1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian 2011: Three in Shiraz

1905: Chief Zacharias Kukuri

April 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1905, in the midst of Germany’s genocidal destruction of the Herero people in its Southwest Africa colony (present-day Namibia), the Otjosazu chief Sacharias Kamaituara Kukuri was hanged in Windhoek.

More than half the Herero population perished following an abortive attempt to resist German colonization during this unfortunately little-remembered period, perhaps the very first of the 20th century’s ample store of genocides.

Our man’s execution occurred at the moment of a policy pivot: after the horrific extermination policy initially practiced by General Lothar von Trotha, Germany’s Herero policy was “moderating”. Von Trotha’s extermination order had been officially reversed by Berlin; by November of 1905, the murderous general would be recalled to Germany. Instead, they’d be collecting the Herero into concentration camps.

It was into the Windhoek camp that Kukuri arrived as the wounded prisoner of a German ambush.


The concentration camp under the walls of Windhoek’s Alte Feste (Old Fort). Today, the fort is a museum … and the camp, forgotten, is the grounds of a high school. (Source)

Of course, it goes without saying that, even if state policy no longer aimed officially at racial annihilation, the system of concentration camps continued the de facto genocide: the systematic destruction of Herero life in order to incorporate the population as a subject proletariat (enlightened self-interest — the colony’s “economic future would be completely destroyed by the extermination of the indispensable labor power” — is what finally trumped von Trotha). At the same time, camps structured a punitive neglect of Herero living conditions, a years-long “period of suffering” in which Herero died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and neglect as surety against any future resistance. Courts-martial of fighting-age men alleged to have had some hand in resisting by arms the German onslaught completed the salutary lesson.

Missionary sources provide us with eyewitness accounts of conditions in the camps. Missionaries stationed in the Herero Konzentrationslager reported to their superiors in Germany on the extensive and unchecked rape, beatings and execution of surrendered Herero by German soldiers. Missionary Kuhlmann spoke of the delight of settler women witnessing the drawn-out public hangings of captured Herero in Windhoek. At one such hanging, a drooling Herero fighting for his life was berated” ‘You swine, wipe your muzzle’. (pdf source)

Kukuri fell into this last category.

His fate is especially poignant for us (and, convenient to date) thanks to the memoirs of Friedrich Meier, one of the many German Christian missionaries who had poured into Namibia ever since it became a German colony. As Meier’s account of swapping Biblical allusions with Kukuri in the shadow of the latter’s gallows underscores, these missionaries had achieved some inroads.

I did not see the slightest trace of fear on him, instead it was as if he were going to a wedding. ‘Muhonge’, he said at one stage, ‘oami otja Elias mohamakuao na je otjinga me keende kejuru metemba,’ i.e. ‘Muhonge, like Elias, I too travel to heaven in a waggon.’

Having arrived at the execution site, I noticed how he kept looking at the gallows, at which preparations were still taking place. I feared for his tranquility and asked him to stop looking at it. ‘Muhonge,’ he said to me, ‘I hear everything, why should I not look at it? For is it not “my wood” [my cross]?’

When we finally stood underneath the gallows, we prayed together that beautiful song: ‘So then take my hand and lead me.’

German:

English:

Possibly he noticed that I was worried about him. Anyway when I was finished he said, ‘It would appear that you still fear that I am afraid, but have I not told you: “When a father calls his child, does that child then fear to go to him?” Give my wife, who is in Okahandja, my greetings and tell her that I have died in the faith of the lord Jesus, so too tell my children if you should ever see them.’ I asked him again to be infatuated with the lord Jesus. ‘Lord Jesus, you help me,’ with this, after he had given me his hand, he climbed up the ladder. Soon the noose was laid around his neck. And then — never will I forget that moment — the unheard-of happened, as he fell the noose slipped and the wretch fell to the ground. He lost consciousness for a moment, so too, the observers were dumbstruck. Today I still see how his eyes sought me out. Soon, however, two soldiers were there, they lifted him up, and then a little to the side, on orders of the major who led the proceedings, he was shot.

Kukuri’s grave can still be seen at the Gammans cemetery (German link) in Windhoek.

His memory as an emblem of Herero dignity under persecution also remains in present-day Namibia.

Anette Hoffmann (in “The Merits and Predicaments of Opacity: Poetic Strategies of Evasion and Resistance” for the fall 2007 Research in African Literatures) relates a later “praise poem” for 1959 Herero martyrs, whose allusion to the hanged chief (as “Hauzeo”) emphasizes his agency, rather than his victimhood.

For he as the son of the chief Kukuri and must die since Samuel Maherero had escaped to Botswana. They said that if they kill him, then that could serve as a symbol that they had exterminated the sovereignity of the Herero … he was taken to a tree near the White’s cemetery in Otjomuise, which is still here today. I can show you his grave. He is still there until now, near the railway line to Aris … when he was taken to the tree, the tree of Hauzeu, as you hear about it, it was said: now you will be hanged to die. Heavily wounded as he was, he had a rope around his neck and was hanged. However, his weight broke the rope. Then the Germans said he was innocent and had to be released. But he himself insisted to be hanged again … [he said] “I have come to see the children of Tjamuaha’s house, those left in the camps of enslavement: to see them with my own eyes … this is why I have come: take me up the tree.” They did and he died. He lies at Hauzeu’s tree. He had given himself to be hanged.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Namibia,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Wartime Executions

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One thought on “1905: Chief Zacharias Kukuri”

  1. JCF says:

    Memory eternal. Holy Zacharias Kukuri, pray for us.

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