"The Hamitic Hypothesis:
Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective" 1
By Edith Sanders
Journal of African History 10 (1969): 521-532
The Hamitic hypothesis is well-known to students of Africa. It states that everything of value ever found in Africa was brought there by the Hamites, alledgedly a branch of the Caucasian race. Seligman formulates it as follows: Apart from relatively late Semitic influence. . .the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of Hamites, its history of the record of these peoples and of their interaction with the two other African stocks, the Negro and the Bushman, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or by such wider pastoralists as are represented at the present day by the Beja and Somali. . .The incoming Hamites were pastoral ‘Europeans’—arriving wave after wave—better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes.2 On closer examination of the history of the idea, there emerges of previous elaborate Hamitic theory, in which the Hamites are believed to be Negroes. It becomes clear then that the hypothesis is symptomatic of the nature of race relations, that is has changed its content if not its nomenclature through time, and that it has become a problem of epistemology. (Version I: Genesis Origin of Hamitic Hypothesis)
In the beginning there was the Bible. The word ‘Ham’ appears there for the first time in Genesis, chapter five. Noah cursed Ham, his youngest son, and said: Cursed be Canaan,
A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. . .
And he said;
Blessed by Jehovah, the God of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.
God enlarge Japheth,
And let him dwell in the tent of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.
Then follows an enumeration of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, Japheth, and their sons who were born to them after the flood. The Bible makes no mention of racial differences among the ancestors of mankind. It is much later that an idea of race appears with reference to the sons of Noah; it concerns the descendants of Ham. (Version II: “Black Hamites”)
The Babylonian Talmud, a collection of oral traditions of the Jews, appeared in the sixth century A.D.; it states that the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.3 Thus, early tradition identified the Hamites with Negroes and endowed them with both certain physiognomical attributes and an undesirable character. This notion persisted in the Middle Ages, when fanciful rabbinical expansions of the Genesis stories were still being made. Ham, some of them said, was supposed to have emasculated Noah, who cursed him thus:
"Now I cannot beget the fourth son whose children I would have ordered to serve you and your brothers! Therefore it must be Canaan, your firstborn, whom they enslave. And since you have disabled me. . .doing ugly things in blackness of night, Canaan's children shall be borne ugly and black! Moreover, because you twisted your head around to see my nakedness, your grandchildren's hair shall be twisted into kinks, and their eyes red; again because your lips jested at my misfortune, theirs shall swell; and because you neglected my nakedness, they shall go naked, and their male members shall be shamefully elongated! Men of this race are called Negroes, their forefather Canaan commanded them to love theft and fornication, to be banded together in hatred of their masters and never to tell the truth.4 (emphasis from Dr. Johnson) Scholars who study the Hebrew myths of the Genesis claim that these oral traditions grew out of a need of the Israelites to rationalize their subjugation of Canaan, a historical fact validated by the myth of Noah's curse. Talmudic or Midrashic explanations of the myth of Ham were well known to Jewish writers in the Middle Ages, as seen in this description by Benjamin of Tudela, a twelfth-century merchant and traveler south of Aswan: There is a people . . . who,...
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