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A History of the Ovambo of Namibia, c 1880-1935

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Hayes, Patricia Margaret. 


By the 1880s, when this thesis begins, Ovambo societies on the Cuvelai floodplain were organised into different kingships and polities, highly differentiated in social character. This thesis examines processes of socioeconomic change over a period when two separate external forces impinged on the isolated floodplain: firstly merchant capital, followed by colonial rule which favoured mining capital. In 1884, Ovamboland was nominally divided between Portuguese and German colonial territory, but not occupied until 1915. Merchant capital penetrated the region decades prior to colonisation. From the north, the Angolan slave trade had a diffuse impact long before direct connection in the 1850s. In the south, merchant capital centred on the Cape and Walvis Bay penetrated Ovamboland in the 1860s and drew the larger polities into a competing regional mercantile economy. Christianisation commenced slowly from this time. Prior to colonial occupation migrant labour to southern mines began, but supply never equalled demand. The rinderpest epidemic of 1897 and famine in 1915 accentuated processes of internal socio-economic change already underway since the involvement of political elites in long-distance trade. In 1915 Portuguese forces defeated the Kwanyama and occupied northern Ovamboland. South African officials peacefully occupied southern Ovamboland after their conquest of the German army in South West Africa. The thesis from here concentrates on developments under South African rule. The sharpest political change brought by colonialism was the 'levelling' process of eliminating kings who were too independent and backed by armed supporters and the up-grading of headmen as substitutes where kings were removed. Co-operative kings and senior headmen then held authority in a system of indirect control by a few colonial officials - later held up as a model of 'indirect rule.' Colonialism primarily targeted Ovamboland as a labour source, but the state's ability to increase and systematise contract labour was limited. Labour demand from the mining heartland continued to exceed labour supply until 1930, when in the context of regional famine and worldwide depression this trend began to alter. The internal impact of migrant labour is assessed, as are Christianisation and the effects of colonial famine policy in 1929-30. In a southern African context, after twenty years of colonial rule Ovamboland remained marginal to the core capitalist economies. Colonial policy contributed to this isolation, and internally, matriliny slowed down processes of reorientation under the influence of capitalism. But gradual social transformations, which had their roots in the pre-colonial social order, continued under the influence of this limited capitalist penetration and increased environmental pressures.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge