[Marxism] Colonialism and racial pseudoscience

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 22 16:31:35 MST 2004

Gérard Prunier, "The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide":

The first explorers who reached Rwanda and Burundi were immediately struck 
by the fact that the population though linguistically and culturally 
homogeneous, was divided into three groups, the Hutu, the Tutsi and the 
Twa. These are the people who have often and inappropriately been called 
the 'tribes' of Rwanda. They had none of the characteristics of tribes, 
which are micro-nations.

They shared the same Bantu language, lived side by side with each other 
without any 'Hutuland' or 'Tutsiland' and often intermarried . But they 
were neither similar nor equal. Each group had an average dominant somatic 
type, even if not every one of its individual members automatically 
conformed to it. The Twa, who were very few (1% or less of the population), 
were pygmoids who either lived as hunter-gatherers in the forested areas or 
else served the high-ranking personalities and the King in a variety of 
menial tasks. The Hutu who made up the vast majority of the population, 
were peasants who cultivated the soil. They had a standard Bantu physical 
aspect, rather resembling the populations of neighbouring Uganda or 
Tanganyika. But the Tutsi were something else altogether. Extremely tall 
and thin, and often displaying sharp, angular facial features, these 
cattle- herders were obviously of a different racial stock than the local 
peasants. Given the almost obsessive preoc­cupation with 'race' in late 
nineteenth-century anthropological thinking, this peculiarity soon led to 
much theorising, roman­ticising and at time just plain fantasising. To 
start with, much has been made of the physical features of the three groups 
in heavy pseudo-scientific terms. The small Twa were definitely at the 
bottom of the pile:

"Member of a worn out and quickly disappearing race . . . the Mutwa 
presents a number of well-defined somatic character­istics: he is small, 
chunky, muscular, and very hairy; particularly on the chest. With a 
monkey-like flat face and a huge nose, he is quite similar to the apes whom 
he chases in the forest."

The description of the Hutu was not much more prepossessing:

"The Bahutu display very typical Bantu features. [. . .] They are generally 
short and thick-set with a big head, a jovial expression, a wide nose and 
enormous lips. They are extroverts who like to laugh and lead a simple life."

But the Tutsi were definitely superior beings:

"The Mututsi of good race has nothing of the negro, apart from his colour. 
He is usually very tall, 1.80m. at least, often 1.90m. or more. He is very 
thin, a characteristic which tends to be even more noticeable as he gets 
older. His features are very fine: a high brow, thin nose and fine lips 
framing beautiful shining teeth. Batutsi women are usually lighter-skinned 
than their husbands, very slender and pretty in their youth, although they 
tend to thicken with age. [. . .] Gifted with a vivacious intelligence, the 
Tutsi displays a refinement of feelings which is rare among primitive 
peo­ple. He is a natural-born leader, capable of extreme self-control and 
of calculated goodwill."

The Europeans were quite smitten with the Tutsi, whom they saw as 
definitely too fine to be 'negroes'. Since they were not only physically 
different from the Hutu but also socially superior, the racially-obsessed 
nineteenth-century Europeans started building a variety of hazardous 
hypotheses on their 'possible', 'probable' or, as they soon became, 
'indubitable' origins.

The man who started it all was John Hanning Speke, the famous Nile 
explorer. In Chapter IX of his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of 
the Nile (London, 1863), entitled 'History of the Wahuma', he presents what 
he calls his 'theory of conquest of inferior by superior races'. After 
observing the 'foreign' origin of some ruling groups in several of the 
interlacustrine kingdoms, he 'deduced' from this 'fact' a 'theory' linking 
the monarchic institutions he had found in the area with the arrival of a 
'con­quering superior race', carrier of a 'superior civilisation'. He 
decided without a shred of evidence, that these 'carriers of a superior 
civilisation' who were the ancestors of the Tutsi were the Galla of 
southern Ethiopia, an opinion later shared by other nineteenth-century 
explorers such as Sir Samuel, Baker and Gaetan Casati and by 
twentieth-century missionaries such as Father van den Burgt, Father Gorju 
and John Roscoe. Father Pages, on the other hand, thought that they were 
descendants of the ancient Egyptians, while De Lacger saw them.as coming 
from either Melanesia; or Asia Minor. Some of the authors could become 
rhapsodic about their 'superior race':

"We can see Caucasian skulls and beautiful Greek profiles side by side with 
Semitic and even Jewish features, elegant golden-red beauties in the heart 
of Ruanda and Urundi."

Or elsewhere:

"The Bahima [a Tutsi clan] differ absolutely by the beauty of their 
features and their light colour from the Bantu agriculturalists of an 
inferior type. Tall and well-proportioned, they have long thin noses, a 
wide brow and fine lips. They say they came from the North. Their 
intelligent and delicate appearance, their love of money, their capacity to 
adapt to any situation seem to indicate a Semitic-origin."

Some of the 'scientific' theories about the 'Hamitic' or 'Semitic' origins 
of the Tutsi started to get more and more bizarre, although the most 
respected anthropologists of the time (Ratzel, Paulitschke, Meinhof, Sergi 
and already Seligman, who was to become the great guru of African racial 
theories between the two world wars) were competing with each-other to give 
them not only credence but a wide publicity. The Tutsi (and so-called 
related groups such as the Maasai) came from a 'primordial red race'. They 
had 'an absolutely distinct origin from the negroes' which they considered 
as 'belonging to an absolutely inferior order'. They came from India - or 
even, as the Dominican Father Etienne Brosse suggested, from the Garden of 
Eden. Some years later the Belgian administrator Count Renaud de Briey 
coolly speculated that the Tutsi could very well be the last survivors of 
the lost continent of Atlantis, while as late as 1970 a dignified former 
ambassador to the newly independent Rwanda could pass off as serious 
anthropological literature a long poetical rambling about the Tutsi 'Magi' 
who had come from Tibet (with a minor branch making it to Iceland), pushing 
in front of them 'the animal steamroller of their giant herds.

Despite its semi-delirious aspects, this type of writing is of the utmost 
importance for several reasons. First, it conditioned deeply and durably 
the views and attitudes of the Europeans regarding the Rwandese social 
groups they were dealing with. Secondly, it became a kind of unquestioned 
'scientific canon' which actually governed the decisions made by the German 
and even more so later by the Belgian colonial authorities. Thirdly, it had 
a massive impact on the natives themselves. The result of this heavy 
bombardment with highly value-laden stereotypes for some sixty years ended 
by inflating the Tutsi cultural ego inordinately and crushing Hutu feelings 
until they coalesced into an aggressively resentful inferiority complex. If 
we combine these subjective feelings with the objective political and 
administrative decisions of the colonial authorities, we can begin to see 
how a very dangerous social bomb was almost absent-mindedly manufactured 
throughout the peaceful years of 'abazunvu' domination.

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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