Global Migrant Labor in Namibia during the Herero and Namaqua Genocide: 1904-1908

Since the turn of the 21st century, particular historiographical interest regarding Namibia has focused on the history of the Herero and Namaqua genocide from 1904-1908. For good reason it has become a topic of intense debate, political grievances and a focal point for critically re-examining German colonialism. This paper expands the topic to look at the workers from the Ovambo Kingdoms north of the Namibian settler region or so-called ‘police zone’, South Africans, Italians and West Africans who came in the hundreds and eventually thousands to colonial Namibia in order to repair and build new rail lines, load and unload cargo on colonial ships in Lüderitz and Swakopmund, and work as wagon supply drivers for the German military. The numbers of migrant laborers increased dramatically in direct response to the war and the subsequent extermination of the Herero and Namaqua who were the primary African inhabitants and former labor reserve for settlers of the police zone in the colony. The arriving migrant workers were essential in creating a situation where the German military could be transported around the colony to theaters of combat, receive supplies and not only defeat the Herero and Nama militarily but also force much of their remaining populations into concentration camps where starvation, forced labor and mass disease were not uncommon. This presentation focuses on the perspectives of the workers, including their thoughts on the genocide, working conditions, strikes, relationships with the colonial state and military, family back home and the differences and similarities that existed between them. It will also integrate data from the so-called ‘death registers’ of Africans begun during the war into a database created for the larger research project. In expanding the topic of genocide and war in colonial Namibia between 1904-1908 this paper seeks to show the complex realities that existed among the increasingly diverse work force in the region.