Small bands of Nama people have occupied the Swakop River mouth from time immemorial. The first permanent European colonizers were Germans who didn’t arrive until early 1892. Because nearby Walvis Bay had been annexed by the British-controlled Cape Colony in 1878, Swakopmund remained German South West Africa’s only harbour, and consequently rose to greater prominence than its poor harbour conditions would have otherwise warranted. Early passengers were landed in small dories, but after the pier was constructed, they were winched over from the ships in basket-like cages.
Construction began on the first building, the Alte Kaserne (Old Barracks), in September 1892. By the following year it housed 120 Schutztruppe (German Imperial Army) soldiers, and civilians arrived soon after to put down roots. The first civilian homes were prefabricated in Germany and then transported by ship. By 1909, Swakopmund had officially become a municipality.
The port emerged as the leading trade funnel for all of German South West Africa and attracted government agencies and transport companies. During WWI however, South West Africa was taken over by South Africa, and the harbour was allowed to silt up as maritime operations moved to nearby Walvis Bay. Strangely enough, this ultimately turned Swakopmund into a holiday resort, which is why the city is generally more pleasant on the eye than the industrial-looking Walvis Bay.