Military history

Chapter Three

The Racialization of the Hutu/Tutsi Difference under Colonialism

IN THE aftermath of the Second World War, a leading European Jewish intellectual set out to understand what in the trajectory of European history had made possible an event as full of horror as the Holocaust. Unlike many who had tried to closet this event to the internal history of Europe, Hannah Arendt’s great merit was to locate it within the context of a wider history, that of Europe’s global conquest and expansion. She recognized the confluence of two institutions, scientific racism and scientific bureaucracy, as key to shaping the nature of German power as it expanded into Europe. But she also recognized that neither of these institutions was uniquely German. Both were forged in the course of an earlier European expansion into the non-European world.1

Of the two main political devices of imperialist rule, race was discovered in South Africa, and bureaucracy in Algeria, Egypt and India; the former was originally the barely conscious reaction to tribes of whose humanity European man was ashamed and frightened, whereas the latter was a consequence of that administration by which Europeans had tried to rule foreign peoples whom they felt to be hopelessly their inferiors and at the same time in need of their special protection. Race, in other words, was an escape into an irresponsibility where nothing human could any longer exist, and bureaucracy was the result of a responsibility that no man can bear for his fellow-man and no people for another people.

Hannah Arendt recognized, generally, that genocide had a history and, more specifically, that modern genocide was nurtured in the colonies: the “elimination of Hottentot tribes, the wild murdering by Carl Peters in German Southwest Africa, the decimation of the peaceful Congo population—from 20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million people and … worst of all … the triumphant introduction of such means of pacification into ordinary, respectable foreign policies.”2

Although the race idea found free reign in the colonies, Europe was the land of its conception, its prehistory, as it was of its culmination. The prehistory of the race idea in Europe had more of a French than a German imprint. At its core lay a notion nurtured by the French nobility in times of crises: that class differences were natural in origin, and that its taproot was none other than race difference. In its origin, race was an attempt to biologize and naturalize class difference at a time of crisis. Race doctrine in France came to a fruition in the writings of Comte Arthur de Gobineau, whose major work appeared in 1853 and who identified, step by step, the fall of the aristocracy with the fall of France, then of Western civilization, and then of the whole of humanity.3 He looked forward to a “race of princes,” the Aryans, which he hoped would replace the aristocracy and build on its privileges. Ever since French noblemen found themselves pitted against the French bourgeoisie in a struggle for political supremacy, they discovered that they belonged to a separate “race.” The view that the nobility were the descendants of Germanic Franks and the Third Estate of the native Gallo-Romans played a significant role in the development of the revolutions of 1789 and 1830. Nonetheless, the self-proclaimed “Germanism” of the nobility was not quite the same as the “Latinism” of the Third Estate: while the former was a race doctrine, the latter claimed a spiritual and not a biological inheritance from Rome.

Was Hannah Arendt right to posit biology and culture as opposites? Even if she was, in the context of France of the revolutions of 1789 and 1830, what is striking about postrevolutionary developments, as Republican France turned to an imperialist project, was the confluence of culture and biology and the emergence of a discourse on civilization that was nothing less than a culture-coded racism. To identify the link between biology and culture, between the language of race and that of civilization, is to fill in the shaded transition from Republicanism at home to a full-bodied imperialism abroad. Born of an internal class crisis, the race idea took full form in the context of an external imperial crisis. Race spread from a marginal to a mainstream doctrine in the context of modern imperialism, that single most important transformative experience in recent human history. In that same context, race moved from being a preoccupation of a rapidly declining aristocracy to being the fascination of an increasingly bourgeois Europe. Race became the marker dividing humanity into a few superhuman and the rest less than human, the former civilized, the latter putty for a civilizational project. This bipolar division of humanity provided the rationale for the elimination of entire peoples. More than the design to eliminate an entire people, it was the fact that this ghastly endeavor for the first time targeted a people in the heart of Europe that made the Holocaust unique in the imagination of the West. Nazi ideology having cast the Jewish people as a race apart from Europeans, Nazi power set out to eliminate them as a people. The imperial chickens, as it were, had come home to roost.

Hannah Arendt was right that genocide had to be linked to race ideology and bureaucratic efficiency if it was to be brought within the realm of comprehension. But she was mistaken in thinking that race was a singular South African, Boer, discovery. Had she added to the list of imperial horrors the genocide of the Amerindians and the centuries-long trans-Atlantic slave trade, she would have come to a different conclusion. For the nurturing ground of scientific racism was not as much the Boer experience in South Africa as the imperial encounter with continental Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade racialized notions of Africa. It fueled the conceptual tendency to divide Africa in two: that above the Sahara and that below it. From a bridge that had for centuries facilitated a regular flow of trading camel caravans between civilizations to its north and south, the Sahara was now seen as the opposite: a great civilizational barrier below which lay a land perpetually quarantined, “Negro Africa.” “True” Africa, “real” Africa, was now seen as identical with tropical (“sub-Saharan”) Africa geographically and Negro (“Bantu”) Africa socially.

The racialized understanding of Africa in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is summed up, most systematically, even if not most originally, in the writings of the great philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.4 Hegel separated the land from where the slaves were captured, which he called “Africa Proper” from north Africa (“European Africa”) and northeast Africa (“the land of the Nile”), which was for him “closely connected with Asia.”5 In this vision, “European Africa” was seen as a land that though “not itself a theatre of world-historical events” had “always been dependent on revolutions of a wider scope.”6 Similarly, the “land of the Nile” was seen as attached to Eurasia, “a focus” that was “destined to become the centre of a great and independent culture.” In contrast was “Africa Proper” to the south. In Hegel’s words: “Africa proper, as far as history goes back, has remained—for all purposes of connection with the rest of the world—shut up; it is the gold-land compressed within itself—the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of conscious history is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.”7

Although the origin of European race doctrines about Africa lay in the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, these doctrines grew in complexity in the period that followed, that of “discovery” and colonial conquest. The more Europeans got to know Africa, the less credible became the notion of the Sahara as a great civilizational barrier, and the more they were confronted with—and had to explain—growing evidence of organized life on the continent before the encounter with Europe. Every sign of “progress” on the Dark Continent was now taken as evidence of a civilizing influence of an outsider race. This race of civilizers, it was said, were Caucasians who were black in color without being Negroid in race. Thus were born the Hamites of Africa, separated from the Bantu, so-called real Africans.


The Tutsi may have emigrated from elsewhere, but they did not see this as a politically significant fact. It is worth noting that while royal myths claimed a sacred origin for the mwami (king), they never claimed a foreign origin. Mythology had it that the two royal clans (the Abanyiginya and theAbeega) from which the mwami was chosen had a sacred origin. We shall see that the sacral sanction evoked in mythology was not limited to the monarchy; it extended to Tutsi supremacy.

Three oft-cited royal myths are relevant here. The most commonly cited myth about the sacral nature of kingship and the origin of human settlement in Rwanda has it that the monarchy originated from a heavenly king, nkuba, meaning thunder.8 Nkuba lived in heaven with his wife, Nyagasani; their two sons, Kigwa and Tutsi; and their daughter, Nyampundu. One day the three siblings fell from heaven and settled on a Rwandan hill. There, Kigwa married his sister. Their descendants are said to constitute the Abanyiginya clan. Tutsi, Nyampundu’s and Kigwa’s brother, married one of his nieces. Their descendants were the Abeega clan. This, in a nutshell, is why the two royal clans are said to prefer to intermarry, with Abanyiginya boys usually taking Abeega girls.

The subject of the second myth is the social difference between the three differentiated groups. Kigwa’s three sons—Gatwa, Gahutu, and Gatutsi—were said to be deprived of a social faculty. One day, Gatutsi, the firstborn, suggested that they go to Imana (God) and ask for a social faculty. Gatutsi went first, and Imana offered him the faculty of anger. When Gahutu arrived, Imana let him know that only the faculty of disobedience and labor was left, and Gahutu agreed to accept it. Gatwa was the last to arrive and was offered the only remaining faculty, gluttony, which he gladly embraced.

The third legend refers to Kigwa, the son of Nkuba and the first Rwandan king on earth.9 To test the ability of his three sons—Gatwa, Gahutu, and Gatutsi—Kigwa carried out an experiment. Entrusting each of his sons with a calabash filled with milk, he told them to watch over it for a night. The morning after, Gatwa was found to have drunk all the milk, and Gahutu to have spilled his; only Gatutsi had kept his milk intact. So, the king entrusted Gatutsi to command the glutton serf Gatwa and the clumsy peasant Gahutu. Thus did the Tutsi aristocracy, like the Tutsi monarchy, claim a sanction based on a sacred, and not an alien, origin.

The idea that the Tutsi were superior because they came from elsewhere, and that the difference between them and the local population was a racial difference, was an idea of colonial origin. It was an idea shared by rival colonists, Belgians, Germans, English, all of whom were convinced that wherever in Africa there was evidence of organized state life, there the ruling groups must have come from elsewhere. These mobile groups were known as the Hamites, and the notion that they were the hidden hand behind every bit of civilization on the continent was known as the “Hamitic hypothesis.” We shall see that its genealogy goes deeper than the colonial period, to the era of trans-Atlantic slavery, and even deeper. The paradox of the slave trade was this: the more the slave trade grew in volume, the more it increased the value of the slave while debasing his or her humanity. The more this trend accelerated, the more the ideologues of the period were determined to keep the ancestors of slaves from contaminating the origin of civilization. The Hamitic hypothesis easily appealed to such a sensibility.

The raw material from which the Hamitic hypothesis was manufactured can be dated back to Judaic and Christian myths of biblical and medieval vintage. Scholars of the period say the word Ham appears for the first time in Genesis, chapter 5, of the Bible.10The account in Genesis tells of Ham’s contempt for his father, whom he saw drunk and lying naked in a stupor. While Noah’s other sons covered their father’s nakedness, averting their eyes so as not to witness his shame, Ham did not look away. Noah blessed the descendants of Shem and Japhet, but cursed those of Ham. While Genesis says nothing about the descendants of Ham being black, the claim that they were cursed by being black first appeared in the oral traditions of the Jews when these were recorded in the sixth-century Babylonian Talmud; that same myth depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.11 This notion persisted in the Middle Ages, when a rabbinical elaboration on the Genesis story had it that Ham had emasculated Noah, who cursed him thus:

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!

The commentary continues: “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.”12

The biblical myth was that descendants of Ham were Negro Africans. Though a part of humanity—as descended from Noah—they were considered an accursed part, having descended from a cursed son of Noah. It was in this vein that Leo Africanus, the great North African traveler and onetime protégé of Pope Leo X, identified Negro Africans as having descended from Ham. Scholars of Hebrew myths note that these oral traditions “grew out of a need of the Israelites to rationalize their subjugation of Canaan.” In a different age, that of the sixteenth-century Atlantic slave trade, it was turned into raw material and put to a different use. The biblical curse—“a servant of servants shall he be”—was taken to mean that the Negro was clearly preordained for slavery. So, the Negro could be degraded while remaining a part of humanity—without disturbing Christian sensibilities formally.

The biblical and the Rwandan myths share an important similarity. Both identify social differences as differences between those whose ancestors were brothers, thus the differences continue to be within a single humanity. It is this assumption, this myth, of a single humanity, that came under question over the first two centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The more the Western world grew rich on the institution of slavery, the less it was willing to accept Negros as brothers and sisters under the skin. This tension was reflected in a growing intellectual debate about the origin of humanity, spurred by the philosophes who were at the epicenter of the Enlightenment. Two schools of thought mushroomed.13 On one side were the monogenists who emphasized that humanity had a single origin: they explained the degradation of the Negro as the result of a “degeneration” due to adverse environmental conditions, not any biblical curse. On the other side were the polygenists who argued in favor of multiple origins: they claimed that the Negro was subhuman. Though for opposite reasons, neither had room for the notion that the Negro was descended from the accursed Ham. A parallel debate also emerged in theological circles with a dissident school claiming the existence of pre-Adamite beings from whom nonwhite races were said to have descended.14

By the end of the eighteenth century, the myth that the Negro was the accursed descendant of Ham had been turned upside down. The catalyst behind the second incarnation of the Hamitic hypothesis was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon shared a passion for science and antiquities with intellectuals of the Enlightenment, so he invited archaeologists and other scientists to join him on the expedition. The immediate impact of the discoveries they made was to disturb Europe’s view of Africans profoundly. V. Denon, a member of Napoleon’s expedition, described the predominant physical features of Egyptians: “a broad and flat nose, very short, a large flattened mouth … thick lips, etc.”15 How could the producers of a civilization that had nurtured Greece and Rome be black? Another French traveler who had a decade earlier spent four years in Egypt and Syria had remarked on this paradox in a well-known book:16 “How are we astonished … when we reflect that to the race of negroes, at present our slaves, and the object of our contempt, we owe our arts, sciences, and … when we recollect that, in the midst of these nations who call themselves the friends of liberty and humanity, the most barbarous of slaveries is justified; and that it is even a problem whether the understanding of negroes be of the same species as that of white men!”

The answer to this paradox was disarmingly simple: it was to turn the curse of Noah upside down and to claim that the Hamites (including the Egyptians) were actually Caucasians under a black skin. Rather than Negroes, Hamites were seen as other than Negroes, those who civilized the Negroes and were in turn corrupted by the Negroes. In this scheme of things, the ancient Egyptians were considered Hamitic, not Negroid, as were the Nubians and the Ethiopians (who were preferably called Abyssinians, a name less evocative of blackness than was Ethiopian). This is how Comte de Gobineau, that respectable nineteenth-century reactionary who later came to be considered the father of European racism, explained it all.17 According to him, the three races represented by the sons of Noah—Ham, Shem, and Japhet—had all originated in some region of Central Asia and set out to seek their fortunes—all rather like the Three Little Piglets, to repeat Martin Bernal’s amusing quip. The first to head south were the Hamites. The Hamites were said to be the genius behind ancient Egypt and behind the Phoenicians. But after founding some civilizations and attempting to keep their blood pure, they had become hopelessly mongrelized by the native and inferior blacks. Next to leave were the Semites, who also got polluted in the course of time, partly from direct contact with the blacks, but mostly from contact with the “mulatto” Hamites. Only the Aryans, the Japhites, had stayed in the north and retained their purity. In this version, the one that is generally accepted, the sons of Noah were the predecessors of the three main races in humanity: the Europeans were begotten from Japhet, the Semites from Shem, and the Hamites from Ham. No longer Hamites, but a pre-Hamitic species that were said to have corrupted the Hamites, the Negroid Africans were finally beyond the pale of humanity.

This second version of the Hamitic hypothesis was reconciled to the biblical story in the early nineteenth century. It was remembered that Noah had, after all, cursed Canaan, son of Ham, but not Ham or his other sons, Cush the Ethiopian, Mizrahim the Egyptian, and Put. The Egyptians, it was also remembered, were born of Mizrahim, a different son of Ham. So, the Egyptians were salvaged, unscathed, black but not Negroid, and thus not cursed. The high regard in which Egypt was held in the European imagination at the beginning of nineteenth century is clear from the enormous popularity of Aida, the national opera that Mohamed Ali’s grandson Ismail commissioned from Giuseppe Verdi, the composer of the Italian Risorgimento. The opera’s plot was devised by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, and it glorified Ancient Egypt in a Western manner, advancing a favorable view of Egypt “as essentially white and as a fount of civilisation.”18

But “the Egyptian problem”—how could Africans have produced such a high civilization?—did not disappear with the whitening of Egypt. When equatorial Africa was colonized and European explorers were running its length and breadth, the question appeared in bold, this time in the public mind. One way to answer that question, a way that found great favor in those times, was to devalue Egyptian civilization doubly. The first was to deny its links to what was claimed as the cradle of modern Europe: Ancient Greece. And the second was to confirm it nominally as a part of Africa, as part of it geographically but not organically; considered African but not Negroid, both Egyptians and Ethiopians could be presented as external civilizers of “Negro Africa.” As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Egyptians were brought lower down the ladder, and the civilization known as Ancient Egypt was similarly devalued. French writers such as Maspero made the point bluntly: “Thothmes III and Rameses II resemble Mtesa [Mutesa] of Central Africa more than they do Alexander or Ceasar.” The English Egyptologist Wallis Budge concluded in the same vein:

The Egyptians, being fundamentally an African people, possessed all the virtues and vices which characterised the North African races generally, and it is not to be held for a moment that any African people could become metaphysicians in the modern sense of the word. In the first place, no African language is suitable for giving expression to theological and philosophical speculations, and even an Egyptian priest of the highest intellectual attainments would have been unable to render a treatise of Aristotle into language which his brother priests, without teaching, could understand.

Martin Bernal has shown how the European view of Egyptians changed through history.19 In classical times, Egyptians were considered “both black and white and yellow.” Herodotus referred to them as having “black skins and woolly hair.” In the fifteenth century, in the era before Atlantic slavery, Egyptians could both be admired and be seen as black. The Talmudic interpretation that “the curse of Ham” was blackness became widespread in the seventeenth century. With increased racism amid growing respect for Ancient Egyptians in the late seventeenth century, their image tended to be whitened. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the tendency was to pull Egyptians back to Africa, just as there was growing enthusiasm for Ethiopia. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the predominant view—as in Mozart’s The Magic Flute—was that Egyptians were neither Negro nor essentially African, but Asian. Following Napoleon’s expedition, however, pictorial representations of Ancient Egyptians became available to Europeans, and they showed “a thoroughly mixed” population.

To make room for a revised notion of Hamites as Caucasian, the hierarchy of race was stretched further. The top of the Caucasian ladder continued to be occupied by the Teutonic Anglo-Saxons. But its bottom rungs, previously occupied by the Slavs, were now stretched to include the African Hamites. Just as Egyptians were devalued in the hierarchy of Caucasians—put at its lower rung as Hamites, whites in black skin—they were rejoined to Africa and acclaimed as the historical summit of the African pyramid. They constituted, as it were, the front line of the Hamites marching through the length and breadth of the African continent, spreading civilization.20 Corruptors of civilization in the original thesis, the Hamites had now become its dispensers.

Writing in 1955, the Senegalese savant Cheikh Anta Diop crisply summarized the shifts in how scholars understood the Hamitic hypothesis:

What we cannot understand, however, is how it has been possible to make a white race of Kemit: Hamite, black, ebony, etc. (even in Egyptian). Obviously, according to the needs of the cause, Ham is cursed, blackened, and made into the ancestor of the Negroes. This is what happens whenever one refers to contemporary social relations.

On the other hand, he is whitened whenever one seeks the origins of civilization, because there he is inhabiting the first civilized country in the world.

It is important to link the notion of Hamites, as we labour to understand it in official textbooks, with the slightest historical, geographical, linguistic or ethnic reality. No specialist is able to pinpoint the birthplace of the Hamites (scientifically speaking), the language they spoke, the migratory route they followed, the countries they settled, or the form of civilization they may have left. On the contrary, all the experts agree that this term has no serious content, and yet not one of them fails to use it as a kind of master-key to explain the slightest evidence of civilization in Black Africa.21

Cheikh Anta’s observation was astute and his rebuttal poignant. And yet, one reflects to the extent to which the Hamitic hypothesis influenced the contours of his own scholarly claim: that the decline of ancient Egypt led to the dispersal of its population, an Egyptian diaspora, as it were, in turn leading to the “peopling of Africa.”

The colonial official whose writings were central to the second incarnation of the Hamitic hypothesis was John Hanning Speke. “I profess to describe naked Africa—Africa in those places where it has not received the slightest impulse, whether for good or for evil, from European civilization,” so Speke began his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, as if picking up where Hegel had left off, but then continued in a vein more evocative of post-Genesis mythology: “If the picture be a dark one, we should when contemplating these sons of Noah try and carry our mind back to that time when our poor elder brother Ham was cursed by his father, and condemned to be the slave of both Shem and Japhet; for as they were then, so they appear to be now—a strikingly existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.”22 When he discovered the kingdom of Buganda with its complex political organization, Speke attributed this “barbaric civilization” to the Hamitic Galla from Ethiopia.23 The Hamite had now become African Caucasians. By 1870, fathers of the Catholic Church gathered in the Vatican I Council were calling on fellow Caucasians to mount a rescue operation for “hapless Hamites caught amidst Negroes.”24

The Hamites were not just ascribed physical attributes. Soon, they were given other attributes: first language, and then a wider cultural identity. In line with the claim that race and language were inextricably bound together, the Hamites were seen as speakers of the Hamitic language. This was said to be the case regardless of whether they retained the language, as the Ethiopians and the Berbers were said to, or lost it, wholly or partially, as was said to be the case with the Egyptians, the Tutsi, the Bahuma, or the Masai. Just as they were said to share a single family of languages, the Hamitic languages, the Hamites were also said to share a single culture, a way of life: unlike the Negroes who were said to be agriculturalists, the Hamites were said to be pastoralists. Few were bothered by the contradiction that racial groups were first based on language, if for no other reason than to give the claim a scientific grounding; but when some were found to have lost the original language, they were said to be left with nothing but their original race! The real irony was that the racial classification “Hamite” no longer corresponded to a color line. It came to include a wide range of peoples, from fair-skinned, blond, and blue-eyed Berbers to black Ethiopians. Even more glaring was the contradiction that Hamites could continue to be seen as practitioners of a pastoralist culture even if more and more of their numbers were without cattle.

But these contradictions did not seem to matter, not so long as the hypothesis could explain away the growing evidence of civilization within the Dark Continent as European adventurers took to “exploring” it. The Hamites were now confirmed as the great “civilizers” of Africa. With every move, these pastoralists were said to have brought a wider range of innovations to local agriculturalists: not only technical ones such as iron working and irrigation, but more so the political arts ranging from the age-grade system to the very capacity for state organization and, in some cases, even monotheism. With its status raised from a biblical myth to a scientific claim, the Hamitic hypothesis found support from much of anthropology. The key text was Charles Gabriel Seligman’s famousRaces of Africa, first published in 1930, and then reprinted, basically without revision, in several editions until 1966. From his chair of ethnology in the University of London, Seligman pronounced the Hamites “Europeans” for they “belong to the same great branch of mankind as the whites.” And then he opined: “Apart from the relatively late Semitic influence—whether Phoenician (Carthaginian) and strictly limited, or Arab (Muhammedan) and widely diffused, the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites, its history the record of these peoples and their interaction with the other two African stocks, the Negro and the Bushmen, 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 the Somalis.”25

Now we come to the final paradox, one that directly concerns our study. The Hamites had now become an entire branch of the race of Caucasians; the Tutsi were said to be but one of many Hamitic groups. Recall that Speke had first employed the Hamitic hypothesis to explain the Buganda kingdom, not the kingdom of Rwanda. Why was it that it was only in Rwanda (and Burundi) and not anywhere else—not with the Baganda in Uganda, the Bahima in Ankole, the Bahuma in Bunyoro, or the Masai in Kenya and Tanganyika—that the Hamitic hypothesis retained a political potency decades later? My answer is simple: only in Rwanda was the notion that the Tutsi were a race apart from the majority turned into a rationale for a set of institutions that reproduced the Tutsi as aracialized minority. The Tutsi were racialized, not just through an ideology but through a set of institutional reforms that the ideology inspired, in which it was embedded, and which in turn reproduced it. This set the Tutsi apart from other so-called Hamites in Africa, just as it ruptured the link between race and color in Rwanda.


The racialization of the Tutsi/Hutu was not simply an intellectual construct, one which later and more enlightened generations of intellectuals could deconstruct and discard at will. More to the point, racialization was also an institutional construct. Racial ideology was embedded in institutions, which in turn undergirded racial privilege and reproduced racial ideology. It is this political-institutional fact that intellectuals alone would not be able to alter. Rather, it would take a political-social movement to be dismantled.

As a process both ideological and institutional, the racialization of the Tutsi was the creation of a joint enterprise between the colonial state and the Catholic Church. Missionaries were “the first ethnologists” of colonial Rwanda.26 As such, they were the primary ideologues of colonization. For Father Léon Classe, the future bishop of Rwanda and the key architect of missionary policy, the Tutsi were already in 1902 “superb humans” combining traits both Aryan and Semitic, just as for Father François Menard, writing in 1917, a Tutsi was “a European under a black skin.”27 If the Church heralded the Tutsi as “supreme humans” in 1902, the same Church would turn into a prime site for the slaughter of Tutsi in 1994.

The colonial state called upon missionary knowledge from early on. Soon after colonization, the Belgian state ordered a reflection on Rwanda from the White Fathers.28 The purpose was to elaborate and implement “race policies.” In response, Fathers Arnoux, Hurel, Pagès, and Schumacher—Church fathers with expertise—prepared anthropological treatises. A consolidated document was then drawn up by Léon Classe, the head of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, and then presented to government authorities. This 1916 document had a wide readership. Not surprisingly, it gave vent to the kind of race thinking that the Church hierarchy had come to hold as a deeply felt conviction. “Race policy” became such a preoccupation with the colonial power that from 1925 on, annual colonial administration reports included an extensive description of the “races” in a chapter called “race policy.”29 By then, the Church had become integral to the workings of the state: since 1925, annual colonial reports included sections devoted exclusively to reports written by the heads of the Catholic Société Belge de Missions Protestantes au Congo (SBMPC, former Bethel mission), Church Missionary Society (CMS), and Adventists missions.30

It took Belgian rule a little over a decade to translate its vision of a civilizational mission in Rwanda into an institutional imprint. Central to that translation was the Hamitic hypothesis. Summed up in Kinyarwanda as other than Rubanda Nyamwinshi31—meaning the majority, the ordinary folk—Belgian power turned Hamitic racial supremacy from an ideology into an institutional fact by making it the basis of changes in political, social, and cultural relations. The institutions underpinning racial ideology were created in the decade from 1927 to 1936. These administrative reforms were comprehensive. Key institutions—starting with education, then state administration, taxation, and finally the Church—were organized (or reorganized, as the case may be) around an active acknowledgment of these identities. The reform was capped with a census that classified the entire population as Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa, and issued each person with a card proclaiming his or her official identity. We shall look at each of these to get a sense of the institutional matrix through which the Tutsi found themselves in a contradictory position, privileged in relation to the Hutu but oppressed in relation to Europeans.

Race Education

If the theory was that the Tutsi were “a civilizing race,” then there would have to be institutions that would discriminate in favor of the Tutsi so as to make the theory a reality. Two institutions were key to ensuring this outcome: the school system and local administration. Of the two, the creation of a school system that could act as a womb of racial ideology was a priority. While the starting point of this enterprise was the notion of Tutsi supremacy that had both justified and sustained Tutsi privilege under Rwabugiri in the Rwanda of the late nineteenth century, its end product was to construct a far more comprehensive ideology of the Tutsi as a race, the “Hamites,” both civilizing and alien. Without a cadre incubated with a Hamitic ethos, it would not be possible to create a local administrative hierarchy steeped in a self-conscious racialized elitism.

The first Western-style school in Rwanda was opened by the White Fathers in 1905 in Nyanza.32 By 1908, it had twenty-six pupils, all sons of chiefs. In July 1907, Fathers Dufays and Classe had started the construction of another school in Kabgayi. To “surely reach the sons of the chiefs Batoutsi, there has been opened a special school for them,” so they explained as their objective. In 1910, the policy of “favouring the Mututsi of Rwanda” was formulated and addressed by Father Schumacher as a report to the Superior General. The point was underlined by Father Classe in his extended study of 1911. The objective was to turn the Tutsi, the “born rulers” of Rwanda, into an elite “capable of understanding and implementing progress,” and thus functioning as auxiliaries to both the missionaries and the colonial administration. There followed schools, no longer just for sons of chiefs but specifically for sons of Tutsi chiefs: in Nyanza in 1912, Kabgayi and Rwaza in 1913, Kigali in 1914 and 1916, Save in 1917, and Rwamagana in 1919. The obsession with a Tutsi-focused education was so strong that the White Fathers decided to move the school in Nyanza to Kabgayi on the grounds that “in Nyanza there were many sons of the Hutu being recruited.” The trend culminated with the creation of the Groupe Scolaire d’Astrida in 1929 by the colonial authorities.

By the early 1930s, government schools were phased out and the missions assumed control of the education system. The system they created had two tiers. The tendency was to restrict admission mainly to Tutsi, especially to the upper schools.33 But where both Tutsi and Hutu children were admitted, there was a clear differentiation in the education meted out to each. The Tutsi were given a “superior” education, taught in French in a separate stream. The assimilationist education prepared them for administrative positions in government and testified to their preparation for citizenship, even if at the lowest orders. In contrast, the Hutu were given an education considered “inferior,” since they were taught in a different stream, one where the medium of instruction was Kiswahili. The point of the separatist education was not simply to prepare them for manual labor but also to underline the political fact that educated Hutu were not destined for common citizenship. The products of the French stream identified themselves as “Hamites” and those of the Kiswahili stream as “Bantu.”

State Administration

The reform of the 1920s had a triple objective: first, to shift power from the monarch to chiefs as local authorities; second, to reorganize the powers of local authorities both to remove any form of accountability to communities below or any check and balance internal to the administrative bureaucracy, leaving in place only an accountability to the colonial administration above; and third, to racialize the local authority. The three objectives were not always in harmony. They gave rise to contradictory consequences at the start of reform, creating widespread discontent among both the chiefs and the monarch, and undermining the racialization policy. Ultimately, they led to a wholesale displacement of many of the leading chiefs and the mwami.

The reform of the 1920s began by centralizing the powers of chiefs and deflating those of the mwami. Both moves reinforced the same end: to augment colonial power in a despotic fashion. Even before Mwami Musinga was deposed in 1930, the powers of the office of the mwami were reduced in two important ways.34 In 1922, the mwami lost his juridical supremacy and was obliged to take the advice of the colonial resident—through a delegate—in juridical affairs. The next year the mwami’s administrative powers were curtailed as he lost the right to appoint chiefs, first at the regional and then the district level, without the consent of the Belgian Resident Representative. In 1926, the structure of local government was “streamlined” and powers of chiefs were redefined. The traditional trinity of chiefs had consisted of the chief of the pastures who was always a Tutsi, the chief of the land who was often a Hutu, and the chief of the men who was usually a Tutsi. The trinity of powers was abolished. Powers hitherto separate and differentiated were fused in a single agent. René Lemarchand noted in his study of colonial Rwanda that the streamlining abolished “the old balance of forces between cattle chiefs, land chiefs and army chiefs, which in previous times had served to protect the [Ba]hutu peasantry against undue exactions.” The resulting “concentration of powers in the hands of a single chief, exercizing unfettered control over his people, was bound to lead to abuses: not only did it deprive the Hutu of opportunities to play one chief off against another, but it also eliminated the channels of appeal offered by the previous arrangement.”35 Such institutional change not only augmented state power, it also made it more despotic in character.

The deflation in the power of the mwami and the redefinition of the powers of chiefs bred discontent among many chiefs. As we shall see, the tension between the colonial administration and the old chiefs was exacerbated in a context where both church missionaries and state officials were exerting great pressures on the elite to convert to Christianity. In the face of resistance, the response of the Belgian administration was to depose those they saw as unredeemable, even if they numbered in the hundreds. But when Tutsi chiefs and subchiefs were substituted by Hutu appointees, Catholic missionaries were aghast, and alarmed. Concerned about the “vacillation of the colonial authorities with regard to the traditional hegemony of the well-born Tutsi,” Monseigneur Classe categorically warned the administration against any attempt to “eliminate the Tutsi caste.”36 In Lemarchand’s opinion, “the Church posed as the strongest advocate of Tutsi supremacy.”

And Tutsi supremacy in the local administration is precisely what the Church assured. The 1920s saw a Tutsification of the chiefship as an institution. This was the result of a double development. The trend had begun with local chiefs being dismissed from all the newly incorporated principalities—such as the Ndorwa, Mutara, and Mulera regions in the north, and Busozo, Bushinzi, and Bukiru regions in the northwest—and replaced by Tutsi freshly parachuted into each region. Later, all Hutu chiefs in the central kingdom were systematically deposed and replaced by Tutsi chiefs. The new Tutsi chiefs were the products of schools for the sons of Tutsi chiefs. Nourished on a steady diet of Hamitic supremacy, they were appointed chiefs as if by birthright.

Tutsi power in local administration was consolidated by a further institutional reform. This was a judicial reform that introduced the Native Tribunals in 1936. These reforms further augmented the powers of the single, centralized chiefship, in every case headed by Tutsi chiefs. To the executive power to implement every government directive, and legislative power to proclaim a by-law so long as it did not violate an existing government policy or directive, the reform added a judicial power that allowed the chief literally to sit in judgment of himself. So were the parameters of local administrative power rounded off into a local despotism.37

The Church and Conversion

It was one thing to incorporate the Tutsi hierarchy in the colonial power structure, quite another to Christianize it.38 To do this successfully took over three decades of colonial rule. German officials tended to defer to missionaries, especially the Catholic White Fathers, first, because they were too few in numbers, and second, because they were mindful that missionaries had an advantage over state administration not only in numbers but also in the longevity of their stay in Rwanda. The missionaries, on their part, had been delighted to find a country where there were neither Muslims nor Protestants—in other words, no competition.39 Now, in return for service to the state, they wanted their proverbial pound of flesh: the freedom to evangelize for themselves augmented by the freedom to convert for their subjects. Belgian power obliged in 1917 when it compelled the mwamito sign a bill on the “liberty of conscience.”40 Formal liberties aside, the mwami and his chiefs had their own ideas. Besides restricting evangelical access to the Tutsi elite—while directing it to the Hutu peasantry—the mwami also opened the door to Protestant missions. For the White Fathers, this constituted a double injury: it went against the grain of their policy that they convert the rulers first, and it violated their expectation that as an officially Catholic colony Rwanda would naturally be a Catholic evangelical monopoly.

That the mwami had an important role in the traditional religion proved an obstacle to converting the Tutsi hierarchy to Christianity. The court and the majority of chiefs resisted conversion well up to 1930. When persuasion did not work, missionaries called upon the power of the state to clear the ground for successful evangelization. Those among the chiefs “who would not convert” were branded “sorcerers, diviners and superstitious and were deposed.”41 The trend came to a head in 1926, when “hundreds of Rwandese chiefs were dismissed from office and in some cases temporarily replaced by chiefs of Hutu extraction.”42 The bill on liberty of conscience notwithstanding, the king, who did not convert, was constantly considered a threat, not only to evangelization but also to colonization; so he was deposed in 1930 and exiled to Congo, where he died in 1943. Among other things, Mwami Musinga was accused of closeness with Protestants and the Adventists, whom he had allowed to open stations in Kirinda and Rubengera, two symbolic ritual areas, and in Gitwe, only a half-hour drive from the capital of the monarchy in Nyanza.

It is notable that Musinga was deposed without significant popular protest. This testified to his growing estrangement, not only from Belgian power and missionaries, but also from an expanding rank of Tutsi chiefs, particularly those with a keen appreciation of the changes entailed by the new colonial order. Among this latter group, there was a growing awareness that the defense of their own position required a recognition of the Church as part of the new forces shaping the destiny of Rwanda.43 The event that seemed to have given them a particular fright was the ordination of five Hutu to priesthood in 1919. It signaled a possibility they dared not entertain: that the Hutu could be emancipated and ennobled as Hutu, rather than in the traditional way, which required them to take on a Tutsi identity.

Passing over tradition which required that the new king be enthroned by the abiiru ritualists, Monseigneur Classe and Governor Voisin enthroned Rudahigwa as the new king, symbolizing, in Gatwa’s words, “the alliance of the altar and the throne.” The “pagan monarch” done away with, the new young king and the Tutsi hierarchy converted to Catholicism. The effect on the mass of the population was electric. Believing that the new king had given an order to convert, many did just that.44 The mass conversion came to be known as the “Tornado” in missionary literature. It was said to transform Rwanda into the second “Christian Kingdom” after that of “Priest Jan.” Decades later, the change would be summed up in a popular Kinyarwanda saying: “Church preaching replaced culture.”45

A Regime of Compulsions

Rwanda was an agrarian colony with little urban settlement before this century. From the very outset, Belgians signaled that the agrarian political economy would be developed mainly along agricultural, and not pastoral, lines. This meant that in any tension between cultivators and herders over use of common resources, the state would come down on the side of cultivators. The message was conveyed in unmistakable terms by decree no. 791/A/53, which levied a fine—twice the amount of damage caused—on every Tutsi taking the harvest of a Hutu or sending his herd to graze in a cultivated field. A later decree compelled the mwami to double the size of the arable land at the disposal of Hutu families, thereby emphasizing the tilt in resource use in favor of agriculture and away from cattle-rearing.46

In spite of reforms favouring agrarian production, the Hutu peasantry experienced Belgian rule as harsher than any previous regime in living memory. For this, there were two reasons. First, there was the reorganization of state administration, particularly local administration. We have seen that the reorganization went beyond a simple incorporation of the precolonial state machinery into the lower rungs of the new order. By creating a single hierarchy of chiefs, it accentuated the despotic aspect of state administration.Second, this despotic machinery was enabled by a highly administrative version of “customary” law, one which sanctified as “customary” any exercise of force by authorities simply because they too were considered “customary.” As “customary” authorities and “customary” law became central to the Belgian project of colonial development, a combination of market mechanisms and extra/economic compulsions became central to propelling the project forward. The key point for our purposes is that the authority decreeing these compulsions was inevitably the hierarchy of Tutsi chiefs.

The Belgian administration began by confirming and, where possible, individualizing taxes previously introduced by the Germans, and then followed by adding on to these. This included a Minimum Personal Contribution, levied as an individual tax on every adult male. The Church, too, in the person of Monseigneur Classe, introduced its own tax, being 1 franc per person per year. But there was a limit to monetary exactions, especially in the early decades when it was assumed that market relationships were the privilege of officialdom, whether Belgian or Tutsi. This was so prevalent that “until about 1930 it was common practice throughout Rwanda for chiefs who recruited workers to take wages for themselves.”47

When it came to the regime of exactions, monetary taxes were but the tip of the iceberg. This is why it is not the range of monetary taxes but that of nonmonetary exactions that convey the real harshness of Belgian rule. These exactions constituted nothing less than a regime of force, ranging from forced labor to forced crops. These could be demanded of individuals for “educational” reasons, or of entire groups for “developmental” reasons. The standard punishment for anyone who reneged on an administrative requirement—whether it was forced labor, forced crops, or forced sales—was the kiboko, eight strokes with hippopotamus cane.48

Force was integral to the process of exploitation—particularly forced labor. At first, the colonial power found it convenient simply to pass on every demand—say, the upkeep of roads—to “customary” chiefs so they would use their “customary” prerogative to get the job done without payment and with a minimum of disruption of order. The chiefs, too, found it convenient to add their own demands to this list of “customary” exactions. So the list grew: the land tax—butake—traditionally said to be one day of labor for the chiefs in every five, was increased by chiefs to two or even three days in every six. Soon, this was supplemented by other forms of corvée that had never before existed, such as an obligation to construct chiefs’ houses from durable materials. Under these conditions, “work” came to be synonymous with “force.” Commenting on the interwar period, the historian Kagame wrote: “Thus for several decades the country became a vast camp of forced work of a new type. The very notion of work came to be practically synonymous with corvée, to the point that the representatives of Authority themselves, natives as well as Europeans, understood it as such and interpreted it with this transformed nuance.”49

Forced labor soon led to forced crops. The cultivation of “famine” crops was first made an administrative compulsion in the 1920s. Ironically, the compulsory cultivation of famine-resistant but protein-deficient tubors came as an antidote to a string of famines that began as early as 1904, never mind that recurring famines bore a relationship to the onset of a regime of force worse than any in Rwandan memory. In 1932, one missionary complained that “the authorities had requisitioned his parishioners so often they scarcely had time to grow food, and famine threatened.” He complained of “the coffee drive, the buckwheat drive, the cassava drive, tree planting, construction work, road cleaning, and more.” He calculated that “of 2,024 available male villagers in his area, 1,375 were requisitioned each day.”50 The response to the famine of the 1920s was not a program of public relief through public works, giving a monetary income to the worker, but a program where public work became a compulsion to work for the public power without any reward. The series of programs introduced to counteract the famine “required vastly increased demands on rural manpower and set forth an explicit policy of reinforcing the power of the chiefs, who were responsible for seeing that each directive was carried out in all its details.” The measures included the “compulsory cultivation of famine-resistant food crops (cassava, sweet potatoes and, in some areas, European potatoes), reclamation of marshes to provide additional land for cultivation, the introduction of required cash crop production (primarily coffee) and reforestation programs.”51 While the compulsion to grow food crops as an “antifamine” measure became administrative practice in the 1920s, it was formulated into law in 1931, mandating “that each farm family cultivate a certain area in root crops as a means of preventing seasonal food crises and famines.”52 In most of Rwanda, the root crop of choice was the sweet potato, with cassava grown only at the lowest elevations and white potatoes at high elevations. Similarly, coffee was introduced as a compulsory cash crop for reasons of “development.”

Force so permeated the arena of law defined as “customary” that forced sales also came to be considered as part of civilized behavior. At the beginning of colonial rule, a refusal to sell assets was considered uncivil, and even rebellious, behavior. Here, for example, is an entry from the diary of a colonial official, dated 14 January 1905: “The movement of resistance (see 1904) to ‘the opening of the region to commerce’ grows; ‘Mwami Musinga forbids all breeders to sell cattle.’ Learning of this interdiction, two European traders (the Austrian Fritz Schindelar and the Boer Praetorius) accompanied by armed escorts ‘seize the cattle in Gisaka and Nduga’; they take ‘women hostages in order to force the people to sell or else they steal the cattle and burn the houses.’ ”53

Two decades later, in 1928, when the administrator Hendrix was asked to provide thousands of porters to carry beans procured in Gisaka, Rugari made the following observation in his diary about how the beans had been “bought”: “The chiefs are ordered to bring their sub-chiefs and subjects ladden with food” and that “it is more or less forced sale.”54 Similarly, tax levies, even if in cash, were turned by chiefs into opportunities “to gather cows, goats, hoes, etc.”55 The more a chief became indispensable as an instrument of local government, the more he had opportunities for extralegal exactions. An administrative report from 1926 explained how these abuses proliferated:

In the territories where food supplies are requested from chiefdoms, the notables sometimes proceed in the following manner: In the case of beef, cattle are requisitioned from various hills or from a variety of aba-garagu. The notable who requisitions these animals delivers one to the [administrative] post where he collects the payment, and places the others in his herds or sells them to the traders. A similar method is used in the case of food supplies….

When porters are requested from chiefdoms, it happens that a certain number of these are not used. These are sometimes used by the notables for cultivating the latter’s fields.56

To be sure, many a chief was deposed, and just as many received corporal punishment from Belgian authorities, for failure to deliver. Tutsi overseers were often required to force Hutu commoners to work. “If you didn’t meet your targets, the Belgians would whip you,” recalled John Kanyambo, age seventy-eight. Recalling massive terracing schemes and road projects, elderly Tutsi refugees in Uganda told Catherine Watson of how little choice the regime of forced labor gave them. The Belgian attitude was simple: “You whip the Hutu or we will whip you.”57 And yet the chiefs were no simple cogs in the colonial wheel. For the chief willing to collaborate, colonialism turned into a profitable partnership: the chief could and did add his own exactions on top of whatever the colonial power demanded, and then proceeded to apply the degree of force necessary to ensure compliance with demands he inevitably presented as “traditional.” The smaller the chief, the more arbitrary the imposition: as one Church observer noted, a petit Tutsi chief and his wife “could take almost anything they please—bananas, yams, etc.—and the Hutu must comply lest he be expelled from his fields.”58

Every so often, the Belgian authorities would try to rationalize the system, mainly to reduce the chiefly scope for levying extralegal exactions. At first, this took the form of codifying and thus setting specific limits on forced measures. The prime example was the codification in 1924 ofubureetwa (forced labor) that had earlier been introduced by Mwami Rwabugiri. It was now fixed at 42 days a year, as opposed to the earlier practice, irregular but said to be extending in some instances to as many as 142 days a year. Though its weight was formally reduced in law, the practical effect of legal codification was otherwise: previously a practice only where Tutsi power had been a reality for some time, this form of unpaid labor for chiefs became generalized throughout Rwanda, becoming rigidly enforced as a legal compulsion, only during the colonial period.59

Later, Belgian authorities sought to concentrate on different forms of corvée, so as to replace each with an annual tax to be paid in cash. But, as often as old forms of corvée were converted to a cash levy, new exactions in kind would be levied, justified as “antifamine” or “development” measures. Throughout this see-saw between the monetization of old exactions and the introduction of new impositions in kind, there was one form of corvée the colonial power refused to convert into a monetary payment. This wasubureetwa, one “imposed specifically on Hutu” and left unreformed because officials argued that to do away with it would be to “undermine the chiefs’ authority over the population.”60 The chief who came out of the interwar period was expected to enforce and supervise obligatory cultivation of food and export crops; to mobilize labor for road building, reforestation, and any rural project like a dispensary; and even to become major coffee producers by using corvée labor. Not surprisingly, this chief resembled more a local despot than a government official.61

Ubureetwa was a forced imposition on the Hutu only. More than any other, it testified to the existence of Tutsi privilege in colonial Rwanda and highlighted the social separation between the petit Tutsi and the average Hutu. Just as white privilege in colonial Africa separated poor whites from all “natives,” no matter what class they belonged to, so Tutsi privilege in colonial Rwanda set all Tutsi apart from all Hutu in their relation to power.

Census and Classification

To issue a decree was one thing, to effect it was quite another. Belgian power could issue decrees making an official distinction between Tutsi and Hutu,62 but Belgian administration could not treat the subject population as Tutsi and Hutu so long as it had not classified every individual as Tutsi or Hutu, apart from the tiny number of Twa. This happened only with the official census of 1933–34.

There is an ongoing debate on the criteria that were used to distinguish Tutsi from Hutu in that census. The prevalent view has been that the 1933–34 census identified Tutsi as separate from Hutu on the basis of the ten-cow rule: whoever owned ten or more cows was classified as a Tutsi.63 This is also the basis of the claim that Tutsi is in reality the identity of a social class. This conclusion has been subjected to a criticism on empirical grounds, based on an overall calculation of the numbers classified as Tutsi against the number of cows at the time. The total number of cattle around 1930 was said to fluctuate between 500,000 and 600,000. Many were held in royal or chiefly herds and could not be claimed by individuals. The census estimated the 1933 population of Rwanda at 1.8 million, and the number of Tutsi as between 250,000 and 300,000. No matter how one calculates, the figures simply do not tally if one assumes that the 10-cow rule held in every case. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that many Tutsi owned few or no cows. These were the petits Tutsi. It is difficult to see how these petits Tutsi, whose average income was calculated at no more than 5 percent above the average Hutu income, could have been classified as Tutsi if the ten-cow rule held in every instance, or even in most.64

The ten-cow rule both holds a kernel of truth and has been turned into fodder for a polemic that holds that the Belgian authority arbitrarily cooked up the Hutu/Tutsi distinction at the outset of colonial rule. The kernel of truth is that the ten-cow rule was applied, but it was neither the only nor even always the main basis for identification of Tutsi. The state relied heavily on data provided by the Church, whose local servants knew very well their neighbors and their genealogy. Tharcisse Gatwa would seem to be closer to the point when he claims that the administration relied on three major sources of information: oral information mainly provided by the church, physical measurements, and ownership of large herds of cows.65 In the final analysis, when it came to breathing institutional life into the Hamitic hypothesis, the colonial Church acted as both the brains and the hands of the colonial state. In this instance, at least, the Church did both the strategic thinking and the dirty work for the state. The fact is that Belgian power did not arbitrarily cook up the Hutu/Tutsi distinction. What it did do was to take an existing sociopolitical distinction and racialize it.

Racializing the Hutu/Tutsi Difference

The census marked the end point of a process through which the colonial power constructed the Tutsi as nonindigenous and the Hutu as indigenous. Through this distinction between alien and indigenous, the Tutsi came to be defined as a race—the Hamitic race—different from the Hutu, who were constructed as indigenous Bantu. I have argued earlier that Rwanda shared the broad legal framework of indirect rule with other tropical African colonies, at the same time as its colonial experience represented a distinct trajectory. On the one hand, the legal divide between civic and customary spheres prevailed in Rwanda. On the other hand, there was no corresponding political divide, fragmenting the subject population into a multitude of ethnic groups, each with its separate “customary law” enforced by an ethnically defined Native Authority. In colonial Rwanda, there were no ethnic groups, only races. The Belgian authority considered Tutsi and Hutu as two distinct races, in the manner of direct rule, without deconstructing the Hutu into so many ethnicities in the manner of indirect rule. The Information Bulletin on Ruanda-Urundi, issued by the Public Relations Office in Belgium in 1960, thus spoke of “the inhabitants” of Rwanda as belonging “to two main racial groups: the Tutsi feudal stock-breeders, comprising 14% of the population, and the Hutu farmers, amounting to 85%” (emphasis mine).66

In Rwanda, district authorities did not correspond to so many ethnic powers. Instead, the bulk of the subject population was battered into a single identity said to be indigenous: the Hutu. There were no Hutu chiefs; the chiefs were all Tutsi. The Tutsi were not defined as an ethnic group with its own Native Authority and “customary law,” but were spread over the entire society: the “well-born Tutsi” like a creamy layer, and the “petits Tutsi” an adjunct to it. Even if the petits Tutsi were not clearly set apart from the Hutu poor by a higher standard of living, their racialized status entitled them to petty privilege, specifically, Tutsi privilege.

That Rwanda was a halfway house—halfway between direct and indirect rule—had an important political consequence. Unlike direct rule, which was organized around the pivotal difference between colonizer and native, indirect rule legally fractured natives into so many ethnicities, and this mitigated the tension between the colonizer and the colonized. Indirect-rule colonialism thus had no racially branded majority in law; the colonized were legally constructed as so many ethnic minorities. It is here that Rwanda was different from all indirect-rule colonies in equatorial Africa. Because the boundaries of Native Authorities did not correspond to ethnic boundaries, the halfway house that was the Belgian colony of Rwanda ended up with the same fatal flaw of all direct-rule colonies: it constructed the colonized along a majority/minority axis, an indigenous majority and a so-called nonindigenous minority. This political outcome was far more characteristic of direct-rule colonies from the nineteenth century, be these in Africa (South Africa) or in Asia (India, Sri Lanka), where the presumed difference between an indigenous majority and a nonindigenous minority—Hindu and Muslim in India, Sinhalese and Tamil in Sri Lanka—was in reality a construction more political than historical.

The resulting position of the Tutsi was analogous, not to that of ethnicities in colonial Africa, but to that of subject races. Like the Indians of East Africa, the Arabs of Zanzibar, and the Indians and the Coloureds of South Africa, the Tutsi occupied the contradictory ground of a subject race. But, unlike them, the well-born Tutsi were also the chiefs who defined “custom” in the ethnic sphere, even though they were not subject to its worst manifestations. Along with the petits Tutsi, they were exempt fromubureetwa, the corvée that was the lot of the core colonial subject. The Tutsi had a leg in both the civic and the ethnic spheres. The contradictory position of the Tutsi was signified by their privileged status in the customary sphere and their nearly rightless status in the hierarchy of race in the civic sphere. This contradictory position meant that the Tutsi were simultaneously the target of popular resistance in the customary sphere and the source of popular resistance in the civic sphere. As we shall see in the next chapter, they were at the same time the target of Hutu “tribalism” in the customary sphere and the spearhead of Rwandan “nationalism” in the civic sphere.

TO SUM UP, what then were the institutions that undergirded the identity “Tutsi”? To begin with, there was the political regime that issued official identities confirming every individual as Hutu or Tutsi, thereby seeking to naturalize a constructed political difference between Hutu and Tutsi as a legislated racial difference. After the 1933 census, Hutu and Tutsi were enforced as legal identities. This had a crucial social effect: neither kwihutura (the social rise of an individual Hutu to the status of a Tutsi) nor gucupira(the social fall from a Tutsi to a Hutu status) was any longer possible. For the first time in the history of the state of Rwanda, the identities “Tutsi” and “Hutu” held permanently. They were frozen. Then, second, there was the administrative regime, which, at its lowest rungs, was inevitably a Tutsi power. Finally, there was the legal regime whereby a Tutsi had a special relationship to the sphere of “customary” law. While the petits Tutsi were exempt from the extraeconomic exactions that went with the “customary” regime, the “well-born Tutsi” not only organized the regime of extraeconomic coercion but were also among its beneficiaries. The legal exemption of the petits Tutsi from corvée testified to the existence of a form of Tutsi privilege. It underlined that to be a Tutsi was to have a privileged relationship to power, to be treated preferentially, whether as part of power, in proximity to power, or simply to be identified with power—but in all cases, to be exempt from its worst exactions. In addition, colonialism branded Tutsi privilege, which had existed under Rwabugiri, as alien privilege.

Hutu and Tutsi changed as identities as did the organization of power in the Rwandan state. At this point, we can identify at least three different periods in this history. More like Siamese twins joined at the hip, or even higher, Hutu and Tutsi most likely had separate early histories. In the first phase, during the founding period of the state of Rwanda sometime in the fifteenth century, Tutsi was most likely an ethnic identity. Hutu, we have seen, was never an ethnic identity; it was rather constructed as a transethnic identity of subjects. Hutu was a political construction, a political umbrella under which were assembled different subjugated groups. In other words, those stigmatized as Hutu only became Hutu with their subjugation to the state of Rwanda. In the second phase, Tutsi was recast as an identity of power. Given the ennoblement through intermarriage of prosperous individuals from among the subjugated population, Tutsi also became a transethnic identity. It is in this phase that Hutu was constructed as a subject identity alongside Tutsi as an identity of power. The third phase came with the colonial period, when both Hutu and Tutsi were racialized, Tutsi as a nonindigenous identity of (subordinate) power and Hutu as an indigenous identity of (nativized) subjects. To the late nineteenth-century dynamic whereby Tutsi symbolized power and Hutu subject, a new and truly volatile dimension was added. This was the dimension of indigeneity: for the first time in the centuries-long history of the Rwandan state, Tutsi became identified with an alien race and Hutu with the indigenous majority. This is the context in which the expression Rubanda Nyamwinshi (ordinary folk) came to have a racialized meaning, becoming identified with only Hutu. The big change was that from being at the top of the localhierarchy in the precolonial period, the Tutsi found themselves occupying the bottom rung of a hierarchy of alien races in the colonial period.

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