Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lüderitz Town, Namibia : History

scenes around Lüderitz (Roderick Eime)

source:  Lüderitz Town Council

Trapped between the desiccating sands of the Namib and the freezing waters of the South Atlantic's Benguela current, Lüderitz is a fascinating old German town, full of character. There is only one road to Lüderitz, and bulldozers battle to keep it open through the shifting sands of the Namib. Meanwhile, on the coast, the beautiful buildings of this historic German town sit unchanged. Lüderitz has an atmosphere all of its own: gentle, relaxed, some say sleepy.

When the German colonial troops surrendered to the South African forces in 1915, a camp for the prisoners of war was set up a few kilometres outside what is now Aus, just off the C13 about 1km south of the B4. At one point 1,552 German POWs were held here by 600 guards. It seems that the German prisoners worked hard to make their conditions more comfortable by manufacturing bricks, building houses and stoves, and cultivating gardens. They eventually even sold bricks to their South African guards.

The camp closed shortly after the end of the war, and little remains of the buildings bar a few ruined huts, although a memorial marks the spot. On a hill 1.3km to the east of town, however, is a small cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here lie 61 prisoners of war, and a further 60 members of the garrison, most of them victims of a flu epidemic in 1918.

History of Lüderitz & the Sperrgebiet

Archaeologists estimate that early Stone Age people inhabited the area around the Orange River at least 300,000 years ago, while the presence of rock art indicates that their descendants made their way inland. It wasn't until the 15th century that the first Europeans – Portuguese sailors – arrived here.

Bartholomeu Diaz, the great Portuguese explorer was the first recorded European to visit Lüderitz in 1487. He erected a limestone cross at a point he named Angra Pequena or 'Little Bay' which is now known as Diaz Point. By the mid-1800's whalers, sealers, fishermen and guano collectors were gathering in the area and some had set up bases on the shores.

In May 1883 a German trader, Adolf Lüderitz sailed up from Cape Town, landed at Angra Pequena and ventured inland to Bethanie. He struck a deal with the Nama kaptein Josef Fredericks to buy the bay and 8km around it for £100 and 200 rifles. Two weeks later another deal was struck for the sum of £100 and 60 rifles to extend the area to a 32km-wide coastal belt and the German flag was raised. By August 1884 Britain had agreed that Germany could found its first colony here.

The town slowly grew and became a very important base for the German Schutztruppe during their war with the Nama people in 1904-07. The diamond boom started in 1908 when the first rough diamond was picked up. Deposits were found all over the coastal region and around Lüderitz which prompted the German colonial government to proclaim the Sperrgebiet or 'forbidden zone' to restrict further prospecting. The town became the base for the diamond mining operations, which became monopolised by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer's Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) after he obtained options on many of the German mining companies. This was the forerunner for the current NAMDEB which has a 50% government ownership. The headquarters of CDM was moved to Oranjemund in 1943 which started the decline of the town. Today tourism, fishing and some diamond diving are what keeps the town alive.

Around Lüderitz town

View over town and port of Luderitz
Around the centre of town, houses are painted in improbable pastel shades, which makes Lüderitz feel like a delightful toy town at times. The air here is tangibly clean, even on the foggiest of mornings. Local Namibians say that Lüderitz can have all four seasons in a day, as the weather can change in hours from bright, hot and sunny, to strong winds, to dark, cold and foggy – and then back to sunshine again. This variation, together with a cold sea and the prevailing southwest wind, rule out Lüderitz as a beach destination, though brave souls still take brief dips from the beach near the Nest Hotel or round on the peninsula.

In the evenings, there are a few lively bars, and a handful of quiet restaurants, notable for their seafood. But the entertainment here pales in comparison with Swakopmund. Because of its location, Lüderitz is not somewhere to 'drop in on' as you need to make a special journey to come here – but it's worth visiting for its architecture, its peninsula, and to see a part of Namibia which seems almost unaware of the outside world.. If you choose to visit the area, allow a minimum of two nights to appreciate it, and to see its surrounds properly. Try to avoid Sundays and public holidays, though, when almost everything closes down, and the town is empty.

Tourism is having an impact here, but only gradually. Although several new hotels and guesthouses opened their doors in the years following independence, there's a marked downturn in the town's economy, offset only partly by visiting cruise ships. Even the trendy new waterfront development near the harbour is looking a little tired. On the plus side, use of the harbour as the export base for the Skorpion zinc mine near Rosh Pinah has brought considerable new business into the town. Investment in the town's infrastructure is also ongoing, with plans to develop the old power station near the Nest Hotel – including a maritime museum, craft market and sports facilities – finally coming to fruition.

The Diamond Boom

Kolmanskop, or 'Kolman's hill', was originally a small hill named after a delivery rider, Kolman, who used to rest his horses there.

In April 1908, Zacharias Lewala was working nearby when he picked a rough diamond from the ground. He took this to his German foreman, August Stauch, who posted a claim to the area, and then got the backing of several of the railway's directors to start prospecting. Stauch exhibited some of his finds in June 1908, prompting an immediate response: virtually everybody who could rushed into the desert to look for diamonds. Famously, in some places they could be picked up by the handful in the moonlight.

This first large deposit at Kolmanskop lay in the gravel of a dry riverbed, so soon a mine and a boomtown developed there. Deposits were found all over the coastal region, all around Lüderitz. Quickly, in September 1908, the German colonial government proclaimed a Sperrgebiet – a forbidden zone – to restrict further prospecting, and to license what was already happening.

Between 1908 and the start of World War I over 5 million carats of diamonds were found, but the war disrupted production badly. At the end of it Sir Ernest Oppenheimer obtained options on many of the German mining companies for South Africa's huge Anglo American Corporation, joining ten of them into Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) of South West Africa. In 1922–23 CDM obtained exclusive diamond rights for 50 years over a coastal belt 95km wide, stretching 350km north of the Orange River, from the new South African administrators of South West Africa. These were later extended to the year 2010, allowing NAMDEB to control the country's diamond production for 20 years following independence. Although these rights have now theoretically lapsed, the government is a 50% shareholder in the business, and little has changed.

Meanwhile many small towns like Kolmanskop were flush with money. It had a butcher's, a baker's and a general shop; a large theatre, community hall and school; factories for furniture, ice, lemonade and soda water; a hospital with the region's first X-ray machine; comfortable staff quarters, elaborate homes for the managers – and a seawater pool fed by water pumped from 35km away. Yet Kolmanskop was fortunate: it was next to the main railway line. Often deposits were less accessible, far from water or transport – and many such early mines still lie half-buried in the Namib.

Flora & fauna of the Sperrgebiet

Lack of human intervention within most of the Sperrgebiet for almost a century has left a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Plants, in particular, have thrived, with over a thousand species identified: almost a quarter of Namibia's total, qualifying the Sperrgebiet as one of the world's top 34 biodiversity hotspots. Many of these are succulents that bring bursts of colour to the desert during the rainy season.

A total of 215 bird species have been identified within the park as a whole, many of them congregating at its southern edge, in the wetlands at the mouth of the Orange River. The authorities claim that 80 mammals live within the park confines, including the solitary brown hyena, and a further 38 marine mammals off shore.

retrieved 17 Oct 2012
which was offline as at 27 Sept 2013

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