Rosa Emilia Clay: From Omaruru via Sortavala to Chicago

Ellen Ndeshi Namhila and Werner Hillebrecht

Our interest was stirred when we first heard stories about one of the earliest Namibians to travel to Finland, allegedly an Owambo girl by the name of Rosa. Who was she? How did she get there? What happened to her? Consequently, we started to explore her history, not knowing what we would find.

The first Namibian child to take this long voyage to the far north was Nanguroshi, (also spelled Nanguloshi) who was taken to Finland around 1875 by the missionary Pietari Kurvinen and his wife. She was baptized in Finland as Eva Maria, and returned home in 1880. Little else has been written about her, although one could probably find out more. But the story of Rosa Emilia Clay, probably the second Namibian child taken to Finland, who did not return home but moved on to America, turned out to have often been told and was so colourful, contradictory and improbable that we soon started doubting everything we read.

Why would we as Namibians trace the story of a child who was taken to foreign countries and never returned? Is it just a colourful story? We live in an increasingly inter-connected world, where individual lives transcend national and ethnic boundaries, but we tend to forget that this is nothing new. An individual life is a mirror that can enlighten us in unexpected ways, and help us to overcome the narrow focus on national or ethnic narratives that negate the diversity of human experience. We have to overcome the narrow focus that fosters colonial, racist, chauvinist and xenophobic worldviews that ultimately lead to oppression, violence, wars and genocides.

The story of Rosa Emilia Clay entails transnational and transcultural themes. Her eventful life has been told in two biographies, a TV documentary, as well as several scholarly and popular articles and blogs. She has entries in the Finnish National Biography and on Yet her story remains full of gaps, unexplained discrepancies, and narrow interpretations from specific viewpoints: from the Finnish missionary perspective, from the Finnish immigrant community in the USA and from the African diaspora. We have unfortunately not yet been able to consult recent Finnish research about her biography that might have filled some gaps.

There has hitherto been virtually no knowledge of the Namibian side in her ancestry and upbringing, which forms the background to her later life in Finland and the United States. However, her early life is in no way unique, and in many ways finds a counterpart in another Namibian transcultural life that has been described in some detail and is the subject of ongoing research; namely, the life of Ada Maria Green (Kaera).


Rosa’s story begins with her birth in Omaruru, a small settlement in central Namibia, allegedly on 31 August 1875. This information was provided in Rosa’s first biography, written and published in Finnish in the state of New York in 1942.

The author, Arvo Lindewall, narrates a beautiful romance with all the hallmarks of a fairy-tale. Once upon a time there was a British nobleman, Charles William Clay, who was appointed Deputy Governor of the Cape Colony and who was responsible for South West Africa. During his official travels he came to Omaruru where he “met Feroza Sabina Hazara, a 17 or 18-year-old Arabian- Damaraland maiden. He was fascinated by her and soon believed himself to be truly and blindly in love. Her mother was Arabian and her father was a Damaraland Bantu native Negro. By religion they were Moslem and the girl, a rare and charming beauty, was half black, or what was considered a mulatto.” And this love story ended in Rosa Emilia being born, according to Lindewall, as translated from Finnish by Eva Erickson, who published another biography in 1993.

Of course, everybody who knows a little about nineteenth-century south-western Africa can see that this romance cannot be true. Eva Erickson already pointed out that neither was what is today’s Namibia ruled by the Cape Colony in 1874, nor was there ever a British Baron Charles William Clay. She might also have pointed out that it was virtually impossible for an Arabian Muslim woman to come to Namibia, and for a local black man to be converted to Islam in the 1850s. Therefore, the Finnish National Biography and the Finnish Wikipedia (April 2019 version) inform us that her father “was a hunter and trader named Charles William Clay” and do not speculate about the identity and name of her mother. Is it possible to find out more information about Rosa? Did Arvo Lindewall invent those embellishments, did Rosa invent them, or was Rosa simply told these stories as a child?

There is a rich literature of memoirs about the turbulent history of Namibia in the second half of the nineteenth century. The country was the playground for a large number of white adventurers – itinerant traders and elephant hunters – who were more or less welcomed by the indigenous people, as they provided access to Western commodities, in particular, fire-arms and ammunition. With the exception of a few, who were very successful in business terms, and/or left written memoirs, such as Charles John Andersson, Thomas Baines, Frederick Green, William Coates Palgrave and Axel Eriksson, their lives are poorly documented and mostly forgotten. It turns out that two hunters and traders by the name of Clay are mentioned in the 1870s and 1880s. One was named Charles John Clay, and the second was named William Clay. They were clearly different people, and might have been brothers, but so far no evidence has been found to support this assumption. In addition, German missionaries had been in Namibia for a long time, and since 1869 also Finnish missionaries were also active in the region. So, maybe it is possible to find out a little more detail about Rosa’s history. Do other primary sources exist?

We actually found a documentary record of Rosa’s birth. The baptism register of the Rhenish Mission at Omaruru recorded the birth of “Emily Rose” in August 1875 (no day given) and her baptism on 17 June 1877 by the missionary Gottlob Viehe. Her father is recorded as Charles John Clay and the register column for the mother is left empty. There can be no doubt that “Emily Rose” and “Rosa Emilia” are the same. Why is her mother not named, although she must have been known by the father? There are actually many baptisms in this register in which the father, a white adventurer, is recorded and the identity of the mother is omitted. In all cases the ommissions undoubtedly related to unmarried and unbaptized black women, whose names were not deemed worthy of being recorded by the missionary. Unlike the romantic story told by Lindewall, the register shows the harsh reality of a semi-colonial frontier society in which unscrupulous white men impregnated black women, but rarely cared about the consequences.

Incidentally, the same Charles John Clay had another daughter by an unrecorded mother baptized on 4 April 1886 (with the Finnish missionary couple Karl and Ida Weikkolin acting as godparents), while William Clay also had an “illegitimate” daughter, who was baptized on 6 April 1884. Were the names of the two Clays, who by all contemporary sources are mentioned as different persons, merged together as “Charles William”?

In the case of Emily Rose/Rosa Emilia, the father at least acknowledged paternity, and, according to the Lindewall biography, took her away from her mother and she was entrusted to an unnamed “English family”. Did the mother not want the child? Or did the father think his offspring was too precious to grow up with a poor woman whom he did not care about?

It has not been possible to identify the “English family” to whom Rosa was allegedly given soon after her birth, but only a few English-speaking married couples are known to have been in Omaruru at this time: Frederick and Catherine Green, James and Charlotte Gunning, John Hickey and his “Baster” wife who was named as Rosa’s godmother at her baptism, and maybe the Swedes Axel Eriksson and Oscar Lindholm, with their English-speaking wives. At the same time, there were dozens of white men who were unmarried but were in relationships with black women.


After about three years Rosa was allegedly entrusted to Finnish missionaries. The date and circumstances under which this happened remains uncertain. It is generally assumed that she was taken care of by Karl and Ida Weikkolin. Karl Weikkolin had arrived in Namibia as one of the first Finnish missionaries in 1869, but only married his wife, Ida Ingman, in 1879 during a holiday in Finland. Lindewall describes Ida as “basically spiteful, a liar” who “delighted in hurting and insulting others”. The couple returned to Namibia in 1880. They certainly passed through Omaruru, which was an almost unavoidable stopover on the road from Walvis Bay to the north. Was it at this time that the father gave Rosa to the Weikkolins? If so, why? Is it true that he wanted the little girl to get a mission education by the Finnish missionaries far north in Owambo? The Weikkolins continued their journey to the mission station of Omandongo in Eastern Ondonga, Owambo. There might be correspondence and reports to the Finnish Mission board in Helsinki, or other correspondence or diary entries of (Finnish and German) missionaries at the time, that could shed more light on the matter, but apparently none have been consulted. Most of these possible sources are in Finland and Germany and have so far been beyond our reach.

So little Rosa grew up and went to school at Omandongo. Her mother’s language was probably Khoekhoegowab (Nama/Damara), and as a toddler in Omaruru she might have learnt English and Khoekhegowab or Otjiherero, but she would soon have forgotten it and grown up with Finnish and Oshindonga.

The Sortavala Seminar choir visited Joensuu in 1897, Rosa Clay in the back row. The Finnish Heritage Agency.



In 1888, the Weikkolin family returned to Finland, due to Ida’s ill-health. Thenceforth, we have some more definite information about Rosa’s life. It is well-documented that on this occasion the Weikkolins took Rosa – then 13 years old – and their own son Hans to Finland. It is reported that Rosa’s father gave his consent. The fact that the Weikkolins acted as godparents to another of Clay’s children testifies to the fact that he had a cordial relationship with them. No mention is made of the mother’s opinion.

When Ida Weikkolin’s health recovered in Finland, the couple returned to Namibia in 1890. However, the children remained in Finland to continue their education. Ida Weikkolin later wrote about meeting Rosa’s father again in 1890 at Omaruru, where he expressed his gratitude that Rosa was receiving an education. In the same book Ida also described Rosa’s mother, without a name, as an “unhappy wild Mountain Damara”, implying that it was a good thing to take the baby away from her.

One year later, Karl Weikkolin died of malaria near his new mission station Elim in Uukwambi, Owambo. His wife subsequently returned to Finland and apparently acted again as Rosa’s guardian.

In his biography, entitled Rosalia, Lindewall relates that Rosa was very bitter about her guardian, whom she described as a cruel and unfeeling hypocrite who treated her as a servant. Rosa added that she resented being forced to perform at mission fundraising events in fake “African” attire. It seems that only one of the several mission-published brochures that Ida Weikkolin wrote, and none of the manuscripts and records in the FELM Archives (now held by the National Archives of Finland) has been consulted to find out more about Rosa’s teenage years.

Rosa eventually finished her schooling, first in Vihti and later in Helsinki, and was educated as a teacher at the Sortavala Seminar, where her singing talent was favourably mentioned and promoted. Several portrait photographs and a group photograph from the Sortavala Seminar show her to have been a very beautiful young woman with an abundant tuft of Afro hair. These documents are held by the Finnish Board of Antiquities. She graduated in 1898 and had a traumatic first engagement as a primary school teacher at a rural school near Kuopio, where she was discriminated against because of her skin colour. But she also was granted Finnish citizenship in 1899, probably the first (and for very long, the only) time this was achieved by an African. The three years she worked as a teacher in Tampere, between 1901 and 1903, seem to have been less stressful.

What happened next to Rosa seems to have been taken from Lindewall’s biography without further fact-checking – at least in all freely accessible sources on the internet, including the Finnish National Biography and Finnish Wikipedia (last accessed 30 July 2019). It is told that during a holiday at Loviisa she met a Russian-born medical doctor who proposed to her, but shortly before the planned marriage he killed himself unintentionally through self-experimentation with a drug. Surely such a dramatic event should have left some local record that ought to be explored?

United States

Rosa must have found it difficult to deal with this trauma. It may be that she decided to leave Finland as a direct consequence of the unfortunate fate of her betroved. Irrespective of the reasons, she emigrated to the United States of America, as did thousands of impoverished Finnish people in those years. It is estimated that 300,000 Finns had emigrated from Finland to the United States by 1930. Many of these migrants were socialists and had been subject to political persecution under tsarist rule in the Russian Empire. This background might have helped Rosa to be accepted in the United States when she arrived in New York in 1904. The immigrant community may have been less discriminatory.

Although her marriage with a Finnish émigré and theater director by the name of Lauri Lemberg was problematic and she divorced after having two children with him, she embarked on a career as singer and actor in Finnish theaters with a socialist background in various towns. This part of her life is again better documented, and her biographer Erickson has been able to collect written and oral sources from contemporaries, and was able to interview her children and grandchildren.

Nevertheless, too many questions remain. But some may be answered by digging deeper into the sources. This is not an easy task, as her life spanned across four countries in three continents. Nevertheless, this is a story worthy of being told in greater depth.


Aho, T. N., Rosa Lemberg: A ‘tragic mulatta’ goes transnational. Transnational American studies. Ed. Udo J. Hebel. Heidelberg: Winter, 2012, 355–374.

Erickson, E. H., The Rosa Lemberg story. Superior, Wis.: Työmies Society, 1993.

Hartmann, W., Sexual encounters and their implications on an open and closing frontier: Central Namibia from the 1840s to 1905. Unpublished PhD thesis. Columbia University, New York, 2002.

Henrichsen, D., Wartime wedding: The experiences of Kaera Ida Getzen-Leinhos. Genocide in German South West Africa: The colonial war (1904–1908) in Namibia and its aftermath. Eds. Jürgen Zimmer & Joachim Zeller. Monmouth: Merlin Press, 2008, 193–203.

Jonkka, M., Anna anteeksi, pikku Rosa. Helsingin Sanomat 21.01.2010.

Leitzinger, A., Clay, Rosa Emilia. Kansallisbiografia, 2018. https://kansallisbiografia/henkilo/9823.

Lindewall, A., Rosalia. Yonkers, NY: Kansallinen Kustannuskomitea, 1942.

Palgrave, W. C., The Commissions of W. C. Palgrave, Special Emissary to South West Africa 1876–1885. Ed. E. L. P. Stals. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1991.

Rastas, A., Talking back: voices from the African diaspora in Finland. Afro-Nordic landscapes: equality and race in Northern Europe. Ed. Michael McEachrane. New York: Routledge, 2014, 187–207.

Weikkolin, I., Lähetyssaarnaja Weikkolin’in wiimeinen matka Afrikaan w. 1890–1891. Helsinki: Frenckell, 1895.


About the Authors

Werner Hillebrecht is an archivist who was the director of the National Archives of Namibia between 2003–2015. Since his retirement, he is a freelance consultant. He researches and writes about Namibian history and heritage and about documentation issues.

Ellen Ndeshi Namhila holds a doctorate in Philosophy in Information and Interactive Media from the University of Tampere, in 2015. She is currently the Pro-Vice Chancellor: Administration, Finance and Resource Mobilization at the University of Namibia. She has published six books and several peer-reviewed articles all of which relate to documenting Namibian history, archives, and libraries.