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A forgotten hero

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Today who remembers Edward Presgrave?

Largely his name remains totally forgotten, long ago consigned to the dustbin of colonial history. But here we have a real Australian hero who cries out to be remembered and honoured.

Presgrave was a young adventurer who at the age of 18 made his own way to South Africa and enlisted in two irregular regiments to fight in the Boer War. After 16 months service in Brabant's Horse and with the Marquis of Tullibardine’s Scottish Horse, like many discharged Australians, he elected to stay on in South Africa, drifting around the colony until he eventually made his way up to the town of Upington in the Northern part of the Cape.


It was here amidst a vast expanse of sand covered dunes, sandy plains and sparse grasslands that he was destined to make a name for himself and to be written forever into the history of what was then German South West Africa, now Namibia.

Presgrave would spend four years living in and around this small remote town, trading in horses and livestock, sometimes legitimately, sometimes times not. During this time the neighbouring colony of German South West Africa was thrown into turmoil as first the Herero tribes rose in revolt against their German overlords and then the Nama tribes in the south joined them in 1904.

The Herero and Nama uprisings against the Germans were not minor affairs, By the time the Germans had declared the war over in 1906, the death toll had exceeded that of the Boer War.

In a little over three years 80,000 Herero and Nama had been killed as well as more than 1,500 Germans.

As in all wars disease played an important part. More than 14,000 Germans suffered from infectious disease, including as many as 5,000 with typhus and 4,000 with acute enteritis.

For the Herero and Nama nations the war was a disaster as was the aftermath when thousands were confined in concentration and work camps where the death toll was appallingly high from malnutrition, scurvy, physical abuse and medical experimentation. The camps also contained another terror for the Herero and Nama. Many of those who died had their skulls and skeletons scrubbed clean and packed off to German universities and scientific organisations for anatomical research designed to demonstrate the differences between the ‘lesser’ races and the civilised races of Europe. For some it was a forerunner of what was to come in Europe 30 years later.


Many women were forced into prostitution or forcibly raped, and concubage was widespread.

After the war the Herero and Nama were destined for a life of virtual slave labour, denied the right to own land or livestock or move around the colony at will, and forced to carry ID tags. It was a disaster to end all disasters and the effects would be felt for generations to come.

It was in such an environment that Edward Presgrave found himself at the beginning of 1905 and it was an environment which brought him into close contact with Jakob Morengo.

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Peter Curson’s book on Edward PresgraveBorder Conflicts in a German African Colony: Jakob Morengo and the Untold Tragedy of Edward Presgrave was published in the UK a couple of months ago.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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