May 21st, 2020

1894 (for the stage)

This project is a proposal for the stage. A workshop was held at the Adam Small theatre in Stellenbosch in 2013, funded by the University of Stellenbosch where I was lecturing at the time. The text was written in collaboration with the poet Henning Pieterse. Braam du Toit wrote the music and the stage directing was done by Jaco Bouwer. The workshop stills featured here were done by the photographer Antonia Steyn.

The characters are as follows; Hare (narrator), Hendrik Witbooi (Nama Captain), Theodor Leutwein (Governor of German Southwest-Africa), Vicky (Mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Daughter of Queen Victoria) and Wilhelm II (Emperor of Germany).

The work aims to depict a short series of events from colonial history in Namibia. It is based on a set of correspondences that took place in 1894 over a three-month period between the Nama Captain Hendrik Witbooi and the Governor (Landeshauptmann) of German South-West Africa Theodor Leutwein.

During the time of Germany’s colonisation of Namibia Leutwein was appointed Governor and was given the task by the German colonial authorities to persuade all tribes in Namibia to sign a ‘Protection Treaty’, which in actual fact was Germany’s alibi for taking possession of the country. Most tribes did sign the treaty, save for the Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi. Leutwein then made it his most urgent business to persuade Witbooi to sign. He tracked Witbooi down to where he was hiding in the Naukluft mountains. Leutwein stationed himself and his troops (Schutztruppen) in front of the Naukluft while Witbooi and his men hid inside the mountains. As soon as Leutwein arrived in the Naukluft he started corresponding with Witbooi. With the correspondence he hoped to get to know the personality and intentions of his opponent, and to persuade him to sign. The content of the correspondence deals ostensibly with the question of why Witbooi didn’t want to sign the treaty.

What makes the correspondence so exceptional is the fact that it is one of the few instances in African colonial history wherein the process of colonisation was interpreted, commented on and responded to in writing from the perspective of the colonised. However, the correspondence is multi-layered and at times ambiguous. It bears witness to two men who were trapped in a specific historical and political context and with a certain mutual respect and even affection for one another. Another fascinating aspect to the correspondence is the fact that both men were fluent in the language of power and conquest. In his letters to Leutwein Witbooi presents himself as the innocent captain of his people who is trying to defend what is rightfully his (land) against the penetrating German Empire. However, the scenario was more complicated than that. Witbooi was from ‘Oorlam’ Nama descent; a group of Namas that moved up from the Cape into Namibia during the second half of the 19th century in reaction to European invasion of the Cape. Due to their possession of guns and ammunition (acquired from traders in the Cape) the Oorlam Namas had an advantage over the Nama groups who had earlier settled in the area, as well as over other indigenous peoples already living there, such as the Berg-Damara. Thus the Witbooi Namas could, and did, easily submit these indigenous groups to their power, appropriate their land and in some instances even took these people as slaves.

In ‘1894’ the saga of the military engagement between the Germans and the Witbooi is set in counterpoint to the textured richness of Nama folktales, many of which invoke the opportunistic brilliance of Hare, the Nama trickster figure. The folktales incorporated into the production are taken from an audio archive of Nama folklore recorded in Namibia during the last forty years of the 20th century by the German folklorist Sigrid Schmidt. Schmidt allowed me full access to her archive of audio recordings and these will be used, by means of sampling, as part of the soundscapes being created for the production. A number of the tales have also been incorporated into the text.

Apart from the Witbooi/Leutwein correspondence and the Nama folktales from the Schmidt archive, the work also incorporates parts of a third archive; the correspondence between Kaiser Wilhelm II (German Emperor at the time of Namibia’s colonisation) and his mother Vicky (Royal Empress Frederich and daughter of the then English Queen Victoria). By including parts of this correspondence the work forges links between Namibia’s colonisation and the person of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who’s life was governed by strong emotional currents, often of an infantile nature. The emotions that ruled both the personal and political life of Wilhelm II sprung from two inter-connected issues: on the one hand, his intense love-hate relationship with his mother, and, on the other, the conflicting relationship he had with his own impaired body, and, as a result, with his masculinity in general. Both these conditions were the result of the circumstances surrounding his birth – a traumatic breech birth which left the young infant with crushed muscles in the left shoulder and the tendons stretched, as well as a damaged cervical nerve plexus. Not only was Wilhelm’s arm paralysed, but the left side of his upper-body, neck and left ear were also affected, leaving the little boy with an awkward posture and gait. This state of Wilhelm’s body was a great source of worry and disappointment to his mother, who wanted the future Kaiser of Germany to be like her father, Albert, the Prince of Whales, who was according to her ‘perfect in every way’. She ultimately lost the battle against her own ambiguous feelings towards her son’s physical impairment and turned her emotions away from him. Sigmund Freud writes about their relationship as follows: “It is usual for mothers whom Fate has presented with a child that is sickly or otherwise at a disadvantage to try to compensate him for his unfair handicap by a superabundance of love. In the instance before us, the proud mother behaved otherwise; she withdrew her love from the child on account of his infirmity. When he had grown up into a man of great power, he proved unambiguously by his actions that he had never forgiven his mother.” Not only did Wilhelm never forgive his mother for having abandoned him emotionally, but he also, throughout his life, raged against everything she stood for in his mind; England (the most powerful country in the western world at the time) and everything English. Many political decisions during the Kaiser’s career were based on this sentiment and his desire to proclaim Namibia as German territory was another such instance in view of the fact that just below Namibia on the map lay South Africa, then a British colony. Colonisation provided a perfect opportunity for the Kaiser to aggressively assert his own identity as both a man and as a German vis-à-vis his mother and the country she stood for. By proclaiming Namibia German territory, Wilhelm II made sure that any further attempt by Britain to claim more African soil north of the Orange River was barred by the flag of a newly unified German people.