The Journal of African History

The Historiography of Origins in West Africa

Of Origins and Colonial Order: Southern Nigerian Historians and the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’ c. 1870–19701

Philip S. Zachernuka1

a1 York Univeristy, Ontario

The professional Nigerian nationalist historiography which emerged in reaction against the imperialist Hamitic Hypothesis – the assertion that Africa's history had been made only by foreigners – is rooted in a complex West African tradition of critical dialogue with European ideas. From the mid-nineteenth century, western-educated Africans have re-worked European ideas into distinctive Hamitic Hypotheses suited to their colonial location. This account developed within the constraints set by changing European and African-American ideas about West African origins and the evolving character of the Nigerian intelligentsia. West Africans first identified themselves not as victims of Hamitic invasion but as the degenerate heirs of classical civilizations, to establish their potential to create a modern, Christian society. At the turn of the century various authors argued for past development within West Africa rather than mere degeneration. Edward Blyden appropriated African-American thought to posit a distinct racial history. Samuel Johnson elaborated on Yoruba traditions of a golden age. Inter-war writers such as J. O. Lucas and Ladipo Solanke built on both arguments, but as race science declined they again invoked universal historical patterns. Facing the arrival of Nigeria as a nation-state, later writers such as S. O. Biobaku developed these ideas to argue that Hamitic invasions had created Nigeria's proto-national culture. In the heightened identity politics of the 1950s, local historians adopted Hamites to compete for historical primacy among Nigerian communities. The Hamitic Hypothesis declined in post-colonial conditions, in part because the concern to define ultimate identities along a colonial axis was displaced by the need to understand identity politics within the Nigerian sphere. The Nigerian Hamitic Hypothesis had a complex career, promoting élite ambitions, Christian identities, Nigerian nationalism and communal rivalries. New treatments of African colonial historiography – and intellectual history – must incorporate the complexities illus-trated here.


1 I would like to thank Robin Law for his helpful criticism of an earlier draft. I also gratefully acknowledge support for some of the research represented here received from the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Calgary, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.