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 Hamitic hypothesis is well-known to students of Africa. It states that everything of value ever found in Africa was brought there by the Hamites, allegedly a branch of the Caucasian race.

Explorers such David Livingstone and John Hanning 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….(1)

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.(2)

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.”(3)

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 popular What 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.(4)

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.”(5)

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.

The Hamitic concept thus had as its function the portrayal of the Negro as an inherently inferior being and to rationalize his exploitation. In the final analysis, it was possible because its changing aspects were supported by the prevailing intellectual viewpoints of the times.

German officials and colonists in Rwanda incorporated these theories into their native policies. The Germans believed the Tutsi ruling class was racially superior to the other native peoples of Rwanda because of their alleged "Hamitic" origins on the Horn of Africa, which they believed made them more "European" than the Hutu. The colonists, including powerful Roman Catholic officials, favored the Tutsis because of their taller stature, more "honorable and eloquent" personalities, and willingness to convert to Roman Catholicism, the colonist. The Germans favored Tutsi dominance over the farming Hutus (almost in a feudalistic manner) and granted them a basic ruling position. These positions eventually turned into the overall governing body of Rwanda.


Taking it a step further, the Belgian period

In 1919, as part of the Versailles Treaty, Rwanda was awarded to Belgium as a League of Nations trust territory.

Continuing where the German colonialists left of Belgian missionaries reaffirmed the racial superiority with the teaching of Tutsi divinity and by denying Hutus’ access to higher forms of education. Mgr. Léon Classe oversaw the majority of racially segregated policies. But going a step further, he separated the Tutsi from the Hutu population in schools and created a two-tiered education system. The Hutu tier received a more simplistic education focused on mining and farming, while the church exposed the Tutsi to a more intensive education, geared towards colonial administration.

As Edith R.Sanders described, 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.(6)

According to Augustin Mvuyekure, missionary discourse and the Belgian administration “ossified” Hutu and Tutsi “socio-professional categories” into fixed categories of race and ethnicity, thereby laying the foundation for future ethnic violence. (7)

In 1933 the Belgian rulers then 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—and they locked all Hutus into blue-collar jobs.

In fact, these reforms went so far as to reshape the governmental structure over each hill.

Under the previous Rwandese system, three types of chiefs governed the land, but these reforms consolidated all three positions into one, thus making tax collecting easier and lessening corruption. The Belgian administration also passed legislation that determined that the state held all land, regardless if Hutu lived on it.(8)

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.

Education also played an ever-growing role in Belgian occupation, for example in 1920 Rwanda had 123 schools and 6,000 students, but by 1948, they had 1,618 schools with 142,652 students—and in 1957, it is estimated that a third of all children attended school.(9)

This worked against the colonial power though, as more Hutu learned of the Hamitic Hypothesis, the more they concluded that the Tutsi were outside invaders who -took the Hutu’s land. Subverting their role of inferiority in society, “Hutuness” as an idea found itself rapidly adopted by the oppressed Hutus.

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 before 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.

And when seen as racially superior by Belgian officials, Tutsi youth were 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” (10). 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 (11).   

Here, the hypothesis fulfilled two purposes. First, ethnocultural Hutu-nationalist propaganda aimed at the systematic social exclusion or outright elimination of the Tutsi to create a pure Hutu nation. (12) Distinguishing between the two objectives is a matter of degree. While the first theory emphasizes socioeconomic 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 before 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. Belgium's 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 (13). “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” (14). 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 (15). The specter of the “evil Hamite” was haunting the region again, but this time fiction merged with fact, and whether it was the “killing fields” of 1972 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!” (16). 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 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 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” (17) 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 Hamitic hypothesis influenced the extremist Tutsi as well. Before 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 de-favourized group” (2001, 57).

Thus following the fall of the colonial period of Rwanda, instability became the norm. In the wake of the Hutu revolution, countless Tutsis fled to the neighboring country’s hills to live in refugee camps for more than thirty years. Europeans provided aid, along with the US in supporting the refugees, but the world media elected to focus on cold war politics instead of attempting to understand the complications within this refugee crisis. Many of the Tutsis began to radicalize their host populations, notably leading to what some have deemed as a genocide in Burundi in the 1970s. The refugee situation only became more precarious with the Tutsi refugee population propping up a new leader in Uganda, one who supported the right of the Tutsis to go back to their homeland. Born from Uganda’s successful coup was the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the military arm that represented the Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan genocide. After a failed coup in 1990, they struck a peace agreement in 1993 allowing for the peaceful re-entry of refugees into Rwanda. However, splinter factions of the Hutu army—disaffected with the refugees and planning a genocide—shot down the then president of Rwandan’s plane killing him and starting a 100-day genocide.

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.

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.


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

2) 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.)

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

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

5) Ibid., 340.

6) 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.

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

8) This aided the Tutsi led government in their destruction of countless Hutu landholding, and subsequent occupation of their land. The Hutu population, however, did not forget this as 1959 revolutions unfolded many Hutu burned down Tutsi houses. Gerard Prunier, The Rwandan Crisis: History of a Genocide(New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) 27-28.

9) Mary T. Duarte, “Education in Ruanda-Urundi, 1946-61,” The Historian 57, no. 5 (December, 1995): 275-84.-----took the Hutu’s land. Subverting their role of inferiority in society, “Hutuness” as an idea found itself rapidly adopted by the oppressed Hutus.

10) 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.

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

12) 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.

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

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

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

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

17) 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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