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The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective

Edith R. Sanders
The Journal of African History
Vol. 10, No. 4 (1969), pp. 521-532
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/179896
Page Count: 12
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The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective
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Abstract

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. The Hamitic concept 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.

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