Friday, 27 May 2011

Hermanus van Wyk: The ‘Biblical Moses’ of the Rehoboth Baster Community - by Shampapi Shiremo

New Era article

To many Namibians, the name Rehoboth sound too familiar because it is a well-known small town located about 90 Km south of Windhoek. 

However, a closer look at the history of Rehoboth and the Baster Community who have settled in that area since around 1870, one would find that Rehoboth is a biblical name meaning ‘the promised land.’ Since ‘the promised land’ is what the Israelis who were moving out of Egyptian captivity wandered in desert for many years in order to get there, it is therefore likely that the history of Namibia’s Rehoboth have a similar narrative with the biblical Israelis whom Moses led. 

However, unlike the biblical Moses who himself did not reach the ‘promised land’, Hermanus van Wyk did reach his after leading his people from the Cape Colony bondage.
In the 1983 publication entitled the ‘History Makers’, by Lester Venter, the biography of Kaptein Hermanus van Wyk was presented. Related to the Griqua of the Historical Adam Kok of the Cape Colony, the Baster Community also had origin in South Africa where they were mistreated by Dutch farmers in the area. 

It was because of seeking freedom from the oppression of the Cape Colony, that the Ninety Baster families who looked to the bearded and patriarchal Hermanus van Wyk as their leader, in a Boer Trekkers style, decided to leave the Cape colony.

Originally, Hermanus van Wyk lived at Amandelboom, near Williston, in the mid 19 century. Shortly before 1868, Hermanus van Wyk and his community lived at a place called De Tuin in the Northern Cape. In 1868, they decided to leave De Tuin and cross the Orange River, going via Pella mission station. A missionary, Heidmann, travelled with them. 

Lester Venter (1983) writes that it was at that time when the people started to call Van Wyk “Kaptein”. Two years later, they arrived at Berseba, where the trekking Baster families stayed for four months. Scouts were sent out and they saw the Rehoboth district, one of the most fertile areas of Namibia, which at the time was settled by the Swaartboois. 

Thus, in 1870, during a Treaty signed at Okahandja between Kamaharero, Jan Jonker, Hermanus van Wyk accompanied by two elders, Piet Beukes and Paul Isaacs told the Herero and Nama Chiefs that he came there to let them know that he was seeking a place of abode. 

Abraham Swaartbooi agreed to let the Baster community occupy Rehoboth for as long as the Swartboois did want it. An initial payment of eight Horses was made and the “rent” was fixed at one horse per year. 

The ‘Baster Trekkers’ then moved from Berseba and arrived at Rehoboth in October 1870. Lester Venter (Ibid) writes that the Basters set about industriously, converting the region into a paradise they ordained to be theirs.

They improved the flow of water from the river, built houses and repaired the church that had been there. A small group went to the Cape to buy a stock of Merino sheep.
In 1872, the Baster community came up with a Constitution (aka Vaderlike Wette) in which Hermanus van Wyk was invested in the office of Kaptein. By 76, the approximately 800 people at Rehoboth owned some 20 000 sheep and between 2000 and 3000 cattle and horses. 

It was for this reason that Kaptein Hermanus van Wyk wanted a speedy conclusion of the sale of Rehoboth by the Swartbooi reasoning further that they wanted to improve the channelling of water by blasting. 

At this point Abraham Swartbooi was dragging his feet, saying that if it arose in future that he wanted to sell the land, he would give the Baster community the rights of first option at value set at £ 2750 to be paid in the form of 100 horses and five wagons. 

Kaptein Swartbooi’s reluctance to put his proposal in writing necessitated Hermanus van Wyk to appeal through the missionary Hugo Hahn to W.C Palgrave, the Special Commissioner of the Cape Government.

In 1880, war broke out between the Nama and the Herero and the Baster community though hesitating to join the war, later on sided with Jan Jonker and Abraham Swartbooi in a Nama alliance against the Herero. This decision was only taken after the Herero attacked and killed a Baster traveller called McNab and other six Basters. 

However, two years later and, in a turn of events, Jan Jonker and Abraham Swartbooi turned and attacked their allies, the Baster Community at Rehoboth, carrying off 500 cattle and 2000 small livestock.

The Basters, under Hermanus van Wyk fended off their enemy but suffered heavy losses. In the fight Swartbooi was wounded and later died. For the next two years, until 1884, Hermanus van Wyk made efforts to mediate between the Nama and the Herero, but with little success. During that time, the Swartboois reneged on their late leader, Kaptein Abraham Swartbooi of giving the right of first option to the Baster in the event of selling Rehoboth. 

They sold it to a then well-known Cape coloured man namely, Willy Jordan, who wanted to settle the ‘Dorsland Trekkers’ there. 

Before Jordan could put his plan into action, the Germans appeared on the scene, and they recognised the Basters as the rightful inhabitants and owners of Rehoboth and concluded a Protection treaty with them. 

One would therefore understand that it was mainly for that reason that Hermanus van Wyk had sided with the Germans in the subsequent years, as the latter had helped the former to keep Rehoboth as his and his people’s place of abode. 

Thus, the widely speculated notion that Hermanus van Wyk collaborated with the Germans even during the Herero-Nama against German colonialism of 1904-1908 needs to be placed in the right historical context. Lester Venter (ibid) concludes that little is recorded of the last years of Hermanus van Wyk. He died in Rehoboth in 1905, an aged and revered man, the founding father of Rehoboth.