More background info:
Shark Island used to be a proper island originally, but shortly after the arrival of the German
colonialists (see Namibian history
) it was connected to the mainland by a causeway, which was later widened for the construction of harbour infrastructure.
The initial German military leader Lothar von Trotha’s response to the Herero rebellion in 1904 was openly genocidal – sending those not killed outright into the desert without access to waterholes so that they’d die of thirst (many also fled the country). Later, the strategy was switched to capturing Herero across the country and sending them to concentration camps to be used as forced labourers.
The concept of concentration camps had been introduced only shortly before by the British
in the Boer War in what today is South Africa
. Now the Germans keenly adopted the principle and set up a number of such camps in their South West Africa colony (some sources say there were five camps, others name only four).
The camp at Shark Island, established in early 1905, became the most notorious. There were no real camp structures. Inmates had to huddle in small tents or out in the open, exposed to the often harsh climate on the coast with wind and cold fog. Moreover, inmates were fed only starvation rations of small portions of uncooked rice. Random beatings, shootings even, as well as sexual violence towards female inmates were the norm.
The prisoners were forced to do slave labour, e.g. in the building of the railway line from Lüderitz
, or in the expansion of the harbour and town. Yet, due to the atrocious conditions in the Shark Island camp, few of the inmates were in a state to do such work.
The death rate early on amongst Herero inmates was already horrific, but there are no halfway accurate estimates as to the numbers of victims. After the Nama also rebelled and led a guerilla war against the colonialists, captured Nama fighters were sent to Shark Island too from ca. mid-1906 onwards. Their numbers are somewhat better known and even lists of names exist. According to those lists, well over a thousand Nama died at the camp; the total number of victims may be between 3000 and over 4000 – men, women and children. In relation to overall prisoner numbers that equates to a death rate of between 60 and over 90 per cent! No wonder the place also became known as Death Island.
It is also alleged that the dead were buried in shallow graves at low tide on the beach, so that when the tide came in the bodies were carried out to sea and sharks fed on them. Whether that’s the real origin of the place name, as the guard at the gate to the area told me on my visit, is not so clear, though.
An additional, particularly vile aspect of Shark Island was “medical research” conducted on the inmates. Numerous skulls of those who died were also sent to Germany for “eugenics” investigation, also whole severed heads. These were examined and supposedly “proved” scientifically the ideas of white superiority, while the heads of the native Herero and Nama were likened to ‘apes’. One Eugen Fischer was key in this racist “research”. His works on “racial hygiene” directly influenced Adolf Hitler
(who read Fischer’s work while in prison after his failed putsch in 1923, i.e. at the time when he penned his own manifesto “Mein Kampf”). Fischer moved on to become director of an Anthropology and Eugenics institute in Berlin
and greatly influenced the Nazis
Some of the skulls Fischer and his colleagues had removed from Namibia, and previously been held at the Charité Hospital
, were later returned to Namibia
for burial between 2011 and 2014. In subsequent years there were also talks about a possible official apology on the part of Germany
and payment of “compensation” (for more on all that see this article
– external links, opens in a new tab).
But back to Shark Island. A new commander of the “Schutztruppe” (see history) decided to close the concentration camp at Shark Island. The remaining prisoners were sent to other areas and slowly the death rate declined.
The most prominent victim of Shark Island was Nama “Captain” Cornelius Fredericks from Bethanie in the inland to the east, who had led successful guerilla activities against the Germans but was captured and died at the camp shortly before its closure in 1907. Most of the other victims remain nameless.
German colonial rule ended with WW1
in 1915, when South Africa
took over, and Shark Island was more or less forgotten, until some interest in the story resurfaced in historical research from the mid-1960s. At the site itself, however, it is drastically under-commemorated – see below. This could, probably should be a significant memorial site, but sadly it isn’t
What there is to see: Not very much at all. At the gate the guard on duty may tell you a little about the basics of the history of the place as a concentration camp, then you’re left to your own devices to explore.
Less than a hundred yards up the sandy track behind the gate there’s a cluster of memorial monuments on the right on a raised, paved platform.
The dominant feature here is a semi-circular wall with white plaques naming members of the German “Schutztruppe” who died here – i.e. it’s de facto a commemoration of the perpetrators rather than the victims!
In addition there is a large bronze plaque with a bas-relief portrait of Adolf Lüderitz, as well as a plaque for Heinrich Vogelsang – see under Lüderitz
. Another German-language plaque next to single stone cross marks the spot where bones from a former cemetery have been moved to.
On the eastern side of the complex stands a large white stone commemorating, in English, Captain Fredericks, leader of the Nama from Bethanie, who died here in 1907, together with over 300 members of his Nama community. These are the only victims acknowledged here.
In addition there is a plaque totally unrelated to any dark history, namely a barely legible metal plaque in honour of Amyr Khan Klink, a Brazilian adventurer who was the first person to row across the Atlantic
, alone. He set off from Lüderitz
in April 1984, arriving in Brazil a hundred days later.
Other than this small set of memorial monuments and plaques there’s just the rocky promontory that is Shark Island, which now serves as a camping site, with power access points and ablutions. It was far from full when I was there, with just a couple of 4x4s with rooftop tents and a really big all-terrain camper van. No wonder, really, given that this is a rough place exposed to coastal wind and cold fog.
at the northern end of the peninsula that is Shark Island, a short distance from the centre of Lüderitz
, the remote coastal outpost in southern Namibia
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to from Lüderitz; a miniscule entrance fee is charged.
From the centre of Lüderitz
you can reach Shark Island on foot – it’s a ca. 20-minute walk along a street called “Insel”, which branches off Hafen St. to the west of the waterfront and leads north past the fenced-off commercial harbour to the tip of the peninsula.
As Shark Island is both a camping site and a wildlife resort, there is a gate with a guard, and during the day a small admission fee is charged (a mere 10 N$ when I was there, i.e., about half a euro). Those who camp at Shark Island could in theory access the memorial part at any time.
Time required: Not long – a few minutes will do to view the memorial monuments and plaques, and a few more for taking in the desolate location of this coastal rocky peninsula.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Combinations with non-dark destinations: See Lüderitz
- Shark Island 1 - memorial complex
- Shark Island 2 - benches and steps
- Shark Island 3 - assortment of memorial monuments
- Shark Island 4 - Adolf Lüderitz plaque
- Shark Island 5 - barely legible Brazilian sailor plaque
- Shark Island 6 - Nama monument
- Shark Island 7 - moved cemetery monument
- Shark Island 8 - Schutztruppe worship
- Shark Island 9a - now a camping site
- Shark Island 9b - lighthouse