Shark Island – Namibia’s landmark of shame

We planned to spend Easter weekend at Luderitz, camping on Shark Island. As any traveler knows, it pays to do a little research on an area before visiting it to make the visit more interesting. The facts about Shark Island are rather chilling.

Shark Island campsite

Shark Island, the only campsite in Luderitz, was the setting for one of the low points in the history of Namibia, or rather South West Africa, as it was known at that time. The site of  a concentration camp operated by German forces between 1905 and 1907 during the war between the indigenous Herero and Nama people and the Germans, history paints a gruesome picture of the atrocities that were carried out on Shark Island at that time. The sunshine of the Namib desert did little to warm the hearts of the brutal German occupiers, who left a trail of death and destruction as they decimated the local population.

Shark Island campsite

Situated on a rocky peninsula, Shark Island (or Haifisch Island) overlooks the little harbour of Luderitz. When the weather is calm it is an idyllic spot, but it is almost as if the elements want to remind those who dare to enjoy themselves here of the spot’s brutal history, and cruel winds whip off the cold Atlantic Ocean to show the harsh reality of life on this island.

Luderitz harbour from Shark Island

During the war prisoners were housed in whatever tents were available, with very little to protect them from the  harsh environment. They were beaten and raped by their captors on a daily basis. The majority died of exposure, hunger, disease and cold, and they were all, including women and children, forced to work as labourers on the railway lines and other building projects around Luderitz.  Prisoners died at a rate of about eighteen a day.  It is said that their bodies were buried in shallow graves on the beach at low tide and when the incoming tide washed them into the sea, sharks devoured their remains. Is this where the island earned it gruesome name? Other bodies were allegedly sent to Europe for research on racial anatomy.

View from island to mainland

Today a memorial on the Island honours Cornelius Fredericks (the most prominent of the indigenous guerilla leaders during the war) as well as the brave men, women and children who perished on the island, but history hasn’t entirely been portrayed in a sensitive manner on Shark Island as there are numerous plaques honouring the Germans who lost their lives in the war as well.

Cornelius Fredericks memorial

During our short stay we also experienced  the ‘ill wind’ that blows over the island and after enduring a gale for most of the night, we pulled down our rooftop tent and slept in our car. It gave us a small sense of the enormity of what the prisoners must have endured so many years ago. The next morning we packed up and left Shark Island a day earlier than intended. It was not a place to linger for too long.