Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Dr. Richard Overfield
In 1883, Otto von Bismark had a “change of heart” regarding colonialism. Through shrewd diplomacy and secrecy, the German Chancellor was able to spring the reality of German colonies on the world, particularly in the last available or unclaimed regions in Africa and Oceania where the Germans subsequently encroached upon British territory. One of Germany’s first colonies was Southwest Africa, or present-day Namibia, where a German businessman secured the purchase of a large tract of the Skeleton Coast from indigenous rulers and then requested the protection of the German Reich, which Berlin granted to him. The result was a vicious dispute of private claims between German and British citizens and an entangled diplomacy between the two empires. In Britain, both Tory and Liberal governments tried to prevent the Germans from establishing themselves so close to their precious Cape Colony and both later attempted to confine the German territory so that the Afrikaners in the Transvaal could not link up with the Germans. Eventually, London and Cape Town would only succeed in the latter. Both Britain and the Cape failed to produce any evidence of prior official claims to the Skeleton Coast. In fact, any official British presence there had been previously withdrawn, leaving a vacuum, because of the bloody wars between the indigenous tribes. They had “left the door wide open” for the Germans to walk into southern Africa, and when they tried to close this door, the British found Bismark’s foot firmly established in it. Humiliatingly, Bismark forced both London and Cape Town to support Germany’s control of Southwest Africa by turning down offers of annexation from indigenous tribes or from British traders (with one such trader even trying to establish an independent republic) who wanted a British presence there. In the end, Britain admitted to the world that this was German soil. Although Southwest Africa was not a prosperous German colony at first, requiring many subsidies from the Reich, it became the most popular destination for German colonists far exceeding the other German colonies in Africa and Oceania due to the relatively small native population and large tracts of seemingly vacant land. Yet as the 20th century came, Southwest African mining began to profit and the discovery of diamonds created an economic boom which finally made Southwest Africa a valuable asset to the German Reich. The German colonists did have, and created, some problems with the indigenous population or particularly with the Herero and Nama tribes. Although the German colonial government was able to gain control over them in the 1890’s, they had an explosive rebellion in the early years of this century which pushed German policy to a horrifying extreme, rivaling even the later Third Reich in its brutality. Yet just as the German colonial government had gained total control over Southwest Africa and just as the colony had become profitable with a hopeful future, World War I gave Britain and the Union of South Africa the pretext to invade the German colony. Despite the South African rule over the territory until just recently when Namibia became independent, the German impact on the region is as fundamental as the genetic makeup of a living creature.
Plowman, Matthew Erin, "Doors left open then slammed shut: The German colonization of Southwest Africa and the Anglo-German rivalry, 1883-1915" (1995). Student Work. 435.
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