Race from a local perspective: 19th and 14th Centuries

An earlier blog discussed European concepts of race in the 19th Century and their application to Africa

Inventing Ethnicity; Imagining Agriculture: The ‘Tribes’ of Ham and the ‘Primitive’ Crops of Africa

From a local perspective, here are the thoughts of Umbogo, advisor to the Unyoro king Kabba Rega in what is now northern Uganda. Umbogo was an interpreter for Samuel Baker during his second trip up the Nile, and according to Sir Baker:

Sir Samuel BakerIsmailia.  A Narrative of the Expedition to Central  Africa for the Suppression of the Slave Trade.

 (Umbogo) was very intelligent, and he took a great interest in all my plans for establishing free trade throughout the country: but he told me privately that he thought the idea would be opposed secretly by Kabba Rega, who would wish to monopolize all the ivory trade, in order to keep up the price, and to obtain the whole of the merchandise.

One of the items that was unavailable in central Africa at this time was soap – or, apparently, the techniques for making it, as shown in the following. Sir Baker continues:

The great variety of goods [that Sir Baker brought with him] much astonished him [Umbogo], and he advised me strongly to send for a large supply of soap, for which there would be a great demand, as a light complexion was greatly admired in Unyoro.

He said that Mohammed, the Cairo dragoman, was several shades lighter since I had supplied him with soap; this was true, as he had been very filthy before my arrival; but Umbogo was persuaded that the difference between white and black people was caused by the fact of our ancestors having always used soap, while the blacks used only plain water.

This ethnological fact having been established, I gave him a small piece, to his great delight…

Manuscript page from ibn Khaldun's 'al-Muqaddimah', with his autograph in the upper left

Five hundred years earlier, the 14th Century North African Historian Ibn Khaldun developed an alternative explanation for racial differences. As explained in the Muqqadimah, or prolegomena that he wrote to his history, racial differences were closely tied to environmental/geographical differences. Persons born and raised in different climates/locales were endowed with certain qualities – both physical and social.


It is said that his ideas linking racial differences to climate/locale influenced later European developments in defining race and racial differences. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the Muqqadimah, but do have this snippet in which he describes (ethnic) attributes of Berbers of North Africa; perhaps I’ll say more about his approach to race/ethnicity in another blog, as it is sometimes ambiguous, as here:

Let’s mention a number of man’s virtues which became a second nature for the Berbers: their zeal to acquire praiseworthy qualities, the nobility of their soul which brought them to the first ranks among nations, the actions by which they deserved the praise of the universe, their bravery and promptness to defend their hosts and clients, keeping their promises, engagements, and treaties, patience in adversity, firmness in great afflictions, meekness of character, empathy in others’ weaknesses, forgiveness, generosity towards the unhappy and poor, respect to the elders and devout, industry, hospitality, charity, magnanimity, hatred for oppression displayed against the empires which threatened them…, devotion to God and his religion: here is, for the Berbers, a number of virtues they inherited from their ancestors and whose presentation, put in writing, could have served as an example to future nations.

From: http://amazighworld.net/

If social history and philosophy are of interest to you, the Muqqadimah is certainly worth reading, being published both in Arabic and in the late 1950’s in English, in the Bollingen series out of Princeton, translated by Franz Rosenthal.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Africa-North, Colonialism, Ethnicity, Explorers & exploration, Race. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Race from a local perspective: 19th and 14th Centuries

  1. divinephoenixegg8 says:

    Diana, I am deleting my account with WordPress and so I will contact you via Facebook – Marjorie


  2. Pingback: Inventing Ethnicity; Imagining Agriculture: The ‘Tribes’ of Ham and the ‘Primitive’ Crops of Africa « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. yolanda says:

    the latter theory is what is referred to by geographers as “environmental determinism.” echoes of it are still found today even in mainstream works. For example, some geographers have criticized Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” for environmental determinism.


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