Hamitic race

Hamitic race

Hamitic is an historical term for the peoples supposedly descended from Noah's son Ham, paralleling Semitic and Japhetic. It was formerly used for the Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) languages of the Berber, Cushitic and Egyptian branches. However, since, unlike Semitic, these branches have not been shown to form an exclusive (monophyletic) phylogenetic unit on their own separate from other Afro-Asiatic languages, the term is obsolete in this sense. Each of these branches is instead now regarded as an independent sub-group of the larger Afro-Asiatic family.

In the 19th century, as an application of "scientific racism", Europeans classified the "Hamitic race" as a sub-group of the Caucasian race, alongside the Semitic race, grouping the non-Semitic populations native to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and South Arabia, including the Ancient Egyptians. According to their Hamitic theory, this "Hamitic race" was superior to or more advanced than Negroid populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. In its most extreme form, in the writings of C. G. Seligman, it asserted that all significant achievements in African history were the work of "Hamites" who migrated into central Africa as pastoralists, bringing technologies and civilizing skills with them. In the early twentieth century, theoretical models of Hamitic languages and of Hamitic races were intertwined.

Hamitic race

Concept of the Curse of Ham

The term Hamitic originally referred to the peoples said to be descended from Ham, one of the Sons of Noah. According to the Book of Genesis, after Noah became drunk and Ham dishonored his father, upon awakening Noah pronounced a curse on Ham's youngest son Canaan, stating that his offspring would be "servants of servants". Of Ham's four sons, Canaan fathered the Canaanites, while Mizraim fathered the Egyptians, Cush the Cushites, and Phut the Libyans.[1]

During the Middle Ages, Ham was considered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be the ancestor of all Africans. Noah's curse on Canaan as described in Genesis began to be misinterpreted by some scholastic leaders in Europe as having caused visible racial characteristics in all of Ham's offspring, notably black skin. According to Edith Sanders, the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud states that "the descendants of Ham are cursed by being Black and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates."[2] Arab slave traders used the account of Noah and Ham in the Bible to justify African slavery, and later European and American slave traders adopted a similar argument.[2][3]

The Bible says Noah restricted his curse to the offspring of Ham's youngest son Canaan, whose descendants occupied the Levant, and it was not extended to Ham's other sons who populated Africa. According to Edith Sanders, 18th-century theologians increasingly emphasized this narrow restriction and accurate interpretation of the passage as applying to Canaan's offspring. They rejected the "curse" as a justification for slavery.[2]

Hamitic hypothesis

Many versions of this perspective on African history have been proposed, and "applied" (via colonialism) to different parts of the continent. The essays below focus on the development of these ideas regarding the peoples of North, East and Southeast Africa. However, Hamitic hypotheses operated in West Africa as well, and they changed greatly over time.[4]

In the mid-19th century, the term Hamitic acquired a new meaning as a few European writers claimed to identify a distinct "Hamitic race" that was superior to "Negroid" populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. The theory arose from early anthropological writers, who linked the stories in the Bible of Ham's sons to actual ancient migrations of a supposed Middle-Eastern sub-group of the Caucasian race.[2] The theory that this group migrated further south was introduced by British explorer John Hanning Speke, in his publications on his search for the source of the Nile River.[2] Speke believed that his explorations uncovered the link between "civilized" North Africa and "barbaric" central Africa. Describing the Ugandan Kingdom of Buganda, he argued its "barbaric civilization" had arisen from a nomadic pastoralist race who migrated from the north and was related to the Hamitic Oromo people of Ethiopia (known as the "Galla" to Speke).[2] In a section of his book entitled "Theory of Conquest of Inferior by Superior Races", Speke wrote:

"It appears impossible to believe, judging from the physical appearance of the Wahuma [Tutsi], that they can be of any other race than the semi-Shem-Hamitic of Ethiopia... Most people appear to regard the Abyssinians as a different race from the Gallas, but, I believe, without foundation. Both alike are Christians of the greatest antiquity.... [They] fought in the Somali country, subjugated that land, were defeated to a certain extent by the Arabs from the opposite continent, and tried their hands south as far as the Jub river, where they also left many of their numbers behind. Again they attacked Omwita (the present Mombas), were repulsed, were lost sight of in the interior of the continent, and, crossing the Nile close to its source, discovered the rich pasture-lands of Unyoro, and founded the great kingdom of Kittara, where they lost their religion, forgot their language, extracted their lower incisors like the natives, changed their national name to Wahuma, and no longer remembered the names of Hubshi or Galla--though even the present reigning kings retain a singular traditional account of their having once been half white and half black, with hair on the white side straight, and on the black side frizzly."[5]

These ideas under color of "science" provided the basis for Europeans' asserting that the Tutsi were superior to the Hutu. In spite of both groups being Bantu-speaking, the Tutsi were classed as "Hamitic" on grounds of their being deemed to be more Caucasoid in their facial features. Later writers followed Speke in arguing that the Tutsis had originally migrated as pastoralists and had established themselves as the dominant group, having lost their language as they assimilated to Bantu culture.[6]


Later scholars expanded on these ideas; the most influential was the Italian race theorist Giuseppe Sergi. In his book The Mediterranean Race (1901) Sergi argued that there was a distinct Hamitic racial group which could be divided into two sub-groups: the northern Hamites, which comprised Berbers, Toubou, Fulani and the Guanches; the Eastern branch, which comprised Egyptians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Oromo, Somali, and Tutsis.[7] Some of these groups had "lost their language" and so had to be identified by physical characteristics. In Sergi's theory, the Mediterraneans were the "greatest race in the world", and had expanded north and south from the Horn of Africa, creating superior civilizations.[2][8] Sergi described the original European peoples as "Eurafricans". The ancient Greeks and Italians were born from "Afro-Mediterraneans" who migrated from western Asia and had originally spoken a Hamitic language before the advent of Indo-European languages.[8]


The Hamitic hypothesis reached its apogee in the work of C. G. Seligman, who argued in his book The Races of Africa (1930) that:

"Apart from relatively late Semitic influence...the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites, its history is the record of these peoples and of their interaction with the two other African stocks, the Negro and the Bushmen, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or by such wider pastoralists as are represented at the present day by the Beja and Somali....The incoming Hamites were pastoral 'Europeans' - arriving wave after wave - better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes."[2][9]

Seligman asserted that the Negro race was essentially static and agricultural, but that the wandering Hamitic "pastoral Caucasians" had introduced most of the advanced features found in central African cultures, including metal working, irrigation and complex social structures.[2][10]

Despite criticism, Seligman's thesis remained unchanged in new editions of his book into the 1960s.


Seligman and other early scholars also believed that invading Hamites from North Africa and the Horn of Africa had mixed with local Negro women in East Africa and parts of Central Africa to produce several hybrid "Negro-Hamitic" populations, such as the Tutsi and the Maasai:

"At first the Hamites, or at least their aristocracy, would endeavour to marry Hamitic women, but it cannot have been long before a series of peoples combining Negro and Hamitic blood arose; these, superior to the pure Negro, would be regarded as inferior to the next incoming wave of Hamites and be pushed further inland to play the part of an incoming aristocracy vis-a-vis the Negroes on whom they impinged... The end result of one series of such combinations is to be seen in the Masai [sic], the other in the Baganda, while an even more striking result is offered by the symbiosis of the Bahima of Ankole and the Bahera [sic]."[10]

In the African Great Lakes region, the various migration theories of Hamitic provenance were in part inspired by the long-held oral traditions of local populations like the Tutsi and Hima (Bahima or Wahuma). These groups asserted that their founders were "white" migrants from the north (interpreted as the Horn of Africa and/or North Africa), who subsequently "lost" their original language, culture and much of their physiognomy as they intermarried with the local Bantus. The British explorer John Hanning Speke recorded one such account from a Wahuma governor in his book Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile.[11] According to Augustus Henry Keane, the Wahuma king M'tesa also claimed Oromo (Galla) ancestors and still reportedly spoke a Hamito-Semitic Oromo language as a mother tongue, though such speech had long since died out elsewhere in the region. The original Hamitic migrants to the Great Lakes were thus said to have "gradually blended with the aborigines in a new and superior nationality of Bantu speech."[12]

While some scholars accepted the idea of Sub-Saharan tribes like the Tutsi and the Maasai being Negro-Hamites, others such as John Walter Gregory emphasized that the putative Hamitic element in these peoples was at best minimal and consequently assigned them to a sub-group within the Negro race (where they had historically been classified). Citing the considerable physical disparity between the ethnic groups traditionally considered Hamites and the aforementioned "Negro-Hamites", Gregory wrote:

"By some authorities the Masai are included in the Hamitic group, but we have only to compare the features of a member of this tribe with those of a Galla... to realise the predominance of the negro element in the former. The aspect of the pure Hamite differs altogether from those of the Bantu and Negroid races. The... portrait of a Galla presents no correspondence with the conception usually formed of an African native. The forehead is high and square instead of low and receding; the nose is narrow, with the nostrils straight and not transverse; the chin is small and slightly pointed instead of massive and protruding; the hair is long and not woolly; the lips are thinner than those of the negro and not everted; the expression is intellectual, and indicates a type of mind higher than that of the simple negro. Indeed, except for the colour, it could hardly be distinguished from the face of a European. These characteristics prepare us for the fact that the Galla are not African, but immigrants from Asia."[13]

Great Lakes

The Hamitic hypothesis affected the policies of European imperial powers in the twentieth century. In Rwanda, it was linked to the German and Belgian preferential attitudes to the Tutsis over the Hutu during the colonial period of rule. Some scholars believe this colonial bias was a significant factor contributing to the Rwandan genocide by the Hutus in 1994.[14]

The League of Nations Mandate of 1916 appointed Belgium to govern Rwanda after Germany's defeat in World War I; Philip Gourevitch claims that “the terms Hutu and Tutsi had become clearly defined opposing “ethnic” identities, and the Belgians made this polarization the cornerstone of their colonial policy.”[15] Belgian officials measured numerous Rwandans to define traits among the various tribes; they used the differences to justify the Tutsis' majority of control throughout the country.

They defined racial differences between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples, differences which would impose a wholly inflexible ceiling on those classified as Hutu, rather than one that varied with social status.[16]

Scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani suggested that the Hutu began to view the Tutsi as outside invaders to their land, as "aliens" and usurpers, and that this led, in the end, to genocide. He states that reforms of local government by the Belgian colonial rulers in the 1920s led to a situation in which the Hutus "were not ruled by their own chiefs but by Tutsi chiefs. The same reforms constructed the Tutsi into a different race: the Hamitic race."[17] A major contributing force to the animosity between Hutu and Tutsi is derived from Spekes’ “Hamitic hypothesis”. Namely the notion that since the Tutsi were considered the Hamitic race, "the Hutu could frame the Tutsis as foreign invaders, as by definition, the Hamitic race is synonymous with a settling identity."[17]

Following World War II, Belgium’s colonial administration had been placed under United Nations trusteeship; it was to prepare Rwanda for eventual independence as a self-governing nation. Hutu political activists emerged in great numbers and exploited this as an opportunity to rally the masses to unite in their "Hutuness," as this was their chance to finally gain power after decades of oppression.[15] This philosophy, coupled with other political incidents, led to the social revolution of 1959 when Hutus killed ten thousand Tutsis, predominantly those within the political structure, and displaced thousands more from their homes. What followed was essentially a racial and ethnic hierarchy similar in most respects to that of one year prior; however, the roles were simply reversed – Hutu dominated the institutions and established discrimination against Tutsi in education, the civil service and armed forces.[16]

This creation of an artificial racial caste was unique to Rwanda and Burundi. While other ethnic groups outside Rwanda, such as the Bahima, were also identified by Europeans as "Hamites", they were not given institutionalised superior status. "Only in Rwanda and Burundi did the Hamitic hypothesis become the basis of a series of institutional changes that fixed the Tutsi as a race in their relationship to the colonial state."[17]

African-American views

African-American writers were initially ambivalent about the Hamitic hypothesis. Because Sergi's theory proposed that the superior Mediterranean race had originated in Africa, support for the Hamitic hypothesis could be used to challenge claims about the superiority of white Anglo-Saxons of the Nordic race, promoted by writers such as Madison Grant. According to Yaacov Shavit, this generated "radical Afrocentric theory, which followed the path of European racial doctrines". Writers who insisted that the Nordics were the purest representatives of the Aryan race encouraged "the transformation of the Hamitic race into the black race, and the resemblance it draws between the different branches of black forms in Asia and Africa."[18]

In response, historians published in the Journal of Negro History stressed the cross-fertilization of cultures between Africa and Europe: for instance, George Wells Parker adopted Sergi's view that the "civilizing" race had originated in Africa itself.[19] Similarly, black pride groups adopted the concept of Hamitic identity. Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in 1917 to

"inspire the Negro with new hopes; to make him openly proud of his race and of its great contributions to the religious development and civilization of mankind." He wrote, "fifty years ago one would not have dreamed that science would defend the fact that Asia was the home of the black races as well as Africa, yet it has done just that thing."[20]

These ideas evolved into the concept of the "Asiatic Blackman" in the theories of Timothy Drew and Elijah Muhammad.[21] Many other authors followed the argument that civilization had originated in Hamitic Ethiopia, a view that became intermingled with biblical imagery. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (1920) believed that Ethiopians were the "mother race". The Nation of Islam asserted that the superior black race originated with the lost Tribe of Shabazz, which originally possessed "fine features and straight hair", but which migrated into central Africa, lost its religion, and declined into a barbaric "jungle life".[18][22][23]

But, writers who supported a Pan-African view of the unity of black African peoples considered the Hamitic hypothesis to be divisive, since it asserted that superior Africans were not Negroid. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that "the term Hamite under which millions of Negroes have been characteristically transferred to the white race by some eager scientists" was a tool to create "false writing on Africa".[24]

Hamitic language family

These racial theories were developing alongside models of language. The term "Hamitic" was used for the first time in connection with languages by the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf (1810–1881), but in the traditional biblical sense to refer to all languages of Africa spoken by African people deemed "black".

Friedrich Müller named the traditional Hamito-Semitic family in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft, and defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. It was the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884) who restricted Hamitic to the non-Semitic languages in Africa, which are characterized by a grammatical gender system. This "Hamitic language group" was proposed to unite various, mainly North-African, languages, including the Ancient Egyptian language, the Berber languages, the Cushitic languages, the Beja language, and the Chadic languages. Unlike Müller, Lepsius considered that Hausa and Nama were part of the Hamitic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments. Both authors used the skin-color, mode of subsistence, and other characteristics of native speakers as part of their arguments that particular languages should be grouped together.[25]

In 1912, Carl Meinhof published Die Sprachen der Hamiten (The Languages of the Hamites) in which he expanded Lepsius's model, adding the Fula, Maasai, Bari, Nandi, Sandawe and Hadza languages to the Hamitic group. Meinhof's model was widely supported into the 1940s.[25] Meinhof's system of classification of the Hamitic languages was based on a belief that "speakers of Hamitic became largely coterminous with cattle herding peoples with essentially Caucasian origins, intrinsically different from and superior to the 'Negroes of Africa'."[26] But, in the case of the so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages (a concept he introduced), it was based on the typological feature of gender and a "fallacious theory of language mixture." Meinhof did this although earlier work by scholars such as Lepsius and Johnston had substantiated that the languages which he would later dub "Nilo-Hamitic" were in fact Nilotic languages, with numerous similarities in vocabulary to other Nilotic languages.[27]

Leo Reinisch (1909) already proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic, while urging their more distant affinity with Egyptian and Semitic, but his suggestion found little acceptance. Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct "Hamitic" subgroup, and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary. Finally, Joseph Greenberg's 1950 work led to the widespread rejection of "Hamitic" as a language category by linguists. Greenberg refuted Meinhof's linguistic theories, and rejected the use of racial and social evidence. In dismissing the notion of a separate "Nilo-Hamitic" language category in particular, Greenberg was "returning to a view widely held a half century earlier." He consequently rejoined Meinhof's so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages with their appropriate Nilotic siblings.[27] He also added (and sub-classified) the Chadic languages, and proposed the new name Afroasiatic for the family. Almost all scholars have accepted this classification as the new and continued consensus.

Greenberg's model was fully developed in his book The Languages of Africa (1963), in which he reassigned most of Meinhof's additions to Hamitic to other language families, notably Nilo-Saharan. Following Isaac Schapera and rejecting Meinhof, he classified the Hottentot language as a member of the Central Khoisan languages. To Khoisan he also added the Tanzanian Hadza and Sandawe, though this view remains controversial since some scholars consider these languages to be linguistic isolates.[28][29] Despite this, Greenberg's model remains the basis for modern classifications of languages spoken in Africa in which the Hamitic category (and its extension to Nilo-Hamitic) plays no part.[29]

See also