The Hamitic theory of race and the role it played in the Rwandan Genocide

The 1994 Rwandan genocide changed the way in which we think genocide occurs because it encompassed hatreds that rested on colonial resentments, revenge massacres since 1962, assassinations of political elites, gender, and reproduction, and as we shall see, explicit racial mystifications.


The origins of the Hamitic theory of race

The vast majority of authors who discuss Rwanda find the need to key in on the pervasive effect that foreign occupation maintained over the history of the Great Lakes region, yet almost all fall short of distinguishing exactly how they did. Most experts succumb to the temptation of fast-forwarding to the climax of confrontation—the Rwandan Genocide. In this abridged version of history, scholars overlook the colonial construction of history that shaped Rwanda’s genocide. This has led many to argue with an anachronistic understanding of ethnic constructions. This allurement leads to underestimation or oversimplification of the Hamitic Hypothesis and the development of racial hierarchy within Rwanda. Not jumping to genocide and focusing the majority of resources on the development of ethnicity in Rwanda, deconstructs the old picture of Rwandans and rebuilds them in a post-colonial mindset.

It is important to have a true grasp of the Hamitic Hypothesis to understand Rwandan history. Fueled by the romantic stories of myth and legend that provided the motivation to brave the unknown terrain in the heart of Africa, explorers in the area leaned on the Christian stories of the lost tribe of the Hamites. The Hamites derived from the story of Noah’s Ark, where Noah tasks his sons Shem, Japheth, and Ham with repopulating the areas where the flood left barren. Ham, whom Noah sends to Africa, inadvertently sees his father naked, and Noah retaliates by cursing Ham’s son Canaan to be "a servant of servants."(Gn 9:20-27; 10:6.) Because this story purports that Canaan is the genetic root of all Africans and his progeny was predetermined to be slaves, it becomes crucial in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when those searching for justification for slavery found their answer in the word of God. When this hypothesis met enlightenment principles, Europeans began reclassifying Egyptians as white due to advancements in civilization, and this hypothesis took on another idea—that Hamites came from Egypt, or in this case a country of Caucasians.

As one prominent scholar who supported this idea, C. G. Seligman wrote in his 1930 Races of Africa, “…the civilizations of Africa are the civilization of the Hamites, its history the record of these peoples and of their interactions with the two other African stocks, the Negro and the Bushman, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or by such wider pastoralists as are represented at the present day…The incoming Hamites were pastoral ‘Europeans’—arriving wave after wave—better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes.”(2)

He believed, with many others, that all African achievements derived from Hamitic influence within Africa.Many explorers/colonists believed this without question. Explorers such as Speke stoked the ideas of Hamitic superiority:

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, [Uganda, northern Tanzania, eastern Congo, Rwanda and Burundi] 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….(3)

Most scholars believe that Europeans and Africans constructed the idea of the kingdom of Kittara. Africans did so to propagate local religions and to justify expansion, while Europeans utilized it as a powerful tool for reconstructing Hamitic migration patterns.(4)

Regardless of the validity of the migration patterns, Speke completely bought into the idea of whites living in Africa with his most powerful claim: “[T]hough even the present reigning kings [in the Kittara area] 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)

Speke purportedly heard royalty claim their whiteness. Despite the claim being highly suspect, it reveals several conclusions about the mindset of the first explorer to write about Rwanda. First, it shows that Speke believed that several monarchs in eastern Africa understood their ethnic heritage, and second they realized to an extent their royalty arose out of their whiteness. This was not a mere off the cuff remark, though, as Speke doubled down these claims in his less popularWhat Led to the Discovery of the Nile released later the same year as his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. In fact, he quotes himself to reiterate his belief in the greatness of the Wahuma.(6)

He also reveals his fondness of the Christian based portions of the Hamitic Hypothesis, in stating his “empathy” towards Negroid races, he opines, “I accounted for their cruel destiny in being the slaves of all men…by the common order of nature, they, being the weakest, had to succumb to their superiors, the Japhetic and Semitic branches of the family.”(7)

Perhaps if Speke had not spoken of “Ruanda” as a country cut off from the rest of Africa, speculation surrounding the country would have dissipated. Instead, the inconclusive attempts to find the head of the Nile conjoined with one of the last portions of central Africa to welcome explorers caused the colonial imagination to run wild. Additionally, the explorers for an unknown reason refused to remain critical of the local guides and Arab traders when it came to information surrounding Rwanda. It may have been the hope of naïve explorers that Rwanda truly could have been the answer that they were all searching for, but it may have also been their denial that any African kingdom possessed the mental and militaristic fortitude to hold Europeans at bay. Unfortunately, the reasons can only be speculated now, but more important to the overall history of Rwanda is how those colonial powers acted with differing sets of knowledge. As Germany and Belgium reconciled between the imagined character of the Rwandans and the true people who inhabited the region, they began setting the condition for their imagined character to reign supreme. Ultimately, with the colonial powers acceptance of their constructed knowledge, they established the precedent of tension between the Tutsi and Hutu population during their imperial tenure.


Taking it a step further, the Belgian period

According to Augustin Mvuyekure, missionary discourse and the Belgian administration “ossied” Hutu and Tutsi “socio-professional categories” into xed categories of race and ethnicity, thereby laying the foundation for future ethnic violence. (8)

Interestingly, historical accounts of Rwanda written after 1994 carefully avoid stating the origin of the Tutsi. This is largely because early European anthropologists, carrying with them their Eurocentric racism, believed that the Tutsi were the descendants of the Biblical Ham, a race closer to Europeans than the Bantu Hutus. With their stereotypical tall, thin features, as opposed to the "short and stocky" Hutu, Tutsi were seen by the Europeans as being a superior race.

Current writers on the Rwandan situation argue that it is this “Hamite myth”, based on the origin of the Tutsi, which has played a significant role in influencing ethnic division and even genocide. Thus, writers after 1994 have more to say on the danger of the “Hamitic hypothesis”, as Christopher C.Taylor terms it in his seminal study  “Sacrifice as terror: The Rwandan genocide of 1994.” (9)

Finding in Rwanda a well-advanced, complex state structure, colonialists concluded that the reigning Tutsi monarchy could not be Hutu. From this came the further conclusion that in the hierarchy of superiority, Tutsi would rank just under the Europeans themselves, followed by the Hutu and under them the Twa. Along with this hypothesis was the implied racial separateness of Hutu and Tutsi. Although Hutu and Tutsi shared the same culture, language and religion, it was concluded that Tutsi must have infiltrated Rwanda from the north and subjugated the Hutu.

Thus the “White Fathers” and the Belgian administration concluded, on flimsy evidence based on the Hamitic race theory, that Tutsis and Hutus were of completely separate ethnic origin and that Tutsis were the Hutus' natural masters. This had a great impact including on Rwandans who attended colonial schools. According to the myth the colonialists propagated, Hamites were of “Caucasian” origin, were the agents of “civilization” in black Africa, and were lighter skinned.(10)

The colonialists identified Tutsis as the superior race, born to rule over the Hutu, who in turn were destined to be servants.(11)

So great was Rwandan respect for European education that this faulty history was accepted by the Hutu, who stood to suffer from it, as well as by the Tutsi who helped to create it and were bound to profit from it. People of both groups learned to think of the Tutsi as the winners and the Hutu as the losers in every great contest in Rwandan history.

Initially, as one influential Belgian colonial administrator, Pierre Ryckmans, wrote:

Among all the problems, one finds a major factor for progress: hierarchy; an authority that is orderly and strong enough to attain, with more or less efficacy, all the elements of social order [corps social] .... Since we need chiefs, let's make the most of the authority of those that exist; let us hasten to put them at our service.(12)

Tutsis, whose occupation was said to have been cattle keeping, thus were labeled descendants of the Aryan or Caucasoid race; and Hutus as cultivators were designated a Negroid or Bantu race. The colonialists decided, without of course bothering to consult them, that the former were "foreigners" from somewhere in the north of Africa and the latter the original inhabitants of the area.

But by assuring a Tutsi monopoly of power, the Belgians set the stage for future conflict in Rwanda. Although one could argue such was not their intent. They were not implementing a divide and rule strategy so much as they were just putting into effect their racist convictions.(13)

Enlisting the Tutsi as de facto rulers also allowed the Belgians to develop and exploit an enormous network of tea and coffee plantations without having to install a contingent of Belgians on the ground. The Belgians appreciated the natural orderliness of this so much that based on physical measurements (e.g. height and nose and skull sizes) they institutionalized the differences between Hutu and Tutsi in a series of administrative measures between 1926 and 1932.

In 1933 the Belgian rulers issued identity cards, dividing everyone as either Hutu or Tutsi. Anyone who owned ten cows was automatically designated a Tutsi so that the system was based more on caste than on ethnicity. Only Tutsi were worth educating, Hutu were too stupid to civil service jobs, also reserved for the Tutsi. The very act of recording the ethnic groups not only made them more important but fundamentally changed their character. The Hutu and Tutsi designations were no longer amorphous categories; instead, they became inflexible. Europeans began to refer to them as ethnic differences. The elite, the Tutsi, were the immediate beneficiaries, and they played that superiority to its best advantage.

Thus while Rwandan identity prior to colonialism was fluid but that with the onset of colonialism and the introduction of the Hamitic hypothesis identities became static and fixed which led to unimaginable violence. Prior to colonialism, ethnic identities tended to dynamically shift and merge into new conceptualizations. With colonialism, this natural development of identity was undermined as people were organized into either one or another single identity category.

The idea became a catalyst for the explosion of Hutu anger since it confirmed for those inclined to believe it that the Tutsi were foreign invaders. They were colonizers from outside empowered by the Europeans to repress them. In this way, the Hamitic hypothesis, as we will see, served to facilitate the violence of 1994.

Seen as racially superior by Belgian officials, Tutsi youth was given jobs within colonial administrations at the expense of Hutu men. The result was not only the creation of racial distinctions but social resentment between the two divisions within Rwandan society.

In 1959, violence between the Tutsi and Hutu erupted. Hutus overthrew Tutsi rule, declared an independent republic and elected the first Hutu president, Grégoire Kayibanda. Mass killings of Tutsis occurred during the transition to Hutu rule, hinting at things to come The Hutu-led government used the same system of racial oppression that existed during colonialism, except that now they were in control. Even though the Hutus had suffered from this identity classification, they kept it to use it against the Tutsi who had once used it against them.

The Hutu Parti du Mouvement de l'Emancipation Hutu (Parmehutu) thus sought to rid the country of “double colonialism”, both from Belgian and Tutsi rule. Both demands were formulated in the so-called “Bahutu Manifesto” of 1957. It stipulated that Tutsi-Hutu cleavages are the result of a ‘”political monopoly held by one race, the Mututsi, […] [which] "has become an economic and social monopoly” (14). The Hamitic Myth became the ideological basis for the 1959 Hutu Revolution that abolished the monarchy and turned Rwanda into a republic. As a result of the uprising, thousands of Tutsi were victimized and killed, being publicly vilified as “henchmen” of colonialism and proponents of “Hamitic-feudalist” rule (15).                                                                  

Here, the hypothesis fulfilled two purposes. First, ethno-cultural Hutu-nationalist propaganda aimed at the systematic social exclusion or outright elimination of the Tutsi in order to create a pure Hutu nation. (16) Distinguishing between the two objectives is a matter of degree. While the first theory emphasizes socio-economic balancing and a shift in power politics, the second adds an element of racial exclusives’ which produces a Hutu anxiety of incompleteness that requires the extermination of the Tutsi group.

Hintjens aptly notes that prior to colonialism, cross-cutting allegiances served to prevent the crystallization of anything akin to "ethnic" identities’ (2001, 28). Making race the master-signifier of belonging annulled those allegiances. Indigenous identities began to compete with an externally-imposed racial categorization.

On achieving independence in 1962, Rwanda’s internal cleavages further deepened. Belgiums’ strategic shift in favor of the Hutu opposition left the Tutsi isolated and vulnerable to extremist violence. During Grégoire Kayibanda ’s presidential years, structural discrimination and indoctrination against the Tutsi remained common practice (17). “Tutsification” of neighboring Burundi, after a successful military coup in 1965, further exacerbated anti-Tutsi sentiments and quickly revived the parlance of a “Hamitic plot” (18). Also the formation of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in their Ugandan exile nurtured resentments against a returning “master race” trying to reverse the 1959 Hutu revolution and re-imposing its supposedly “age-old” domination over Rwanda (19). The specter of the “evil Hamite” was haunting the region again, but this time fiction merged with actual fact, and whether it was the “killing fields” of 1972 (Lemarchand 1989) in neighboring Burundi, or the approaching “Tutsi army” of the RPF in 1990, reality seemed to evidence whatever “secret plot” the Tutsi were said to have made.

In 1992, Léon Mugesera, a staunch supporter of Rwandan President Habyarimana, revitalized this claim, inciting the country’s Hutu to commit genocide against the Tutsi who he deemed an embodiment of those nomadic invaders.

Echoes of the Hamitic hypothesis, and its accompanying stereotypes, were constantly heard during the genocide. An obvious reference to this was by the ruling party’s vice president, Dr Leon Mugesera, in 1992, when he said, “They [the accomplices of the RPF] belong to Ethiopia and we are going to find them a shortcut to get there by throwing them in the Nyabarongo river. I must insist on this point. We have to act. Wipe them all out!” (20). The two strong messages here – that the Tutsi are other and that they are from somewhere else – formed a central theme of the propaganda campaign. Coupled with this idea is the one of Hutus as being the original inhabitants of Rwanda, who were cruelly subjugated by Tutsi invaders. In the early 1990s MRND (the ruling party) supporters were often heard putting forward the following version of history:

 “We Hutu are Bantus. Although the Twa were here first, when we arrived we lived in peace with them. We cleared the land and farmed it. They made pots or hunted in the forests. The first kings in Rwanda were Hutu but the Tutsi say they were Tutsi. The Tutsi used their cattle to trick Hutu into doing their work for them. Then the Tutsi managed to conquer one Hutu kingdom. When the Europeans came, they helped the Tutsi conquer the rest of our lands” (Taylor, 2001, 83).

Also elsewhere did the Hamitic Hypothesis and the extraneous provenance of the Tutsi did feature in genocidal propaganda. For example, the January/February 1992 edition of Kangura Magazine claimed that a genocide of the “Bantu” had been planned and “consciously orchestrated by the Hamites, thirsty for blood” (21) Among the “enemies” identified in a memorandum of 21 September 1992, issued by Colonel De´ogratias Nsabimana (Chief of Staff of the Forces Arme´es Rwandaises) were the “Nilo-Hamitic people of the region’”( Des Forges, A. 1999, p. 63). The January 1994 edition of Kangura ,denounced the Tutsi as “invaders” who had “stolen the country” (Chre´tien et al., 1995,p. 118).

The Hamitic hypothesis influenced the extremist Tutsi as well. Prior to the genocide a supporter of the Rwandan Patriotic Front said to Taylor, “We Tutsi were once the nobles in this land and the Hutu were our slaves. Hutu do not have the intelligence to govern. Look at what they have done to this country in the last thirty years” (2001, 85) Taylor describes how Tutsi extremists have used the Hamitic hypothesis to claim intellectual superiority and Hutu extremists to insist upon the foreign origins of Tutsi, and the autochthony of Hutu. Both are reproducing a colonial pattern that “essentialists’ ethnic difference, justifies political domination by a single group, and nurtures a profound thirst for redress and vengeance on the part of the defavourized group” (2001, 57).

While rising tensions based on racial divisions and the oppression of some groups of people has set the stage for the horrific events that occurred in 1994, the stereotype of the Hutu as “poor peasant” and the Tutsi as “wealthy oligarch” also has very much contributed.

Giving historical precedents in general it can be said that the more fluid identity conceptions are, the less likely violence is to occur. Static, fixed identity categories that hold with them stereotyping on the other hand tend to be at the root of violence.

In the end the addition of fear and intra-ethnic intimidation became the primary drivers of the violence. A defensive civil war and the assassination of a president created a feeling of acute insecurity. Rwanda's unusually effective state was also central, as was the country's geography and population density, which limited the number of exit options for both victims and perpetrators.

The Hamitic hypothesis however formed a powerful part of the genocidal ideology and it has been difficult to leave behind. After the genocide, the Rwandan government needed to develop a new history, a new story to counter that of the extremist Hutu Power. The primary focus of the new government was to reinvent a Rwanda without ethnic categories. The presiding message of the new government was and still is, “There is no Hutu and Tutsi, there are only Rwandans”. Policies and laws have been put in place to help Rwandans move on from ethnic categories to a united Rwandan identity. (Des Forges, A. 1999.)

Today, there is the opportunity to allow for more helpful, unifying identities to emerge. Healthy identities develop not through insisting on fixed identity categories but through allowing multiple identities, such as ethnicity, family, clan and nationality to dynamically develop through dialogue and debate.


2) C. G. Seligman, Races of Africa (Oxford, GB: University Press, 1933), p. 96. In this book, Seligman more broadly focused on the alleged migration patterns throughout Africa. For a more refined look at the Eastern side of Africa see, H. H. Johnston, E. Torday, T. Athol Joyce and C. G. Seligman, “A Survey of Ethnography of Africa: And the Former Racial and Tribal Migration in That Continent,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 43 (July-December, 1913): 375-421.)

3) John Hanning Speke, The Discovery Of The Source Of The Nile p. 247.

4) Ndebesa Mwambutsya, “Pre-Capitalist Social Formation: The Case of The Banyankole of Southwestern Uganda” Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review 6, no. 2 (January, 1991): 78-82.)

5) Speke, The Discovery Of The Source Of The Nile, 247.

6) John Hanning Speke, What Led to the Discovery of the Nile (Edinburgh, GB: William, Blackwood, and Sons, 1864), pp.367-68.

7) Ibid., 340.

8) Father Augustin MvuyekureIdéologie Missionnaire et Classications Ethniques en Afrique”, in Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Gérard Prunier, eds., Les Etnies on une Histoire.Paris: Karthala,1989, 303-324).

9) Christopher C.Taylor, "Sacrifice as terror: The Rwandan genocide of 1994." Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001.

10) Edith R. Sanders, "The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective", The Journal of African History, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1969, pp. 521-532.

11) Jean-Pierre Chrétien, "Hutu et Tutsi au Rwanda et au Burundi, dans Au cœur de l'ethnie: ethnies, tribalisme et État en Afrique", Éditions la Découverte, Paris, 1985, p. 39.

12) Pierre Ryckmans, "Le Probleme politique au Ruanda-Urundi," Societe Belge d'e¬tudes et d'expansion 23, no. 49, 1925, 60.

13) On this see Des Forges, A. 1999. Leave none to tell the Story, New York: Human Rights Watch.

14) Maximilien Niyonzima et al. "Manifesto of the Bahutu: Note on the Social Aspect of the Indigenous Racial Problem in Ruanda", United Nations Visiting Mission 1957, Annex I.

15) Mahmood Mamdani “From Conquest to Consent as the Basis of State Formation: Reflections on Rwanda”, In: New Left Review, 1996, p. 12.

16) Helen M. Hintjens: "When identity becomes a knife: reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda", In: Ethnicities, 1 (1), 2001, p. 41 and Peter Gourevitch: "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families", (London: Picador) 2000, p.95.

17) Catharine Newbury: “Ethnicity and the Politics of History in Rwanda”, In: Africa Today, 45 (1), 1998, p. 13.

18) René Lemarchan: ”Burundi: The Killing Fields Revisited”, In: Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 18 (1),  1995,p. 60.

19) Rachel Van der Meeren: “Three Decades in Exile: Rwandan Refugees 1960-1990”, In: Journal of Refugee Studies, 9 (3),1996, p.259.

20) Alexander Laban Hinton (Editor), Kenneth Roth (Foreword) "Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide", University of California Press, 2002, p. 159.

21) Jean-Pierre Chretien, J.-F. Dupaquier, M. & Ngarambe J. Kabanda (Eds): "Rwanda: Les me ´ dias du genocide", Paris: E´ditions Karthala with Reporters sans Frontie`res, 1995, p. 169.



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