S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Belck, Mr Waldemar (plant collection, geography, physical anthropology)

Born: 25 February 1862, Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland.
Died: 6 September 1932, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Waldemar Belck was a German chemist and amateur archaeologist who came to German South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1884 to assess its natural resources and potential for German colonisation. A year earlier the merchant Adolf Lüderitz had acquired from Nama chiefs a lease of Angra Pequena (now Lüderitz Bay) and its hinterland, and secured the protection of his possessions by the German Government. Belck was the first scientifically trained German to report from the territory, though he was soon followed by others such as the botanist H. Schinz* and the geologist A. Schenck*.

Belck landed at Angra Pequena and travelled inland via Aus to Bethanien and northwards to Kunjas (near present Helmeringhausen). Returning to Angra Pequena late in 1884 he wrote his first report on the territory, "Was haben wir von Lüderitzland zu erwarten?" (What can we expect from Lüderitzland?), published in the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung (1885) with a map of the region between Lüderitz and Bethanien. As one would expect, his report stated that the region had little to offer to agriculturalists. He collected plants on his journey and part of his collection is preserved in the Botanisches Museum in Berlin. He is commemorated in the species names Acrotome belckii Guerki, Crotalaria belcki Schinz, and Crinum belckianum Schinz.

In November 1884 Belck proceeded to Walfish Bay by ship and in January 1885 set out from there on a journey northwards via Fransfontein to Otjitambi in the Kaokoveld, returning to Walfish Bay in April. In "Die koloniale Entwicklung Südwestafrikas" (The colonial development of South West Africa), published in the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung (1886) in four parts, he provided a systematic overview of the natural resources of the country, including its mineral deposits. He described the southern part of the country as dry and suitable for stock farming only. However, north of latitude 20º S the rainfall seemed to him adequate for agricultural settlement. For example, he had seen excellent pastures in the sparsely inhabited Kaokoveld. Ovamboland in particular, with its higher rainfall and very limited runoff owing to the flat terrain, seemed suitable for settlement. This positive picture of Ovamboland, based on earlier reports, ignored transport problems, the presence of malaria, and resistance to large-scale settlement by the native inhabitants of the region. Furthermore, his favourable impression of the Kaokoveld was based on a visit during the summer of a year with high rainfall. His review therefore overestimated the agricultural potential of the north.

Following his visit Belck published two further articles, both in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (1885). The first was entitled "Messungen von Buschmännern und Hottentotten" (Measurements of Bushmen and Hottentots). It reported measurements and statistics of skeletons, with an analysis of the specimens by the eminent German pathologist Rudolf Virchow. The second, "Reise nach Angra Pequena und Damaraland" gave an account of his two journeys in the territory.

In 1888 Belck submitted his inaugural thesis in chemistry entitled Ueber die passivität des eisens (On the inertness of iron) at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. It was published in Halle-an-der-Saale that same year. He was employed by the firm Siemens and Halske as an electrochemist that same year to work in the firm's copper works in Kedabeg (now Gadabay) in Azerbaijan. There he became interested in the archaeology of the Near and Middle East and took part in an archaeological expedition to Armenia in 1891. He published three "Reisebriefe von der Armenischen Expedition" in the Mittheilungen der Geographische Gesellschaft in Hamburg in 1899-1900 and a paper on "Archaeologische forschungen in Armenien" (Archaeological researches in Armenia) in the Verhandlungen der Berliner Anthropologischen Gesellschaft. A comprehensive work on the history and geography of ancient Babylonia and Assyria soon followed, entitled Beiträge zur alten geographie und geschichte Vorderasiens (Leipzig, 1901). Two further papers by him dealt with Chaldean-Assyrian cuneiform scripts (1892, 1904). A later paper by him, written in 1910, was translated into English and published as "The discovery of the art of iron manufacture" in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution.

List of sources:
Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Kienetz, A. Nineteenth-century South West Africa as a German settlement colony (pp. 370-371, 388-410). PhD thesis in social geography, University of Minnesota, 1976. Facsimile by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1977.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Wikipedia, Die freie Enzyklopaedie. https://de.wikipedia.org

Compiled by: C. Plug