The Hamitic (Semitic) Hypothesis and Scientific Racism
Date: Thursday, December 30 @ 15:51:33 UTC
November 15, 2002
The primary objective of scholars, philosophers, and historians during the 18th and 19th centuries was to construct an image of the African as inferior, incapable of civilization, deserving of enslavement and belonging to some subset of humanity. Some historians have concluded that the construction of this image was a direct attempt to rationalize and justify the brutal enslavement of the Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Others infer that this construction was the culmination of years of exclusionist and culturally chauvinist thinking on the part of the European scholars, which placed them as naturally superior to all other races.
While the truth may be a combination of these two theories, one thing remains clear: Scientific Racism and the Hamitic Hypothesis formed a continuous line of discrimination against the African and worked together to construct a negative Negro stereotype. While both schools of thought can be placed in two different periods of history it is clear that one followed closely on the heels of the other to reinforce the negative, racist image of the African that had been deliberately propagated from as early as the 17th century. The Hamitic (Semitic) Hypothesis and Scientific Racism were both racist doctrines that set up a system of proof and counterproof, reasoning and rationalization with the intent of completely negating any concept of African ability and achievement.
Racism has been traditionally defined as "...a form of racial prejudice that was justified by the dogma that some groups of people inherit characteristics- intellectual and temperamental- that make them inferior to others" Both scientific racism and the Hamitic Hypothesis achieved this function. They presumed Africa and Africans incapable of civilization because of their inherent inferiority. Scientific Racism then set out to anchor this belief in scientific fact while the Hamitic Hypothesis acted as a sort of safety net to counter prove, in light of the discovery of African civilizations in Ancient Egypt, that it could not have been created by indigenous Africans. Both manifested the inherent racism of the Euro-American intelligentsia and were used conveniently at different points in history to justify the actions of the Europeans.
Martin Bernel in his work, "Black Athena" says that racism is of 'ancient vintage' and was borne out of wave after wave of conquest of Nile Valley civilizations by the Persians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. The inevitable cultural subordination of the Ancient Egyptians as part of the colonization process, led to the replacement of Black iconography with iconography that best reflected the culture of the conquerors. While this sort of cultural conquest may be just a natural part of any politico-military campaign, it indeed set the stage for the negative black stereotype and eventually the belief that indigenous Negro-African peoples created nothing.
Although racism did exist before the 18th century, the scientific racism that was to be a hallmark of the 18th and 19th anthropometry was a systematic reasoning and scientific justification of already existing racist ideologies. It attempted to provide empirical proof of the existing Negro stereotype. A new spirit of Nationalism and loyalty to country and kind, as well as an increasing concern with the true nature of mankind brought about by the intellectual movement of the Romantics and the Enlightenment, set the intellectual backdrop for scientifically justified racist ideologies. According to Ashley Montague, "the alleged inborn difference between people" brought on by the central concerns of the Romantic Age, "...were injected into the doctrine of racism... a mélange of rationalizations were calculated to prove that the Negro was 'created with articulate speech and hands do that he could better serve his master the white man' ". The biological determinism suggested by these inborn differences formed a sort of hierarchy of ability with Caucasians at the apex and Africans at the bottom.
The Negro image of the 18th century was constructed negatively to justify the brutality of the Atlantic Slave Trade of Africans as well as the continued subordination of all indigenous peoples who became victims of European colonialism. The basic elements of this construction were the concepts that Africans were biologically inferior to the white man, divinely ordained by God, through the Babylonian Curse of Ham, to be spiritually bereft and ever after born to be slaves, created nothing by way of civilization anywhere in the world, and furthermore due to the inferiority of their genes were unable to create anything even resembling civilization. In order go about the 'making' of the Negro image to fit this stereotype that had been propagated about the African from as early as the 15th century, Euro-American intelligentsia employed the use of science, or rather, what students of revisionist African history call, pseudo-science, to prove beyond a doubt the inferiority of the African race.
Scholars of the Enlightenment period in the mid- 18th century began to embark on the classification of mankind on the basis of race. Scandinavian born Carolus Linnaeus' work Systema Naturae, published in 1735, was the first to establish a classification of race based on skin colour and ascribed to each, certain characteristics that be believed to be unique to each race. Homo Europeus was judged to be "of fair complexion, sanguine temperament and becoming form... of gentle manners, acute in judgment... governed by fixed laws." While Homo Afer was deemed to be of "... black complexion, phlegmatic temperament... crafty, indolent... governed in their actions by caprice" This system of racial classification was then built upon by Johann Blumenbach, professor at the world's leading centre of Scientific racism, The University of Gottingen, Germany. He developed a 'science' called craniology, which sought to use the shape and measurement of the skull to deduce intelligence ratios. His work, On the Natural Variety of Humankind determined that the shape of the African skull inhibited his capacity for intelligence. He too placed the Western European Caucasian at the apex of civilized beings.
Other 'pseudo sciences' emerged all of which claimed to use empirical scientific evidence to classify the Negro as a subset of man, a freak of nature, a product of biological misfortune. These scientific systems of classification were indeed not scientific at all as they illustrated how even science was "the product of social prejudices'' and that; "... incipient racism created a monstrous pseudo-science that was taken as seriously as we take modern genetic theories." These theories were simply calculated and constructed to again, to fit the Negro into the already widely held stereotype. The so called African characteristics of "... thick lips, broad noses, wooly hair were seen as ill formed and presented a picture of physical monstrosity" In light of the aesthetic prejudice which held high all that was white, it is thus probably unsurprising that scientists and scholars of the day should have determined African features to be genetic manifestations of their inborn inferiority.
An earlier but yet fundamental element of the historical construction of the African, which rendered everything, that was black as course, dull and deficient was the Babylonian Talmudic Curse of Ham. From the earliest exegetical attempts by the Jews, Christians and Moslems to explain this confusing and widely interpreted story, the interpretation which depicts Ham, a son of Noah as being cursed with blackness for dishonoring his father and then having all his descendants condemned into slavery, seems to have endured the longest and had the most damaging effect on the image of blackness and African people. Another aspect of this tale states that Ham was cursed with an elongated penis because of sexual perversions he committed on the Ark. According to St. Clair Drake, "These stories did more than serve as an allegorical myth to explain physical difference". They blighted blackness and subsequently Negroid physical characteristics as a descent from the grace of whiteness, and set up a sexual stereotype of the Negro male. The legacy of this myth has been a false construction of the African that made him abhorrent, unnatural and his skin colour, a mark of one who is morally and spiritually bereft.
The "big business" of the Atlantic Slave Trade was justified by the believed inferiority of the Africans. This was now completely palatable by the Europeans, even in light of the watchwords of the French Revolution "Liberte, Equalite, Franternite", for one distinct reason; There was now scientific evidence to support the stereotype. "...Race thinking no longer relied upon biblical justification, for with the ascent of eighteenth and nineteenth-century racism, the subjugation of blacks could be anchored in biology rather than in theology." What was once a thing clouded in myth and the theories of philosophers such as Locke and Hume was now deemed an irrefutable, scientific fact.
Before the late 18th century, the idea of a Negro Hamite was fully accepted. Even the Catholic Church used it as a justification for slavery and it became part of religious canon in the Papal Bull, Romanum Pontiflex as early as 1455 to grant the Portuguese rights to begin trading in Africans. Edith Sanders surmises that this view of a Negro Hamite prevailed because it was compatible with the social and economic interest at the time. "On one hand it allowed exploitation of the Negro for economic gain to remain undisturbed by any Christian doubts as to the moral issues involved. 'A servant of servants shall he be', clearly meant that the Negro was pre- ordained for slavery. Neither individual or collective guilt was to be borne for a state of the world created by the Almighty" An interesting contradiction emerges when one looks at the Ancient Model of Civilization which places the origin of western civilization in Egypt, from which it was passed on to the Greeks and the Romans. While Europeans believed that blackness was a curse, they owed their civilization to a black land. This manifests, in my opinion, a clear-cut case of cultural and ethnocentric chauvinism on the part of the European scholars. It never occurred to them that the Egyptians could have been Negro people, the same Negroes whom they had enslaved.
Napoleon Bonaparte's historic invasion of Egypt led to a series of archaeological and other scientific findings by Denon and Volney that showed evidence of an ancient highly developed civilization, even more developed that Europe was at the time. Count C.F Volney surmised that these ruins were proof of, "...a people long forgotten, who discovered, while others were barbarians, the elements of the Arts and Sciences. A race of men now rejected for their sable skins and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe" The result of this discovery, that Africans created this great civilization created an intellectual dilemma. "If it had been scientifically proven that Blacks were biologically inferior, incapable of civilization, how does one explain Ancient Egypt which was inconveniently placed on the African continent?" The intellectual somersaults that ensued now had to create a new scheme to continue to fit the African into the stereotype that had been created for him. They now sought to deny that Egypt was indeed a black civilization.
The Hamitic (Semitic) Hypothesis stated unequivocally that anything of value found in Africa was brought in by the Hamites who were allegedly a branch of the Caucasian race. It implied a diffusionist view of history whereby high civilization was brought from the Fertile Crescent and then made its way down to the Lower Nile Valley by white or near-whites of the Caucasian family. The process of the whitening of the Hamite was achieved by the manipulation of what had been previously sacred, unalterable religious doctrine by placing the so-called curse on Canaan and not Ham. They concluded that the Hamites who then created this civilization were of Mesopotamian stock and could have conceivably created high civilization. Craniologists who studied the skulls of the Ancient Egyptians insisted that they were not Negro, and that whenever obviously Negroid skulls were found must have been those of the slaves of the Ancient Egyptians. This manifested their true ignorance about the diversity of the physical make up of African people. The generalization of the African phenotype did not encompass the diversity of the continent. These men who called themselves scientists of racial classification had never undertaken any real comprehensive study of the African continent. Thus the skulls found that showed diverse phenotypes were part of the racial melting pot that was Egypt, were stated not to fit the 'image' of the Negro. His lips were perhaps too thin or his nose too strait, and thus these people must have been Hamites who came to 'bring civilization to dark Africa' from the Fertile Crescent. It seems that if they could not find some way for Europeans to take credit for the Ancient Egyptian civilization then they had to find a way for a people they deemed as Caucasian to take the credit for it.
By the dawn of the 19th century, a new model of civilization was constructed, removing the achievements of Egypt completely from world history of civilization. The late 19th Century Aryan model manifested the fanatic rise of German nationalism that had its roots in the scientific racist doctrines of de Gobineau, Seligman and Blumenbach. In this new model of civilization, the white Romans and the Greeks began civilization, which had now reached its height with the Germanic race. By the late 19th the racist doctrines of the previous centuries had convincingly constructed an image of a biologically inferior African who was the object instead of the subject of history. Hegel who was the developer of the Aryan model, which completely 'whitened' the face of world history stated firmly that "Africa is no historical part of the world... what characterized Africa is her ahistorical spirit or spirit of non-development."
The invasion and colonization of the African continent during industrialization brought new impetus to the Hamitic Hypothesis and Scientific Racism. Not only was Africa a civilizational nullity, but it was seen as the duty of the white man, as the superior race, to bring civilization to heathen Africa. The easy maneuverability of the racist doctrines of the Europeans allowed them to shift and change the construction to fit their socio-economic or political needs. The sentiments summed up in Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden" allowed European conquest of Africa to be propagated under the guise of the spread of civilization.
Scientific racism and the Hamitic Hypothesis reconstructed the face of world history. Not only did these doctrines attempt to rationalize the subjugation of indigenous peoples of the East and the Americas, but also they sought to produce a face of history that was inaccurate and would effectively deny the African presence on the world except as slaves. The re-creation of the history of Africa to the history of slavery and colonization has had wide reaching implications on Africans in the Diaspora even today. The construction of African people into the stereotype of the Negro, covered areas of religion, philosophy and science and constantly changed to meet the viewpoint of the economic and political needs of Europe. The result was a Eurocentric view of world history in which Africans had no part. A Sumer legend relates a conversation between two men. One asks the other, "What happened to the Black people of Sumer? ...for ancient records show that the people of Sumer were Black. What happened to them?" "Ah," the (other) old man sighed. "They lost their history and they died..." This was perhaps the most damning construction of all, for it was the control of history and memory that allowed this stereotype of the Negro to flourish.
Ben Jochannon, Yosef, Black Man of the Nile and his Family. New York, Alkebu-Lan Books, c1972]
Bernal, Martin, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985) Rutgers University Press; (February 1989)
Drake, St. Clair, Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology, Vol.1 & II. Los Angeles: Centre for African American Studies
Khoo Sheng Li, David, In Over our Heads: The Scientific Search for Human Worth.
National University of Singapore, 2001
Sanders, Edith. "The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Function in Time Perspective". Journal of African History, X, 4 (1969) pp 521-532
Sollors, Werner, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of interracial Literature
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, April 1997