Casper W. Erichsen: Skullduggery and necrophilia in colonial Namibia
Names, dates, statistics, records, photographs – Namibia-based historian, Casper W. Erichsen, explains some of the factual evidence of the multiple atrocities that were part of the genocide in Namibia.
At the end of the 19th century the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics and the advent of social-Darwinism resulted in an upsurge of race theories in disciplines such as ethnology and medical anthropology. One of many methods applied to such theories was a scrupulous measurement of the skull and its features. The method, which was called phrenology, deduced various human characteristics, such as intelligence and level of evolution, from the size and shape of a skull.
Importantly, the science, which counted among its early proponents the German poet Goethe, demanded a supply of human skulls from different parts of the world. Europe’s most intimate contact with the world around it was the expanding colonial realms of Africa and Asia. Here, in beat with the enslavement or conquests of the colonised masses, millions of human bodies were ‘produced’. European scientists vied for and often gained access to the profusion of human dead.
In the 18th century, the few scientists and explorers visiting Namibia, including Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, were not prolific collectors of human remains. Most probably the uncolonised nature of the territory and its people made it difficult to obtain such specimens. The trafficking of body parts only really started during the anti-colonial wars of 1903-08, inasmuch as Namibia remained relatively uncolonised well into the second decade of nominal German rule. As we will see, the demand grew steadily during the war years eventually turning Namibia into a prolific hunting ground for human remains.
The traditional starting date for the anti-colonial wars is 12 January 1904. The circumstances surrounding the event are not fully understood, but sometime in the morning the Herero nation launched a fierce attack on the local German garrison headed by the young Lieutenant Ralph Zürn. From the letters of Herero Paramount Chief Samuel Maharero we know that Zürn was roundly blamed for the conflict, which Maharero described simply as ‘Zürn’s War’. Even in the settler community Zürn was thought to have some culpability in the chaos that surrounded the first weeks of the war. Zürn was therefore a central character in the outbreak of the war but he was also central to traffic in body parts.
There is some evidence to suggest that grave robbery was one of the contributing reasons for the Herero uprising. According to the trader Ludwig Conradt, who was based in Okahandja at the time, German troops had been seen excavating Herero graves shortly before the war began, resulting in a Herero outcry and eventually armed strife. We do not know exactly what role Zürn, as commanding officer, played in the desecration of Herero graves; we do know that some six months after the outbreak of war Zürn, who had since been dismissed by the German army, arrived in Berlin carrying a Herero skull in his luggage. Before long, Zürn donated his trophy to the notorious ethnologist Felix von Luschan, who held one of Germany’s largest collections of human skulls.
Soldiers and officers from the Schutztruppe, like Zürn, were often responsible for the collecting and distribution of body parts to scientists and collectors abroad. Initially soldiers kept and collected these not for the sake of science but as trophies. Much as big game hunters were collecting and stuffing heads from their safaris, it was not uncommon for troops to keep such trophies from the battle field. One photograph from the Herero war depicts such a scenario. It shows a German officer seated in front of a wall filled with hunting trophies, among them a human skull. Notably this also applies today where we see Western soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan photographed with body parts and even carrying such as souvenirs of their kills.
The relationship between soldiers and scientists in Namibia was cemented by Zürn himself, who managed to procure a crate full of skulls from the colony. The skulls were again procured for the ethnologist Felix von Luschan. When making his request to the colonial authorities, Zürn suggested that the many concentration camps that had sprung up across the colony might be the best sources of specimens. In January 1905 the German government had ordered the establishment of a number of concentration camps to house the thousands of surrendering Herero. This new policy replaced the previous military decree by von Trotha known as the extermination order, although in many ways the camps were just as deadly. Overall between 20,000 and 30,000 people ended up in the camps, the vast majority of whom would die of malnutrition or from forced labour on the railways and other infrastructure projects.
In a way Zürn had helped create a market for the Namibian skulls. There are no records of how many skulls were eventually shipped across to Germany from the Namibian camps, so it is impossible to estimate the frequency of the traffic. Judging from a series of photos taken in the Swakopmund camp, the collection was of some scale. The photos show a group of soldiers loading crates of skulls. The soldiers strike various poses, smoking their pipes and smiling at the camera. In one of the photos a row of drying skulls on a metal sheet have each been meticulously turned, presumably to get a more sinister effect of empty eye sockets staring straight at the camera.
According to a caption on one of these photos, female prisoners in the camp were forced to scrape severed heads clean of flesh with shards of glass. These women were surely traumatised having to removing brains, skin and eyes on the heads of people who might easily have been friends or family members. After the cleaning process the skulls were sold off to German universities and schools where scientists could again abuse the deceased to demonstrate their racial theories. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these photos is the fact that they were mass-produced and sold as postcards.
There is no easy way to explain how German men, many in their late teens, could bring themselves to perform these acts. The label of science surely provided some form of alibi and temperance of the conscience. One of the tenets of racial science was that Africans were a different kind of human than Europeans, one without the same feelings and intellect. Baron von Nettelbladt, the German consul to the Cape Colony, applied scientific theory in a South African newspaper article about the treatment of Africans in Namibia, writing: ‘Ethnographical opinion points out that the two races possess so many physiological and instinctive differences, that zoographically we would classify them in different species – as much, for instance, as horses and donkey, which we admittedly treat very differently.’ A German soldier, witnessing an execution in the early phases of the war, expressed a similar belief: ‘I have come to the conclusion that the concepts of life and death do not mean the same to these people as they do to us.’ The interplay between racial science and the violent conquest of colonial space was a palpable fact.
As the war progressed, so did the usage of body parts. Whereas skulls were easily transported across the oceans, cadavers and body parts were not; unless meticulously preserved they would invariably rot, rendering them useless. Among the German ranks were a large number of medical officers, who personified the symbiosis between colonial science and war. For them, the many bodies in the camps offered ample opportunity for research. By mid 1905, fresh bodies from the concentration camps were being cut open and studied in great detail by the medical corps. A year later research on cadavers was endemic. According to German medical statistics a total of 778 autopsies were conducted in the camps during 1906. These studies were empirical and quantitative to the point of the ridiculous. Weighing brains to compare intelligence or analysing the muscular system to place races on different steps of the evolutionary ladder were the modus operandi.
One of the most feared camps in Namibia was found in the coastal town of Lüderitz. It bore the sinister name Shark Island; among local German soldiers the island camp was known simply as ‘Death Island’ because very few of those banished there survived the ordeal. In total around 4,000 Herero and 2,000 Nama ended up in the Lüderitz district, many of them imprisoned on Shark Island where the local military physician, known only as Dr Bofinger, ran a series of experiments on living and dead prisoners. Bofinger, who was searching for a cure to scurvy, injected living prisoners with various substances and conducted autopsies on the six to seven prisoners that died every night.
It was Doctor Bofinger who provided the body parts for a medical article that appeared in the Journal for Morphology and Anthropology. The specimens consisted of ‘17 Hottentot heads’, all from Shark Island prisoners, and included that of a one-year old girl. Bofinger’s method was meticulous. After cracking open the skulls, he carefully removed and weighed the brains. He then pickled and tinned the heads before sending them to Berlin. The heads came from people Bofinger had worked among for the past many months; they were probably people he knew. In Berlin, Drs Bartels and Fetzer received the heads. The two scientists scrutinised the heads in meticulous detail, trying to find proof of the insulting thesis that the Nama person was more closely related to monkeys than to Europeans. The bizarre rationale even included facial traits such as a double chin, ‘never observed in the Nama’, or curious observations like ‘poorly developed cheeks’.
Once the war was over, and the threat posed by Herero and Nama power/resistance was gone, some scientists made the trip to the colony to conduct research in situ. One such scientist was Eugen Fischer, a celebrated German geneticist whose early work on Papuan skulls won him international acclaim and had, incidentally, inspired Fetzer’s study. In 1908, Fischer set out to study the effects of racial mixing, which he focused mainly on the Baster community in Rehoboth. During his research, Fischer had made a couple of aborted attempts to exhume bodies from the Rehoboth cemetery. It was on his way back to Germany, via Swakopmund, that he found what he was looking for. By chance, Fischer learned that there were a handful of Topnaar graves in the desert, only about an hour’s ride from Swakopmund. In Fischer’s own words:
‘I searched eagerly to find traces of the graves. Two Cape Boys  served as my carriage driver and digger; I wanted to avoid using native Nama or Herero, since they would probably have found it too painful that – for scientific reasons that they would not have understood – we disturbed the peace of their buried compatriots … Suddenly we stood before the melancholic image of the burial ground. A number of flat rocks … were placed deep in the sand, in uneven rows, so that only about 20 centimetres reached out of the sand. The pale, gray, deep-hanging sky … set the appropriately eerie mood for us shivering men. The dead were only about half a metre deep in the sand, lying in a supine position with their feet towards the water … With closed eyelids there was a serene peace about the hollow Nama faces.’
Fischer’s ‘encounter with the dead’ resulted in the theft of a few select skeletons that he brought back with him to Germany. No-one knows what became of the Topnaar but Fischer rose to become one of Germany’s foremost race scientists as his ideas on the perceived dangers of racial mixing gained broad acceptance internationally. During the Third Reich, Fischer played an important role in the formation and implementation of Nazi policies on racial hygiene.
It is perhaps worth noting that the symbiosis between colonial endeavours and race science was taken seriously at the very highest levels of government where even the most absurd requests were entertained. In 1911, the German Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg was called upon to help procure of a number of brains for a certain Doctor Rawitz from Berlin.
‘My request is to have the opportunity to subject two or perhaps three brains from [the inferior] type of humans for scientific study... If possible to include Bushmen, Nama and Austral Negro brains among these, it would be of immense valuable, since these represent the three lowest forms among the human races.’
The chancellor referred the matter to the then head of the colonial department and former governor in Namibia, Friedrich von Lindequist, who set the wheels in motion.
During this period, the colonial authorities began a new campaign of violence. This time it was aimed at the San communities living in the north-eastern parts of the colony. With settlers pushing ever further north and east, it came to an inevitable conflict. In October 1911 the colonial governor, Theodor Seitz, issued a general decree that San could legally be shot on sight provided there was ‘the slightest attempt at resisting arrest’ or if they ‘try to prevent arrest by fleeing when ordered to stop’. Similar to General von Trotha’s infamous extermination order, it was a general decree with ample room for interpretation. In reality, the military or deputised farmers tasked with ‘searching the land and disrupting settlements’ could kill at will.
For scientists like Eugen Fischer, the military campaign presented yet another opportunity for the acquisition of body parts. In 1914, Fischer wired a telegram to the colonial authorities in Windhoek requesting a consignment of Bushman penises and ears be sent to him at the University of Freiburg. Fischer contacted Governor Seitz directly to acquire his specimens, providing meticulous instructions about the desired body parts and how to remove them.
‘I merely place the request before the Imperial Government that a doctor removes the said parts from the bodies of those who have been executed or have died in prison, and that they are then sent to the collection of the anthropological collection of the [Freiburg] Duchy.’
Reflecting on the last decade of German rule in Namibia, it is evident that military and civilian authorities worked in tandem with a large army of scientists engaged in a self-perpetuating circle of theories and study that more often than not had very little basis in fact. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, that allowed scientists to ‘prove’ the supposed physical and mental inferiority of the colonised thus providing a ready-made alibi, if not excuse, for the continuing conquest and subjugation of communities, societies and nations. The colonial authorities in turn did their part to make sure the scientists were provided with enough research material to feed the necrophilia.
Now that Namibia welcomes home its lost sons and daughters, it is perhaps time we start doing right by them. Let us not fall for the temptation to, once again, use them for our own gain, political or financial. Let us put their bones to rest and reflect, as a nation, on what their stories tell us about ourselves and the nation we live in. Let us also remember the many whose bones were not found. Let us try to explore their history and finally give some voice to their side of the story.
Casper W. Erichsen is a Namibian-based historian whose scholarship explores the roots and consequences of the Namibian genocides 1903-08. He is co-author, with David Olusoga, of ‘The Kaiser's Holocaust’ (Faber and Faber, 2010).
Picture: German soldiers, posing for a popular postcard, loading human skulls and bones of massacred Hereros into a casket for shipping to German universities for "scientific" purposes.
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This article was first published in the August 2011 edition of Insight Namibia magazine.
1. Derogatory term for a coloured labourer from Cape Town.