Karl Hugo Hahn died on November 24, 1895, as the most famous German missionary to Africa, after faithfully labouring among the Herero of Damaraland.
Born in Riga, Latvia on October 18, 1818, Hahn became a Rheinish (Lutheran) missionary to Africa and worked industriously to elevate the tribal people of South West Africa (now Namibia), but ultimately with limited success.
Hahn was sent into Damaraland by the Rheinish Missionary Society of Africa in 1841, as the second missionary to the interior. His mission was to make links with the Herero people if he could. Traveling to “the place of the big spring” where the Herero tribe was last located Hahn arrived to find that they had moved on in search of better grazing for their herds. Hahn built his mission station on the spot, nonetheless, and named is Gross Barmen. This was to be Hahn’s mission base for many years. He later brought his bride, English born Emma Hone (over four years his senior), to join him there.
Tribal tensions were a major problem at the time as the Herero migrated south and met other tribes migrating north. The southern tribes enlisted help from the well armed Jonker Afrikaner, and his Oerlom, who violently attacked the Herero people, killing, maiming and robbing them freely.
In 1851 many Herero had resorted to Hahn for some protection but a massacre occurred at Moordkoppie (Murder Hill) in which a large number of Herero were killed. Women had their feet cut off to get the metal bands around their ankles.
After spending almost ten years in Namibia (1857), Emma wrote to her mother in England: “All is very dull here. To the missionaries it is peculiarly a waiting time, a time for the full exercise of patience, and that is sometimes on the wane, when they see that the Word [of God] is, so to say, daily preached to them in their own language, the people still are as ‘deaf adder that stoppeth her ear’.”
Hahn and Emma enjoyed a four year furlough in Germany and returned in 1863 with a new project in mind. Since the Herero were resistant to the gospel the missionaries would create a western style community which could educate the choicest candidates for future leadership in their own nation. So they established the first production centre in Namibia.
Rather than reach out to the poor and marginalised, Hahn planned to train the sons of chieftains, so they could be preachers and maintain a productive lifestyle. Hahn despised European materialism and sought to raise African Nations which could be free from the evils of the west. However, he did not count on the sheer power of those European nations in their claim upon Africa.
In 1866 Hahn commenced his school, to train men to lead, preach and teach their own people. The project had some impact but was not supported by the mission societies and also could not successfully attract enough of the right candidates. It may have been because of the schooling venture that Hahn broke from the Rheinish Missionary Society in 1873
Among his successes was a young Herero lady who worked as domestic servant to Carl and Helen. She initially came to the mission school and learned sewing, but was soon teaching classes. She became fluent in English, Dutch and German and translated materials into Herero and travelled with the Hahn’s to Europe as an example of their impact.
Hahn had nine books published in Germany in the early 1860’s. And he also wrote a Grammar for the Herero language.
After quitting with the Missionary Society Hahn pastored St Martins German Lutheran Church in Cape Town from 1874 to 1884.
His Gross Barman mission station and school was disbanded in 1902. The German colonialists did not want to give quality education to the tribal people, even though they knew they were just as intelligent as any European. They wanted labourers for the mines and farms, not educated people who might not fit in with their plans.
Carl’s children followed his religious convictions and some returned to Germany, while others served in the armed forces and suffered under the Nazis for doing so. Their daughter Emma married a pastor and moved to New York, where Emma died in 1906.
Karl Hugo Hahn ceased his labours on November 24, 1895.