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A forgotten Australian hero – Edward Presgrave

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 28 September 2020

On September 28, 1905, 115 years ago, in a remote area of what was then German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, a young Australian lay dying. Lured across the border from the Cape Colony on the pretext of buying some cattle, he was shot by two Boers working for the Germans. Left for dead, he managed to survive the freezing cold night – only to be killed the following morning by a member of a German patrol. The name Edward Presgrave is totally forgotten in Australia today, but the young adventurer was greatly admired on the Cape side of the border.

At the age of 18, Presgrave made his own way to South Africa and volunteered for service in two irregular regiments in the Boer War. He signed up for Brabant’s Horse, a mounted regiment, on the 4th of May 1900 and was to serve for one year, largely near the border of Basutoland and the Orange River Colony. During this time he saw action against the Boers on a number of occasions. On the 16th of March 1901 he was honourably discharged in Cape Town and a few days later signed up for the 1st Regiment of the Marquis of Tullibardine’s Scottish Horse. The two regiments of the Scottish Horse were largely formed from Australian volunteers plus drafts of Scots from South Africa and Scotland.

In April the regiment was transferred to the Magaliesberg Mountains where it engaged the Boers. Presgrave does not seem to have distinguished himself in either regiment and does not seem to have been mentioned in despatches although his father wrote that he was a good soldier and a favourite among his fellow soldiers. For his service he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with three clasps and the King’s South African medal with two clasps. After his discharge from the Scottish Horse in late September 1901 relatively little is known about his movements, although like a number of young Australians he chose to remain in South Africa. Finally he settled in the small town of Upington on the Orange River in the Northern Cape.


By this time the Boer War had rolled to a close, but across the border in German Southwest Africa a genocidal war between the Germans and the Herero and Nama people was about to erupt. Over the next four years Presgrave would be swept up in the ebb and flow of events along the German-British border as the Herero and Nama tribes rose in revolt against their German masters. It was during this time that Presgrave closely allied himself to Jakob Morengo who was engaged in a heroic guerrilla struggle against the overwhelming German forces and provided cattle, food and ammunition to the Nama rebels. It was a period marked by tragedy, not only for Morengo and Presgrave but also for the thousands of Nama people who would be persecuted, enslaved and transported or killed.

Jakob Morengo was without doubt one of the real heroes of Namibia’s struggle against German colonial power. Of Herero-Nama parentage, he differed from other leaders in the rebellion insofar as he came from humble origins and was in many ways “a man of the people”. His battle against the Germans was based on a strategy of lightning raids and hit-and-run tactics against German supply trains, patrols and outposts. In this he was undoubtedly aided by his knowledge of the local terrain, particularly the mountain and gorge environment, and his ability to develop successful guerrilla tactics. The fact that he managed to hold off thousands of heavily armed German troops for more than three years is a credit to his guerrilla tactics and local knowledge. But what of Presgrave? What part did he play in all of this? Well, for at least three years he supplied Morengo with food, cattle and armaments and then in 1905 fought beside Morengo and his supporters in at least three battles against the Germans. In 1905 he spent at least three months with Morengo in the Karasberge Mountains and fought alongside him against the Germans. Morengo managed to hold down thousands of German troops for more than three years until he was wounded in 1906. He managed to escape across the border into the Cape Colony, where he was arrested by the Cape Mounted Police. After a year of imprisonment he was released and returned to Upington. Fearful of a repeat of 1904-05 the Germans managed to persuade the British Government to undertake a joint action against him during the course of which he was apprehended and killed, ironically by a British bullet.

Presgrave’s story is mired in tragedy. The tragedy of the Herero and Nama people in the years after 1903, the tragedy of the legendary Jakob Morengo, the tragedy of the failed German colony and the tragedy of a young Australian killed in his prime fighting for something he believed in. It is true that Presgrave played only a minor part in Morengo’s battle with the Germans but his short life and tragic death focuses our attention on German Southwest Africa and its relationship with the Herero and Nama peoples. The Herero and Nama uprisings against the Germans between 1903 and 1908 were arguably the most shattering events in Namibian history. By 1907 only a small fraction of the pre- 1904 Herero and Nama population still survived and those that did were transformed from a semi-independent cattle-herding people into a subservient indentured labour and servant class. It was something that would haunt the Herero and Nama people for generations.

There is little doubt that Morengo fought for what he passionately believed in – land, liberty and freedom. But what of Presgrave? While his part in this conflict was small, he still struggled with courage, fortitude and determination to support Morengo and the Nama against overwhelming German forces. If heroes include those who embrace causes and struggle against overpowering odds with bravery, fearlessness and determination for what they believe is right, without thought of personal risk, then Presgrave was certainly cast in the heroic mould and deserves our recognition as a true Australian hero. He should be remembered.


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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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