Missionaries and traders
The first Europeans had appeared off the coast of Africa in the 15th century. In 1486, the Portuguese explorer
erected a cross at Cape Cross and
planted another at Angra Pequena near Lüderitz in 1486. However, the coast was barren and inhospitable, and the interior of the country at this time would have only been accessible to these explorers by crossing the Namib Desert. No other Europeans are believed to have visited Namibia until the late 18th century when a small number of Dutch settlers trekked north from the Cape Colony and established themselves as farmers. Following them a small number of traders also came to Namibia but without initially having any significant impact.
The earliest missionaries, from the
London Mission Society
, began to operate in southern Namibia at the beginning of the 19th century and were soon joined by the German Rhenish and Finnish
Lutheran Mission Societies
. The appearance of the earliest missionaries coincided with increasing numbers of Oorlams crossing the
Orange River, and the presence of these missionaries was crucial to the success of the Oorlam commando groups in establishing themselves in Namibia.
Missionaries were important in 19th-century Namibia as they fulfilled a number of different roles, in addition to their primary aim of preaching the gospel. Indeed one early missionary, Ebner, regretting that he was unable to provide the Nama leader Titus Afrikan with a supply of gunpowder as earlier preachers had done, was driven to write that “it seems to me that he is more interested in powder, lead and tobacco than in the teachings of the gospel”.
Until the arrival of the missionaries, the Nama communities in the south of Namibia were semi-nomadic, however, the building of churches and the development of agriculture saw the establishment of the first stable settlements. The stone-walled churches fulfilled the role of mini-fortresses, and the brass bells that the missionaries provided were an effective warning system during raids. Many missionaries also introduced agriculture to the communities in which they lived, and the more stable food supply that followed allowed larger numbers of people to settle in an area. In turn, these larger settlements allowed for improved defence against raids through better organization.
Second, the missionaries acted as focal points for traders from the Cape, who were able to supply the missionaries and their families with the goods they needed. In this way the trade routes to the Cape were established and kept open, thus guaranteeing the Oorlam leaders continued supplies of the guns and ammunition upon which they depended for their supremacy. In the early years of the 19th century it seems as if some missionaries even supplied the guns themselves. Schmelen, who established a mission at Bethanie in southern Namibia, found it necessary to “furnish some of my people with arms”. Even in later years when the export of guns and gunpowder from the Cape was prohibited, Kleinschmidt, who operated the mission at Rehoboth, provided Chief Swartbooi with gunpowder.
The almost constant conflict brought about the breaking down of social structures, although the missionaries armed with their Christian rules proved effective control mechanisms for tribal leaders. In 1815, referring to the Afrikaner clan, Ebner noted that “it is only the baptised who are allowed ... to use the gun.” Blameless Christian behaviour was also a prerequisite to political positions in communities such as Bethanie, Rehoboth and Warmbad (behaviour defined, of course, by the missionaries). Missionaries also performed the roles of social worker and doctor, and Jonker Afrikaner once explained to Schonberg why he wanted a missionary at Otjimbingwe “... traders come and go, but the missionary stays, and consequently we know where to get our medicines from”.
By the 1860s an extensive network of trading posts existed in Namibia, the most important being Otjimbingwe northwest of present-day Windhoek. Set up by the Anglo- Swede
Charles John Andersson
, Otjimbingwe was also a key mission station for the Herero-speaking peoples. Under Andersson's influence the European community of missionaries, traders and hunters were gradually sucked into the escalating Herero-Nama conflict .
Following the death of Jonker Afrikaner in 1861 and the defeat of the Afrikaners and their allies at Otjonguere south of Windhoek in 1864, the years leading up to 1870 saw a virtual constant jockeying for position amongst the various Nama and Oorlam leaders. Once again the southern and central parts of Namibia were the scene of skirmishes and cattle raids. This infighting amongst the Oorlam/Namas effectively allowed the Herero-speaking people under the leadership of Kamaherero to break free of Afrikaner dominance.