18 Mar 2022
With its stark white walls, towers and arched gateways, Fort Namutoni is the focal point of the eponymous rest camp which is just 12 km from Von Lindequist Gate, the eastern gateway to the Etosha National Park.
A plaque at the picturesque fort’s main entrance is a reminder of the battle that took place at the original Fort Namutoni in 1904. The translation reads: “On 28 January 1904, 500 Ovambo attacked the station. Seven brave German men victoriously repulsed the attack.” The plaque, however, tells but one side of the events of that day.
Amutuni lyOmanenge, the freshwater spring at the edge of the Etosha Pan, was a cattle outpost of the Aandonga for centuries. Amutuni means ‘high ground’ and refers to the elevation of the terrain at the spring which has been caused by the accumulation of mineral deposits, while ‘lyOmanenge’ refers to the reeds growing in the spring.
Charles John Andersson and his companion Francis Galton were the first Europeans to reach Owambo on 29 May 1851. Andersson described the fountain as, “… a most copious fountain, situated on some rising ground, and commanding a splendid prospect of the surrounding country. It was a refreshing sight to stand on the borders of the fountain, which was luxuriously over-grown with towering reeds, and sweep with the eyes the extensive plain encircling the base of the hill; frequented as it was, not only by the vast herds of domesticated cattle, but with the lively springbok and troops of striped zebras.”
Following the outbreak of the rinderpest epidemic in 1896, the German colonial administration established a cordon of several hundred kilometres from Sesfontein in the west to Rietfontein in the east to prevent the movement of game and livestock south of the cordon. Control posts were established at regular intervals and a non-commissioned officer and ten soldiers arrived at Namutoni on 11 November. The post consisted of nothing more than makeshift reed huts and malaria took a heavy toll on the men who lived in Spartan conditions.
The cordon would later become what is known as the controversial Red Line, a veterinary fence which prevents the free movement of livestock south of the fence to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.
Situated on a major trade route to Owambo, Namutoni was again occupied when a military post was established in 1902 to control trade, especially the smuggling of arms and ammunition and the illegal trade in liquor, into Owambo. Work on a rectangular fort, consisting of two flanks separated by a covered corridor and measuring 10 m by 24 m, was completed towards the end of 1903. In one flank there was a room for officers, a storeroom for ammunition and a saddlery. In the other flank there was a room for non-commissioned officers, a kitchen and a storeroom. Crenelated towers with loopholes at each end gave it the semblance of a fort.
The construction of the fort without obtaining his permission angered Nehale lyaMpingana who became king of Eastern Ondonga after the Ondonga kingdom split in 1886 following a succession dispute with his older brother Kambonde kaMpingana. When the Ovaherero took up arms against the German government on 11 January 1904, Nehale lyaMpingana heeded their appeal for assistance. He summoned his senior councillors and warriors who gathered at Omadhiya near Omuthiya by 25 January in preparation for the march on Amutuni lyOmanenge.
On the morning of 28 January 1904, five scouts arrived at the fort and announced that Nehale’s Chief Councillor, Shivute shaNdjongolo, was on a hunting expedition. Shivute and a group of between 350 and 400 warriors, accompanied by five men on horses and 30 men riding oxen arrived a few hours later. Some of the warriors were armed with Martini-Henri rifles and others with spears, bows and arrows. They were soon followed by a group between 100 and 150 unarmed men who took cover behind the reeds at the spring.
A message was sent to the officer in charge of Namutoni, non-commissioned officer Fritz Grossmann, that they wanted to exchange an ox for a bag of rice. Grossmann became suspicious when he was asked to select the ox outside the fort and insisted that the deal should be concluded inside the fort.
The military contingent at the fort consisted of Grossmann, medical orderly Bruno Lassmann and privates Richard Lemke and Albert Lier, who was suffering from malaria. Their numbers had been reinforced by three ex-servicemen who farmed south of Etosha: Franz Becker, Jakob Basendowski and Karl Hartmann. On receiving news about the Herero uprising, the three had abandoned their farms and sought refuge at the fort with their cattle and small stock.
Shortly before midday, the warriors launched a well-coordinated three-pronged attack on the fort. One group broke into the storeroom under the fort’s western tower, while the unarmed warriors drove off the cattle the farmers had brought with them and the garrison’s horses. At the same time, the main battle group, commanded by Shivute, stormed the fort. The warriors with rifles provided fire cover for the lines of warriors who stormed the fort with spears, bows and arrows. Armed with only a bow and arrow and a knobkierie, Shivute encouraged the warriors by blowing the war whistle made from a duiker horn, while the diviner, Amupanda gwaShiponeni invoked his traditional spiritual powers.
Three of the German defenders were positioned in one tower and four in the other tower. They were armed with Mauser rifles and had about 1,100 rounds of ammunition at their disposal. Despite the superior fire power of the Germans defenders, the attack continued as wave after wave of warriors stormed the fort. When the Aandonga warriors retreated out of firing range after about four hours of fighting, the defenders were down to just 150 rounds of ammunition. Sporadic shots continued to be fired at the fort.
Fearing an attack during the night or the following day, the men abandoned the fort under cover of darkness. The fort was ransacked and burnt to the ground the following day when the Aawambo saw that it had been deserted. The spoils of war included three carts, an ox-wagon, furniture and ammunition, but the battle cost the lives of 68 warriors, while 40 went missing and presumably died. Twenty warriors were wounded, but survived.
KING NEHALE WARRIORS’ MEMORIAL
The King Nehale Warriors’ Memorial and Memorial Monument was unveiled at the site where the fallen warriors were buried, about 500 m west of the fort on 28 January 2022. The inscription at the base of the monument reads: ““We made war against the German troops and we won. We have driven them away and we captured their spoils of war. God was on our side,”
The names of 14 senior traditional councillors who died in the attack are inscribed on a black marble tablet. Efforts are being made to determine the names of the other warriors who died in the battle so that they can also be suitably honoured.
THE SECOND FORT NAMUTONI
Namutoni was again occupied by Schutztruppe on 29 November 1904. Work on a new fort, built from unbaked clay bricks, began in February 1905 and was completed the following year. Four towers and three entrances were incorporated into the asymmetrical quadrangle which measured 60 m by 68 m.
The fort now became a control post to prevent the importation of guns, ammunition, horses and spirits into Owambo. Traders were required to have a special permit and contract labourers had to pass through Namutoni and Okaukuejo to be registered.
Following the signing of ‘Declarations of Obedience’ by King Kambonde kaMpingana and the kings of Uukwambi, Ongandjera and Uukwaluudhi in 1908 and the death of King Nehale in the same year, the fort ceased to have a military significance. It was handed over to the police in April 1912 and was occupied again by German Schutztruppe shortly before World War I broke out.
A brigade of South African troops commanded by Brigadier Coen Britz was ordered to seal off the possible escape routes of the Germans northwards into Angola. The garrison of 190 officers and men at Namutoni surrendered on 7 July 1915 without a shot being fired. The South African soldiers, who had been captured during earlier engagement with the Schutztruppe and held as prisoners of war at Namutoni, were released and a large quantity of ammunition was captured.
The South African Police occupied the fort from time to time in the years following. But as it was poorly constructed, it soon fell into ruins and when lightening destroyed one of the towers on 1 February 1938 it was decided to demolish the dilapidated fort.
THE THIRD FORT NAMUTONI
The building was saved from being demolished after several appeals for its restoration and the derelict fort was declared an historical monument on 15 February, 1950. Money for its reconstruction was made available by the South West African Administration the following year. The third Fort Namutoni made officially opened in 1958 with accommodation inside the fort, as well as in the nearby rest camp.
The fort has since been restored and refurbished on several occasions and remains a popular attraction in the Etosha National Park, although it is unfortunately no longer used to accommodate tourists.
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