John Dunn: Part 1 – Background to the Bondelswarts People & the SAC

Now faded in the mists of time, the Bondelswarts Rebellion of 1922 is a mere footnote to the history of Southern Africa. In the early years of the 20th century, the whole of the area was in tumult. South West Africa was captured by the South Africans from the German colonisers in 1915. With South West Africa now controlled by South Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate, the khoikhoi peoples of southern SWA became restive, mainly for legitimate reasons. 

This series of blogs covers the first-hand account of a South African Police Force officer, John Dunn, who was involved in the suppression of a rebellion by the Bondelswarts people in southern SWA. 

Part 1 provides context to this rebellion, the Bondelswarts way of life and their homeland and only provides a terse introduction by John Dunn into being assigned second-in-command of the S.A. Police Mobile Squadron. 

Main picture: John Dunn in later years


The Bondelswarts tribe inhabit the extreme south of Namibia, in an area centred on the town of Warmbad. Like the whole of southern Namibia, this area is harsh and arid comprising stony plains, sand-dunes, naked outcrops of white limestone and barren, rocky mountains. Experiencing prolonged droughts, the vegetation is sparse. Rainfall often occurs as torrential downpours which drain away rapidly along the many stormwater channels into the perennially flowing Orange River.

The Bondelswarts are of Nama extraction. The Nama called themselves the “khoi khoi” meaning “men of men” and represent but one of several Khoi clusters is southern Africa.

To anybody who has either hiked down the Fish River Canyon or canoed through the Richtersveld, like I have, they can attest to the utter desolation and barrenness of the Bondelswarts’ homeland. Due to the arid conditions, agriculture was impossible. As such, their main form of sustenance was meat and milk. The Bondelswarts were once a proud, independent people whose way of life would be rapidly transformed for the worst by the arrival of the Germans in the late nineteenth century.

Map of the location of Bondelswarts Tribe in Namibia

Their experience with the colonisers was similar to that of South Africa’s native peoples. Dispossession of their land, forced work for whites on a master-servant basis, and restriction on their movements were some of the volatile ingredients which comprised this explosive concoction. Into this mix of resentments was cast the match of an unjust dog tax in 1922. The conflagration rapidly exploded into enmity.

9,300kms to the north of this inhospitable, desolate area in a far-off land with lush verdant fields lived a fair-skinned man, John Dunn, who was seeking adventure. With jingoism and patriotism coursing through his veins as a consequence of the Anglo Boer War, he joined a unit which bore the sobriquet of “Baden-Powell’s Police.” Little did John Dunn realise that what would define his life would be the anthesis in every possible way of his fair and gentle homeland.

The Bondelswarts’ system of government

The Bondelswarts’ system of government consisted of a council and a hereditary chieftainship. The chief, or Captain as he was later called, commanded great respect and influence, but was bound to act in terms of the advice and resolutions of his councillors. These councillors were chosen by the married men of the tribe. In the council, or “Raad,” the chief’s expressed opinion probably carried considerable weight, but it was the Raad’s decision which prevailed, and only the Raad could authorise the Chief to make war, conclude peace treaties and promulgate laws and regulations

The chief had to rely on popular approval and the support of the Raad rather than on his royal prerogatives. It was the Raad which exercised judicial and administrative functions. In times of peace the powers of the chief were very limited, and with a weak chief, the Raad could dominate a situation. Thus, to conclude an agreement with the Bondelswarts, it was necessary to convince both chief and the Raad. The chief could not do anything to which his people, speaking through their Raad, were opposed.

A Nama Family

The Bondelswarts’ first contacts with whites were with the occasional hunters, traders, explorers, prospectors and fugitives. A notable fugitive was H.J. Wikar, a Swedish soldier of the Dutch East India Company who, after contracting debts, fled from the Cape to the Orange River in 1778, staying there for two years until his pardon by the Governor, van Plettenberg (1771-1785). In his report to the Governor, Wikar mentioned coming into contact with a nomadic Nama group called the Gami-Nun living on the high ground near what was to be Warmbad. Later, as the territory above the Orange River opened up, missionaries began their work. By 1805 the London Missionary Society had already started a station and settled some of the nomadic Bondelswarts at Warmbad.

The boundaries of the Bondelswarts’ territory were the Orange and Fish Rivers in Namibia. Their capital was at Warmbad. Their chief, Willem Christian, negotiated a treaty on 31 January 1870, with the approval of his Raad, with the Cape Government which was represented by the Acting Resident Magistrate of Namaqualand, G.A. Reynolds. In return for an annual allowance, Willem agreed to aid the Cape Government to preserve “peace along the Orange River, as the mountains along the area were an ideal shelter for half-caste or Kora bandits. These were plaguing the traders and miners, and on 16 November 1868 Willem had sent “albeit reluctantly, fifty-seven Bondelswarts to assist the colonists in Little Namaqualand to defeat some of these marauders.

In the interim, Germany annexed S.W.A. while Willem’ s alliance with the Cape Government had given him considerable prestige as well as valuable arms and ammunition. But it also engendered in the Bondelswarts a deep and lasting admiration and an “almost pathetic belief in the justness of the “English Government.” This attitude had arisen due to “their highly-valued independence being left untampered with during their alliance with the Cape and had indeed been reinforced with arms and ammunition. It was this sustaining desire for British rule which grew, with the reality of the years of German rule that were to follow. Willem Christian was to repeatedly request that his territory be placed under a British protectorate, but to no avail.”

Chief Hendrik Witbooi (centre) and his companions

Meanwhile Lüderitz, an ardent colonialist, had travelled to Berlin to request protection for his possessions in S. W. A., in the face of protests from the British and Cape merchants. As a result, Germany annexed “Lüderitzland” on 29 May 1884. This protection was formally extended over most of the rest of present-day S. W.A. during June 1890, except for Walvis Bay, which had been annexed by Britain together with a fifteen-mile hinterland on 6 March 1878.

In 1885 Dr Karl Gotthilf Buttner, a former Rhenish missionary, was asked to negotiate treaties for Germany with the South West African tribes. Willem Christian and his Raad refused to sign a treaty with Germany because they held that they were already treaty-bound to the Cape. But soon the Bondelswarts began to realize that the long hoped for British protectorate over their territory would not materialize, and so, on 21 August 1890, the Bondelswarts chief and Raad signed a treaty with the German representative, Dr. Goering, father of the notorious Herman Goering, and the German flag was raised at Warmbad. The Bondelswarts were the last tribe to sign a treaty with the Germans. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the German authorities did not keep to all their undertakings in the treaty.

Meanwhile in 1889 the British Karaskoma Syndicate had purchased the whole of the Bondelswarts’, Veldschoendragers’ and Swartmodder Hottentots’ lands. This concession was reduced to 12,800 square kilometres by the German authorities however, and certain conditions were attached. This included the acquisition of the best farm land as well as the best watering places and can justifiably be considered to be one of the fundamental causes of the Bondelswarts’ rebellion of 1904 to 1906. Furthermore. it was not long before the Bondelswarts began to feel their loss of independence and tribal pride.  As Abraham Kaffir, a senior member of their Raad, later eloquently stated it: “Every German Officer, sergeant and soldier, every policeman and every German farmer seemed to be the ‘Government’. By this we mean that every German seemed able to do towards us just what he pleased.” In effect what Kaffir was expressing was a universal abhorrence by the “black tribes” of their treatment as inferior or Untermenschen.

Carl Gotthilf Büttner

The first revolt by the Bondelswarts

Shortly before the Bondelswarts revolted in 1904, the Governor of German South West Africa, Major Theodor Leutwein, found great difficulty in effecting reconciliation between Europeans and blacks, and relations between the two remained strained. The Bondelswarts found themselves ousted

from their central territories by a large number of European farmers and bywoners. The breaking point came on 25 October 1903. The whole of the black population of German S.W. A. was in a state of acute unrest at the time. Notwithstanding this fragile situation, Lt. Jobst, determined to assert his authority, went with eight to ten soldiers to go and arrest the Bondelswarts chief, a great indignity for the tribe. When arrested, the chief attempted to break loose, and what followed is not quite clear. The end result was that when the firing ceased, Jan Abraham Christian, Lt. Jobst and two other German soldiers lay dead, and the Bondelswarts rebellion had commenced. The new chief was the “weak-minded” Johannes Christian, but the revolt was led by the very able and almost legendary Jacob Marengo.

Marengo, assisted by the Morris brothers, skilfully pursued guerrilla tactics. The Bondelswarts were later joined in the revolt by the Witbooi Oorlam’s tribe. The German soldiers, inexperienced in guerrilla warfare, and the unfamiliar terrain, and freshly brought in from Germany, suffered heavy losses. However, in the end the superior weaponry, equipment and numbers of the German soldiers proved decisive. Johannes Christian wanted peace, and in January 1904 Leutwein offered it. Johannes handed over 289 rifles at Kalkfontein-South. There were Bondelswarts diehards who did not want peace, amongst them Marengo and his adjutant, Abraham Morris, and they took refuge in the Orange river mountains to regroup. In July 1904 Marengo and Morris came out of hiding and started the rebellion again. It dragged on for two more years. In the gorges of the Fish and Orange rivers Johannes Christian held out until October 1906, when he made overtures for peace.

Theodor Leutwein

Theodor Leutwein

A peace treaty was signed on 21st December 1906. Fr. Malinowsky of the Roman Catholic mission at Heirachabis played a major role in conducting the peace negotiations. The treaty was signed at Ukamas with Johannes Christian representing the Bondelswarts. The terms of the treaty confined the Bondelswarts to a reserve of 175,000 hectares, as compared with their former territory of 40,000 sq. km. The boundaries were fixed by a commission of three German officials and three Bondelswarts representatives and were drawn upon a sketch map. The Bondelswarts were prohibited from selling or leasing any part of their Reserve and were placed under German law. They promised to be faithful and obedient subjects of the German Government, and surrendered all their arms and ammunition, which, from henceforth they would not be allowed to possess. They now had to carry passes to leave their Reserve. They were also given 1,500 goats, ten for each head of a family, and while these could not be sold or slaughtered, their offspring would become Bondelswarts property. The under-captains’ got 300 sheep, and Johannes Christian was given a span of oxen and an ox-wagon, which was to be paid off gradually. Rations were supplied until the Bondelswarts were self-sufficient again.


These terms were, on the whole, remarkably humane, and sensible in the safeguards against Bondelswarts profligacy. Leutwein came under much criticism from the German settlers for his enlightened handling of the 1906 Bondelswarts treaty. But he hoped to induce the Bondelswarts in exile to return, and he wished for a speedy resolution to hostilities in the south so that he could concentrate on the far more serious threat of the Herero rebellion in the north. The boundaries of the Reserve were set out in a separate treaty on 27 March 1907. Beacons 1-9 were stone beacons, and 10-11 were recognizable trees. Non-Bondelswarts travelling through the Reserve would be subject to the laws within the Reserve. Another treaty of 2 May 1907 divided the town of Warmbad into white and Bondelswarts areas, with the river-bed as the dividing line.

Bondelswarts striving for former status

But the Bondelswarts’ spirit was by no means broken. From 1906 onwards, they were determined to regain their former tribal status, and many of them hid their rifles instead of handing them over and kept in constant touch with their leaders. On 23 February 1907 a dog tax of 30 marks or 10s was levied, in urban areas only, on each dog, plus a further 10s on each additional dog. Under a law of 15 February 1909 the trapping of animals was prohibited, and blacks were only allowed to shoot game within their reserves and had to have a permit for shot-guns. However, not everything was bleak. There were some mitigating factors for the German presence. There was little malnutrition amongst the Bondelswarts because of the present of large military garrisons, which provided alternative employment, and which gave pauper rations on the same scale as those issued to German soldiers. But, master – servant relations were generally poor, and there were cases of appalling abuses inflicting on blacks, which was inevitable in view of the wide powers of both police and settlers, and an unsympathetic legal system.

Finally, although the whole system of administration lent itself towards abuses of power of the worst kind, resulting in a legacy of embittered race relations, the accusations of atrocities levelled at the German Government after the First World War were often greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes. With the outbreak of WW1 and the invasion of German South West Africa by the Union, the Bondelswarts, hopes for a restoration of their tribal status and lands soared, as they remembered the “golden days” of their alliance with the Cape Government.

Orange River at Ramansdrift

Disillusionment with Rule by the Union

The Bondelswarts held great hopes for the redress of their grievances and the end of German rule with the outbreak of the First World War and the Union invasion of German South West Africa on 14 September 1914. The long-awaited British rule seemed to be within sight, and some Bondelswarts in exile, notably Abraham Morris, took service with the Union forces as guides or scouts. Morris acquitted himself very well and was mentioned in dispatches and admired for his shrewdness in matters military. But for those Bondelswarts still living in German S.W.A. the war was economically disastrous. As the Germans retreated northwards, they took the majority of the Bondelswarts tribe and some other blacks with them, and when the Germans surrendered in the north about 2,000 Bondelswarts were found camped twenty-five miles outside 0tavi.

Nama huts

Thus the Union’s military administration was left with the problem of resettling them. This was eventually done in August 1915, and a Native Affairs Officer was appointed at Kalkfontein-South to supervise the resettlement, issue rations and control the finances provided by the sale of Bondelswarts stock at Tsumeb by the Union military authorities. This reveals the roots of the first disillusionment of the Bondelswarts after the First World War. What compensation that was offered, was considered to be insufficient in their eyes, and the bureaucratic tardiness in implementing it greatly increased their bitterness. Life under Union rule was not as rosy as had been expected. Consequently further disillusionment with the new Colonial Masters arose fairly rapidly.

Before they were sent back to Warmbad, the Bondelswarts asked the military authorities to sell the 400 cattle which they had had in their possession at Tsumeb, and to transmit the proceeds to Warmbad. The cattle had been given to the Bondelswarts to provide milk for rations, as they had lost most of their stock in the enforced trek to the north. The Bondelswarts requested that the proceeds of the sale of the stock be returned to them in cattle, not cash, at Warmbad. The Bondelswarts stock losses were estimated at about 15,227 head of small stock (sheep and goats), and about 123 cattle, the latter being few in number largely because of the German law prohibiting blacks from owning stock without a permit from the Governor.

The sale of the Tsumeb stock realized £2,000. From this sum £300 was deducted when it was found that some of the cattle had been requisitioned from a farmer, Roeder, and this money was paid to him as compensation. It was decided by the authorities that the remaining £1,700 was to be used to buy small stock, not cattle as the Bondelswarts had requested, to provide them with a 1ivelihood. In addition, the cost of rations issued to indigent Bondelswarts in Warmbad after the issuing of rations had been stopped was deducted from the £1,700. Eventually, almost a year after the sale of the stock at Tsumeb, the military magistrate at Warmbad reported that, in accordance with instructions, on 16 August 1916, 2,960 goats had been divided amongst 333 Bondelswarts, each getting his share in the presence of two witnesses with a receipt signed by them.

The effects of this were long-lasting. The Native Commissioner for S.W.A., Major Manning, after a visit to the Bondelswarts Reserve in 1921, found widespread poverty amongst them. He attributed part of the cause of this poverty as being due to the fact that the Bondelswarts had lost “most of

their stock as a result of the war.” For a while the resettled Bondelswarts were given ratios. But even in August 1915 the Native Commissioner there reported a shortage of and difficulty in distributing rations, and only indigent Bondelswarts received free rations. In 1921, Father Isenring of the Roman Catholic Mission at Gabis informed Major Manning that some Bondelswarts were badly in need of pauper relief.

Greetings by a Nama man

Establishment of the SAC

The South African Constabulary (SAC) was a paramilitary force set up in 1900 under British Army control to police areas captured from the two independent Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State during the Second Boer War. Its first Inspector-General was Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, later the founder of the worldwide Scout Movement. This is the origin of the sobriquet, Baden-Powell’s Police.

Robert Baden-Powell, the first Inspector- General of the South African Constabulary.

In South Africa Baden-Powel  recruited men from the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal and from overseas men from the United KingdomCanadaIndiaCeylonAustralia and New Zealand.

At first the force was organised in four divisions, with each being commanded by a colonel and one assistant. Three of the divisions were in the Transvaal and one in the Orange River Colony. Each division was subdivided into troops of 100 men, each commanded by a captain and supported by a lieutenant. Baden-Powell designed the uniform of the SAC, which he later adapted for the Boy Scout movement.

Robert Baden-Powell in the uniform of the South African Constabulary

After hostilities ceased in 1902, the two countries became British colonies and the force was disbanded on 2nd June 1908. Many of the members from other countries made South Africa their permanent home. Amongst those who did so, was one John Dunn.

A new assignment for John Dunn

[This is a verbatim account by John Dunn. It should be borne in mind that the narrative would in many instances be classified as politically incorrect today. In order to accurate reflect the attitudes prevailing at the time, no amendments have been made to tone or insensitive comments made by John Dunn. It should be noted that I have made changes but only to grammar, syntax and spelling, but these were rare.]

During September 1922, I was sent by the S.A. Police Headquarters second in command to cater for the S.A. Police Mobile Squadron.

 As a rule, a concise official statement in the Press regarding any matter of importance, which conceivably could be of interest to almost everyone, is usually about all that one is told by the authorities. 

Robert Baden-Powell in uniform of the South African Constabulary

Since it is generally accepted that the lesser details of the events of life are invariably more entertaining than official statements because of their greater interest, how refreshing it would have been if, in addition to making known the fact that on a certain date, the S.A. Police Mobile Squadron left hurriedly for Namaqualand, we could have been enlightened as to the necessity for urgently dispatching so large a body of men and horses into the interior of the little known Namaqualand. 

The implication itself that something was amiss on the borders of the late German SWA must have consumed the major part of the population with curiosity and would certainly convey a general rather than a personal appeal, to know what the move was all about.

 A cannot recall that any publicity, official or otherwise, was accorded the Squadron and movements at any time. Yet behind the brief official statement of the Squadron’s departure lay a story teaming with incident, the story of a voyage up the coast which proved to be fraught with danger to man and beast, to be followed later by an unprecedented trek with donkey transport through many miles of almost waterless desert. 

“Good morning. How would you like a spot of excitement for a change?” 

“Excitement Sir? Why what’s in the wind?” I hastily rejoined to a question put to me by a senior officer at Police Headquarters. 

“I am afraid you are speaking to me in enigmas at the moment, sir, and not being an institutionalist I scarcely know how to reply.” 

“Oh, I don’t know a lot about the details just now, but the Bondelswarts “Totties” started a shindy in the south west some time ago and things haven’t improved, so it has been decided to dispatch the Mobile Squadron to help clean things up, the commissariat side of the job being carried out by us. It should be quite a show. Would you like to go?” 

Prospects of a trip into the interior of Namaqualand and possibilities of a journey through territory which was formerly German SWA, through country which has been referred to as being fit only for habitation by Bushmen and goats, had its appeal. Visions of the simple life on the move imbued sufficient impetus for me to snatch eagerly at the opportunity to accept. 

Events moved rapidly. That night we caught a Police Special train at De Aar en route for Cape Town. 

Our assignment was the outcome of a minor rebellion among the Bondelswarts Hottentots in the southern part of the SWA Protectorate. This tribe is a backward race, only made more slovenly by contact with civilisation but their past war-like spirit cannot have been entirely lost. They are distinct from other breeds in the south west. Their language, consisting of an almost unintelligible series of clicks, is most difficult to understand. They have reservations allotted to them, but the great majority have no fixed place of abode and, being nomadic in their habits, they lead the same roving primitive life, a ceaseless struggle for existence like the wild animals that they hunt. They roam with their hunting dogs and small stock throughout the south west and further north into the vastness of the Great Kalahari. The refusal to pay taxes for their hunting dogs was one of the primary factors of the rebellion. 

Trooper Ernest Slatter of the SAC

Their knowledge of agriculture is practically negligible and with the exception of a few roots or water bulbs, for which they search the desert to quench their thirst in the absence of water, they are entirely carnivorous like the real Bushmen. Being utterly unable to grasp the concept of private property, particularly where stock is concerned, when hungry they will hunt and carry off, or kill, domestic animals with as little concern for the fact that they have owners as they would show when hunting wild game. This was a constant source of grievance with the mostly German farmers. Prior to the annexation of that territory by the Union Government, the marauders were shot down with impunity when caught thieving stock. 

These unfortunates had been suffering a lean period for years. Game was scarce. Their crops – wheat, about the only crop that will grow in that part of the world, and then only under favourable conditions – were a failure. As a consequence, they got into arrear with the many taxes with which they were burdened, and inevitably, they refused to pay taxes of any kind. In turn, this led to friction with the administration. When called upon to pay their taxes or suffer imprisonment, they not only refused, pointing out their sheer inability to pay and rightly too, so I heard later from a senior administration official, conversant with their precarious circumstances, but resisted arrest. 

The police at Warmbad were instructed to effect the arrest of their leader, Tom Morris. He was not a Scotsman, although the possibility of his grandfather having worn a kilt cannot be ruled out. Incidentally this potentate rendered invaluable services to the Germans during their war against the Hereroes. On arrival at Tom Morris’ reserve, the police met with a hostile reception. Instead of arresting the leader, they had to scatter for their lives. Later the administration again ordered the chief’s arrest, but the arrival of the police on this occasion they themselves were made prisoners and held hostage. Releasing the “law” a few days later, minus their arms and ammunition, Tom Morris with three or four hundred of his followers fled to the adjoining mountains and went into open rebellion. 

Unable to cope with the situation on the spot, the authorities were pointed to the possibility of the whole Protectorate becoming involved. The Union Government, therefore, decided to dispatch the Mobile Squadron (recently involved in actions against the revolutionary movement on the Rand), together with other police details performing special reserve duties on the Reef, to the disturbed area.


Typed manuscript by John Dunn

Wikipedia for details of the South African Constabulary

The Bondelswarts Rebellion of 1922.  Submitted for the Degree of Master of Arts of Rhodes University by Gavin Llewellyn MacKenzie Lewis in 1977

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