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Manasse Tjiseseta: Chief of Omaruru 1884-1898, Namibia

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Manasse Tjiseseta: Chief of Omaruru 1884-1898, Namibia


“Biographies of Namibian leaders of the nineteenth century are rare. We have indepth studies of Hendrik Witbooi, Samuel Maharero and Kahimemua for that period, but few comprehensive analyses of other leading figures. This book, a biography of the Herero chief Manasse Tjiseseta, who reigned in central-western Namibia between 1884 until his death in 1898, is thus to be welcomed. Its importance is enhanced by the fact that the editors of the series have added fourteen documents, including letters written by Tjiseseta himself, reproduced here in facsimile, and providing the reader with a personal glimpse of the chief.

Joris de Vries reconstructs the life of one of the first Herero chiefs deeply embedded in a Christian context. He was a schoolteacher for the Rhenish Mission before succeeding his uncle, Tjaherani. He was also one of the first chiefs who had to act in a political environment increasingly influenced by German colonialism. He had to do so much earlier than the later paramount chief Samuel Maharero, whose biography partly resembles that of Tjiseseta. The structural confines of Christianity and colonialism, and the political and economic possibilities these entailed for a chief, became important for all central Namibian Herero polities from the late 1880s onwards. De Vries’ study provides an insight into the skilful means by which a fairly young chief (some 34 years of age at the beginning of his reign) used these contexts to carve autonomous spaces for himself and his people.

The author shows convincingly how the particular economic possibilities of the Omaruru region provided an essential power base for the chief. Omaruru was an important commercial centre along several major trade routes connecting western, central and northern Namibia, and Tjiseseta set up a coherent taxation system. In addition, the area provided for regular agricultural activity which, next to the pastoral economy, provided an important source of income. In the case of the Damara community at Okombahe, relations of dependency, including the control of labourers, added to the power base of Tjiseseta and that of several other Herero petty chiefs. As de Vries shows, Tjiseseta played out these economic possibilities and social differences while maintaining political autonomy, not only vis-a-vis the encroaching German military, but also vis-a-vis the dominant Maharero polity. To characterize Tjiseseta as a ‘ tycoon’ (pp. ff.) with respect to his economic ventures and wealth might, however, be an overstatement, not least as he did not act solely by himself but in accordance with a council. This raises the question of the distribution of wealth, and relations with other enterprising Herero families, analyses of which are missing.

The analysis of the transformations faced by Tjiseseta in the s (chapter ) remains superficial. While the general lines of conflict with the German administration are well outlined, resulting in the chief losing more and more control, the complexities of the dynamics within the polity are not addressed coherently. A case in point are the transformations of the chief’s relations with the Damara community in Okombahe. De Vries omits an important manoeuvre by Tjiseseta in 1894 through which he transformed the tribute payments of the Okombahe agriculturalists into a lucrative annual revenue granted by the German administration without himself and his petty chiefs losing de facto control of Damara labour, while the Damara chief in turn had to enter into agreement with the German administration for the provision of labour (de Vries only mentions the latter). The case is important as it raises questions about the changing relations between Tjiseseta, his petty chiefs and the Damara population, as well as issues relating to the manipulation of pre-colonial relations of dependence by the Herero elite during the initial phase of German administration. In-depth analyses of these issues are missing.

De Vries’ study is a slightly revised version of his MA thesis submitted at the Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden in 1997. This explains the limited source basis on which the book is based. The omission of the rich correspondence of the Rhenish missionaries of Omaruru, Okombahe and Omburu limits de Vries’ understanding of the internal dynamics of the Herero polity and results in a rather sketchy picture of Tjiseseta’s (extended) family. Although the author acknowledges some of the shortcomings (in chapter  and the conclusion), one wonders for example why such important political bodies as the chief’s council and the church council are not analyzed in their own right ?

Despite these limitations, the book is a welcome contribution to the biographical and regional studies of central Namibian history. This reviewer hopes that the publisher (who has failed to provide an index) has made it available to the Namibian readership at an affordable price, as it is biographies that often lend themselves much better to discussions of history in its broader contexts than any other so-called history books.

Dag Henrichsen, Journal of African History”


Joris de Vries


Rüdiger Köppe








Book (Published M.A. Thesis, University of Leiden)



Joris de Vries, “Manasse Tjiseseta: Chief of Omaruru 1884-1898, Namibia,” Namibia Digital Repository, accessed May 27, 2018,

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