One of the abundant lessons of human history we have been taught is that through time, our species tend to find a use for justification only when the material conditions demand it.
An activity or state of affairs is usually pre-ideological until it can no longer be.
Like the rationalization for the international commercial activity of selling and buying human beings – the worst of which was the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST).
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European intellectuals and Christians needed to justify, via logic and the Lord’s teachings, why they support the inhumane treatment meted out to Africans.
One of the results of these attempts at justification was the Hamitic hypothesis, a pseudoscientific, and what some say unchristian, explanation.
The earliest documented version of the hypothesis is from the Middle Ages. This version stands in contradistinction to a later one from about the 15th century and afterward.
But both renditions of the Hamitic hypothesis are inspired by the same Biblical verse in Genesis 9:20-27. The verse tells the story of the curse of the descendants of Ham, who is one of the sons of the patriarch Noah.
The Bible teaches that Ham, having gone into his father’s tent to see Noah naked in a drunken sleep, went to inform his brothers Shem and Japhet.
Shem and Japhet then came in to cover up Noah while making sure they never gazed upon his naked body – somehow, they pulled it off successfully too.
When Noah woke up, he “knew what his younger son (Ham) had done unto him”. But Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, an eventuality theologians have explained as a curse of Ham’s descendants.
Noah said in Genesis 9: 25: …Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26) And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27) God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant
Jewish tradition, in accordance with Biblical origin stories, posits that the Canaanites are the descendants of Canaan. The reason the Jews of the Old Testament feel superior to the Canaanites is also attributed to the curse.
But in recorded history of the Middle Ages, we also witness Jewish and European association of the Hamitic curse with physiognomy and racialized traits of dark-skinned people.
In the essay “The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective”, Edith Sanders offers evidence of some of the earliest racial perspectives on the Hamitic Curse. These perspectives are described as “fanciful rabbinical expansions” on the Genesis verse – like the one below:
“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.”
This first version of the Hamitic hypothesis points to an apparent curse of dark-skinned people and justifies their subjugation. But the narrative would change later at the beginning of the European Enlightenment.
From the early 18th century, the Hamitic hypothesis attained a meaning that sought to deny the dark-skinned peoples of Africa any iota of significant intellectual achievement.
This rendition of the Hamitic hypothesis was captured by C.G. Seligman in the 1930 book, Races of Africa. He writes:
“Apart from relatively late Semitic influence… the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites, its history 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.”
The Enlightenment era version of the hypothesis described the Hamitic people, or Hamites, as a Caucasian group responsible for the achievements of some oldest civilizations found in Africa.
Naturally, ancient Egypt became a point of contention; European intellectuals who bought into the Hamitic hypothesis had to describe how dark-skinned people could not have achieved the wonders of that civilization.
So they did not let the facts stop them from making up what they believed.
Hundreds of years on, there are those who still believe either rendition of the hypothesis.