Michael F. Robinson’s deeply engaging book The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory That Changed a Continent begins with an encounter: in 1876, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley met a group of Africans near the Ruwenzori Mountains—in what today is Uganda—who he claimed had white skin and European facial features. Stanley’s description of this encounter, published by the New York Herald while he was still in Africa, created a sensation in the Western press. News of the “white race of Gambaragara” spread across the globe and quickly became accepted as anthropological fact (3–4). In the late nineteenth century, newspapers overflowed with explorers’ accounts of white tribes discovered in remote regions of the world—Africa, the Arctic, Central America, northern Japan—that fascinated the scientific community and the general public alike. Scientists and writers linked these stories to the so-called “Hamitic hypothesis,” a theory of human origins that stemmed from the biblical story of Noah’s son Ham, whose descendants supposedly settled in Africa. In the nineteenth century, this idea morphed into a scientific theory of racial origins and human migration that posited the existence of a white-skinned people who invaded Africa and other regions of the globe in the prehistoric period (8–9). Robinson’s outstanding book is a history of the Hamitic idea and the stories of lost white tribes related to it. He argues that the Hamitic thesis profoundly shaped the relationship between Africa and the West, justifying European imperialism by framing the African past in terms of white supremacy. Robinson’s work is the first full-length study of the Hamitic hypothesis. Earlier works such as Léon Poliakov’s classic history of Aryan thought, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (1974), explored intellectual variants of the Hamitic idea, but Robinson’s study is unique in its scope and approach. His narrative reaches from the ancient period to the 1990s, takes place on nearly every continent, and encompasses multiple academic disciplines, from anthropology to linguistics. The book teems with interesting people: colonial officials, African rulers, bespectacled scientists, even Carl Jung. By using the lost white tribe narratives of the nineteenth century to tell the story of the Hamitic thesis, Robinson delightfully combines the history of exploration, science, and adventure writing into something new: the transnational biography of an idea. Central to the book is the story of how the biblical tale of Noah’s sons was transformed into a secular, scientific theory of human origins. Early religious commentators interpreted the story of Noah as an explanation of human migration, with each of his three sons—Japheth, Shem, and Ham—settling in a different geographic region after the flood. Ham’s son Canaan, cursed by Noah, gradually became associated with blackness and Africa. By the 1400s, Ham was understood as the father of black Africans, and Noah’s curse became a justification for slavery (60–62). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, scholars and scientists flipped the Hamitic story into a theory of white migration into Africa through conquest. The pieces came together gradually. In the 1780s, the British linguist William Jones argued that Sanskrit was one branch of a larger Indo-European language family associated with the “children of Ham” who supposedly migrated out from Persia into India to the east and the Middle East and Europe to the west (69–71). Jones’s contemporary, the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, concluded from his study of skull shapes that the original humans were European in form and had migrated from Georgia in the Caucasus region to other parts of the world, where they degenerated into different racial types (78–79). Nineteenth-century polygenists, who believed that races had separate origins, used elements from Jones and Blumenbach to alter the Hamitic theory. They argued that Genesis was actually a story of white Europeans who migrated from the Caucasus south to Africa and east to Asia, where they conquered and ruled over inferior indigenous peoples, who were considered “pre-Adamites” with a separate racial origin. Western scholars maintained that the early Egyptians, for example, were of European or “Caucasian” descent. By the mid-nineteenth century, the descendants of Ham had been recast as “Caucasian” or “Aryan” invaders of Africa (90–91). Robinson demonstrates how this theory spread across the globe through imperial networks, and then, in a closed feedback loop, influenced scientific observation on the ground. When Stanley arrived in East Africa in the 1870s, King Mutesa of Buganda had already accepted the Hamitic thesis, which had reached him through Arab traders and other European explorers, because it portrayed African kings as descendants of Caucasian invaders (94, 98). In the field, the Hamitic idea determined the very contours of what scientists and explorers thought they saw. In the 1870s, archaeologists interpreted the ruins of Great Zimbabwe as evidence of a prehistoric Caucasian invasion because, in their view, the site was too complex to have been built by Africans (109). Popular culture also played a critical role. A new genre of adventure novels, “lost race literature,” popularized the Hamitic thesis in the 1880s and 1890s (175). Cracks in the theory appeared by the 1920s, as archaeologists and anthropologists questioned the material evidence of the thesis, but the Hamitic idea proved remarkably durable over the course of the twentieth century, inspiring a Nazi anthropological exhibition to Tibet in the 1930s (211) and influencing the interpretation of ancient human remains into the 1990s (235–236). Robinson’s book is a remarkable and original achievement: an exciting synthesis of historical approaches that reveals the complex interplay between science, imperialism, and popular culture over several centuries. He demonstrates how these realms operated together to create a remarkably resilient global theory of white domination. The book is a wonderful read, delivered with a storyteller’s skill, and will appeal to both academic and popular audiences. Robinson might have included more nineteenth-century critics of Aryanism, and his connection between the Hamitic hypothesis and Freudian psychology’s fascination with the primitive (188–189) appears rather thin, but these are quibbles that do not detract from the power of the whole. In the final, fascinating chapter, Robinson describes his own trip to the Ruwenzori Mountains and his attempt to understand what Stanley saw. He concludes that stories of lost white tribes revealed a deep insecurity lurking in Western culture, an uncertainty about the meaning of whiteness, and an anxious search for self in the industrial age (255). Robinson has written a lively and significant work that contributes to our understanding of the history of imperialism, science, and the modern world. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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