Ethnic Psudo-histories of Central Africa – Tribes of Ham Again 2

Hans Meyer, who travelled extensively in central and eastern Africa in the late 19th and early 20th.Centuries, wrote Die Burundi…’, which is an account of his 1911 travels in Burundi.   This was translated into French by Francoise Willman, with an extensive critiques, footnotes and bibliography by Jean-Pierre Chrétien in 1983.

The book is a fascinating ethnography typical of styles found during the period.  In it, Meyer elaborates theories of ethnicity propounded during his time regarding the presumed ‘lost tribes’ of Ham – who were proposed by Meyer and others to have appeared with their cattle in central Africa as Tutsi ‘Stamm’ [tribes; clans; stock] in about the 16th.C, coming from southern Ethiopia, and who were seen to have set about subjugating ‘the Hutu‘, presumed to be ‘inferior’ bantu cultivators who had arrived much earlier in the region (see this blog).

Thus began the construction of what is arguably one of the most destructive pseudo-histories in sub-Saharan Africa in the Great Lakes Region.  Although, as Chrétien points out in a foot note, “On voit apparaitre ici la contradiction constante entre cette idéologie et l’existence constatée d’une communauté historique et culturelle burundaise.”

Chrétien goes on to say in another foot note:  “Sur la cristallisation au XIXe siecle de la mythologie assimilant par définition la catégorie tutsi de la société ancienne du Burundi ou du Rwanda avec une ‘race hamitique’ et la catégorie hutu avec une ‘race bantu’, voir, entre autres, notre article “les deux visages de Cham,”

 The critiques of this and other aspects of Meyer’s theories and approaches that are given by Chrétien in copious footnotes are enlightening, and themselves reflect revised theories of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  There is also an extensive bibliography in French, English and German which is most useful and contains a number of obscure entries, such as items from Les Annalen der Afrikanischen Mission (Hollande).

Meyer relied heavily on discussions with, and reports by the White Father* missionaries, who missionized northern Lake Tanganyika and the highlands of Burundi.  On some of the  missionizing tactics of the White Fathers, see this blog, which exemplifies the kind of insensitivity to local culture and society that was later found in Australia and in Canada regarding their own indigenous ethnic groups and efforts to civilize (= westernize) them.


* ‘ White Father’ refers to their clothing, not to their whiteness.

This book is as much a window into late 19th and early 20th century theories of ethnicity, society and culture as it is a description of Burundian life and times.  Because so much (most?) of his content comes second-hand from the White Fathers, it is difficult to tell how much is interpretive either on his or the Fathers’ part, and it is in this regard that the notes by Chretien are so helpful.

Meyer was of course familiar with the earlier work in central Africa by Oskar Baumann, who had travelled in the Congo with Oskar Lenze.  As part of the same generation, these German explorers would presumably have shared [at least some of] the same ethnographic world view of the time, which comfortably placed the tribes of Africa in an expanding world view of the times in pre-WWI Germany.

Meyer seemed almost obsessed by measuring noses and heights, reflecting on skin tones, and in similar ways categorizing local groups, as a part of a racially determined Germanic world view of races that was shared throughout much of northern Europe and England during the colonial period.  These racially based analyses by colonial explorers were early determinants of the eugenic movement, which took shape later in the 19th century – and which I will develop into another blog

Once I showed this picture to a (Hutu) village notable whom I know well, who was delighted to see that the two men in the picture were wearing the traditional garb of the Bashingantahe (traditional wise men; dispute negotiators), of whom he was one. The Germanic facial features thought to typify the Tutsi - so beloved by Europeans of the time - were just not 'seen' by him. Source. Les Barundis, par Hans Meyer, 1911.

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-East, Colonialism, Explorers & exploration, History-Recent. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ethnic Psudo-histories of Central Africa – Tribes of Ham Again 2

  1. Pingback: Sorghum Beer in Colonial Burundi and Now | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  2. Pingback: Brewing Sorghum Beer in Burundi, 19th Century and Now « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Pingback: Brewing Banana Beer in Colonial Burundi « Dianabuja's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s