop.

It is another of my personal dreams to visit Ukamas and the Kaukasib one day in the future. At the moment it is impossible because they fall inside the prohibited Sperrgebiet.

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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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Day 6: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

Perhaps the most important place I visited during my recent tour on the tracks and trails of “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” translated from my book “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland” was Shark Island in the bay of Lüderitz.

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The memorial stone celebrating Cornelius Fredericks, Nama war hero. His skull is reported to be still in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

This island was the scene of some terrible atrocities during the Nama War and thousands died there.

I have been accused by certain interested parties of slightly exaggerating these atrocities. Perhaps certain scenes were over emphasised, but perhaps not. The central truth is that none of what I have described can be worse as to what eventually happened in Poland and Germany during World War 2, the Holocaust in which six million Jews and also other “lesser” people were killed.

It was my deliberate intention to describe these atrocities in their horrific detail, because many commentators including myself contend that the Jewish Holocaust of 1939 -1945 really began on Shark Island during the Nama War. It was here that people (Namas and Hereros) were incarcerated, killed and experimented on, because they were considered an inferior race. At least one “researcher” claimed that he had found the “missing link”, the Nama people. This concept of the “Untermenschen,” inferior beings, led to the idea and philosophy of eugenics and racial classification and eventually genocide in the name of science. And it all started on Shark Island, 33 years earlier in 1906 -1907 with the research work of dr Eugen Fischer. Fischer wrote books and published articles which Adolf Hitler read and used for some of his ideas in Mein Kampf. He and Fischer became friends and according to one source Fischer was appointed as head of racial hygiene at Auschwitz with the outbreak of World War 2.

The most damning evidence of these atrocities is the skulls of Nama prisoners sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The heads of the dead Namas were given to the prisoners’ wives to scrape clean with glass shards, cooked and then packed and shipped.

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The head of a Nama prisoner. The skulls were scraped clean by the other prisoners and then shipped to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

It is well documented with published photographs, and even as a final insult, used as illustrations for postcards. Most of these are still in Berlin.

One of the prisoners whose skull is still in Berlin was Cornelius Fredericks, leader of the Bethanien !Aman during the Nama war. He was also the son-in-law of Hendrik Witbooi. Cornelius is one of the main characters in “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird.” In a strange and ironic twist he is commemorated with a memorial stone on Shark Island.

I have returned to Shark Island many times, but not with pleasure. It is a sad place, made even more so by the presence of, of all things, a modern caravan camp site. The noise and jubilance of weekend revellers and picnic makers sound hollow and out of place when one knows the history.

To my mind a proper museum should be erected or even better a school or college or hospital should be built on this stark, windy and rocky island. It can and should remind us all of the madness that caused so much hardship and tragedy for so many people.

I visited Shark Island again on this trip because I had to.

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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

Day 5: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

The one question I hear most often about The Scourge of the Kaiserbird is: “What inspired you to write this remarkable story?” People want to know how it all started, how did it happen that I spent the best part of 11 years to produce this book, originally published as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland.”

In 2007 I went on a hunting trip to Namibia with my friend Johan van Rooyen, a fellow dentist who now lives in New Zeeland. We hunted on the farm of the late Dicky Strauss, Kirris-Wes. That is the correct spelling of the farm’s name. Dicky was a wonderful raconteur who regaled us with many stories as we drove around Kirris-Wes.

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Dicky Strauss, a wonderful man, who first told me about Ernst Luchtenstein his uncle and the central character in The Scourge of the Kaiserbird. He sadly passed away before he could see the book.

One day he told us about his uncle who became a very wealthy man, one of the two richest individuals in the country. He arrived in the early part of the 20th century and travelled with his parents by ox wagon from Lüderitz to Keetmanshoop.

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In 2016 my wife and I visited Dicky’s grave site on his farm Kirris-Wes, east of Keetmanshoop.

As they travelled they had to outspan the oxen and drive them back to Lüderitz to drink and then back to the wagon to trek even further into the Namib desert, until they were half way to Aus. From then on they had to take the oxen to Aus to drink.

On their way the family were accosted by a group of Namas but treated well. The Namas took what they wanted but spared their lives. The Namas were later captured and the leader taken to prison. According to Dicky his uncle’s father took the Nama leader some food and drink for six months in the prison but eventually the man was hanged.

Dicky then expanded and told me how his uncle escaped during the first World War and hid in the mountains for a long time. He observed the rain patterns during this time and then after the war knew which farms to buy, and that was how he became so rich.

The name of this man, Dicky Strauss’s uncle, was Ernst Luchtenstein, the son of the Prussian immigrants, Joseph and Therese.

That was all the information I got from Dicky. I was fascinated by the story, incomplete as it was. I then went to Swakopmund and went into the Sam Cohen Museum where I did a library search and found more information. That was how it all started.

Initially I was more interested in the life of Ernst Luchtenstein but as time went by I learnt how the young man’s life was influenced by the Nama people. He was later raised by a Nama woman and her Scottish husband and he learnt to speak Nama fluently. He had a good relationship with his Nama workers all through his life. I also gradually learnt more about the Nama war and the Herero war which preceded it. I then discovered for myself for the first time some of the dubious practices and crimes committed by certain German individuals during these two wars. When I read that this eventually reverberated in the Holocaust of the second World War I was totally caught up in the narrative. I was hooked. Some say obsessed.  I just could not stop writing and reading. My frequent trips to Namibia increased. In 2010 I visited Namibia five times with the purpose of research for the book.

I have more than 30 versions of the book on record. I am very proud of the final result, but I hesitate to show the earlier versions to my friends. I not only learnt about the Luchtensteins and the Nama War. I also learnt about writing.

Another thing I learnt was never, ever to write a book like this again. I will always write, but never will I write another book of the nature and size of this one. It really was a mammoth task, to use that cliche. In writing one should avoid these, but the thing with cliches is that they are all so very true.

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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

Day 4: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

Due to the vagaries of the weather and the special brand of Namibian Wifi, I was not able to post blogs the past few days, but here goes. I wrote this blog on Thursday 12 April 2018:

Today I had the opportunity to visit Gochas and surroundings with the specific aim of seeing first hand the memorial stones erected in the honour of Captain Friedrich Von Erckert, Lieutenant Oskar Ebinger and the eleven other Schutztruppe who fell on the 16 March 1908 in what many regard as the final battle of the Nama war. This story is covered in a romanticized manner in “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird” my historical novel which was published last month. I have spent the past two weeks travelling “Namaland,” the south of Namibia, in a marketing tour that was a little more than that for me. To me it was once again an emotional pilgrimage of the places I came to revere and respect over the course of the past eleven years, the time it took me to write, publish and translate the book.

In Chapter 37 I tell how more than 300 German Schutztruppe, armed to the teeth, left Gochas and Aranos on 710 camels following the course of the Aoub and Nossob rivers into British territory and deep into Bechuanaland, hot on the heels of the fleeing Nama commando under the leadership of Simon Koper. The battle finally took place near Kaa on the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Within minutes the leader of the German expeditionary corps, Captain Von Erckert was killed, along with Lieutenant Ebinger and the eleven soldiers, but Simon Koper, the “Füchs aller Füchse” (fox of all foxes) escaped and lived out the rest of his days a free man, even being paid an annual stipend by Germany.

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Captain Von Erckert’s grave left back and Lt Ebinger’s right back. In front is the mass grave of the troops. Today nobody knows exactly where this site is.

The amazing thing was that the battlefield and the graves of the 13 buried Germans have been lost. Nobody knows exactly where the site is. The herpetologist Wulf Haacke has led no less than five search expeditions to find the site. A German group has also done four searches and will do another one in November. I was on an official search five weeks ago. We have some idea but I cannot divulge the details yet. I have written another short book about the events including our recent search. It has become something of an obsession for me to find this site.

As a result of the battlefield and graves being lost, the German authorities decided somewhere around 1909-1914 to erect the headstones in Gochas, the original headquarters of the expedition, on German territory. I have long known about the headstones but today was the first time I could visit the graveyard myself. It was a stark reminder of the futility and irony of war. Germany won the battle and also the war, but not without losing face to the small group of Namas of Simon Koper.

Von-Erckert

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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

Day 3: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

Today I continue with the story of our recent journey on the tracks and trails of my newly released book, The Scourge of the Kaiserbird.

Once again we had to stop at Bethanien, one of the central locations, not only in my book, but also in Namibian colonial history. The first challenge as an author was to decide on the spelling of the place name. A direct translation of the Afrikaans Bethanie, as spelled on the official sign welcoming you to the little village, or Bethanië, as in the Bible, would have been Bethany, but that just did not seem right. I decided to use Bethanien, the old German spelling. It added some flavour and emphasis to the story.

Bethanien was and still is the seat of the Fredericks dynasty of the !Aman tribe. The most recent leader, Dawid Fredericks, passed away on 12 January this year at the age of 85. I visited him last year and recorded a few video images of him talking about the Nama war of 1904-1908, a central theme in the book. KapteinAt the time it struck me that he was most probably the last living person who had personally talked with a survivor of the war. Captain Fredericks was one of the two nominated people who are engaged in a 30 billion dollar law suit in the USA against Germany for reparation for war crimes.

Two of the oldest buildings in Namibia are located in Bethanien, one the house of the missionary Hinrich Schmelen, and the other the house of Josef Fredericks the second who in 1883 unknowingly sold most of Namaland for a pittance, in a crooked transaction deliberately designed by Heinrich Vogelsang and Adolph Lüderitz. Today the Fredericks house is a national monument.

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Bethanien is a symbol of many things, of injustice, greed, exploitation and even desperation, but to me it will always be a special place, one where I have learnt how complicated life and relationships can be. Things are never simple. One can argue for both sides of the argument without ever coming to a conclusion. Was it a good thing that the missionaries came here? Was that not the reason they lost their land? Or would they all have perished in internecine wars and battles, like the Afrikaners, the descendants of Klaas, Jager and Jonker?

For the moment I have to side with the contention that the work of the missionaries is not complete. Their work must be carried out to its logical conclusion, in practice and reality and not in theory. Something must be done to bring hope, vision, education, training and a positive future to the people of Bethanien.

My personal dream is for tourism to be developed in this area. It has worked in so many other areas of Namibia, but why is there no progress in Bethanien? Why has nobody put up a guest house, hotel or establishment in the traditional way of the Nama, in reed huts (//haru-oms)? Why are there no organised tours with enthusiastic guides? Why is there no restaurant offering traditional fare?

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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

Day 2: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

We had a glorious trip on the tracks of the Kaiserbird, my newly released novel about the German period in Namibia. My intentions to blog about all the places we visited this week did not come to fruition because of lack of internet connectivity and an abundance of very welcome, wet weather causing us to be in “survival mode” most of the time.

Before I continue with the description of our pilgrimage I must first explain how I came to the title of the book.

Voorblad

The Afrikaans title “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” contains two almost archaic terms, Keiservoël and Namaland. Keiservoël is the word the Nama people use to describe the crimson-breasted shrike, Laniarius atrococcineus. It is a real word even listed in the dictionary by dr Anton Prinsloo, Annerlike Afrikaans. The colours of the crimson-breasted shrike closely resemble the colours of the old German flag, black, white and red. Even the old Germans of German South-West Africa talked about the Reichsvogel. Some still do. The direct translation of Keiservoël obviously is Kaiserbird, my own creation if you like.

Namaland is the term originally used to describe the south of Namibia, the home of the Nama people to this very day. I chose the Afrikaans title to imply the German influence on the country and its people. The subtlety of the Afrikaans word “oor” allowed me to do that but strangely the English over or across did not ring the right bells in my ear.

Then the word scourge crossed my mind. It also has at least two meanings, one being that of a curse and the other that of a whip, a lash or cat o’nine tails, as used by slavers. Unfortunately there is more than a grain of uncomfortable truth in the history of violent justice meted out to the Nama people more than a century ago. So “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird” was born. On the one hand it tells the story of the Nama war of 1904-1908 and on the other hand the trials and tribulations of a real person, Ernst Luchtenstein who arrived as a young immigrant to German South-West Africa in 1906, right in the midst of that war.

Tomorrow I will tell the story of our visit last week to Bethanien, or Bethanie

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” originally published in Afrikaans as “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” will be 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

Day 1: The Scourge of the Kaiserbird

After two years of working on the translation of “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland,” with the aid of no less than six translators, the day hasDay1 dawned. I take pride today in announcing “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” my historical novel set in colonial German Southwest Africa, today Namibia.

I chose to make this announcement from //Khauxa!nas, long lost and ancient fortress city of the Namas, in one sense their spiritual home. //Khauxa!nas plays a significant role in the novel and in fact the story ends here.

The writing of the original Afrikaans “Die Keiservoël Oor Namaland” took 9 years. I described the process and the story behind the story in my blog on www.kaiserbird.com  and I now intend to do the same for the English translation. I invite readers to visit the blog every day as I make my way for through the world of “The Scourge of the Kaiserbird,” the South of Namibia, where I am leading a group of enthusiasts on a week long journey to introduce and herald the publication of the book.

It was alleged by the late dr Klaus Dierks, Namibian scientist, politician and amateur historian, who wrote a masters thesis on this “Lost City” that //Khauxa!nas was lost for more than a century. (Dierks is buried at //Khauxa!nas.) During the Nama War which raged from 1904-1908 the Namas used it as a hiding place and safe launching site for their attacks on the German “Schutztruppe,” protecting troops. The Germans were never able to locate the place with its Nama soldiers. According to Dierks he “rediscovered” it in 1987. I recently found an ancient map, clearly indicating //Khauxa!nas. Perhaps Dierks never saw this map.

//Khauxa!nas is a large place consisting of ruins of houses, other buildings and a  perimeter wall stretching over several kilometers. It is situated on a hilltop with 360 degrees views and with the perennial Back River forming a deep and large pool down below the sandstone cliffs. The river provided the Namas with their greatest need – water. Here the Namas could see their approaching enemies from far away, but because of its unique locality it was never necessary for them to defend the city. The Namas would attack the Schutztruppe on their own terms, at other sites, away from //Khauxa!nas.

In the book I romanticised the fact that the Germans could not find it in many ways, the details of which I leave for the readers to discover.

Despite the wonderful and unique nature of //Khauxa!nas, situated in an unrept and beautiful environment, apart from Dierks’s headstone, there is nothing to indicate the significance and history of the site. It is my dream that the Namibian government, with the aid of Germany, will do something to celebrate //Khauxa!nas as a place of national and international interest, of special significance to the Nama nation who lost everything in the terrible war of 1904-1908.

“The Scourge of the Kaiserbird” will be 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