We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch Read Free Book Online

Book: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Gourevitch
Tags: nonfiction, History
Hamitic hypothesis, propounded in 1863 by John Hanning Speke, an Englishman who is most famous for “discovering” the great African lake that he christened Victoria and for identifying it as the source of the Nile River. Speke’s basic anthropological theory, which he made up out of whole cloth, was that all culture and civilization in central Africa had been introduced by the taller, sharper-featured people, whom he considered to be a Caucasoid tribe of Ethiopian origin, descended from the biblical King David, and therefore a superior race to the native Negroids.
    Much of Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile is devoted to descriptions of the physical and moral ugliness of Africa’s “primitive races,” in whose condition he found “a strikingly existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” For his text, Speke took the story in Genesis 9, which tells how Noah, when he was just six hundred years old and had safely skippered his ark over the flood to dry land, got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. On emerging from his oblivion, Noah learned that his youngest son, Ham, had seen him naked; that Ham had told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, of the spectacle; and that Shem and Japheth had, with their backs chastely turned, covered the old man with a garment. Noah responded by cursing the progeny of Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Amid the perplexities of Genesis, this is one of the most enigmatic stories, and it has been subjected to many bewildering interpretations—most notably that Ham was the original black man. To the gentry of the American South, the weird tale of Noah’s curse justified slavery, and to Speke and his colonial contemporaries it spelled the history of Africa’s peoples. On “contemplating these sons of Noah,” he marveled that “as they were then, so they appear to be now.”
    Speke begins a section of his Journal , headed “Fauna,” with the words: “In treating of this branch of natural history, we will first take man—the true curly-head, flab-nosed, pouch-mouthed negro.” The figure of this subspecies confronted Speke with a mystery even greater than the Nile: “How the negro has lived so many ages without advancing seems marvelous, when all the countries surrounding Africa are so forward in comparison; and, judging from the progressive state of the world, one is led to suppose that the African must soon either step out from his darkness, or be superseded by a being superior to himself.” Speke believed that a colonial government—“like ours in India”—might save the “negro” from perdition, but otherwise he saw “very little chance” for the breed: “As his father did, so does he. He works his wife, sells his children, enslaves all he can lay hands upon, and unless when fighting for the property of others, contents himself with drinking, singing, and dancing like a baboon, to drive dull care away.”
    This was all strictly run-of-the-mill Victorian patter, striking only for the fact that a man who had so exerted himself to see the world afresh had returned with such stock observations. (And, really, very little has changed; one need only lightly edit the foregoing passages—the crude caricatures, the question of human inferiority, and the bit about the baboon—to produce the sort of profile of misbegotten Africa that remains standard to this day in the American and European press, and in the appeals for charity donations put out by humanitarian aid organizations.) Yet, living alongside his sorry “negroes,” Speke found a “superior race” of “men who were as unlike as they could be from the common order of the natives” by virtue of their “fine oval faces, large eyes, and high noses, denoting the best blood of Abyssinia”—that is, Ethiopia. This “race” comprised many tribes, including the Watusi—Tutsis—all of whom kept cattle and tended to lord it over the Negroid masses. What

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