Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Michael F. Robinson's "The Lost White Tribe"

Michael F. Robinson is professor of history at Hillyer College, University of Hartford. He is the author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture and blogger at Time to Eat the Dogs, a site about science, history, and exploration.

Robinson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent, and reported the following:
From page 99:
By whichever channels Mutesa learned the story of Ham, it captivated him. He spoke of it when he met with Stanley in 1874 and also when he met with other Westerners during the same period. When the French explorer Ernest Linant de Bellefonds arrived in Buganda to meet with Mutesa in 1875, a few months before Stanley’s arrival, he marveled at Mutesa’s appetite for studying the Scriptures. “I left the King at two o’clock after we had arranged to meet again at four,” wrote de Bellefonds. “[The] talk was of Genesis. Mutesa had the story of Genesis from the Creation to the Flood taken down on a writing-tablet. We parted at nightfall. Mutesa is spellbound.”

It’s perhaps understandable why Mutesa would embrace the story of Genesis in general and the story of Ham in particular. At a time when he was learning about powerful peoples who lived beyond the Lakes Region, the stories connected the Ganda people to the broader human family, including the Arabs and Europeans whom he so admired. By establishing kinship between the peoples of Lake Victoria and the West, the story of Ham also brought Buganda into history, at least the Judeo-Christian vision of it, aligning Mutesa more closely with his foreign guests.

Mutesa I
Mutesa also found much to like in Speke’s version of the Hamitic hypothesis, given that it argued that some East Africans, particularly those in royal clans, were the descendants of Abyssinian or Caucasian invaders from long ago. In Speke’s opinion, Mutesa and other rulers were more closely related to Westerners than his Ganda subjects, a flattering claim that only confirmed Mutesa’s right to rule. It was blood that tied the king to his father, Suna II, and to the Sesekabaka before him: a long line of hereditary rulers whose trail went back into the mists of prehistory, a chain that—if Speke were correct—eventually led to the figure of Ham, son of Noah and first king of Buganda, father of all future Kabakas including Mutesa. In a kingdom that understood both history and political power as the expression of a sacred bloodline unfolding over time, the seeds of the Hamitic hypothesis found fertile soil.
The Lost White Tribe is the biography of an idea --the Hamitic Hypothesis-- which argued that fair-skinned tribes had invaded Africa long ago. Born from ancient myth, the theory evolved over time became by the late 1800s the darling of scientists, subject to their most sophisticated instruments and most prized analytical techniques, all in hopes of solving the mysteries of the human racial past. Page 99 examines the origin of the hypothesis in the biblical story of Ham, son of Noah, who was believed to be the forefather of African peoples.

In this excerpt, the explorer Henry Stanley is explaining the story of Ham to Mutesa I, the powerful King of Buganda, who is assisting Stanley in his mission to explore East Africa.
Visit Michael Robinson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue