Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2009
The anthropological and historical literature dealing with Africa abounds with references to a people called the ‘Hamites’. ‘Hamite’, as used in these writings, designates an African population supposedly distinguished by its race— Caucasian—and its language family, from the Negro inhabitants of the rest of Africa below the Sahara.
There exists a widely held belief in the Western world that everything of value ever found in Africa was brought there by these Hamites, a people inherently superior to the native populations. This belief, often referred to as the Hamitic hypothesis, is a convenient explanation for all the signs of civilization found in Black Africa. It was these Caucasoids, we read, who taught the Negro how to manufacture iron and who were so politically sophisticated that they organized the conquered territories into highly complex states with themselves as the ruling elites. This hypothesis was preceded by another elaborate Hamitic theory. The earlier theory, which gained currency in the sixteenth century, was that the Hamites were black savages, ‘natural slaves’—and Negroes. This identification of the Hamite with the Negro, a view which persisted throughout the eighteenth century, served as a rationale for slavery, using Biblical interpretations in support of its tenets. The image of the Negro deteriorated in direct proportion to the growth of the importance of slavery, and it became imperative for the white man to exclude the Negro from the brotherhood of races. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 became the historical catalyst that provided the Western World with the impetus to turn the Hamite into a Caucasian.
2 Seligman, C. G., Races of Africa (1930), 96. All subsequent editions make the same statement (1957, 1966).Google Scholar
7 For instance, the Italian philosopher Campanella and a Mr Mede who was cited by seventeenth-century authors (see below) but whose own writings I was unable to find.
10 Pagitt, E., Heresiography or a Description of the Hereticks, printed by , W.W. for Lee, W. (London, 1646).Google Scholar
12 Cited by Bendyshe, T., The History of Anthropology: Memoir read before the Anthropological Society of London I (1863–1864), 377.Google Scholar
13 Some of the outstanding monogenists were Linnaeus, Buffon and Blumenbach. Some outstanding polygenists were Voltaire, Lord Kames and Charles White an English physician and author of An Account of the Regular Gradations in Man and in Different Animals (London, 1779).Google Scholar
14 Lord Bolingbroke, an English friend of Voltaire, attempted a different interpretation of Genesis which was answered by a book by Robert Clayton, Bishop of Clough, entitled A Vindication of the Histories of Old and New Testament, in 1753.
15 For instance, the Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith, a professor at Princeton, then called College of New Jersey, an institution founded in 1746 to train Presbyterian ministers. He wrote An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion (Philadelphia, 1787).Google Scholar
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21 The arguments presented here are those of W. O. Browne, a British traveller to Egypt, who was representative of this type of thinking; he was one of the first to have his ideas published. These ideas contained the seeds of the new Hamitic myth that was to emerge in the very near future. Browne, W. O., Travels in Africa, Egypt and Syria (London, 1806).Google Scholar
24 It was the same doubt which had been formulated by Lord Bolingbroke 100 years before. But now the doubt was general, and the answer much different from that given by Bishop Clayton.
26 Samuel, George Morton, American physician and professor of anatomy, author of several books on the human crania, such as Crania Americana and Crania Egyptica (1844).Google Scholar
27 Josiah, Clark Nott, an American scientist and collaborator with Gliddon on Types of Mankind (1854).Google Scholar
28 George R. Gliddon, an American vice-consul in Cairo and an admirer of Dr Morton, whom he supplied with Egyptian skulls.
32 With respect to the role played by such theories in English colonial expansion see Sanderson, E., Africa in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1898);Google ScholarLugard, F. D., The Rise of our East African Empire (Edinburgh, 1898);Google ScholarScott Keltie, J., Partition of Africa (London, 1895);Google ScholarLanger, W. L., The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890–1902 (New York, 1935).Google Scholar
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