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Slave trade in the era of merchant capital in northern Namibia?

By Paul T. Shipale
In the Tuesday's edition of the Namibian newspaper of 11 October 2011, at its readers' column on page 8, an SMS written by someone under the pseudonym "The Patriot", prompted me to research and write on the claims contained in that SMS saying that Namibians should 'show remorse and apologize to their own for selling them into slavery for trinkets, alcohol, guns and ammunitions', to be able to claim the moral high ground and self-righteous claims.

Many of us suffer from the "Ostrich Syndrome". We continuously bury our heads in the sand choosing to ignore certain realities in hopes that they will go away. As an ardent and die-hard Pan Africanist, I couldn't allow these allegations to go unchallenged or without verifying the veracity of their claims. For this reason, I went to read some excerpts from a book by Marion Wallace with John Kinaban titled "A history of Namibia" which provides a fresh synthesis of the country's history. Under a sub-heading;

"The Era of Merchant Capital in Northern Namibia", the authors shed more light on the beginning of the merchant capital and trade in northern Namibia. Wallace's book reveals that it is unlikely that the inhabitants of northern Namibia made direct contact with the agents of capitalism before 1840s. Prior to this date there was, nevertheless, vigorous short-distance and regional trade in commodities including food, pottery and other specialized products.

Long-distance commerce linked the Ovambo kingdoms with Kaoko, Kavango, southern Angola and central Namibia. Iron was extracted and processed in southern Angola by Kwanyama smiths; copper ore was bought by Ndongas from Hai//Om traders from the south of Owambo; and salt was gathered from the Etosha Pan by expeditions from Ondonga, Uukwambi and Ongandjera. Other trade goods included ostrich eggshells, sold by San and Kaoko pastoralists.

It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that northern Namibia was to feel the full force of engagement with merchant capital and to suffer from many of its more destructive effects, wrote Wallace. The region entered into long-distance trade rather later than many other parts of Africa, in part because of its geographical remoteness. To the south, the Cape frontier was expanding fairly slowly. To the north, a Portuguese-led trade in slaves for export to the Americas had been developing, with devastating social, political and economic consequences, for about three centuries. The area south of Benguela, however, did not become a target until the late eighteen century at the earliest, partly because of its low population density and strong political formations with the Wambo monarchs refusing to sell people until the mid-nineteenth century. To the east, the Lozi kings until the end of king Mulambwa's reign in 1835, also refused to export people, one reason being that their agricultural heartland in the Barotse floodplain relied on large supplies of labour.

However, with the establishment of the southern Angolan port of Mocamedes in 1840, Portugal began to take interest in the southern part of its Angolan colony and moderated its tightly protectionist policies, thus facilitating rapid growth in the ivory trade while slave trade also continued unabated despite the official ban in 1836, and the number of slaves, mostly of women whose labour and reproductive capacity were more valued by African societies, grew from 400 in 1840 to 7,000 in 1877. A stronger reason for the communities in the north to engage in long-distance trade appeared when, in the 1850s, Jonker Afrikaner's forces began to launch devastating raids in the north. Over the period 1858-62, Nama Oorlam commandos engaged intensively in the north, helping Shikongo, a claimant to the throne of Ondonga, to unseat his rival, and assisting Ndonga forces to destroy and burn the Kingdom of Ongandjera, thus ending its military dominance of the region that it acquired with the poisoned arrows from the San people.

It is in this light that many people still remember this incident and my late great great grandmother, kuku Entsine also hailed from Uukwambi and then Ongandjera and bored Johanna Manya my great grandmother married to Andima with whom they had many children including my late grandmother, Kuku Monica Andima ya Sackaria from Onamulunga near Onamungundo who also served at the King's palace as a nanny including to the current King of Ondonga. These stories seemed to be supported by the events dating back between 1858 and 1874 as told by H.D. Namuhuja, to corroborate this version, in his book titled; The Ondonga Royal Kings or Ezimo lyaAwa ya Ndonga (1996; 2002).

According to Namujuha, while Nangolo dhaAmutenya was king of Ondonga, the Aangandjera had a well in the east of the Ondonga Kingdom that they used to water their cattle. King Nangolo was afraid of these people because they had obtained poison-tipped arrows from Aakwankala. When King Shikongo Shakalulu reigned as King with his contemporary of the Uukwanyama kings, Sheefeni shaHamukuyu (1859-1862) and Mweshipandeka shaShaningika (1862-1882), as well as the Ongandjera King Sheya shUushona, and Nuuyoma wEelu, the King of Uukwambi, King Shikongo sent his counselor, Amoomo gwaKatondoka, to Ongandjera. After the raid, there was much uncertainty in Ongandjera and many Aangandjera trekked from the east of Ondonga. And many prisoners of war were captured during the fighting which ensued in Ongandjera. Nevertheless, these people later integrated even through marriage including with the San people.

Soon the Afrikaner's Nama- Oorlam forces that had horses and firearms, they acquired from the war of the Boers with the English in South Africa, also turned their attention to the north-west, where they began raiding the people of Kaoko where, after a slight resistance by Mureti, the pastoralists community fled into the Kaoko mountains and some assumed the Tjimba identity with others escaping into Angola. The Nama Oorlam raids persuaded the kings that they needed urgently to acquire firearms including after the incident of Hahn and Rath clericals who on their departure violence flared and the Europeans shot and killed three Ndongas, including King Nangolo's son and the King himself died the following day of a stroke. The only way to acquire guns was through trade with Europeans and items of value were needed in exchange. The Portuguese by and large, demanded slaves in payment for arms and ammunition. The sale of people usually those accused of crimes or captured in raiding instead of paying a ransom, thus began on a noticeable scale during the 1860's in Ondonga, Oukwanyama, Uukwambi, and in Caprivi's Makololo polity of King Sebitwane when the British missionary David Livingstone and his party arrived at Linyanti in 1851 as well as in Kavango by the Vahambukushu in 1852, followed by the Vakwangalis in 1859. Exacerbated with the decline of hunting in 1870's, trade in slave increased.

In 1887, for instance, ten or more citizens of Ondonga were sold each month and in response to such exactions, people fled to neighbouring kingdoms. For this reason, in 1896, two thousand Kwanyamas had moved to Humbe in Southern Angola to escape being sold into slavery. According to Wallace, the system under which a council of advisers chose the monarch's successor from a number of matrilineal relatives created systemic instability and conditions for some of the monarchs to oppress their people with the result that they are remembered in the traditions as 'cruel' (Williams, Pre-colonial communities, p. 121. Kaulinge; Hayes and Haipinge, in Healing the land, pp. 24-25). Conversely, traditions also feature monarchs demonstrating positive royal characteristic such as care for their subjects, reverence for ancestors, and bravery in battle and energy in promulgating laws to establish order in the realm.

Nevertheless, if the reader is such a Patriot as he or she claims to be, he/she should have first morally distinguished domestic slavery in Africa from the commercial ventures of the European and Arab trade in captive Africans, focusing on the consequences and legacy of these foreign interventions in Africa.

Thus, the claim that "Slavery was a natural feature of Africa, and that Africans sold each other every day", this contention sought to justify the commercial exploitation of humanity. This claim also served to eschew moral responsibility for destroying societies and undermining indigenous social and political systems. The trade in African lives and the enslavement of African beings by Europeans constituted the most thoroughly destructive act ever to be perpetrated by one group of people upon another. Within the setting of our enslavement, the ideology of white supremacy was systematically reinforced by a set of interlocking mechanisms and patterns which functioned to deny the validity of an African humanity.

Notwithstanding, our people fought to free themselves from the yoke of slavery, colonialism and apartheid and to regain their freedom and genuine Independence on 21 March 1990 as a result of decades of relentless struggle. In a nutshell, the struggle was for restoring the human dignity of our people, as President Pohamba recently stated, suggesting that each and every person should be visible and participating in the social, cultural, economic and political engineering leading to the development and emergence of a modern state.

Thus, any failure to mould the society into one nation will lead to serious strains in the social and political relations which will eventually trigger conflicts and loss of internal as well as external legitimacy of the State, as Peter Adwok Nyaba recently wrote about the challenges of State and Nation Building in South Sudan. Nation building, in essence, means the transient visibility of different communities in the wider context of their melting into one nation. We should therefore continue to promote National Reconciliation and maintain peace and stability in our country as well as reject the vices of tribalism, ethnicity, racism and regionalism as well as rededicate ourselves to Nation- building and stay united as President Pohamba urged the Nation.

Disclaimer: These views do not necessarily represent the views of my employer nor am I paid to write them.


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