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The hamitic hyopthesis; its origin and functions in time perspecive1

  • Edith R. Sanders


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.



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2 Seligman, C. G., Races of Africa (1930), 96. All subsequent editions make the same statement (1957, 1966).

3 Gossett, T. F., Race—the History of an Idea in America (1963), 5.

4 Graves, R. and Patai, R., Hebrew Myths (1964), 121.

5 Hess, R.. ‘Travels of Benjamin of Tudela’, J. Afr. Hut. VI, i (1965), 17.

6 Pory, J., Translation of Leo Africanus, Hakluyt Society, XCII–XCIV (London, 1896).

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.

8 Richard, Jobson, The Golden Trade (1623).

9 SirThomas, Herbert, Some Years of Travels into Divers Parts of Africa (1677).

10 Pagitt, E., Heresiography or a Description of the Hereticks, printed by , W.W. for Lee, W. (London, 1646).

11 Herbert, , op. cit. 27.

12 Cited by Bendyshe, T., The History of Anthropology: Memoir read before the Anthropological Society of London I (18631864), 377.

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).

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).

16 Buffon, cited by Eiseley, L., Darwin's Century (1961), 3546; and Dr Benjamin Rush (American physician and son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin), cited by Greene, J., ‘The American debate on the Negro's place in nature, 1780–1815’, Journal of History of Ideas, xv (1954), are examples of this school of thought.

17 Voltaire, , The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version modernized by Fleming, W. J. (New York, 1901); and Lord, Kames, Sketches of the History of Man (Edinburgh, 1780), are examples of this group.

18 Williams, E., Capitalism and Slavery (University of Carolina Press, 1944);Curtin, P. D.Image of Africa (New York, 1964).

19 Denon, V.. Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (London, 1803).

20 Volney, , Travels through Syria and Egypt 1783–1784–1785 (1787), 83.

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).

22 Browne, W. G., op. cit. 170–5.

23 Russell, M., View of Ancient and Modern Egypt (New York, 1833), 27.

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.

25 Mannheim, K., Essays in Sociology of Knowledge (1952), 190.

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).

27 Josiah, Clark Nott, an American scientist and collaborator with Gliddon on Types of Mankind (1854).

28 George R. Gliddon, an American vice-consul in Cairo and an admirer of Dr Morton, whom he supplied with Egyptian skulls.

29 Prichard, J., The Natural History of Man (London, 1855).

30 Bunsen, C. K. J., Egypt's Place in Universal History (London, 18481867).

31 Speke, J. H., Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (New York, 1964).

32 With respect to the role played by such theories in English colonial expansion see Sanderson, E., Africa in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1898);Lugard, F. D., The Rise of our East African Empire (Edinburgh, 1898);Scott Keltie, J., Partition of Africa (London, 1895);Langer, W. L., The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890–1902 (New York, 1935).

33 Barzun, J., Race: A Modern Superstition (New York, 1965), 33.

34 Sergi, G., The Mediterranean Race (New York, 1901).

35 Brinton, D. G., Races and Peoples (New York, 1890).

36 Sergi, , op. cit. 4042.

37 Brinton, , op. cit. 115.

38 Early work on the Hamitic language family was done by Cust, R. N., A Sketch of African Languages (London, 1883); also Lepsius and Meinhof.

39 See Atterbury, A. R., Islam in Africa (NewYork, 1899);Gregory, J. W., The Foundation of British East Africa (London, 1901);Johnston, K., Africa (London, 1884); J. Scott Keltie op. cit.; E. Sanderson, op. cit.; Capt. Stigand, C. H., The Land of Zinj (London, 1913); and White, A. S., The Development of Africa (London, 1890).

40 ‘Some Aspects of the Harnitic Problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, LIII, 1913.

41 Cole, S., The Prehistory of East Africa (Hammondsworth, 1954);Oberg, K. in African Political Systems, Fortes, M. and Evans-Pritchard, E. (eds.); Westerrnann, D., The African Today and Tomorrow (Oxford, 1949), are only a few of a long list of examples.

42 See early writings on Great Zimbabwe: Maclver, D. B., Mediaeval Rhodesia (New York, 1906);Willoughby, W. C., Race Problem in New Africa (Oxford, 1923);Naville, E., ‘The Land of Punt and the Hamites’, Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute, LVII (1925).

43 Caton-Thompson, G., The Zimbabwe Culture: Ruins and Reactions (Oxford, 1931);Crazzolara, J. P., The Lwoo, Missioni Africane (Italy, 1950); two instances of such discoveries.

44 See for example Apter, D., Political Kingdom in Uganda (Princeton, 1961), 63;Fallers, L., Bantu Bureaucracy, East African Institute of Social Research (1956), 27–9;Greenberg, J. H., Studies in African Linguistic Classifications (New Haven, 1955);Wallerstein, I., Africa, the Politics of Independence (New York, 1961), 1213;McCall, D., Africa in Time Perspective (Boston, 1964), 136138.

45 E.g. Murdock, G. P., Africa, Its Peoples and Their Culture History (New York, 1959).

1 This topic has been explored in detail in E. R. Sanders ‘Hamites in Anthropology and History: A Preliminary Study’, unpublished manuscript, Columbia University, 1965.

The hamitic hyopthesis; its origin and functions in time perspecive1

  • Edith R. Sanders


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