Lake Ngami/Chapter 18

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The Damaras.—Whence they came.—Their Conquests.—The Tide turns.—Damara-land only partially inhabited.—-Climate.—Seasons.—Mythology.—Religion.—Superstitions.—Marriage.—Polygamy.—Children.—Circumcision.—Bury their Dead.—Way they mourn.—Children interred alive.—Burial of the Chief, and Superstitions consequent thereon.—Maladies.—Damaras do not live long; the Cause thereof.—Food.-Music and Dancing.—How they swear.—Power of the Chieftain limited.—Slothful People.—Numerals.—Astronomy.—Domestic Animals; their Diseases.

Frequent opportunities had by this time been afforded me of observing and studying the physical features of the country, the character of the natives, and their religious rites and customs. Having previously said but little on these subjects, I propose now to give some account of them. Though, from the lying habits of the Damaras, great difficulty has arisen in arriving at the truth, I believe that my statements will not be very wide of the mark. Besides the concurrent testimony of many of the natives, I have had the satisfaction, on comparing my notes with those of the missionaries, to find them agree in the main; and as it has been my fate to witness the complete ruin and downfall of the Damaras—who, probably, before another century has passed away will be forgotten—I think that a connected and somewhat detailed description of their history may not be unacceptable to the general reader.

That the Damaras have not resided for any length of time in the country which they now occupy is quite certain, though whence they came is doubtful. Some of these people point to the north as their original home; others conjecture that they migrated from the northeast.[1] Be this as it may, it would appear quite certain that about seventy years ago not a Damara was to be found south of the Kaoko, but that, at some time within this period, they invaded the country, then inhabited by Bushmen and Hill-Damaras, the last being in all probability the aborigines. Not having a warlike disposition, the Hill-Damaras were easily subdued, and those who were not killed were made captives. The few that escaped took refuge among the mountains, or other inhospitable and inaccessible regions, where they are still found dragging on a most miserable and degraded existence.

The Damaras were once, undoubtedly, a great nation; but, unlike others which gradually become powerful by the union of a number of smaller tribes under the head of a single chief or king, they have dwindled into an endless number of petty tribes, ruled by as many chiefs.

After their conquest of the country, the Damaras continued to extend themselves, without much opposition, to the east nearly as far as Lake Ngami, and to about the twenty-fourth degree of latitude on the south. At both these points, however, they were checked in their onward career. At first they were attacked by the Matjo'nas, with whom, from time to time, they had several desperate conflicts; and though they appear to have fought well, they were ultimately obliged to retreat with considerable loss. But it was from the Namaqua-Hottentots that thay were destined to experience the greatest reverse, by whom, as will by-and-by be shown, they were finally destroyed or broken up.

About the period of the conquest alluded to a small tribe of Namaqua-Hottentots had pitched their tents on the banks of the Orange River, under the rule of Jonker Afrikaner,[2] who was then a chief of only secondary importance; yet, as his people were possessed of horses and fire-arms, he soon became formidable to his enemies. The territory lying between him and the Damaras was occupied by various tribes of Namaquas, who, on finding themselves hard pressed by the Damaras sent to Jonker to demand his assistance. This he granted; and, like another Cæsar, "came, saw, and conquered." Indeed, that day sealed the fate of Damara-land. The Namaquas, at first the oppressed, became in their turn the oppressors. In proportion as they grew powerful and successful, the prospect of booty, which the vast herds of sleek cattle so amply afforded them, was the sole object of their inroads upon the Damaras. They appeared to have adopted the motto of the old sea-kings,

"That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can."

From my first arrival in the country to the time I left it—a period of less than four years—the Namaquas had deprived the Damaras of fully one half of their cattle, the other portion having already been taken from them previously to my visit. With the loss of their property followed that of their independence.

Although a large tract of country is marked on the maps as Damara-land, a small portion only is inhabitable. This may also be affirmed of Namaqua-land; and in both cases the disparity arises either from scarcity of water or the frequency of inextricable jungles of thorn-wood.

Damara-land being situated in the tropic of Capricorn, the seasons are naturally the reverse of those in Europe. In the month of August, when our summer may be said to be at an end, hot westerly winds begin to blow, which quickly parch up and destroy the vegetation. At the same time, whirlwinds sweep over the country with tremendous velocity, driving along vast columns of sand many feet in diameter and several hundred in height. At times ten or fifteen of these columns may be seen chasing each other. The Damaras designate them Orukumb'ombura, or rain-beggars, a most appropriate name, as they usually occur just before the first rains fall.

Showers, accompanied by thunder and vivid lightning, are not unusual in the months of September and October, but the regular rains do not set in till December and January, when they continue with but slight intermission till May. In this month and June strong easterly winds prevail, which are not only disagreeable, but injurious to health. The lips crack, and the skin feels dry and harsh. Occasionally, at this time, tropical rains fall, but they do more harm than good, as a sudden cold which annihilates vegetation is invariably the result. In July and August the nights are the coldest, and it is then no unusual thing to find ice half an inch thick. Snow is of rare occurrence.

The Damaras and the Bechuanas have nearly the same notion as to their origin. Thus the latter believe that the founders of their nation and the animals of the country emerged from a cave, while the former declare that they sprung from a tree. When men and beasts first burst from the parent tree—so runs the tradition—all was enveloped in profound darkness. A Damara then lit a fire, which so frightened the zebra, the giraffe, the gnoo, and every other beast now found wild in the country, that they all fled from the presence of man, while the domestic animals, such as the ox, the sheep,[3] and the dog, collected fearlessly round the blazing brands.

The tree from which the Damaras are descended is to be seen, they say, at a place called Omaruru. But somehow there must be more than one parent tree, for both in going and coming we met with several Omumborombongas, all of which the natives treated with filial affection.[4]

The chief deity of the Damaras is called Omukuru. His abode is said to be in the far north; but it would be somewhat difficult to specify his attributes. Each tribe is supposed to have its own Omukuru, to whom it ascribes all its superstitious habits and customs, peculiarities, &c. The tribe is divided into castes or "eandas." Thus there are Ovakueyuba, those of the sun, or related to the sun, and Ovakuenombura, those related to the rain, &c., each of which has its peculiar rites and superstitions. These, moreover, are derived from the mother, and not from the father. If a man of the Ovakueyuba marries a woman of the Ovakuenombura, their offspring adopt the notions, &c., peculiar to the latter, and vice-versâ. They can not account for this division of castes; they merely say it is derived from the "wind." Some religious notions, no doubt, lie at the bottom of this.

Though the Damaras do not profess absolutely to believe in a life hereafter, they have a confused notion of a future state. Thus they not unfrequently bring provisions to the grave of a deceased friend or relation, requesting him to eat and make merry. In return, they invoke his blessing, and pray for success against their enemies, an abundance of cattle, numerous wives, and prosperity in their undertakings.

The spirits of deceased persons are believed to appear after death, but are then seldom seen in their natural form. They usually assume on such occasions the shape of a dog, having, not unfrequently, the foot of an ostrich. Any individual to whom such an apparition (Otjruru) might appear, especially if it should follow and accost him, is supposed to die soon after.

The Damaras have great faith in witchcraft. Individuals versed in the black art are called Omundu-Onganga, or Omundu-Ondyai, and are much sought after. Any person falling sick is immediately attended by one of these impostors, whose panacea is to besmear the mouth and the forehead of the patient with the ordure of the hyæna, which is supposed to possess particularly healing virtues. The sorcerer, moreover, makes signs and conjurations.

Some very singular superstitions about meat exist among the Damaras. Thus a man will perhaps not eat the flesh of an ox which may happen to be marked with black, white, or red spots. Others refuse to partake of a sheep should it have no horns; while some would not touch the meat of draft-oxen, according to the rule of the "eanda" to which he belongs. If meat is offered a Damara, he will accept it; but, before he ventures to eat it, he carefully inquires about the color of the animal, whether it had horns, &c.; and should it prove forbidden food, he will in all probability leave it untouched, even though he might be dying of hunger. Some even carry their scruples so far as to avoid coming in contact with vessels in which such food has been cooked; nay, even the smoke of the fire by which it is prepared is considered injurious. Hence the religious superstitions of these people often expose them to no small amount of inconvenience and suffering.

The fat of particular animals is supposed to possess certain virtues, and is carefully collected and kept in vessels of a peculiar kind. A small portion of this is given in solution, with water, to persons who return safely to their homes after a lengthened absence at the cattle-posts. The chief also makes use of it as an unguent for his body.

When an ox accidentally dies at a chiefs werft, his daughter (the offspring, probably, of his favorite or chief wife) ties a double knot on her leather apron. Should this be neglected, a "curse" is believed to be the consequence. She also places a piece of wood on the back of the dead animal, praying at the same time for long life, plenty of cattle, &c. This woman is called Ondangere, and is to the Damaras what the vestal was among the ancient Romans; for, besides attending to the sacrifices, it is her duty to keep up the "holy fire" (Omurangere).

Outside the chief's hut, where he is accustomed to sit in the daytime, a fire is always kept burning; but, in case of rain or bad weather, it is transferred to the hut of the priestess, who, should it be deemed advisable to change the site of the village, precedes the oxen with a portion of this consecrated fire, every possible care being taken to prevent it from being extinguished. Should, however, this calamity happen, the whole tribe is immediately assembled, and large expiatory offerings of cattle are made, after which the fire is relit in the primitive way, namely, by friction. This again reminds us of the "holy fire" of the Romans, which, under similar circumstances, could only be relit by fire from heaven.

A portion of such fire is also given to the head man of a kraal when about to remove from that of the chief. The duties of a vestal then devolve on the daughter of the emigrant.

For every wild animal that a young man destroys, his father makes four small oblong incisions on the front of the son's body as marks of honor and distinction. He is, moreover, presented with a sheep or cow. If either of these should produce young ones, they are slaughtered and eaten, but only males are allowed to partake of such food.

The chief of a kraal must always taste the provisions before they can be eaten by the rest of the tribe. Though sweet milk, when boiled, may be freely drunk by the women and children, it is more commonly swallowed in an acid state.

Should a sportsman return from a successful hunt, he takes water in his mouth, and ejects it three times over his feet, as also in the fire of his own hearth.

When cattle are required merely for food, they are suffocated; but if for sacrifices, they are speared to death. On the decease of one of the tribe, they have also the cruel practice of destroying the poor beasts with clubs, which I believe to be a kind of expiatory offering. The flesh of such cattle as are killed on the death of a chief is principally consumed by his servants.

The women marry at very much the same age as those in Europe, but few ceremonies are connected with this important affair. A girl is sometimes betrothed to a man when yet a child, though, under such circumstances, she remains with her parents till of proper age. The woman, upon being asked in marriage, puts on a helmet-shaped head-dress, kept in readiness for such occasions, and for a certain time hides her face by means of a piece of thin, soft skin attached to the front of the "casque," which she can raise or let fall in much the same manner as a curtain.

Polygamy is practiced to a great extent, and, as has been said elsewhere, women are bargained for like merchandise, the price varying according to the circumstances of the husband. Yet, though a man may have as many wives as he likes, I never knew one to have more than twenty!—a pretty good supply, however, it must be admitted.

The favorite wife always takes precedence of the rest, and, if she should have a son, he succeeds to his father's possessions and authority.

Each wife builds for herself a hut of a semicircular form, the walls of which consist of boughs, sticks, &c., the whole being plastered over.

Twins are not uncommon with the Damaras, Children are, generally speaking, easily reared. During infancy, sheep's milk constitutes their chief diet. Their heads are more or less deprived of hair; the boys are shaved, but the crown of the head of the girls is left untouched. Even grown-up females follow this custom. To the hair thus left they attach—not very unlike the Ovambo—thin strings, made from some fibrous substance.

All males are circumcised, but no particular period of life is prescribed for this operation, which usually takes place when any event of national interest occurs.

Children are named after great public incidents; but, as they grow up, should any circumstance arise of still greater importance to the community, they are renamed, retaining, however, the original appellation; and, since there may be no limit to remarkable transactions, it follows that an individual may have more names than any Spanish hidalgo can boast.

Between the age of fifteen and twenty, both sexes chip a wedge-shaped piece of the two centre teeth in the upper jaw, and at a later period they extract entirely from the lower two or three teeth. The first operation is usually performed by means of a piece of iron, a flint, or simply a stone.

The Damaras bury their dead. Immediately after dissolution, the back bone of the corpse is broken with a stone,[5] and it is then bent together with the chin resting on the knees. Afterward it is wrapped in ox-hides, and deposited in a hole in the ground dug for the purpose, care being taken to place the face toward the north. This is done, they say, to remind them (the natives) whence they originally came. The Bechuana mode of disposing of the dead is very similar.

Upon the death of one of the tribe, the whole population of the place assemble to deplore the event. The howlings and lamentations on such occasions are most discordant and dreadful. Tears are considered favorable signs, and the more plentifully they fall on the corpse the better. Two months is the usual period for a son to mourn his father, but the time is modified according to circumstances. The wealthier the deceased, the greater the outward signs of sorrow—a kind of feeling which, at any rate, bears some approximation to that of civilized life. During the season of mourning, the mourner wears a dark-colored skin cap, conically shaped on the top, with certain ornaments affixed to it. Round the neck is suspended a "riem," to the two extremities of which is attached a small piece of ostrich egg-shell. In case of the death of a valued friend, the adults will occasionally shave the head completely, and keep it in that state for years.

When a woman in reduced circumstances dies and leaves a child, it is not unfrequently buried alive with its mother. Mr. Rath was once fortunate enough, to be the means of saving a child that was about to be destroyed in this barbarous manner.

After having consigned the remains of a chief to his last resting-place, they collect his arms, war-dress, &c., and suspend them to a pole or to a tree at the head of the grave.

Lake Ngami-p224.png


The horns of such oxen as have been killed in commemoration of the occasion are hung up in like manner—a custom also found among the natives of Madagascar. The tomb consists of a large heap of stones, surrounded by an inclosure of thorn bushes, no doubt to prevent hyænas and other carnivorous animals from extracting the corpse. Sometimes, however, the chief, should he have expressed a wish to that effect, instead of being buried, is placed in a reclining position on a slightly raised platform in the centre of his own hut, which, in such a case, is surrounded by stout and strong palisadings.

When a chief feels his dissolution approaching, he calls his sons to the bedside, and gives them his benediction, which consists solely in wishing them an abundance of the good things of this world.

The eldest son of the chief's favorite wife succeeds his father; and as soon as the obsequies are over, he quits the desolate spot, remaining absent for years. At last, however, he returns, and immediately proceeds to his parent's grave, where he kneels down, and, in a whispering voice, tells the deceased that he is there with his family, and the cattle that he gave him. He then prays for long life, also that his herds may thrive and multiply; and, in short, that he may obtain all those things that are dear to a savage. This duty being performed, he constructs a kraal on the identical spot where once the ancestral camp stood; even the huts and the fireplaces are placed as much as possible in their former position. The chief's own hut is always upon the east side of the inclosure.

The flesh of the first animal slaughtered here is cooked in a particular vessel, and, when ready, the chief hands a portion of it to every one present. An image, consisting of two pieces of wood,[6] supposed to represent the household deity, or rather the deified parent, is then produced, and moistened in the platter of each individual. The chief then takes the image, and after affixing a piece of meat to the upper end of it, he plants it in the ground on the identical spot where his parent was accustomed to sacrifice. The first pail of milk produced from the cattle is also taken to the grave, a small quantity is poured on the ground, and a blessing asked on the remainder.

Fever and ophthalmia (eye-sickness) are the prevailing maladies. The symptoms in fever are headache, pains in the neck and bowels, general weakness, and ague. It makes its appearance about April and May, or when the periodical rains have ceased. Ophthalmia, on the other hand, begins to show itself in September and October, but reaches its maximum when the cold season sets in. The first sensation experienced is as if the pupil of the eye was too large. A gathering of water in the sides and under the eyelids then ensues. In a short time this fluid becomes scaldingly hot, and, if not quickly and carefully removed, the pain will be intense. The sight is sometimes completely destroyed by this malady. Indeed, one not unfrequently meets with people either totally blind or minus one eye. Europeans are as liable to these inflictions as the natives. I speak from experience, having myself been a severe sufferer from fever and ophthalmia.

Comparatively few old people are to be met with in Damara-land, for which several reasons may be assigned, such as their cruel civil broils, and their want of compassion for aged and disabled individuals. At times, indeed, they would seem to do all they can to hasten the death of such sufferers. Some instances of this atrocity have come to my knowledge: one of the most shocking occurred at Barmen.

Finding that a certain poor woman, being nearly blind, was unable to provide for herself, Mr. Hahn took compassion on the helpless creature, and gave her a small quantity of provision almost daily. The brother, finding he could not obtain the same boon, grew jealous of the preference shown to his sister, and secretly resolved to kill her. This he effected by taking her to a spot destitute of water, under the pretext that they were to dig roots, where she was left to her fate. A boy who accompanied them asserted that, on the unnatural brother returning to the place some days afterward, and finding his sister still lingering, he beat her about the head with his knob-stick until life was extinct.

Milk is the staple food of the Damaras. They eat or drink it out of one and the same dish without its being cleaned otherwise than occasionally by the tongues of dogs. The people have a notion that if they wash their "bamboos" (pails) the cows would cease to give milk.

With the exception of the spoils of the chase, they destroy but few animals for food. Indeed, unless it be on the occasion of a marriage, a birth, a death, or a circumcision, cattle are rarely killed.

The Damaras are very fond of music and dancing. The only musical instrument known among them is the bow (a kind of temporary rude Jews'-harp), from which they contrive to extract a sort of wild melody. By this instrument the performer endeavors (and frequently with much success) to imitate, musically, the motion peculiar to different animals; for example, the awkward gallop of the giraffe, the quick trot of the zebra, and the lively caperings of the beautiful springbok.

The dance consists mostly of mimic representations of the actions of oxen and sheep. The dancers accompany their gesticulations by monotonous tunes, and keep time by clapping their hands and striking the ground with their feet.

As with the Ovambo, the Eastern custom of taking off the sandals before entering a stranger's house is observed.

The Damaras swear "by the tears of their mothers." This is most touching and beautiful: it elevates the oath to heaven.

Generally speaking, a chief has but nominal power over his subjects. On an attempt to punish heavy offenses, the guilty individual often coolly decamps with his cattle, and takes refuge with another tribe. In minor matters, however, from superstitious customs and old habits, the chief is more or less obeyed.

The Damaras are idle creatures. What is not done by the women is left to the slaves, who are either descendants of impoverished members of their own tribe (is not this another approach to civilization?) or captured Bushmen. The former are seized upon when children, and mostly employed as herdsmen.

The Damaras have numerals up to a hundred; notwithstanding which, they are sorely puzzled should the sum exceed the number of fingers. They count like bad poets, who settle their metre by their digits. It is a most amusing sight to witness a group trying to reckon a dozen head of cattle.

Though they give names to many of the heavenly bodies, they have a very absurd conception of their character, rotatory motion, and so forth. Thus many imagine that the sun which sets at night is different from that which rises in the morning. Like the children who wondered what was done with the old moons, perhaps these savages are equally perplexed to ascertain what becomes of the old suns.

The domestic animals indigenous to the country are oxen, sheep, and dogs. The latter greatly resemble those mentioned as existing among the Namaquas, but, be it said to the honor of the Damaras, they take much more care of these associates and companions of man than their southern neighbors. Indeed, I have known them to pay as much as two fine oxen for a dog.

Of the Damara cattle I shall have occasion to speak hereafter. The sheep are (or rather were) plentiful, and the mutton is by no means bad. Though somewhat spare-looking, they furnish good joints when cut up. Skin and offal included, they not unfrequently weigh 100 pounds, and sometimes as much as 110 to 120 pounds. They have large tails, like those of the Cape Colony, but they do not arrive at such a formidable size. They have no wool, but a kind of short, glossy hair, lying close to the skin, covers the body. The greatest peculiarity of these animals is their color, which is of every hue and tint.

Cattle are subject to several diseases. The most common and dangerous is that which affects the throat, and which invariably proves fatal. Cataracts on the eye, frequently followed by blindness and swelling of the feet, are also very common ailments.

Sheep often die from the blood conglomerating in divers places under the skin, which is called the "blood-sickness." It is even asserted that man is affected by this disease (sometimes from partaking of the flesh of the infected animal), and that the only thing to save him under such circumstances is instantly to cut away the parts affected.

  1. In my journey to the Lake Ngami at an after period, I observed whole forests of a species of tree called Omumborombonga, the supposed progenitor of the Damaras. This fact, coupled with our knowledge that all the tribes to the north are more or less conversant with agriculture, of which the Damaras know nothing (having no word in their language for cereal food), and that many of the nations to the east are partly pastoral, would seem to indicate a northeast or east direction as their original home.
  2. His father, Christian Afrikaner, once lived within the present boundary of the Cape Colony; but his brother having killed a Dutch farmer, from whom the tribe is said to have suffered much wrong, he and his kindred were obliged to fly the country. He then settled on the banks of the Garib or Orange River, where he soon became famous for his daring and ferocious exploits against his neighbors. In this state of things he was found by the Rev. Mr. Moffat, well known for his missionary labors in Southern Africa, who, after having experienced much opposition, finally succeeded in converting him to Christianity. At his death the present Jonker Afrikaner, though an elder brother was still living, assumed the chieftainship, which occasioned a division in the tribe, and was, moreover, the original cause of their migration northward.
  3. Some Damaras attribute the origin of the sheep to a large stone.
  4. The grain of this tree is so very close, and the wood so exceedingly weighty, that we gave it the name of the "iron tree."
  5. I am told that this is not unfrequently done before life is quite extinct! It is moreover affirmed, that when the sick man begins to breathe hard a skin is immediately thrown over his face, which, no doubt, often causes premature death.
  6. Each caste has a particular tree or shrub consecrated to it. Of this shrub, a couple of twigs or sticks represent the deceased.