Taking the idea from the British, who had introduced the concept of the concentration camp in the Anglo-Boer war a few years previously, the Germans set up five internment centres for the Herero, and subsequently the Nama, in their attempts to subjugate the local populace. Of these, the one at Shark Island was the most notorious, dubbed Todesinsel (Island of Death), even by the German troops. Herero prisoners – men, women and children – were initially transported there in 1905, both as a security move to isolate them from other Herero and in order to supply slave labour for construction of the railway line to Aus. They were joined the following year by almost 1800 Nama prisoners.

Living conditions were appalling and mortality rates were high; though precise numbers and names were not recorded, there is widespread agreement that the vast majority never survived the incarceration. Malnourished prisoners were squeezed into barely adequate tents with inadequate sanitation on the tiny, windswept peninsula (there was a causeway joining the island to the mainland), which offered no protection from the fierce weather conditions. Disease was rife, as was rape, and prisoners were constantly beaten. On top, the work was dangerous and physically demanding – dynamiting rocks and being forced to work in icy-cold waters to build a new pier and wave-breaker. Most of the dead were given scant burial in shallow graves on the beach, their bodies washing out to sea once the tide came in, and there was a grisly trade in body parts to Europe – including Nama skulls – for medical experiments aimed at validating racist “scientific” assumptions about racial superiority.

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