Seeheim Namibia

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Wednesday, 28th January 2015

Seeheim, a tiny hamlet in the south of Namibia, is situated at the junction of the Sheep and Fish Rivers, west of Keetmanshoop. Despite its size (or lack of it!) it today once again offers travellers a fine hotel in a picturesque spot where they can enjoy something cold on the long road to Luderitz. The village is trying to regain some of its former ‘glory’ on the main road to Luderitz.

Little certainty exists about the origins of the name Seeheim, which translates as either ‘house by the sea’ or ‘island’ according to Nienaber (468,469). However, it seems certain that the settlement existed long before the arrival of German immigrants, as the local Nama people referred to it as Guaxase !gaos (also Guachase !gaos) meaning Sheep River mouth. This is because the Sheep River flows into the much larger Fish River at this point and at times of heavy rain forms an island at this juncture. One could speculate that it was a Nama crossing point for cattle, small stock and people when the rivers were not in spate and that it was used for the same purpose by the first white travellers in the area. 

Although Seeheim is no longer a major stopping-off point, it had a somewhat chequered history in the 19th century, as it served first as part of a farm, then housed a village complete with post office, hotel, railway station and even an official brothel. It was the diamond rush that started in 1908 at Kolmanskop near Luderitz that really put Seeheim on the map, as it provided a very convenient stop for travellers along the arduous desert gravel road to the diamond fields.

The history of Seeheim can be traced back to 28 October 1899, when Charles George Wheeler, an Englishman from Cape Town who settled in southern Namibia, and made a name for himself trading in weapons and brandy amongst the local inhabitants during the 1880s, bought a piece of land from Captain Paul Frederik for £500. This land later formed part of a farm called ‘Seeheim’. During April 1899 Wheeler received permission to rescue Jonathan Tseib from financial embarrassment by buying a further 1000 ha from him. This land, situated on the Fish River and forming part of a farm called ‘Schlangenkopfen’ was then added to the farm ‘Seeheim’. (Stals ELP, 2009: )

During 1899 Wheeler was already an established farmer and owner of Seeheim, who could afford to employ a certain Drury as tutor for his children on the farm. 

Seeheim continued to play a role as a stopping-off point for travellers in the period between 1899 and 1908. During the Nama revolts of the early 1900s it served as a refreshment station for troops and a storage point for weapons needed in the pursuit of rebels like Marengo and Jacob Christian. However, it was never a major military station, despite the presence of both soldiers and policemen during the German era. In 1914 the number of troops stationed there was increased when the German administration learnt that Colonel van Deventer was marching to invade German South West Africa from the Union of South Africa with a force of 5 000 men. Brief but heavy fighting took place between British, Boer and German troops at Seeheim, around the nearby Fort Naiams.

This diamond rush was one of the main reasons why the building of a rail link to Luderitz became so important. The railway line was further extended as far as Holoog by November 1908, making it possible to transport goods and passengers from South Africa as well. 

In 1909 Seeheim North was officially linked to Kalkfontein South (Karasburg today). Seeheim’s railway station now became a hive of activity, where steam locomotives had to be exchanged, provided with water and firewood (later coal), trucks meant for Luderitz, Keetmanshoop and Kalkfontein had to be shunted around, mail had to be separated and goods had to be loaded and unloaded. It was a veritable junction serving the three major towns in the south. The burgeoning workload meant inevitably that the town’s population grew as labourers were needed for all the different jobs.

Seeheim, Namibia

The station building at Seeheim with the Hotel Bellevue in the background

To further emphasize the growth and importance of the town as a hub for the south, a post office was established in the station building on 25 April 1908. Until 1 June that year, mail was stamped at Brakwater (Brackwasser) with a temporary rubber stamp known as “Wanderstempel Type IV” A permanent metal stamp, indicating Seeheim as post office, was introduced on 15 June 1908. With the advent of the railway, the transport of mail on foot and per coach decreased and gradually ceased completely.

This was a considerable improvement, not only as far as speed of delivery was concerned, but also from a safety point of view, as when the Fish River came down in flood, the mail could not get through, as evinced by a newspaper report of 19 March 1903, which stated that, while the mail carrier could manage to swim through the flooded river, the mail was lost to the flood.

As the number of visitors to Seeheim increased as a result of the diamond rush and the building of the railroad, it became necessary to provide bigger and better accommodation for them. Travellers by both road and rail required food and lodging overnight, while delays in loading and unloading of goods often caused great frustration to passengers on the trains that arrived and departed in three directions. They required some form of entertainment during their often long wait on the station.

Paul Simon Weiss, a builder and caterer who was sent to Luderitz in 1901 by Ohlsson’s Brewery soon saw the potential for profit in the situation at Seeheim and decided to open a ‘restaurant’ there, as well as the Union Hotel at Keetmanshoop. (Levinson, O, page 83)

This restaurant at Seeheim soon became an inn where people could spend the night.

However, the small zinc building soon became too small for the growing number of visitors, so entrepreneur Weiss started the firm Paul Weiss and Company and built a luxurious overnight facility at Seeheim called the Hotel Bellevue (hotel with a beautiful view).

As mentioned above, entertainment was in short supply at Seeheim, so it came as no surprise that another entrepreneur, Karl Bambers applied to the Provincial Council for a licence to open a brothel at the town some time after 1904. He discovered that Swakopmund had already issued a regulation on 7 September 1904 to serve as an example for other towns regarding prostitution (Legal Assistance Centre, ‘Whose body is it?).

The most important arguments put forward for the regulation of the sex trade included the danger of sexually transmitted diseases and the mixing of races (miscegenation), which had bothered the German administration from as far back as 1899.

Bambers received permission subject to strict regulation to introduce five prostitutes to Seeheim. These regulations included strict conditions regarding structures, fencing, medical examinations, the display of medical certificates and other matters. Business could only be done between 10h00 and 18h00, thus not during the hours of darkness.

Buildings were erected haphazardly in the vicinity of the station, and erven were later (1920) allocated according to where these buildings were. However, the settlement remained a village, with no prospects of becoming a town.

The ‘erf’ on which the former Hotel Bellevue was situated is about 1000 sq m in size, but in terms of present-day land policy and legislation, it is seen as agricultural land, something for which it is not at all suited. The general Surveyor General’s map (SG 170/1920) indicates that the land on which the Seeheim Hotel was situated was probably cut from the farm Seeheim-Ost No 122 on 8 February 1926 in order to provide its owner with a title deed. Bellevue No 152, on the other hand, is marked 1955.

Other erven, such as the railway station and shunting yard were provided with title deeds on 23 January 1928 and transferred to the South African Railways and Harbours.

A jukskei court between the railway station and the Hotel Seeheim is shown on these old maps, seemingly as the property of the SAR & H.

According to documents in the National Archives in Windhoek a certain Friedrich Karl Ackermann ran the Seeheim Hotel and a general dealership on portion “A” of Seeheim Ost 122 during 1931/1932. In 1939 Ackermann rented out part of the structures to his sister, Luise Ackermann, who operated a ‘mineral water factory’ there in the same year.

Lemonade was manufactured and bottled there for sale to the travelling public.

This bottling apparatus can be seen in the museum in Keetmanshoop. The gravel road between Luderitz and Keetmanshoop was replaced between 1972 and 1974 with a tarred road with a fine bridge over the Fish River. The concrete low water bridge that was erected during 1941 thus fell into disuse with dire consequences for the Seeheim Hotel, as the traffic now used the new main road, passing it by and forcing it to close.

Shortly after this the property was sold (Title deed T 1836/2001) to a new owner. After many years of dormancy, Seeheim is today being redeveloped once again as a luxury stop-over for visitors to the south of Namibia.

(Revised _ July 2011)

Author: Willem F. Kotze (Copy right reserved)

Translation: Afrikaans to English: Dr. Carol Kotzé