Shark Island Concentration Camp

Coordinates 26°38′45″S 15°9′14″E
Location LuderitzGerman South-West Africa
Operated by Imperial German Army
Original use Officially a prisoner of war camp, in reality a civilian internment camp, described by some as a death camp[1][2][3] or even extermination camp[4][5][6][7]
Operational 1905–1907
Inmates Herero, Nama
Killed unknown (estimated at least 1,032 up to 3,000)

Shark Island Concentration Camp or “Death Island” (Konzentrationslager auf der Haifischinsel vor Lüderitzbucht ) was a concentration camp on Shark Island off LuderitzNamibia used by the German empire during the Herero and Namaqua genocideof 1904–1908. Between 1,032 and 3000 Herero and Namaqua men, women, and children died in the camp between its opening in 1905 and its closing in April 1907.[8][9][10]

Following the abandonment of Lothar von Trotha‘s policy of exterminating Herero within the borders of German South-West Africa by denying them access to water holes, the colonial authorities adopted a policy of sweeping the bush clear of Herero – both civilians and rebels – and removing them, either voluntarily or by force, to concentration camps.[11] Shark Island in Lüderitz bay was chosen as a site for a camp due to the difficulty of escape, the nearby presence of large numbers of German soldiers, and the need for labour in the region.[12]

Although there are records of Herero prisoners-of-war being held in Lüderitz bay as early as 1904, the first references to a camp at Shark Island and the transfer of large numbers of Herero prisoners from Keetmanshoop are in March 1905.[12] From early on, large numbers of Herero died in the camp, with 59 men, 59 women and 73 children reportedly dying by late May 1905.[13] Despite this high initial rate of mortality on the island which, with its cold climate, was unsuitable for habitation, particularly for people used to the dry, arid climate of the veld, the German authorities continued to transfer people from the interior to the island, ostensibly because of a lack of food in the interior, but also because they wished to use the prisoners as labour in constructing a railway connecting Lüderitz with Aus.[14]

Word quickly spread among the Herero of the conditions at the camp, with prisoners in other parts of German South-West Africa reportedly committing suicide rather than be deported to Lüderitz due to the stories of harsh conditions there in late 1905.[15] The Cape Argus, a South African newspaper, also ran stories describing terrible conditions at the camp in late September 1905. One transport rider who was described as having been employed at the camp in early 1905 was quoted as saying:

The women who are captured and not executed are set to work for the military as prisoners … saw numbers of them at Angra Pequena (i.e., Lüderitz) put to the hardest work, and so starved that they were nothing but skin and bones […] They are given hardly anything to eat, and I have very often seen them pick up bits of refuse food thrown away by the transport riders. If they are caught doing so, they are sjamboked (whipped).[16]

Many cases of rape of prisoners by Germans were reported at the camp.[17] Although some of these cases did result in the perpetrator being successfully punished where a “white champion” took up the victim’s cause, the majority of cases went unpunished.[18]

Whilst the Germans initially followed a policy of sending people from the south to concentration camps in the north, and vice versa,[19] meaning that Nama prisoners mostly went to concentration camps around the city of Windhoek, by mid-1906 Germans in Windhoek were becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of so many prisoners in their city. In response to these concerns, in August 1906 the Germans began to transfer Nama prisoners to Shark Island, sending them by cattle-car to Swakopmund and then by sea to Lüderitz.[20] The Nama leader, Samuel Isaak, protested this, saying that their transfer to Lüderitz had not been part of the agreement under which they had surrendered to the Germans, however, the Germans ignored these protests.[20] By late 1906, 2,000 Nama were held prisoner on the island.

The prisoners held on Shark Island were used as forced labour throughout the camp’s existence.[21] This labour was made available by the German army Etappenkommandofor use by private companies throughout the Lüderitz area, working on infrastructure projects such as railway construction, the building of the harbour, and flattening and levelling Shark Island through the use of explosives.[22] This highly dangerous and physical work inevitably led to large-scale sickness and death amongst the prisoners, with one German technician complaining that the 1,600-strong Nama work force had shrunk to a strength of only 30–40 available for work due to 7–8 deaths occurring daily by late 1906.[23] The policy of forced labour officially ended when prisoner-of-war status for the Herero and Nama was revoked on 1 April 1908, although Herero and Nama continued to labour on colonial projects after this.[24]

The decision to close the camp was made by Major Ludwig von Estorff, who had signed the agreement under which the Witbooi (a Nama tribe) had surrendered to the Germans, after a visit to the camp in early 1907.[25] After the closing of the camp, prisoners were transferred to an open area near Radford Bay. Whilst mortality rates were still high initially in the new camp, they eventually declined.

The precise number of deaths at the camp are unknown. A report by the German Imperial Colonial Office estimated 7,682 Herero and 2,000 Nama dead at all camps in German South-West Africa,[26] of which a significant portion died at Shark Island. A military official at the camp estimated 1,032 out of 1,795 prisoners held at the camp in September 1906 having died, it is estimated that eventually only 245 of these prisoners survived. The over-all figure for deaths at the camp has been estimated as being as many as 3,000.[8] Combined with deaths amongst prisoners held elsewhere in Lüderitz bay, the total may well exceed 4,000.[27]

The vast majority of these prisoners died through preventable diseases such as typhoid and scurvy exacerbated by malnutrition, over-work[28] and the unsanitary conditions in the camps.[26] The German garrison itself and commander von Zulow used the name “Death Island” for the camp.[29][30]

Research was conducted by the doctor Eugen Fischer on the skulls of dead prisoners[31] and on prisoners with scurvy by Dr Bofinger. In 2001 a number of these skulls were returned from German institutions to Namibia.[32] The captured women were forced to boil heads of their dead inmates (some of whom may have been their relatives or acquaintances) and scrape remains of their skin and eyes with shards of glass, preparing them for examinations by German universities.[33]

  1. Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler – Page 48 2011 The concentration camp at Shark Island off the coastal city of Lüderitz became, for all practical purposes, a death camp
  2. The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazis – Page 220 Casper Erichsen, David Olusoga – 2010 Shark Island was a death camp, perhaps the world’s first
  3. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction – Page 123 Adam Jones – 2010 – It created the German word Konzentrationslager[concentration camp] and the twentieth century’s first death camp
  4. The Nature of Heritage: The New South Africa By Lynn Meskel page 1872 ” the world’s first extermination camp on Shark Island”
  5. The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa George Steinmetz University of Chicago Press page 173 15 Sep 2008
  6. Possibly the Shark Island Konzentrationslager was the world’s first death camp and largely functioned as an extermination centre
  7. Border Conflicts in a German African Colony: Jacob Morengo and the Untold Tragedy of Edward Presgrave P. H. Curson page 49
  8. a b Zimmerer & Zeller 2003, p. 80.
  9. Overmans, Rüdiger (1999). In der Hand des Feindes : Kriegsgefangenschaft von der Antike bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg (in German). p. 291. Die Verhältnisse in Swakopmund, zu denen sich Tecklenburg äußerte, stellten keine Ausnahme dar. Noch schlimmer lagen die Verhältnisse im Konzentrationslager auf der Haifischinsel vor Lüderitzbucht, dem größten Gefangenenlager. Dort wurden sowohl Herero wie Nama interniert und ihrem Schicksal überlassen. Die Inhaftierung auf de.” reprinted in Jürgen Zimmerer Deutsche Herrschaft über Afrikaner: Staatlicher Machtanspruch und … (2004). Page 46.
  10. Erichsen 2005, pp. 
  11. Erichsen 2005, p. 26.
  12. a b Erichsen 2005, pp. 72–73.
  13. Erichsen 2005, p. 73.
  14. Erichsen 2005, p. 74.
  15. Erichsen 2005, pp. 75–76.
  16. Erichsen 2005, p. 78.
  17. Erichsen 2005, p. 87.
  18. Erichsen 2005, p. 86.
  19. Erichsen 2005, p. 104.
  20. a b Erichsen 2005, p. 109.
  21. Erichsen 2005, p. 113.
  22. Erichsen 2005, pp. 113–114.
  23. Erichsen 2005, pp. 117–118.
  24. Erichsen 2005, p. 119.
  25. Erichsen 2005, p. 128.
  26. a b Sarkin 2011, p. 125.
  27. Erichsen 2005, p. 133.
  28. Erichsen 2005, pp. 134–139.
  29. The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism Casper Erichsen, David Olusoga Faber & Faber, 5 Aug 2010 page 220
  30.  Border Conflicts in a German African Colony: Jacob Morengo and the Untold Tragedy of Edward Presgrave P. H. Curson page 49
  31. Fetzer, Christian (1913–1914). “Rassenanatomische Untersuchungen an 17 Hottentotten Kopfen”. Zeitschrift fur Morphologie und Anthropologie (in German): 95–156.
  32. Cabinet approves return of skulls New Era. 25 March 2011. Windhoek. Accessed 25 March 2013.
  33. The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazis – Page 224 Casper Erichsen, David Olusoga – 2010


  • Drechsler, Horst. “Let Us Die Fighting: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama against German Imperialism (1884–1915)”, Akademie-Verlag Berlin, 1986 (3rd Ed.)
  • Erichsen, Casper W. (2005). The angel of death has descended violently among them: Concentration camps and prisoners-of-war in Namibia, 1904–08. Leiden: University of Leiden African Studies Centre. ISBN 90-5448-064-5.
  • Gewald, Jan-Bart. “Herero Heroes: A Socio-Political History of the Herero of Namibia 1890–1923”, James Currey, Oxford, 1999.
  • Lau, Brigitte. “History and Historiography: 4 essays in reprint”, Discourse/MSORP, Windhoek, May, 1995.
  • Sarkin, Jeremy (2011). Germany’s Genocide of the Herero: Kaiser Wilhelm II, His General, His Settlers, His Soldiers. Cape Town, South Africa: UCT Press. ISBN 978-1-919895-47-5.
  • “Report on the natives of South-West Africa and their treatment by Germany.” Administrator’s Office, Windhuk [sic], London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1918. (Blue Book)
  • Zimmerer, Jürgen; Zeller, Joachim (2003). Völkermord in Deutsch-Südwestafrika: Der Kolonialkrieg 1904 – 1908 (in German).

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