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‘1. Introduction and method’, To Kunene from the Cape: Future Pasts literature review timelining, Compiled by Sian Sullivan for Future Pasts
Last edited 26/08/2020

To Kunene from the Cape: Future Pasts literature review timelining

1. Introduction and method

An important dimension of situating and understanding practices and perspectives in the present, is to learn about how these have been represented in the past. In pursuing research for Future Pasts, which itself builds on layers of field research in west Namibia that stretch back to the early 1990s, a core element has been review of diverse literatures that both document events and gesture towards changing perceptions, so as to better see how the complexity of pasts shapes current circumstances. A particular emphasis has been on establishing a chronology of events, encounters and processes against which to interpret on-site oral histories documented at past dwelling places with elderly Dama interlocutors who have direct memories of past livelihood and mobility practices in areas of west Namibia from which they were removed within living memory. Information from on-site oral histories recorded through Future Pasts in the Palmwag tourism concession area and surrounding conservancies of west Namibia are being mapped online and early accounts can be found in the research blog ‘Our hearts were happy here’ and in Future Pasts Working Papers 2 and 3.

Historians often warn against arranging what frequently are fragmentary and biased sources into a chronological narrative[1]. At the same time, it became increasingly hard to understand the sequence either of events unfolding in the south-western corner of Africa, or of the ways these are recorded, without some sort of chronological ordering of references as I am encountering them in a variety of sources. I have, therefore, sought to do two things here:

1. to create a sequence of events that are known to have happened in relation to south-western Namibia – i.e. what we might think of as ‘happening history’;

and 2. to record mentions, references and descriptions of events by their associated date.

My intention overall has been to be able to better see how both these dimensions appear in relation to each other, and to provide some sort of organizing framework with which to connect the narratives of events arising in oral histories conducted elsewhere in Future Pasts research.

In this ‘historical sequence of references’ a particular emphasis has been on recorded references to the peoples and landscapes of west Namibia. It is based on a rhizomatic reading process that has followed several directions so as to combine review of archaeological research, historical sources and historiography simultaneously[2].

For example, firsthand accounts of the earliest encounters between the European men who first travelled northwards from the Cape and along and inland from the Atlantic coast shed some light on the nature of encounters with indigenous people who lived there. These texts need to be read through the often troubling and racialised assumptions of superiority, as well as the instrumentalising search for economic gain, that characterised the social mores of the time. Nonetheless, they are of immense value in providing ‘detailed eyewitness account[s] of early contact between indigenous Namibians [and their neighbours further south] and the vanguard of colonialism’[3]. The peoples thus encountered invariably spoke languages characterised by click consonants and thus were the ancestors of people known today as Khoe/Damara/Nama or San. They were people-without-writing, and thus their experiences and voices can only be read through the narratives of their European ‘visitors’, at least in the early years of these interactions.

Material from this documentation of colonial encounters with landscapes and peoples in the south-western corner of Africa is also being mapped online as a complementary resource to this historical sequence of references. In reading these accounts, my emphasis has been on the perceptions of landscapes, peoples and natures that Europeans brought to southwestern Africa, as well as the environmental and conservation policy that emerged for these contexts since the establishment of colonial Südwest-Afrika. A focus, then, has been on the ways that peoples and landscapes have been encountered, conveyed and constructed by some of the first European (and occasionally American) travellers to the region.

An additional focus has been on the archaeological record for the western reaches of Namibia, coupled with intractable questions of how the findings from archaeological sites connect and overlap with historical encounters with extant peoples as well as ethnographic and oral history accounts from recent years. Archaeological sites and information are also included on the online map. 

Other timelines or chronologies relating to Namibian events and sources include the detailed Database on Engineering and History of Namibia compiled by the late Klaus Dierks, and Namaqualand: A Transportation-Related Chronology by the late Graham Ross which relates mostly to the mining history of the Northern Cape, i.e. south of the Orange River.  

A note on method

I have followed a few ‘rules’ in compiling this historical sequence of references:

1. Presenting the past
To engender a sense of the presence of past moments in chronological time, events recorded for each year are recorded in the present tense. This is because frequently I was reading sources for whom that moment was indeed the present. In turning my imagination to the reality of these past experiences I started to find myself unthinkingly presenting these past moments, and I decided to retain this flavor in the current chronology.

2. (Re)presenting archival sources

Where I have researched archival sources directly I have referenced them as such. When I have drawn on the historiographical research of historians[4] I have referred to their historiography only: the archival sources on which their analyses are based can be found in these texts at the page numbers referenced below.

3. Incompleteness and limitations

This is not intended as a theorised historiography, or as a full chronology of events. Instead it is a live document recording observations as I encounter these in a necessarily incomplete and ongoing reading of texts and analyses relevant to ‘west Namibia’. It is complemented by some direct reading of archived resources and occasional reference to oral history and interview records from primary research. The main intention has been to create a background resource of recorded events, descriptions and encounters, to assist with the interpretation and situating of oral history data recorded in other dimensions of Future Pasts research.

4. Identifying terms

The controversial missionary ethnographer Heinrich Vedder of the Rhenish Mission Society (RMS) describes the pre-20th century cultural diversity of ‘South West Africa’ as ‘like a tangled skein’[5]. This cultural complexity combined with European and patriarchal prejudice resulted in abhorrent tendencies to both hierarchise the peoples encountered on the basis of racialised characteristics, and to utilise a range of ethnic labels that betray their discomfort with difference and frequently are now considered derogatory. The changing use of these terms is, however, a key part of the history of projections and perspectives being documented here. For this reason, in direct quotes from historical texts I retain the terms used in these texts used so as to reflect and clarify the social mores of the time.

5. Types of sources

I have been wide-ranging, even eclectic, in the types of sources included below. Thus, for example, readers might be surprised to see use of references by the South African journalist and travel writer Laurence Green, who wrote entertaining and fantastical accounts of his travels and perceptions of the south west African coast and of the ‘last frontier’ of Kaokoland. I do so because I am interested in how the places, landscapes and peoples of Africa’s south west corner have been represented and understood historically, who the authors of key narrative and representational tropes are, how their ideas become handed down, and how their writings both shape and are contested through present understandings. In the case of Green, for example, it seems clear that much of what he wrote in parts of Lords of the Last Frontier (first published 1952) was taken directly from Vedder’s (1938[republished 2016]) South West Africa in Early Times, thereby repeating biases in Vedder’s text that echo through Green’s popular descriptions of the frontier lands he both encountered and scripted.

6. References

All sources are referenced using footnotes and the complete reference can be found in the full list of references accompanying this timeline.

Locating ‘West Namibia’


‘West Namibia’ distinguishes the geographical of Future Pasts research from the term ‘Kaoko’, commonly used to denote the north-west territory of the country. Thought to derive from a Herero word ‘okaoko’, meaning ‘left arm’ and referring to the position of ‘Kaoko’ on the left or south bank of the Kunene River[6], okaoko signaled the territory encountered to the left as Herero pastoralists approached from the east. It distinguished this area from the territory immediately north of the Kunene that is now the south-west part of Angola and that was called ‘Ongambo’[7].

In the 1850s the Swedish explorer Charles John Andersson learnt the name ‘Kaoko’ for the north-west[8] and maps subsequently drawn of the area under German colonial rule (for example the Deutscher Kolonial Atlas of 1893) depict ‘Kaoko’ as stretching southwards from the Kunene to beyond the Huab River towards Dâures / the Brandberg[9]. The German Geographer Georg Hartmann (who travelled to the north-west in 1896-97) referred to the north-west as ‘Kaokogebiet’ (i.e. ‘Kaoko area’), producing a map derived from his travels here in 1904. Following WW1, and as the territory came under Union of South Africa ‘protection’, the area stretching from the Kunene to the Hoanib River in the south became known as the ‘Kaokogebiet’ (i.e. ‘Kaoko area’) and ‘Kaokoveld’[10].

The term ‘Kaokoland’ is the name for the ethnic homeland created in north-west Namibia following the Odendaal Commission in 1970, and lay between the Hoanib and Kunene Rivers reaching west to the Skeleton Coast National Park. Technically speaking, the name ‘Kaokoland’ is no longer in use, given that the ‘Homelands’ were dissolved at Namibia’s independence in 1990. The area formerly designated as Kaokoland is now constituted by the Epupa and Opuwo Constituencies of Kunene Region. ‘Kaokoveld’ is also used as a term designating a biogeographical centre for species assemblages, first by Shortridge in 1934, and now considered as a Centre of Plant Endemism and Diversity (CPED) extending from the Ugab River in the south (including the Brandberg / Dâures massif) northwards to Port Namibe in Angola, and bordered in the west by the Atlantic Ocean and in the east by ‘an arbitrary line’ starting west of Ruacana southwards through Kamanjab[11].


Today, ‘Kaokoveld’ continues to evoke multiple imaginaries associated with the north-western corner of Namibia connected with a specific confluence of ‘wilderness’[12] and exotically traditional people – the otjiHerero-speaking Himba[13]. ‘Kaoko’ constitutes a focus for a rich and recent revisionist historiography[14] and ethnographic engagement[15]. This work centres in part on the lingering dynamics of indigenous consolidation in the early 20th century, associated with the former Himba-Herero Native Reserves in the very north of current Kunene Region – from west to east, Kakurukouye’s Reserve, Vita Tom’s Reserve, Muhonakatiti’s Reserve[16] – as well as on historical texts detailing colonial and apartheid administration as this both encountered and constructed the north-west of the country. Of particular relevance here are the reports to the emerging South West Africa administration in 1917 and 1919 by Major Charles John Manning, the first Resident Commissioner of Owamboland, as the territory was transferred from German to British hands during and in the wake of WW1[17] , and the ‘ethnological report’ to the South African Department of Bantu Administration by van Warmelo in 1951 (republished in 1962)[18].

Our emphasis in Future Pasts connects more with the historical geographies of the former Damara-Nama ‘Native Reserves’ on and south of the Hoanib River, as well as with the echoes in the present of the former ‘Damaraland’ ‘Homeland’ established in 1970[19]. We also note, however, the dynamic overlaps and entanglements between Erongo and southern Kunene Regions and areas to the north of the Hoanib River, as well as with administrative and other contexts elsewhere. In addition, ‘west Namibia’ stretches more explicitly to include the Namib desert along the Atlantic coast - named ‘Skeleton Coast’ for the shipwrecks that lie scattered along its shore. Indeed, and as Jill Kinahan reminds us, the name ‘Namibia’ comes from namib, said to mean ‘shield’, and ‘chosen for the country because the Namib desert protected the people of the interior and kept colonialism effectively at bay until late into the nineteenth century’[20].  

Themes (to add)

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[1] For example Rizzo 2012, p. 44.

[2] As urged, for example, in John Kinahan 1980, p. 17.

[3] Jill Kinahan 1990, p. 23.

[4] For west Namibia specifically the following historians warrant special mention: Tilman Dedering, André du Pisani, Patricia Hayes, Dag Henrichsen, Jill Kinahan Giorgio Miescher, Lorena Rizzo, Jeremy Silvester and Marion Wallace.

[5] Vedder 2016(1938), p. viii.

[6] Craven 2005, p. 24 and references therein.

[7] Van Warmelo 1962(1951).

[8] Andersson 1968[1861], p. 215.

[9] As also in the map of Namibia of 1937 reproduced in Hartmann et al. 1998, p. viii.

[10] For example, Abel 1954.

[11] For details, see Craven 2005, p. 25.

[12] Hall-Martin et al. 1990

[13] Jacobsohn 1992.

[14] For example, Miescher and Henrichsen 2000; Hayes 2000; Rizzo 2000, 2012; Friedman 2013.

[15] For example, Bollig 1997, 1998, 2009.

[16] See Bollig 1997, p. 24.

[17] Kaokoveld. Major Manning’s Report 1917. NAN SWAA.2516.A552/22 and Report on 2nd Kaokoveld Tour Re Disarmament etc. by Major C.N. Manning NAN RCO.7.9/1919/1.

[18] Van Warmelo 1962[1951].

[19] See  Rohde 1993, 1997; Sullivan 1996, 1998.

[20] Jill Kinahan 1990, p. 23, after Mbuende 1986, 1.