It must be Larvikitt , I’m absolutely sure. The truth suddenly hits me where I stand and touch the black gravestone, a gravestone amid a good many other that mostly are white, yellow, light gray ,but no one like this one. Only hard sand with a few palms and hedges between graves. A nice white fence encircles the entire cemetery, and I remember the old saying from Benny Hill: Why is there a fence around the cemetery? Those within can’t get out, and those inside don’t want to get in!
This is one of three cemeteries as known by the apartheid system – one cemetery for the white , one for the colored, and one for the black. A bit further towards the gate are areas for heroes that fell in the war that the German fought against the inhabitants after they declared Namibia as a German colony in 1884, especially the battles that raged about 1905-1906, where the Nama’s were reduced by 50% and the Hereroes almost were made extinct. One would think that knowledge about the fact of war would take away the honor of these so-called heroes, but people in Africa have a own ability at to put things behind them. “It’s history”. The monuments and the graves are left as they were originally set up.
Additionally Swakopmund, where I am standing, is an extremely conservative town, dominated by old German culture. Here they actually celebrated Hitler’s birthday openly as late as 1988, maybe later too. Almost all gravestones at this the cemetery for white have German names, but I stand at one of the exceptions. Repapratør Alf Sverre Fredriksen, and the dates 19 October 1883 and 28 August 1925. Yes, you read correctly, it says ”Reparatør” with the Norwegian letter ”ø” on a the gravestone made of Larvikitt. This is my grandfathers tombstone.
My thoughts wander back to faint but pleasant memories from my childhood. Every summer we visited my grandmother who lived in a small house on Nøtterøy, close to Vrengen between Nøtterøy and Tjøme islands. The old bridge from 1939 connected the two islands, and close by, hidden among trees down by Bjørnehodet, lived my grandmother in the house she and my grandfather had bought. As most of the inhabitants in Vestfold, most boys became seamen who sailed out into the great world, fist as crew, but many worked their way up to be officers and even owning their own ships. Alf Sverre Fredriksen was no exception, he can from a family of seamen from Sundene on Tjøme. How he met my grandmother is a separate story I would like to know more about. She came from a farm on the western tip of Ørlandet outside Trondheim, where the people describe themselves as the countryside: flat and windy. The farm still exists, but my great grandfather must have been a strict person. It is told that he ruled with the bible in one hand and the whip in the other. The children from the first marriage left the farm as soon as they could, and as far away as they could too. The oldest son renounced his rights to the farm and emigrated to Australia, my grandmother with her crippled hand from an accident on the farm became a household maid in Oslo. Somehow the girl from Ørlandet met the seaman from Vestfold and settled on Nøtterøy. My grandfather joined the whaling adventure outside south Africa that started about 1905, my grandmother stayed at home and had 7 children, 3 boys and 4 girls.
The whalers left in the fall, were gone all winter, and came home in the spring with their pockets full of money. Babies were born the next winter. My father, as and example, was born on December. I the local paper Tønsberg Blad dated 27th Aug 1925 there are reports from the different stations:
- A.S Atlantic reports from the land station in Elephant Bay 2900 barrels and from the floating whalery ”Esperanca” 8460 barrels 26 Aug. Last report from the land station was 2300 barrels 16th and from ”Esperanca” 3290 barrels 18th Aug. The total production is 6360 barrels as of 23 Aug. Last year the production was 3100 barrels.
- A-s ”Globus” whalery “Lancing” reports 5700 barrels pr 22 Aug. Last report was 5000 barrels as of 15 Aug.
- A.S Africa reports from the land station in Walvis Bay 9700 barrels and 7800 sacks of guano as of 26th Aug: Last report was 9000 barrels pr 19 Aug. “6th of Aug the production was 8000 barrels of whale oil.
Walvis Bay is near to Swakopmund. Europeans came for whale, seals and guano. The whales are extinct, the guano is gone, and the seals are decimated. If you visit the seal colony at Cape Cross, with about 25000 seals of the special type that have ear flips. It is hard to believe that this is the remains of a much larger colony. But it was the whales that were the temptation about 1900, and which was the reason for the big whaling adventure where people from Vestfold were active participants. In the early phase my grandfather was there, and had his duties ashore in Walvis Bay area, as a repairman / mechanic. If a vessels had problems they came to the station and got the issues fixed, and there were probably enough other issues to deal with too.
I try to imaging what a life it must have been, with long seat travels, the special smells from guano and whale fat, the whaling vessels, the heat and the fog from the cold streams the spread upwards along the Skeleton Coast. A male dominated society the existed 3-5 months before they returned to wife and children. But in 1925 my grandfather did not return. A typhoid epidemic swept the area. The people on the land station were offered to evacuate, but my grandfather had a leading position and refused, which became his fate. But he did not die until August, so what happened? There is a lot of history I still am not aware of.
I knew even less before. I remember well that my grandmother had a picture of a grave on the wall over her bed. When we asked, we were told it was the grave of grandfather in Africa. Exotic and far away! Too many years after, when only one of the seven children of my grandmother still was alive, when the family tree was sorted and published on the Internet, the interest for these facts awoke again. I asked my dear old aunt Magna: “Where is grandfathers grave?” To my surprise she replied matter of fact “in Swakopmund”. Here we had been with a vague impression of “in southern Africa somewhere” and she knew, all the time, the name of the city!
I studied maps and browsed the Internet. Yes, the city exists, and even has museums with Internet address. I sent a mail with a little description of what I knew and a request for any info about what happened in 1925. A shot in the dark, but there might be some more info available. Some days later I got a reply by email from a friendly soul in Swakopmund Municipality in my inbox. No info about 1925, but something much more interesting: “The grave still exists, her are a couple of pictures I took for you, it is grave # H208”. The picture has a gravestone and some green plants over the grave. I eagerly print out the picture and show my aunt a few days later. Another surprise: “That gravestone is from Tønsberg. The crew took it down the year after and put it on the grave”. Another piece of information that surfaced by coincidence!
So now after some years of planning I am here in Swakopmund. I am participating on a 14 day round trip cooperated by the Norwegian Namibian Society, and I am stunned by this special country, and I even get to come to Swakopmund and see the grave. I have an appointment with a representative from the Municipality to find out more about the aspects of maintaining the grave. The municipality building is in the black area of the town, and our landlord says no taxi will take us there, but he will gladly drive us! Everybody is so friendly here.
Our tour guide Birgit Andresen accompanies my to the municipality building. She meets an old friend she has not seen for a long time while I talk to Mr. Ipinge. I tell about my grandfather and about Norwegian boats from that time that had Namibian names. On my request if there is more info about the time my grandfather died here, Mr. Ipinge tells me that a committee is established to work on the history of this place, and I should contact them. I am given a list of names and email addresses to all in the committee. There is more historical work to be done here.
We drive to the cemetery with Mr. Ipinge and the responsible for the cemetery: Ben Hansen Tjinmvne. Hansen is a real Norwegian name, but the man does not look like a Norwegian. The grave is in this uncommon for me sand-filled cemetery and has a plant type on it that hold humidity, a succulent. It is called Vyjjies.
The dates on the grave is 19 October 1883, and 20 August 1925. The gravestone is definitely Larvikitt, and the Norwegian letter “ø” in the title “reparatør” clearly shows Norwegian origin. The cemetery register states his occupation as “Engineer Walfangstation Walvisbay” and the cause of death as typhoid.
We are permitted to browse the cemetery register. as we are looking for more Norwegians. I would like to find out if many Norwegians are buried here due to the epidemic in 1925. We find some Norwegians, but no group with death dates near my grandfathers. Here is the list:
- Christiansen, 8.5.1913 (site “E”), sailor, cause of death burns (durch verbrennen)
- Anton Hanssen 16.5.1869 – 5.12.1897 (site “E”), boson, cause of death fever
- Adolf Johnsen, d 22.05.1913, sailor, cause of death lung inflammation
- Ole Larsen 13.01.1896 – 24.9.1912, sailor, cause of death inflammation of the brain.
- Johann Larsen, 33 years, d 10.6.1907, farmer, cause of death heart stroke
- George A Olsen, f 6.3.1874 – d 19.3.1925 site H231xx, CKapt Titanina, cause of death typhoid
- Martin Olsen f 15.1.1862 – d 23.3.1924 site 239xx, fisher / sailor, cause of death chronic alcoholism
- Steenen Stenersen 19 years. d 21.1.1908, sailor, cause of death “Ruhr” (=dysentery)
These must have been sailors and whalers that found their last resting place here in Swakopmund. Many young people, many fates. Maybe there are more than me that want to stand by a grave to a relative who dies far away, but has a gravestone in a cemetery in Namibia.
We continue on our travel. I leave full of thoughts and emotions, but I carry the genes from my grandfather who rests safely in Kramersdorf cemetery in Swakopmund under a gravestone if Larvikitt from Vestfold, Norway.
Information received afterwards:
Information received later in December 2005: (Thank you so much Mr. Schumann of Namibia Scientific Society Library)
As far as your grandfather is concerned I think he is the person I also have in my personal records. Alf Sverre Fredriksen was born in Nøtterø on 19 October 1883. He died on 28. August 1925 in Swakopmund and was buried on Saturday 29 August 1925 at 3 p.m. by the Luthern Pastor of Swakopmund. Please correct me should I have this wrong.
Your grandfather was buried in Swakopmund as at that time the groundwater level at Walvis Bay stood one meter from the top. At the old Walvis Bay cemetery it was no longer possible to dig graves as they were all flooded. The town itself lies in many places below sea level. It took the town engineer many years before the present suitable cemetery location was found and developed. That only happened when the Swakopmund town clerk notified Walvis Bay that they were filling up the cemetery space at Swakopmund. He was thus compelled to stop the people and the Municipality of Walvis Bay to bring any longer their deceased people to Swakopmund.
Grandfather Fredriksen died of typhoid fewer. When I checked the burials between June and September 1925 I discovered that at least one dozen people from Walvis Bay, who died during this period had enteric fewer. That of course immediately tells one that the drinking water at Walvis Bay was contaminated and thus the Municipal workers were to blame for this situation. As you will know, Enteric fewer is highly contagious and thus it will also have spread amongst the people at their work and during private visits at home. With one doctor around he must have been quite busy to get this endemic under control.
Although the old whaling factory was totally destroyed by fire early 1950’s the old Viking Club House still stands in Walvis Bay, reminding one of the Norwegian past.
I am pleased to see that you are so interested in our country. I also have a book dealing on the Scandinavians in Southern Africa. They contributed a lot to the development and construction of the infrastructure during the pioneering days in southern Africa. In some German publications references is also made to the Norwegians in our country and many German-Norwegian marriages came about. This might also be attributed to the common Luthern faith. A mutual understanding existed also as a great percentage of our great grandfathers here in Namibia originate from the Baltic States.
A great number of the craftsmen working at the whaling station were Namibian German speaking men, who had a good trained mechanical background and could fix practically any broken machinery on land or on the whalers. One must also realise that although it was very hard work at the whaling station it was one of the best paid jobs in the country. When it came to beer drinking the Norwegians could hold against the loud Germans pretty well. This is why the local Germans also mainly frequented the Norwegian club.