Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland (1846-1901)

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland (1846-1901)Axel Wilhelm Eriksson of Hereroland by Ione Rudner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson (1846-1901) was a nineteenth-century Swedish hunter and trader in south-west Africa, and this “life and letters” book gives a picture of his life, and what life was like for others there at that time.

All agree that everyone who knew him liked A.W. Eriksson, and he was well-known and widely-respected in what are now Namibia and Angola. That did not stop them from abusing his hospitality, taking advantage of his kind and generous nature, and cheating him on every possible occasion.

It took me nearly three months to read this book, mainly because I interrupted it by reading some of the sources on which it was based.

Axel Wilhelm was born in Vänersborg, Sweden (then spelt Wenersborg) on 24 August 1846, and in 1865, at the age of 18, he travelled to Damaraland (Hereroland), now part of Namibia to help his fellow-Swede, Charles John Andersson, to collect and mount specimens of the animals and birds of southern Africa for Swedish museums. Within 18 months of Eriksson’s arrival Andersson had died and Eriksson buried him in what is now southern Angola.

Eriksson then carried on hunting and trading on his own account, and became the biggest businessman in Damaraland, though he had to face setbacks caused by wars, droughts and, in 1897, the Rinderpest, the cattle plague that killed off most of the cattle in sub-Saharan Aftica.

My interest in him is twofold: having lived in Namibia for a couple of years I am interested in its history, and Axel Wilhelm Eriksson married a relative of my wife, Frances (Fanny) Stewardson, so their children are related. You can see more about that on our blig here: Elusive Namibian families.

The marriage was not a happy one, and ended i n divorce ten years later, when Axel Eriksson found that Fanny had committed adultery with his clerk, Clement Stephen Stonier. In one of his letters he described his marriage as “ten years of hell”. After the divorce, in 1883, he took his three oldest children, Sara (nearly 10), Andrew (6) and Axel (nearly 5) to Sweden to go to school there, and to be cared for by his elder sister Mathilda Olsen, who had herself been deserted by her husband. The youngest daughter, Maud, was brought up by cousins in Cape Town, where she married James Kirby, and later lived in England.

Axel Wilhelm Eriksson was joined in Damaraland by several of his brothers and a number of other Swedes, some of whom also became related by marriage by marrying into the Stewardson family, namely Oskar Theodore Lindholm and Charles Reinhold Carlsson.

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Memories of several years in south western Africa

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book that paints a picture of life in what is now Namibia in the 1860s and 1870s. It covers several interests of mine, like family history, because the auther was a friend of my wife Val’s great great grandparents, and missiology, because of his comments on the way missionaries behaved then.

Memories of several years in south-western AfricaMemories of several years in south-western Africa by Thure Gustav Een

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since Namibia became independent in 1990 there has been increased interest in its history, including its pre-colonial history. The problem is that there are few written sources for that period, and even fewer published ones, and many of those that were published (mostly in the 19th century) have long been out of print.

Captain T.G. Een spent some time in Damaraland (Hereroland) and Ovamboland between 1866 and 1871, and when he returned to his native Sweden published an account of his experiences in 1872. The archives of Namibia have been published some of their manuscript holdings, such as letters and diaries of European missionaries and traders who were in Namibia at that period. But diaries are personal documents, and tend to be quite sketchy.

Thanks to a grant from the Swedish Agency for Research Co-operation for Underdeveloped Countries, Eens books has now been translated into English by Jalmar and Ioene Rudner, and published with a new introduction and annotations by the Namibia Scientific Society.

Unlike a diarist, or even most letter writers, Een is writing for readers who have never seen the country he describes, and so he gives a vivid word picture of the places he visited and the people he met. In some ways the descriptions are superficial. Een was a sailor, not a trained anthropologist (actually there were no trained anthropologists in that period). He describes the everyday life and customs of the Herero and Ovambo people as he observed them, but he did not speak the languages of those peoples well, and communicated through interpreters who used Dutch, which Een did not speak well himself. So while he describes external customs, his interpretation of their inner meaning tends to be skimpy and shallow. One of his complaints was that the German missionaries, who had studied the languages, kept their knowledge to themselves, and were unwilling to share it with others who wanted to know the people of the country better.

He gives some interesting details of relations between different groups of people. When he first arrived in 1866 with C.J. Andersson, the Anglo-Swedish explorer and trader, they were based at Otjimbingwe on the Swakop River, which was then the capital of Damaraland (Hereroland). There were then at least four distinct groups of Herero-speaking people — the followers of Maharero, the followers of Zeraua, the Himba of the Kaokoveld to the northwest, and the Mbanderu of the east. Maharero and Zeraua and their retinues lived at Otjimbingwe, and they were occasionally invited to dinner by Andersson, but never at the same time. When Zeraua came to dinner, he sat at the table. But when Maharero came to dinner, he sat on a chair by the door, away from the table, because of his bad table manners. But Andersson did not want them to know of this different treatment.

Grasplatz, in the Namib desert just inland from Lüderitz

Grasplatz, in the Namib desert just inland from Lüderitz

When I lived in Namibia over 40 years ago one of the things I wondered about was how traders back in the 19th century managed to travel with their ox wagons through the waterless Namib desert. A few miles outside Luderitz there was a railway halt called Grasplatz, because they used to store grass for the oxen there, for the next stage of the journey. The diarists described “wagon trains” going from Otjimbingwe to Walvis Bay and returning, but they don’t describe how they did it. But Een does describe it, in some detail. And that is the kind of thing that makes his book interesting.

Of course, like a diary, it is still a personal book. He praises the Damaras (Hereros) at some points, but criticises them at others. He thinks they are lazy, ungrateful scroungers, and makes no bones about it, and gives several examples. But he also writes of several that he regards as friends. When I was in Namibia a century later, I had several Herero friends, but none fitted that description. I did know one or two scroungers, but other Hereros thought they were weird too. But perhaps a hundred years of history can make a big difference, to all parties.

So we have Een’s view of people of other cultures, but his description of them for the benefit of Swedes also tells us something about 19th-century Swedish culture and values. One of the interesting sidelights was that, according to the translators’ notes, there were 137 white people in Damaraland at that time (though the number can’t have been constant, they were always coming and going). They were of various different national origins, but the missionaries were all Germans of the Rhenish missionary society. Een describes the differing responses to the news that the Germans had won the Franco-Prussian War.

All whites who were not of German nationality wished the French army to be victorious, and we awaited news from the front with intense interest. When the victories of the German forces became known, in their usual manner of course, started bragging and blustering and behaving arrogantly. Of course these wonderful victories with all their bloody deeds, which have taken the European civilization a big step backward, had to be observed and celebrated with German thoroughness here in the wilderness also. To begin with, Mr Hahn, the High Priest of the missionaries, took down the mission flag, a red cross on a white background, and raised the flag of the North German Federation instead. The holy sign of the cross had to be replaced by that of ‘das grosse Vaterland’. The common symbol of peace of the Celestial Empire for all peoples had to give way to the German nation’s flag of victory. That was not enough. The black Christian brethren must not be left ignorant and unstirred by the victories of the Germans… The Negro boys (presumably from the mission school) were surely less interested in their German brethren’s victories than in the slaughtered ox with which they were treated to mark the occasion… All we white men were upset by this deed which we found improper in a neutral country, and especially coming from men of the cloth who should preach peace or at least avoid open approval of war, which they otherwise condemned in their preaching to the natives…

Een responded to this by raising a Swedish flag over his house at Omaruru, and went on to say,

In order to counteract all influences of the German flag still further, I made another flag of my own design, a large white star on a blue background. I hoisted this flag and tried to explain to Old Wilhelm (Chief Zeraua) that it was the flag of the Damara people, the symbol of their unity and harmony about which they should gather in times of danger to defend their country.

It little details like these that make Een’s book an interesting read, and help to bring the past to life.

It was also interesting to me because Een was a friend of Fred and Kate Green, my wife’s great great grandparents, and throws some interesting light on the family history. Fred Green married Kate Stewardson, the daughter of Francis and Frances Stewardson.

The translators, in their notes, persist in repeating the errors of several published sources by referring to Francis Stewardson as “Ian” Stewardson (which is a name that was made up for a historical novel), and giving Fred Green’s middle name as Frederick Joseph Green, when it was actually Frederick Thomas Green. I mention this because of the persistence of these errors, which come from relying on secondary sources. The church records, in Namibia and Canada, show that Fred Green’s middle name was Thomas, and the elder Stewardson’s name was Francis, not Ian. Fred Green’s deceased estate file in the Free State Master’s Office also shows his middle name as Thomas, so he didn’t change his name in middle age as some people do.

Een (2004:74) reveals that Fred and Kate Green had another child that we didn’t know about before:

Last among the hunters to arrive [in Ovamboland in November 1866] was Mr Green with with his wife who had been born in Damaraland of English parents. Both of them were ill. Green already had the first symptoms of the fever [malaria] prevailing in the country, which he had first contracted some years ago and which characteristically recurs every year, and then often enough it reappears some time before the period of its general recurrence. Mrs Green could not, of course, be anything other than exhausted and sick as she had had a son some days previously. The child died soon after their arrival here without having been baptized, and was buried without any ceremony at the foot of a fig tree…

Green was an amiable and pleasant gentleman and known as the most proficient hunter in this part of Africa. He did not consider it worthy of a gentleman to shoot elephants from an ambush at night when they came to the water to quench their thirst.

Een goes on to describe the recent death of another Swede, Johan August Wahlberg, who was killed by an elephant when on a hunting expedition with Fred Green. In Wahlberg’s case, he was ambushed by the elephant.

In a couple of places Een refers to Francis and Frances Stewardson’s daughters as beautiful, and one of the last things he did before he left to return to Sweden was to attend the wedding of one of them, Fanny, to another Swedish trader, Axel Whilhelm Eriksson (Een 2004:187).

Eriksson returned from his expedition to Ovamboland in September [1871]. He wasd engaged to one of the beautiful daughters of Mrs Stewardson, and now the wedding was celebrated with the usual pomp and splendour. He marriage ceremony was performed by Missionary Viehe in the meeting-house or school-house of Omaruru, and was attended by a large crowd of black spectators. The bride, dressed in light-blue silk, was radiantly beautiful. There was a big salute [of guns] and the black spectators were given two fat oxen on which they could feast as they pleased.

Sad to say, the marriage ended in divorce 10 years later. Axel Eriksson and Fanny Stewardson had four children, and one of them was named Axel Francis Zeraua Eriksson, presumably after his father, his maternal grandfather, and Chief Zeraua, who was a close friend of Eriksson.

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