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Of Origins and Colonial Order: Southern Nigerian Historians and the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ c. 1870–19701

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Philip S. Zachernuk
York Univeristy, Ontario


The professional Nigerian nationalist historiography which emerged in reaction against the imperialist Hamitic Hypothesis – the assertion that Africa's history had been made only by foreigners – is rooted in a complex West African tradition of critical dialogue with European ideas. From the mid-nineteenth century, western-educated Africans have re-worked European ideas into distinctive Hamitic Hypotheses suited to their colonial location. This account developed within the constraints set by changing European and African-American ideas about West African origins and the evolving character of the Nigerian intelligentsia. West Africans first identified themselves not as victims of Hamitic invasion but as the degenerate heirs of classical civilizations, to establish their potential to create a modern, Christian society. At the turn of the century various authors argued for past development within West Africa rather than mere degeneration. Edward Blyden appropriated African-American thought to posit a distinct racial history. Samuel Johnson elaborated on Yoruba traditions of a golden age. Inter-war writers such as J. O. Lucas and Ladipo Solanke built on both arguments, but as race science declined they again invoked universal historical patterns. Facing the arrival of Nigeria as a nation-state, later writers such as S. O. Biobaku developed these ideas to argue that Hamitic invasions had created Nigeria's proto-national culture. In the heightened identity politics of the 1950s, local historians adopted Hamites to compete for historical primacy among Nigerian communities. The Hamitic Hypothesis declined in post-colonial conditions, in part because the concern to define ultimate identities along a colonial axis was displaced by the need to understand identity politics within the Nigerian sphere. The Nigerian Hamitic Hypothesis had a complex career, promoting élite ambitions, Christian identities, Nigerian nationalism and communal rivalries. New treatments of African colonial historiography – and intellectual history – must incorporate the complexities illus-trated here.

The Historiography of Origins in West Africa
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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58 See Appiah's, K. A. analysis of a similar 1897 argument by Bois, W. E. B. Du as ‘the antithesis of a classic dialectic in the reaction to prejudice’: In My Father's House (Oxford, 1992), 30–4.Google Scholar For more extended treatment of the dilemma constructed by Blyden's racial history, see Zachernuk, , ‘The Lagos intelligentsia and the idea of progress, ca. 1860–1960’, in Falola, (ed. ), Yoruba Historiography, 152–4.Google Scholar

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73 Ibid, ii, 672–6. The relative complexity of Frobenius's history is represented by a map (ii, 496). P. A. Talbot also deemed the primitive West African indigenes deeply religious, ‘more clearly alive to spiritual conditions and truths than other, more materialistic, races’: ‘Foreign influences’, 184; also Talbot, P. A., Mysteries, 5.Google Scholar

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75 Ibid, i, 319–49. Frobenius is not explicit, but apparently white Atlantic colonists ruled at IIe-Ife. He suggests the early Yoruba were not ‘negro’ (95), hints at racial parallels between the ancient and modern colonial missions (43), and clearly believes in a hierarchy of races (145)

76 Ibid, i, 146, 148.

77 Ibid, i, 98, 41, 107, also 143.

78 For example, Bois, W. E. B. Du, The Negro (New York, 1915; repr. Oxford, 1970)Google Scholar and Black Folk, 39–53 and passim; Woodson, C. G., African Background Outlined (Washington DC, 1936), 181–3Google Scholar; Ferris, W. H., The African Abroad (2 vols) (New Haven CT, 1913; repr. New York, 1968), ii, 565605Google Scholar; Ellis, G. W., Negro Culture in West Africa (New York, 1914; repr. 1970), 17Google Scholar; Washington, B. T., The Story of the Negro (2 vols) (1909; repr. Gloucester MA, 1969), i, 3681Google Scholar; Boas, F., ‘What the Negro has done in America,’ [1904], reprinted in his Race, 5460.Google Scholar G. Shepperson's introduction to The Negro provides a good introduction to this literature.

79 In a somewhat exceptional essay, William Leo Hansberry selected evidence from Frobenius and Ling Roth to reject foreign roots for Ife and Benin, art: ‘The Material Culture of Ancient Nigeria’, Journal of Negro History, vi (1921), esp. 290–5.Google Scholar

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81 Lucas, J. O. (b. 1897), The Religion of the Yorubas (Lagos, 1948), 37, 365.Google Scholar This was accepted in 1942 at the University of Durham as a Doctor of Divinity thesis.

82 Ibid. 14–18, 352–4. Herbert Macaulay cited African-American authors on the same point, for example in Henry Rawlinson Carr [1924], (2nd ed., ed. by Ojugbele, A., Ebute Metta, 1983), 23.Google Scholar

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84 Lucas cites Burns, Ellis, Westermann and Dennett: Yorubas, 7–11. See also Ojocole, J. (19031938), ‘A glimpse of Yoruba civilization’, WASU, Nos. 3&4 (1927), 1619.Google Scholar

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86 L. Solanke (1884–1958) was a leading Yoruba and West African intellectual heading the West African Students’ Union in London. Solanke, , United West Africa (or Africa) at the Bar of the Family of Nations (London, 1927; repr., 1969), 714Google Scholar; also his ‘Unity and co-operation among West African ancients as disclosed by history and tradition’, WASU, No. 5 (1927), 1821.Google ScholarSolanke, reviews Williams's Hebrewisms in WASU, 11 (1933), 40–1.Google Scholar Solanke's references include Samuel Johnson as well as such standard colonial works as P. A. Talbot, Dennett and Ellis.

87 Solanke, , United, 13, 21.Google Scholar He cites (7) an African-American reiteration of this argument based on Scripture: Webb, J. M., The Black Man (Seattle, 1910).Google Scholar

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89 Ibid. 7; also his Yoruba Problems and How to Solve Them (Ibadan, 1931), 11.Google Scholar

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93 The Ghanaian case would seem to have many parallels which would reward a companion study to the southern Nigerian case. Peter Shinnie recalls that in 1958 many western-educated Ghanaians accepted Hamitic Hypotheses such as Williams's Hebrewisms, and notes that while historical scholars have since abandoned such ideas they persist in some circles. He also notes a varied tradition of speculation about oriental connections, from Bowdich's 1821 Essay, through Williams's Hebrewisms, Danquah's, J. B.The Akan Doctrine of God (1944; repr. London, 1968)Google Scholar, and the books of Meyerowitz, E. L. R., such as The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt (London, 1960).Google Scholar Letter, Peter Shinnie to the author, 24 Feb. 1994.

94 Epelle, S. (6. c. 1929), The Promise of Nigeria (London, 1960), 15.Google Scholar

95 Arikpo, O. (b. 1916), Who are the Nigerians? (Lagos, n. d. [1957?]), 32Google Scholar; also Mbadiwe, K. O., ‘Nigeria in the new commonwealth’ (London, 1956), 3Google Scholar, in Fabian Colonial Papers, Rhodes House, Oxford, Box 83/2.

96 Biobaku, S. O. (b. 1918), The Origin of the Yoruba (Lagos, 1955; repr. 1971), 22.Google Scholar

97 Biobaku claimed that his profession owned the tools to rise above the myth and distortion permeating existing oral and written Yoruba historiography. See his ‘The problem of traditional history with special reference to Yoruba traditions’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, I (1956), 43–7.Google Scholar

98 Biobaku, , Origin, 6, 20.Google Scholar Biobaku also notes (13) physical resemblances between the Yoruba and north-east Africans to support his theory. We should note that in the context of Yoruba rather than West African history, Solanke also suggested that his ancient ‘Ife culture’ was imported rather than homegrown: Lectures Delivered, 2–3.

99 The lectures were broadcast on radio in the 1950s, reproduced for visitors attending the Independence celebrations in 1960, and reprinted by popular demand in 1971: Biobaku, , Origin, 34.Google Scholar For similar claims about the special roots of the ‘Yoruba race’ and the common background of all Nigerians, cf. Ojo, S., The Origin of the Yorubas, Part I (3rd ed., Ibadan, 1953), 712.Google Scholar

100 Ughulu, E. O. (b. 1906), The Short History of (Esan) Ishan-Benin (Lagos, 1950), 211.Google Scholar

101 Umo, R. Kano, History of Aro Settlements (Yaba, n. d. [1950?]), 12Google Scholar; also Oji, B. A. (b. 1907), Social and Political History of Nigeria for Schools and Colleges (Aba, 1951), 2831.Google Scholar

102 Ike, A. (b. 1918), The Origin of the Ibos, (2nd ed., Aba, n. d. [1951]), 8.Google Scholar See also Ijeomanta's, E. K. account discussed in Afigbo, ‘Traditions’, 2.Google Scholar

103 Numa, F. Y. (b. 1916), The Pride of Urhobo Nation (Lagos, 1950), 613.Google ScholarEgharevba, J. U. (b. 1897) traced Benin roots through Ife to Egypt: A Short History of Benin (2nd ed., rev. and en I., Benin, 1953), 1.Google Scholar

104 Aye, E. U., Old Calabar Through the Centuries (Calabar, 1967), 30.Google Scholar

105 Kenyo, E. A. (b. 1902), Origin of the Progenitor of the Yoruba Race (Lagos, 1950), 9, 1214.Google Scholar

106 Fajemisin, R. A. (b. 1897), Primacy in Post-Oduduwa Yorubaland (IIesa, 1984), 115.Google Scholar Fajemisin's writing reflects his membership in Lucas's generation.

107 IIuri (b. 1917) is discussed in Falola, , ‘Alternative History’, 6Google Scholar; and Farias, P. F. de Moraes, ‘“Yoruba origins” revisited by Muslims’, in Farias and Barber (eds. ), SelfAssertion, 134–43.Google Scholar

108 Fagg, B. E. B., ‘The Nok culture in prehistory’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, I (1959), 293.Google Scholar Fagg was Director of the Nigerian Department of Antiquities.

109 Armstrong, R. G., ‘The development of kingdoms in negro Africa’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, 11 (1960), 2739Google Scholar; Greenberg, J. H., Studies in African Linguistic Classification (Branford CT, 1955)Google Scholar; Drake, ‘Detruire le myth’.

110 Wescott, R. W., ‘Ancient Egypt and modern Africa’, J. Afr. Hist., 11 (1961), 311–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar This largely reiterates his ‘Did the Yoruba come from Egypt?’, Odu, Iv (1957), 1015.Google Scholar

111 Losi, J. B., for example, traces the Egba only to Oduduwa, identified as a native of ‘the Niger territory’: History of Abeokuta (Lagos, 1924), 1.Google Scholar

112 Ademakinwa, J. A. (b. 1897), I fe, Cradle of the Yoruba (2 vols. ) (Lagos, n. d. [1965? ]), i, 3Google Scholar and passim. Biobaku wrote the foreword as the Director of the Yoruba Research Scheme.

113 Dosumu, G. A. (b. 1899), ‘Oduduiva’ The Origin of Mankind (Ibadan, 1951);Google ScholarQueen of Sheba’ ‘Balkis’ ‘Eteye’ ‘Makeda’ ‘Sungbo’ Wife of King Solomon; a native of Oke Eri, Ijebu Province, Western Nigeria, (W. A. ) (n. p., [1955]).

114 For example, Idigo, M. C. M., A Short History of Aguleri (Yaba, 1955), 56Google Scholar; Ekeghe, O. O., A Short History of Abiriba (n. p., 1955), 716.Google Scholar

115 Okafor, A., ‘West African Background’, in Davidson, B. and Ademola, A. (eds. ) The New West Africa (London, 1953), 24–5Google Scholar; also Adeniyi, A. (b. 1926), My Duties Toward Nigeria (Sapele, 1963), 712.Google Scholar

116 See Omer-Cooper, J. D., ‘The question of unity in African history’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, III (1964), 103–12Google Scholar; Horton, R., ‘Ancient Ife: A reassessment’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, ix (1979), 69149Google Scholar; Afigbo, , Ropes of Sand, 130Google Scholar; Obayemi, A., ‘The Yoruba and Edo-speaking peoples and their neighbours before 1600’, in Ajayi, J. F. Ade and Crowder, M. (eds. ), History of West Africa (2 vols. ) (3rd ed., New York, 1985), i, 255322.Google Scholar For rejections of Johnson's theory in particular, see Atanda, ‘Johnson’, and B. Agbaje Williams, ‘Samuel Johnson, Yoruba origins, and archaeology’, both in Falola (ed. ), Pioneer.

117 Aderigbe, A. B., ‘Biobaku: the scholar and his works’, in Olusanya, G. O. (ed. ), Studies in Yoruba History and Culture (Ibadan, 1983), 15Google Scholar

118 Afigbo, ‘Traditions’.

119 Afolayan, F., ‘Reconstructing the past to reconstruct the present: the nineteenth century wars and Yoruba history’, Passages, vi (1993), 1213.Google Scholar

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