THE HAMITE HYPOTHESIS REVISITED
(Éditeur : A Paris chez Martinet, Libraire, rue du Coq, N° 15, et Chez Charon rue Saint Jean de Beauvais N° 26. - Déposé, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in the summer of 1798 his motives were primarily geopolitical. French control of Egypt could be used to threaten British commercial interests in the region and to block Britain's overland route to India. Furthermore, France wanted control of Egypt for its commercial and agricultural potential, not to mention the fact that the country was a prime source of grain and raw materials.
But although the Corsican general’s three year military campaign ended in failure (not only did Lord Nelson’s British fleet destroy the French ships, thus isolating Napoleon's forces in Egypt but Napoleon himself had to flee with tail between legs back to France) perhaps the greatest achievement of the invasion was the impact of the discoveries of the scholars and scientists that accompanied his invasion force would have in Europe.
Napoleon’s experts were there to investigate every aspect of life in ancient and contemporary Egypt. These discoveries led to the publication of Description de l'Egypte which detailed the findings of the French scholars and scientists. Description de l'Egypte not only became the foundation for the modern science of Egyptology, but it also led to the establishment of the great Egyptian museums we see around the world today. Egypt was in vogue.
The shocking and tragic events that began in Rwanda on 6th April 1994, some of which I personally witnessed in a place called Kibungo, about 90 kilometer east of Kigali the capital, and which transpired over the next 100 days have a direct link to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.
It was the splendors of Egypt’s glorious past that helped to give rise to the racist philosophy of the Hamite Hypothesis. The Hamite Hypothesis became the philosophical foundation that helped to trigger off one of the most horrific pogroms of the 20th century.
But like so much else in the English-speaking world today, the Hamite Hypothesis began as a Biblical tale. In Genesis 9:20-29 in the King James Version of the Bible we read of Noah's curse upon his son Ham and his descendants:
“And Noah began to be a husbandman and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without, And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. And God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”
The original notion of the Hamite Hypothesis, according to the Jewish scriptures, was that the Hamites were blacks or Negroes in the vernacular of the time. The descendants of Ham were cursed by being Black and Ham was depicted as a sinful man for the act of gazing on his father's nakedness while his offspring were no better than degenerates.
This earlier tradition of the Hamites as blacks continued into the European Middle Ages or the ‘Dark Ages’ (roughly from the 5th to the late 15th century).
At some point over the millennia, the term ‘Hamite race’ lost its true meaning. The word became distorted:
“describing allegedly non-black peoples who were supposed to have arrived in Africa as superior herdsmen bringing with them all the innovations of social progress.”
This revised notion became known as the Hamite Hypothesis.
It was the learned men of the European Enlightenment who brought about this change. Their voracious scientific appetite was unsatisfied with mere biblical interpretation of the peopling of the world. Scripture and science were on a head on collision course- biology was about to replace theology.
If the change of the original Hamite myth could be traced back to any particular historical event it would be Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Egypt lay at the frontiers of Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Minor and was now seen as the origin of Western civilization. Its inhabitants became the innovators and originators of social, political and religious practices and institutions on the African continent. Indeed, during the late 19th century Ancient Egyptian civilization towered over those found in the near and Far East and in the Americas.
(Ota Benga, circa 1915 - 1916. Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress 2014702691)
And so it was reasoned that if such hallmarks of civilization such as complex political institutions like divine kingship could be seen in sub-Saharan Africa(“Black Africa”), it could only have arrived there by one means and one means only, and that was through a process of borrowing or copying, in other words diffusion.
But the diffusionists were racists. They believed that anything regarding civilization originated from Egypt. The cheek in all this was, of course, that while Egypt was in Africa the Egyptians were not Africans. Biologically they were Europeans or European descent. Dark skinned Africans were, of course, incapable of such grandiose achievements.
The truth of the matter was that Ancient Egypt was a heterogeneous society. Egypt sits at the crossroads of Africa, the Near East (“Asia Minor”) and Europe just a stone’s throw across the Mediterranean. The genes of invaders and conquerors mixed with an already diverse population that also included the genes of black Africans. In fact, Egyptian statues alone indicate distinctions of skin color and physical features.
No one doubts that there were connections and influences between Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africa. The culture at Meroe in northern Sudan, for example, was basically an expression of Egyptian civilization rooted in sub-Saharan Africa. Gods were worshipped in Egyptian styled temples, pyramids, small and flat topped were constructed over the tombs of rulers and they maintained the Egyptian model of centralized authority and power. Scientists today believe that medieval Nubia was a much greater region spreading across what is now west central and northern Sudan.
(Sarah Baartman; Fair Use Image)
Despite the brave conclusions of a number of scholars of the day, those who witnessed for themselves the strange monuments and Egyptian mummies, the White slave-owning world was unable to accept the fact that the dark-skinned ancestors of the Ancient Egyptians played a crucial role in the development of early western civilization.
One such individual was Count Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney (1757-1820), the French traveler and author of RUINS OF EMPIRES. In fact, when RUINS OF EMPIRES was published in an American edition, positive references to Blacks were deleted from the text! Volney, however, later issued a corrected edition that restored those positive references.
In any event, a kind of compromise had to be invented by those who continued to see Blacks as representing the lowest rung on the human ladder and thus giving justification to their continued enslavement.
Historian Edith R. Sanders wrote over a generation ago:
“The new Hamitic concept made its appearance quite early in the nineteenth century, spearheaded by the clergy. If the Negro was a descendant of Ham, and Ham was cursed, how could he be the creator of a great civilization?…New interpretation of the meaning of the Scriptures were offered. Egyptians, it was now remembered, were descendants of Mizraim, a son of Ham. Noah had only cursed Canaan-son-of-Ham, so that it was Canaan and his progeny alone who suffered the malediction. Ham and his other sons and their children were not included in the curse.”
So the process of the whitening of the Hamites was achieved by the manipulation of what had been previously sacred, unalterable religious doctrine by placing the so-called curse on Canaan and not Ham. This of course had nothing to do with historical biblical facts but an economic reality. As the white Western world grow increasingly rich by using Blacks as slaves, European and American thinkers had to dehumanize them even further if it was to maintain the brutal institution of slavery.
Thus it was now the turn of the scientific community to put its stamp of approval on the original Hamite myth. This they did with the development of the science or rather pseudo-science of Craniology. Noted scientists of the day such as Dr. Samuel George Morton , the Philadelphia physician and author of Crania Americana and Crania Egyptica (1844), assiduously collected and measured the skulls of Egyptians, Black Americans and others and would came to the conclusion that Egyptians were Caucasians and that they were long time inhabitants of the Nile Valley.
But, according to the late American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Morton’s data was grossly biased and was more a reflection of the racial prejudices of the day than any external reality of truth.
Edith R. Sanders adds:
“The late nineteenth century provided two new ideologies which utilized and expanded the concept of the Caucasoid Hamite: colonialism and modern racism. Both shaped the European attitude to Africa and Africans. The travelers found a variety of physical types in Africa, and their ethnocentrism mad them value those who looked more like themselves. These were declared to be Hamitic descent, and endowed with the myth of superior achievement.”
Science continued to play a leading role in the legitimizing process the ‘Caucasian Hamites’
By the early part of the 20th century anthropology had firmly established a separate Hamitic branch of the Caucasian race. This then gave rise to the creation of a linguistic group called the family of Hamitic languages. Members of this racial group comprise blonde, blue-eyed Berbers of North Africa and Dark-skinned wooly haired Ethiopians in the Horn of Africa. They were then divided into Northern and Eastern branches. The Eastern branch included ancient and modern Egyptians, Gallas or Oromos, Danakil, Maasai, Ethiopians, Somalis Tutsi and Hima.
(Satirical illustration of Saartje "Sarah" Bartmaan by W. Heath, 1810, British Museum 1868,0808.7599)
The majority of these groups were cattle-keepers who were lauded as possessing a superior culture over the agricultural “Negro”. Furthermore, innovations such as iron-working, age-grade systems, political institutions such as kingship, etc. were attributed to the Hamites.
No one else during the 19th century, however, was a more influential proponent of the Hamite Hypothesis than the myth's originator, John Hanning Speke, the famous ‘discoverer’ of the source of the River Nile. Speke was the first European to be seen by the inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. During his stay in the Lakes region in 1862 he also recorded detailed observations on the people he encountered, on their social and political organization, and on their history.
Speke's JOURNAL OF THE DISCOVERY OF THE SOURCE OF THE NILE, the forum in which he dreamt up the Hamite Hypothesis, was published in December 1863. The book was an instant literary success. However, the book has a dubious dual legacy in the history of Victorian travel literature and in the history of the African continent. Besides gripping travelogue the book is said to have paved the way for the colonization of East Africa. According to historian David Finkelstein, Speke's magnum opus is credited with “being extremely influential in shaping Victorian attitudes to Africa and its people, as well as providing a political rationale for colonial expansion into the continent.”
(La Venus Hottentot, 1814. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.)
Among the ruling groups in the kingdoms of the region he would note the curious ‘Hamitic’ characteristics of these peoples. Speke thought that the Tutsi and Hima was a branch of the cattle keeping (Hamitic) peoples he had encountered while with fellow explorer Richard Burton to Harar, Somalia in 1854. The women of these pastoralists groups certainly reminded him of the Somalia woman who in turn resembled the women in ancient Egyptian paintings.
In chapter XI of the book titled HISTORY OF THE WAHUMA (the Hima in Bunyoro in Uganda), Speke presents what he boldly called his THEORY OF CONQUEST OF INFERIOR BY SUPERIOR RACES. He believed that the monarchic institutions such as the kingships of some Great Lakes communities, was brought to the region by a ‘conquering superior race’, carriers of a ‘superior civilization’ in other words the supposed highbrow Hamites.
Just from what we know about Speke's personality today it is hard to imagine anyone taking his idee fixe very serious. Speke, among other things, was uninterested in traditional African ways of life. He was shocked by the near nudity of African women and he deployed both African and Arab polygamy. And neither was he fond of Africans. Once at the court of King (Kabaka) Mutesa I of Buganda in Uganda he was decidedly taken aback when offered as wives two (Mu) Ganda girls who were daughters of the Queen mother. He recoiled in horror and was “staggered at first by this awful proposal.”
Once again science was to give a lasting legitimacy to Hamite myth; something which Victorian and Edwardian audiences in their living rooms of metropolitan Europe happily consumed as serious scientific doctrine.
British anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligman, dubbed the “great guru of Africa racial theories between the two world wars”, was one such scientist. He was holder of the first Chair in ethnology at London University. Seligman or ‘Sligs’ as friends knew him, was perhaps the most influential proponent of the of the Hamites superiority myth. In his book RACES OF AFRICA, first published in 1920 (and praised by his publishers…“It is an index of his scholarship and expertise in all fields of anthropology…”) Seligman laid out his beliefs that:
“the incoming hamites were pastoral Caucasoids- arriving in wave after wave - better armed as well as quicker-witted than the dark agricultural Negroes”
Indeed, the Hamites were claimed to have a ‘white morphology’ that originated from Caucasoid (Europeans). It was surmised (a gigantic leap of faith really) that their migration into Africa was an ancient one and that they interbreed with the ‘Negroes’ whom they ‘civilized’ and helped to develop.
But the Hamite Hypothesis revealed one of the great biases of 19th and early 20th century western thought. The belief was that any remarkable discoveries made on the African continent were seen not as indigenous creations, but as the work of light-skinned foreigners from outside the African continent. The Hamite hypothesis was just one example in an endless chain of, what can only be described as, and Euro-centric, arrogant and frankly racist interpretations of African history. No thought was given to the fact institutions such as kingship or the development of ancient civilizations and their artistic expression could have independently arisen on the African continent without the slightest hint of external (European) origins.
In Rwanda the Hamite Hypothesis was an essential component in the creation of ethnicity ideology. It was part and parcel of the fictionalization of ethnic identities, which developed under Belgian colonial rule. This ideology claimed that the Tutsi mi
nority was vastly superior of their Hutu brethren. A curious assertion in my opinion, since from an economic perspective alone isn’t agriculture a more advanced and revolutionary mode of subsistence (pardon the anthropological jargon) than cattle keeping? And from a socio-economic perspective the two groups needed each other. As author John Readers observes: “No pastoral society could survive for any great length of time without access to agricultural produce”
Naturally differences between the two communities existed but the European colonialists, doing their black magic, created the illusion that these ethnic identities were fixed in geographic space and historical time when, in fact, they were not. The words Hutu and Tutsi were occupational categories as much as they would become ethnic labels. So to see what happened a mere decade ago a tribal pogrom is a gross oversimplification of a complex history and to some extent the success of colonial hocus pocus and mischief-making
In her paper “Origins of Power and Identity in Rwanda” Lee Ann Fujii writes:
“Applied to the highly ordered and complex society found in Rwanda, the Hamitic Hypothesis bore much explanatory fruit. The natural superiority of the ruling race indicated that the Tutsi had descended from a different people than the dumber, lazier Hutu, and had probably migrated to the region from the north, presumably Ethiopia”
“Certain physical characteristics that distinguished many Tutsi from most Hutu such as the Tutsi’s taller, leaner builds, thinner noses and lighter-colored skin, provided the physical evidence confirming the Hamitic view.”
But the physical characteristics and cultural practices that the 19th century explorers observed were unique and peculiar to members of the royal court, who made up no more than 10% of all Tutsi in Rwanda.
Professor Jan Vansina’s essay L’Evolution du royaume Rwanda des origins a 1900, which he wrote in 1962, challenged and debunked Rwanda’s Hamitic history. By 1966, Joseph Greenberg, the eminent American linguist, was already calling for the abandonment of the conquering Hamite stereotype.
The French historian/political scientist Gerard Prunier has summed up for us the dangerous legacies of the Hamite hypothesis in his illuminating volume on the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.
“Firstly, it conditioned deeply and durably the views and attitudes of the Europeans regarding people like the Banyankole, they were dealing with. Secondly, it became a kind of ‘unquestioned scientific canon’ which actually governed the decisions made by the German and even more so the Belgian colonial authorities. Thirdly, it had a massive impact on the natives themselves.”
“The result of this heavy bombardment with highly value-laden stereotypes for some sixty years ended by inflating the Bahima/Tutsi cultural ego inordinately and crushing Bairu/Bahutu feelings until they coalesced into an aggressively resentful inferiority complex. If we combine these subjective feelings with the objective political and administrative decisions of the colonial authorities favouring one group over the other, we can begin to see how a very dangerous [my emphasis] social [time] bomb was almost absent-mindedly manufactured throughout the peaceful years of European domination”
But alas the Hamite hypothesis, what the late great historian Basil Davidson has termed yet another ‘white illusion’, was a great myth. A grand fairytale made elaborate by European missionaries and explorers harboring literary, anthropological and imperialistic ambitions; by prejudicial scientists attempting to give intellectual legitimacy to a racist myth. And by colonial administrators who incorporated it into colonial policy in their never-ending effort to divide and rule.