The Trader King of Damaraland Axel Eriksson

A Swedish Pioneer in Southern Africa
Johansson, Peter
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The Trader King of Damaraland Axel Eriksson

Author: Peter Johansson
Publisher: Gamsberg Macmillan
Windhoek, 2007
Soft cover, 15x21 cm, 218 pages, several bw-photographs

On the book:

"In the shadow of a few trees, on Ferdinand Siemens' farm in Damaraland, a group of men had met to say fare-well to a friend who had suddenly died the day before.

Soon, the news would spread over large parts of southern Africa - old Karuwapa was dead, and even a generation later it would still be said that when Karuwapa died, the goodness in the country died as well".

The year was 1901, the dead man was Axel Eriksson, born in 1846 in Vänersborg in south-western Sweden, and the person writing these opening lines was the author of the book, Peter Johansson, also born and raised in Vänersborg.

A photograph among old family papers showing a man said to be the "brother of Axel Eriksson, the man who donated all the birds to the museum in the town - a completely unique collection of around 1,000 birds from south-western Africa - was the start of 20 years or research about a Swedish private colonial operation in southern Africa in the 19th century.

Here, Axel Eriksson turned out to have been of greater importance (for good and perhaps also for bad) for political and economic development, even greater than his better-known colleague, Charles John Andersson.

The author has made a couple of comprehensive round-trips in Namibia in Andersson and Eriksson's tracks, studied local archives, and interviewed researchers and people with knowledge about Axel Eriksson's life.

The result is a vivid biography as exciting as an adventure novel, illustrated by some 50 photographs from Axel Eriksson's era.

It provides an excellent insight into the early colonial history of southern Atrica. Peter Johansson currently serves as Director of the Vänersborg Museum in Sweden.

A photograph in a cigar box

My interest in the history of my family and my home town started very early. Already at the age of ten, I used to listen to my paternal grandmother and her brother when they recounted memories from their youth and stories they had heard about their grandparents' youth.

These stories transported me to a completely different Sweden from the one I knew in the prosperous world of the 1970s. I encountered people living in backwoods smallholdings and crofts, people who toiled away in the town's factories, worries about famine and cholera epidemics, poverty, starvation and overcrowded housing - and in the forests, wolf packs hunted by night.

I also met a Sweden where the measure of happiness and well-being was not the same one I knew. There was joy and security in togetherness across the generations, joy in work where craft skills were valued highly, the advantage of living in a clean and undamaged environment, and the happiness brought by the first wind-up gramophone, bought in the town's music shop and paid for in instalments.

Both my grandmother and her brother had boxes tucked away in the attic: boxes full of memories, with everything from old letters, photographs and confirmation cards to hymn books, bits of old pictures, and almanacs with diary entries. For a curious and eager ten-year-old, it almost felt like Christmas when one of these boxes was brought out. I read the letters, gradually learnt to decipher the Gothic font so that I could also read printed text, and I looked at all the photographs.

All the time, I found myself asking questions and writing down the answers I could find: Who was the woman in this photograph? Who wrote this letter? Who was this "Petter Molytter" who lived in a den in the ground up in the forest?

In this way, many leisure hours passed and the old people always answered my questions patiently. They probably often thought it fun to relive the old days and pass the knowledge on to a younger generation. One evening, when I was sitting by my grandmother's brother, he brought out a small cigar box containing some old visiting card photographs. I studied the photographs, writing the name of each person or persons in the pictures on the back. Among the cards there was a portrait of a man with thin hair on the top of his head and a long, dark beard. I had not seen him in any other photograph, and therefore asked who he was.

"Well," said my grandmother's brother, "his name was Reinhold Eriksson and he was married to my father's cousin Anna. Reinhold Eriksson was rather strange, because he abandoned his entire family and went to Africa, where he later disappeared. In fact, he was the brother of Axel Eriksson, the man who donated all the birds to the museum in the town."

Now my immersion in the old family papers had actually taken me to another country. Now it was not just another Sweden, but distant Africa that caught my interest. Of course, everyone had heard about the adventurous explorers who had braved jungles, deserts and seas, and of course, there was the odd name that I knew of, such as Hedin, Nordenskiold, Livingstone and Stanley. But who were Reinhold and Axel Eriksson? Where did they go? What did they do in Africa? Why did they never come back? Well, my grandmother's brother could not answer much more than he had already said, so it was up to me to search for knowledge elsewhere.

In 1988, some 15 years after I had found the picture of Reinhold Eriksson, my training and choice of profession brought me to Vänersborg Museum, where I met my colleague Wilhelm Angermark. Angermark had just completed a book about Axel Eriksson's bird collection. This collection, the pride of the museum, consisted of some 1,000 birds collected by Axel Eriksson in South West Africa, Angola and the Transvaal (now Gauteng Province in South Africa) during the 1870s and 1880s. Since 1888, the collection had been on display at the museum, and I learnt that it was completely unique.

No other museum anywhere in the world could present such a comprehensive collection from this area. Through the conversations with Angermark, my interest in Axel Eriksson and his brother's activities in southern Africa grew. The more material I found, the clearer the image of an early Swedish private colonial operation in south-western Africa became. The sources indicated that Axel Eriksson had a very central and sometimes leading financial and political role in what was then called South West Africa. Axel Eriksson had been forgotten, overshadowed by his better-known colleague, Charles John Andersson, with whom he had worked during his first years on the African continent.

This was in spite of the fact that Axel Eriksson's role in the financial and political history of the area appeared to have been more important than Anderssons, Axel Eriksson's period of greatness' fell approximately between 1870 and 1896, before the German colonial power had gained too strong a grip on the country.

Starting research in 1988 into what was then South West Africa/Namibia was not particularly easy, as the country was still run as a mandated territory by South Africa, and a civil war raged in the northern parts of the country. Due to the imposition of South Africa's apartheid system on South West Africa, most Western countries had stopped practically all exchanges and cooperation with South Africa. This also meant that cooperation between researchers and scientific institutions was banned. However, the situation was soon to change dramatically: in 1989, free and fair elections were held, and in March the following year the new independent state of Namibia was proclaimed.

Very soon, Vänersborg Museum established contact with the National Museum of Namibia, and I visited Namibia in the course of my work in 1994 for the first time. The aim of the trip was to collect information about Charles John Andersson and Axel Eriksson's lives and activities, and to build up an exibition around these two Swedish pioneers. After a round trip in Andersson and Eriksson's tracks in the central and northern parts of Namibia and visits to various archives and libraries in the capital, Windhoek, and in Cape Town in South Africa, an exhibition was created and went on display in both Sweden and Namibia.

At this time, I had also met the author Bo Bjelfvenstam, who was in the process of writing a biography of Charles John Andersson. When Bjelfvenstam later presented his book, I thought it might be interesting to document the continuation of Swedish trading and exploration activities in South West Africa as well; in other words, a biography of Axel Eriksson.

This biography would not just be a history of Eriksson's life; it would also document how his trading activities affected the country he had come to. In Namibia, there is much documentation about the time when the country was a German colony, 1884-1915. On the other hand, little research has been done into the decades just before their colonisation, when the country was opened to missionaries and European traders. Therefore, a biography over Eriksson's life would also be an important contribution to the existing information on Namibia's history.

When I started collecting material about Axel Eriksson's operations, I found many gaps. No diaries or similar records had been kept; instead, his life must be traced through letters, various contracts and purchase documents, oral tradition, and so on. Much was still missing before I could get an overview of his life and activities, so I went back to Namibia and South Africa at my own expense in 1998.

After five weeks investigating records in the archives and meeting with various researchers and other persons who were knowledgeable about Axel Eriksson's life and the history of southern Africa, I managed to fill in several of the earlier gaps. It now felt possible to write Eriksson's biography.

Even if there is still much in Axel Eriksson's life that will remain unknown or unexplained, this research has still provided a composite view of one of the 19th century's foremost Swedish pioneers in Africa - research that started more than 20 years ago among some old photographs in a cigar box.

Vänersborg, May 2006
Peter Johansson

Extract from Chapter 12: Opinions about Axel Eriksson

Axel Eriksson had a very good reputation, both among Europeans and among natives. He was regarded generally as very generous and open-handed, several times to the detriment of his own trading operation.

His childhood friend, Axel Wedberg, wrote about him that "his greatest fault was that he was too good, but if you looked at Eriksson, he was an honest man right through". When Anders Ohlsson worried that the Boers might steal the cattle Axel Eriksson had left at his death, Wedberg stated chat "the Transvaal Boers, at least, would not touch a thing that belonged to Axel Eriksson - a name that is known throughout the Transvaal and respected by every Boer".158

Axel Eriksson's partner, Anders Ohlsson, also had a very positive opinion about his friend for many years. Upon his visit to Vanersborg a few months after Eriksson's death, he told the local paper: "Among the Damaraland chiefs, his reputation was so great that they often turned to him with disputed issues; yes, they were ready to pay with large areas of land for a single piece of advice from him. When he once assisted his friends the Damaras in word and deed against their enemies the Hottentots, he was in a moment of exultation offered the entire country".

Consul Ohlsson continued: "About the deceased as a person ... you cannot write highly enough, he always thought of himself last. And his greatest happiness was to help his fellow men with both good advice and financial support. In this way he gave away a large part of his considerable fortune".

The British newspaper, South Africa, mentioned Axel Eriksson in an interview in 1894 as "the greatest living authority in respect of Damaraland and Ovamboland" while a trader colleague, several years after Eriksson's death, gave him the epithet "Trader king of the country north of the Orange and south of the Kunene".

Axel Eriksson would also be put forward by latter-day Boers for his support and help to the Trek-Boers in the 1870s. Because of this, his grave was declared a national monument in 1978, and on a sign beside the grave one can read: "This is the last resting place of Axel Eriksson, well known traveller, hunter, trader and pioneer, through whose intercession the Cape Government sent food to the distressed thirstland trekkers in 1879 thus rescuing various families from certain death" [sic].160

A very positive opinion is also given by Axel Erikssons colleague and employee, Eberhard Rosenblad, who writes as follows in the closing words of his travelogue: "But first and last, for his splendid hospitality I want to give heartfelt, warm and honest thanks to my friend, Axel Eriksson, to the man with unwavering willpower, to he who understood to gain the respect of both the German Government and the Portuguese authority as well as from the country's natives, the man with the good heart, he who showed mercy even to the poorest, and who never asked for anything in return".161

The fact that Axel Eriksson had a good reputation is also shown by his brother Reinhold, who took over Eriksson's Herero name, Karuwapa, after the latters death. Reinhold was very similar to his brother in appearance, and if he could seem to some people like Axel Eriksson/Karuwapa, this might surely have been helpful with business and other contacts.162

When the author visited Omaruru in May 1998, the Herero Chief Christian Zeraua was interviewed about any oral tradition existing amongst the Hereros and the Zeraua royal family regarding Axel Eriksson. If a strong oral tradition existed anywhere, it should be within this family because, during the 1870s, Axel Eriksson had been very close to Chief Wilhelm Zeraua in Omaruru, Christian Zeraua's maternal grandmother’s maternal grandfather.

When asked whether there was any information about Axel Eriksson, Christian Zeraua gave a negative answer, however, as no person with such a name existed in the family tradition. When the question was repeated using Axel Eriks-son's Herero name, Karuwapa Katiti ("the small white person"), though, the answer was entirely different. Of course Christian Zeraua had heard of "Old Karuwapa" and his cooperation with Wilhelm Zeraua. Axel Eriksson was held in high regard here. His ar-rival in Omaruru and the establishment of his trading station there in 1870 was a great asset to Wilhelm Zeraua and his people.

Like other Hereros, they were at war with the Oorlam/Namas, but lacked efficient modern weapons. Eriksson took the Hereros' part in the conflict, and sold weapons to Zeraua, which he paid for in cattle. The weapons were also an asset for hunting, and gave the Hereros more effective protection against predators who threatened the cattle. Wilhelm Zeraua later had himself baptised and, with this conversion to Christianity, he also crossed the Omaruru River and moved to the Swedes' side. After Wilhelm Zeraua died in 1876, the funeral took place in the presence of Axel Eriksson and other Europeans in Omaruru.

Wilhelm Zeraua was the first Herero to be buried in a coffin, an event that caused the year to be named "the year of the coffin", in accordance with Herero tradition of naming years after extraordinary events, Christian Zeraua also related that Axel Eriksson and the first Swedes initiated very good relations and cooperation with the Hereros. There was much socialising and there were many children born between the newly arrived Europeans and the local population, something to which the church registers from the time also bear witness. A change occurred with the arrival of the Germans, in particular after the uprising in 1904. A sharper demarcation and separation between Herero and coloniser became apparent. Socialising between the two communities, each on their own side of the Omaruru River, was not as cordial as before.163

Naturally, great difficulties arise when trying to create an image of how Axel Eriksson was regarded by his time. The views about him are, of course, many and varying, depending on the angle from which his actions were regarded. The opinions are sure to vary from good father, skilled ornithologist and warm-hearted fellow man, to bad father, unrestrained profit-hungry businessman, and brutal hunter who exterminated large parts of the country's wild fauna. However, it is remarkable that there is such an overwhelming number of positive opinions about Axel Eriksson from both black and white people. In particular, it is his kind and open attitude to the natives that is emphasised.

As opposed to many other European traders in Africa at the time, Axel Eriksson treated the natives with - in relative terms - great respect for their own social systems. This meant that he became a personal friend of many different people and their chiefs, something which formed the foundation for his successful trading operation. Even when his negative sides are mentioned, they are mainly that he was too credulous and kind-hearted to people in need. Too many generous loans and other types of assistance to others contributed to his own assets shrinking with time.

This weakness was something he was aware of himself, and sometimes, in bitter terms, referred to in letters to his relatives in Sweden: "I have never been selfish, and have shared with all those who needed help without consideration of colour; the result is that I have been badly cheated, almost exclusively by whites ... ".164

It is also remarkable that, even today, Axel Eriksson's good reputation lives on among both black and white people. Nearly all the people one talks to that have anecdotes about Axel Eriksson mention him and his activities in positive terms. Sometimes, like in Christian Zeraua's story, Axel Eriksson's good time is compared with the harsh and more segregated time that came about in association with German colonisation. Thus, among Namibians today, Axel Eriksson's operations can - in a strange way and from different points of view - bring out an unusually positive image of one of the 19th century's European colonisers.


A photograph in a cigar box
Chapter 1: Butcher s son and naturalist
Chapter 2: Charles John Andersson and the journey to the Cape"
Chapter 3: Namibia: Several countries and several peoples
Chapter 4: Other Scandinavian pioneers in southern Africa
Chapter 5: The years with Charles John Andersson
Chapter 6: Omaruru - A Swedish trading station in the interior of Damaraland
Chapter 7: The rise and fall of the Omaruru trading station: Eriksson seeks new paths"
Chapter 8: Through the Thirstland - the Kalahari Desert
Chapter 9: Aukas Farm and the rinderpest epidemic
Chapter 10: The last years - A lost empire
Chapter 11: Cash in chaos - Estate administration and disputed inheritance
Chapter 12: Opinions about Axel Eriksson
Chapter 13: Ruins by the Omaruru River and a National Park with many species: Eriksson's farms today -
Ochsenkraal - Omaruru
Chapter 14: The children from Damaraland: Sara, Andrew, Axeljr, Maud and Jacob
Andrew (Andreas)
Axeljr - "Der Maler Südwestafrikas"
Chapter 15: Wars and alliances - Hereros, Namas, Damaras and Europeans
Chapter 16: Axel Eriksson and the trade in Ovamboland
Chapter 17: Decline in trade in Ovamboland: The use of Angolan ports and the route to the Transvaal
Chapter 18: Social and economic consequences of the trading activities
Chapter 19: Trek-Boers and the dream of Upingtonia
Chapter 20: Axel Eriksson, the zoologist
Chapter 21: William Coates Palgrave and plans for a British South West Africa
The second commission, 27 September 1877-22 January 1879
The third commission, 24 September 1879-9 November 1879
The fourth commission, 10 January 1880-4 September 1880
Interview with Anders Ohlsson, Thursday 2 June 1881 in Cape Town, regarding trade in Damaraland
Interview with Anders Ohlsson, 19 June 1882 in Cape Town
Interview with Dr Hugo Hahn, missionary, 21 June 1882 in Cape Town
The fifth commission, 8 November 1884-23 February 1885
Chapter 22: The German colonisation of South West Africa
Chapter 23: Axel Erikssons activities seen through 21st-century eyes
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