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Belgian colonizers used phrenology to create an irreducible division between the two major groups living for centuries in Rwanda-Urundi. This formed the basis for the implementation of systematic efforts to subdue the large Hutu population. Both the Hutus and the smaller, and initially privileged, Tutsi group soon incorporated the racist discourse, which was pivotal to the gradual increase in violence before and after Rwandan independence in 1962. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 culminated in the horrible pinnacle of this process, involving recurrent episodes of slaughtering. Doctors should not underestimate the racist potential of pseudoscientific misconceptions.
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Phrenology and the Rwandan Genocide
Frenologia e o Genocídio de Ruanda
Charles André
e role of phrenology in the Nazi racist segregation of
Jewish people during the Holocaust is relatively well dis-
cussed1. Its pivotal role in the genesis of the Rwandan geno-
cide at the gates of the 21st century is less known and is the
subject of this short review.
In late 18th century, mind and soul were considered to
determine human behaviour, and this was judged mainly
according to religious and spiritual criteria. Creationism
was considered indisputable and lent support to racist the-
ories, as dierent ethnic groups were seen as diverse races
as conceived by God. Creationism would only be challenged
in the second half of the 19th century after the publication of
Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859).
Dr. Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was a pioneer in the
development of theories connecting human behaviour and
cerebral function. According to him, mental and spiritual
characteristics of the individual directly reected dierences
in brain structure, especially the cortical areas. In addition,
these dierences could be evaluated objectively by examining
the corresponding areas of the cranial vault.
Gall and his early followers in Germany and Austria did not
mention racial dierences as their subject of interest2. However,
since the early development of organology (later called physiol-
ogy of the brain), social discrimination and segregation accord-
ing to craniological criteria – even in children – were held up
as one of its most important aspects. From 1805 on, Gall lec-
tured on the new system in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland
and France, where he nally settled in 1807. During this lectur-
ing tour, he visited houses of correction and prisons, and “gave
the most convincing proofs of his ability to discover, at rst
sight, such malefactors, thieves, and men of particular talents
as were amongst the convicts and prisoners”3.
A numb er of the pion ee r ’s id e as l e nt su p por t an d pres t ige to co n -
ventional prejudices. Gall considered some Asian groups disposed
to “theft and ruse”, and other groups from India were described
as “cruel, superstitious, and stupid”4. Johann G. Spurzheim (1776-
1832), Gall’s disciple and later a distinguished lecturer on phrenol-
ogy, armed the “destructiveness” of the Caribs5.
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Faculdade de Medicina, Departamento de Neurologia, Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brasil.
Correspondence: Charles André; Departamento de Neurologia da Faculdade de Medicina da UFRJ; Rua Rodolpho Paulo Rocco, 255 / sala 10E36; 21941-913
Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brasil; E-mail:
Conflict of interest: There is no conflict of interest to declare.
Received 26 November 2017; Received in final form 23 December 2017; Accepted 08 January 2018.
Belgian colonizers used phrenology to create an irreducible division between the two major groups living for centuries in Rwanda-Urundi.
This formed the basis for the implementation of systematic efforts to subdue the large Hutu population. Both the Hutus and the smaller,
and initially privileged, Tutsi group soon incorporated the racist discourse, which was pivotal to the gradual increase in violence before
and after Rwandan independence in 1962. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 culminated in the horrible pinnacle of this process, involving
recurrent episodes of slaughtering. Doctors should not underestimate the racist potential of pseudoscientific misconceptions.
Keywords: genocide; history, 20th century; phrenology; racism.
Os colonizadores belgas usaram a frenologia para criar uma divisão irredutível entre os dois maiores grupos populacionais vivendo há
séculos em Ruanda-Urundi. Isso criou as bases para a implementação de esforços sistemáticos para subjugar a grande população
Hutu. Tanto os Hutu quanto o grupo menor e inicialmente privilegiado dos Tutsi logo incorporaram o discurso racista, que foi crucial no
aumento gradual da violência antes e após a independência de Ruanda em 1962. O genocídio de 1994 constituiu o terrível ápice deste
processo envolvendo massacres repetidos. Os médicos não devem subestimar o potencial racista e discriminatório de falsas concepções
Palavras-chave: genocídio; história do século 20; frenologia; racismo.
278 Arq Neuropsiquiatr 2018;76(4):277-282
Other early proponents of phrenology expressed unequiv-
ocal racist ideas4. In France, an incomplete list includes Dr.
François J.V. Broussais (1772-1838), who thought some people
would “never become civilized” 4,6, his son Dr. Casimir A-Me.
Broussais (1803-1847), Dr. Pierre H. Gaubert (1796-1839), who
ranked talents by racial criteria, Joseph Vimont (1795-1857),
and the naval ocer and explorer Jules Dumont D’Urville
(1790-1842)4. Spurzheim’s stepson, the painter Hyppolyte
Bruyères (1801-1855), believed in a “vicious cerebral con-
formation” of certain races and their animal-like nature and
amorality, and commented on the “immense dierences”
between the “miserable and frightful savage of New Holland”
and the “superb and virtuous Germanic race”. Dr. Jean B.I.
Bourdon (1796-1861) thought that it was a European’s des-
tiny to educate or subjugate other less intelligent races, and
described the “Hottentots” (Khoikhoi) as hopeless, “stupid…
intermediates between humans and apes”. e prison phy-
sician, Hubert Lauvergne (1797-1859), claimed an “immu-
tability of the Jewish type” and saw the Makua of southeast
Africa “at the bottom of the human chain…hardly superior
to animal instincts”. He saw “more resemblance between the
heads of Negroes and of great apes than between Negroes
and Europeans”4.
In Britain, the founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological
Society and lawyer, George Combe (1788-1858), suspected
that the development of the brain sets limits to the sponta-
neous development of civilization in dierent races” and the
Phrenological journal warned against intermarriage between
British soldiers and ocers and the primitive races in the
British Empire4.
Despite early skepticism regarding phrenology in the
many scientific circles of the 19th century3, it survived
well into the 20th century, in the Americas as well as in
European countries and their Asian and African colonies.
Specifically, early works focused on miscegenation, and
studies by Eugene Fischer (1874-1967) in German South
West Africa (today’s Namibia) involved physical measure-
ments and led to prohibition of mixed-race marriages in
all German colonies in 19121,7. After losing its African colo-
nies at the start of World War I, similar studies on mixed
populations were held in Germany and led to sterilization
of German Blacks, also called the “Rhineland Bastards”1.
Similar methods were later used for physical-anthropolog-
ical characterization of Jews, and the justification of racial
purification and the Holocaust1,8.
Three major groups lived in the Rwandan region
for many centuries. A unified population was created,
after Tutsi settlers from eastern regions (Congo) entered
Rwanda from the 14th century on9. Local cattle holders
were incorporated as Tutsis and farmers as Hutus. Both
groups had their own rich elites. There was a third, small
(1%) group, the Twa, thought to be remnants of the
Pygmies living in the area. For a long time, the Tutsis
tended to be wealthier and constituted a sort of elite. A
complex feudal regimen, in which most lords were Tutsi
herders, was gradually instituted during the 19th century,
and power was centralized under a king named Rwabugiri
(1865-1895). Although this contributed to the crystalliza-
tion of different social roles for Tutsis and Hutus, wealthy
members of the latter group were also part of the elite and
had strong feelings of superiority over Hutu peasants9.
Sometimes they married Tutsi women, and their children
became Tutsis. In addition, the vast majority of Tutsis
were exploited commoners, just like the Hutu peasants.
Belgium first occupied the Rwanda-Urundi colony
in19129 and more firmly during World War I as retaliation
for the German invasion in 1914. The League of Nations
recognized the region as a Belgian colony in 1919. At the
time of the European colonization, a myth of ancient
Ethiopian ancestry and racial superiority of the Tutsis was
introduced9. In 1864, the British explorer John H. Speke
(1827-1884) wrote that the Hutus were a “primitive race,
“the true curly-headed, flab-nosed, pouched-mouthed
Negro”, while the Tutsis “descended from the best blood of
Abyssinia” and were, therefore, far superior10 (Speke, 1864).
Belgian settlers disseminated the myth9,11. An influential
1931 documentary, The Congo I Knew,made by Armand
Denis (1896-1971), probably contributed12. All this led to
increasing tension and discrimination against the Hutu
and Twa populations.
From 1933 on, everyone was issued a racial identity card
stating his or her original ethnic group11,13 (Figure 1). Belgian
specialists came to the region to classify people according
to stereotypical anatomic-anthropological features12 (Figure
2). Craniofacial and body measurements were taken and a
number of distinguishing features were considered for eth-
nic classication of the population. Tutsis had a taller stat-
ure (probably related to better nutrition). e head format,
color of the eyes and skin (lighter) and the size of the noses
(longer and narrower) were important features, which,
as a group, was considered to resemble white Europeans
(Figures 2 and 3).
is classication system had lasting consequences for
all descendants. It was deemed essential by the overtly rac-
ist Hutu authorities after independence13. Despite renewed
discussion and an apparent willingness to discuss its termi-
nation from 1990 on, the classication system was still in use,
and became a central instrument to rapidly identify and kill
Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. Ethnic classication in iden-
tity cards was only abolished in 199713 (Figure 1).
The Belgians never took a controlling role in the
administration of the colony. They chose the Tutsi group
as superior, and strongly restricted the access of Hutus
André C. Phrenology and the Rwandan genocide
(comprising 85-90% of the population) to higher educa-
tion, land ownership and administrative posts9,11,16. They
also helped subject Hutus to forced labour under Tutsi
supervision. They created new institutions like the Native
Tribunals (1936) headed by Tutsi chiefs, gradually increas-
ing their power9,11.
Figure 1. Identity cards of two Rwandan Tutsis. Delivered in the 1950s by Belgian authorities, they show date and city of birth,
profession, name of spouse, and children’s birthdays as late as the 1990s.
Figure 2. Craniology as deemed by Belgian specialists in Rwanda in the 1930s. Belgian specialists came to evaluate people,
using typical instruments. Still images retrieved from the film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace 3 of 3 Monkey in the
Machine, 2011”12.
280 Arq Neuropsiquiatr 2018;76(4):277-282
Before independence, Belgian rulers attempted to
approach the increasingly angry and resentful Hutu major-
ity. e Belgians feared the increasingly dissatised Tutsis,
who now overtly discussed and longed for independence.
ey were trying to prolong their colonial rule, now favoring
the Hutus and reducing the power of the Tutsis. e myth of
the foreign ancestry of the Tutsis was now used in reverse to
increase resentments against this group9,11,20.
In the wake of separatist movements throughout Africa,
the Hutu reaction, stimulated by the Belgians, and included
a 1957 manifesto retaining group classications, was to pre-
pare for political battle incorporating ethnic justication for
revenge13; resulting in violent outbreaks and slaughtering in
1957, 1959-61, and 1962. In 1959, the Hutu forces overthrew
the Tutsi rule. e region became ocially independent in
1962, split into two new countries – Rwanda (a republic) and
Burundi (a monarchy)21.
After independence, violence gradually escalated11,22. Tutsi
forces invaded Rwanda from Burundi in 1963. Tutsis were
massacred in 1973 after a coup and establishment of a dicta-
torship. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were expelled from
the country25. Tutsi refugees created the Rwandan Patriotic
Front in 1986. ere was a military invasion and transient
deposition of the dictator Juvénal Habyarimana (1937-1994)
in 1990. In 1990, the pamphlet Hutu 10 Commandments,
with explicit reference to ethnic killing was published24.
Also, Interahamwe (“those who attack together”), a violent
Hutu youth militia, was created, and there was a gradual
increase in violence stimulated by the ocial radio station
(Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines)25.
Figure 3. A. Charts used to help differentiate Hutu and Tutsi people17
. B. Symbolic examples of Rwandans of Hutu and Tutsi
background: president Juvénal Habyarimana (1937-1994) who ruled from 1973 until his death in 199418; and President Paul
Kagame (n.1954), current president since 200028
André C. Phrenology and the Rwandan genocide
In 1993, Habyarimana and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
signed a peace treaty allowing the incorporation of the latter
into the national army and the return of refugees to Rwanda.
e fragile peace was broken on April 6, 1994, when the pres-
ident was killed. A rocket struck his plane near the capital
airport, and Tutsis were immediately held responsible. What
followed is probably beyond adequate description. e death
toll is calculated to have been between 800,000 and two mil-
lion11,15,16,21. Some two million Rwandans ed to neighbour-
ing countries. Perhaps a quarter million women were raped
and either killed or infected with HIV. Although, obviously,
the majority of victims of the slaughter were Tutsis, they
did not have just a passive role in the massacre. An unspeci-
ed, but large, number (probably hundreds of thousands)
of Hutus were also killed with the same savagery, by the
Rwandan Patriotic Front troops during the relatively short
time (April-July 1994) of mass conict and before a provi-
sional government was established11,26.
Of course, the Rwandan genocide cannot be attributed
directly to Belgium or Belgian rulers. Prejudice and social
discrimination were widespread in Rwandan society for at
least a century before the occupation. e political and social
gap between the elite and the vast poor rural population
was enormous. Complex and competing interests involving
neighbouring countries (Burundi, Zaire/Congo), France and
the USA contributed to the extension of the massacre11,17,20,21.
e United Nations peacekeeping troops were easily neutral-
ized after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were tortured and killed.
However, the importance of explicit racial discrimination
of the Rwandan population, introduced by Belgian coloniz-
ers, must not be underestimated as a driving force for ethnic
stratication and hatred. Before the arrival of the Belgians,
Tutsi and Hutu people did not see each other as dierent
races, but both sides soon incorporated the racial question in
their discourse and justication for violence.
Scientic and medical misconceptions, including phre-
nology, can be used to justify racist and other discriminatory
politics13. e British Phrenological Association only ended
in 1967, and there are European sites and associations still
promoting phrenology today27,28. Concepts, such as savage or
primitive characteristics, are openly discussed there and sim-
ple formulas are oered to detect these primitive traits.
Modern society is prone to stigmatization, discrimi-
nation and simplication. In the Internet era, people seem
eager to resolve complex problems using wrong pseudosci-
entic concepts. Unfortunately, in this dysfunctional world,
phrenological stereotypes can be used to nd new avenues
for discrimination including racism.
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... Belgian colonization of Rwanda started in 1912 and was granted legitimacy in 1919 by the League of Nations. Belgian settlers and Anthropologists as Experts 13 colonial authorities subscribed to the belief of the racial superiority of Tutsi over Hutu and in 1933 anthropologists went to Rwanda to classify the population by phenotype following the classificatory principles of the phrenological science (André 2018). ...
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This article addresses the positionality of anthropologists and the impact of anthropological theories in cultural expertise with the help of three case studies that highlight the engagement of anthropologists with law and governance during colonialism and in the wake of it: a well-known case of witchcraft in Kenya, Volkekunde theories in Africa, and the Rwandan genocide. The article starts with a short genesis of the concept of cultural expertise and its cognate concepts of culturally motivated crimes and cultural defense, to introduce the main question of this article: What can we learn from the use of cultural expertise in the colonial past? Today, as much as in the colonial past, anthropologists have been torn between action and abstention. The article’s three case studies show that neither action nor abstention is free from ethical responsibility. This article argues that the concept of procedural neutrality and its reformulation in the form of critical affirmation help anthropologists to carve out an independent role for themselves in the legal process. Procedural neutrality and its reformulation as critical affirmation make it possible to comply with the ethics and deontologies of the disciplines across which anthropologists operate when providing cultural expertise.
... In the 1930s, physiognomy became a scientific colonial export with dramatic consequences. One setting was Rwanda, where Belgian scientists traveled in order to measure the skulls and features of different Rwandan ethnic groups (Straus, 2006;Curtis, 2011;André, 2018). The Belgian imperialists determined that there existed three essentially different "racial" groups that could be ranked in order of "superiority": the Tutsi, the Hutu, and the Twa. ...
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Scholars are increasingly concerned about social biases in facial analysis systems, particularly with regard to the tangible consequences of misidentification of marginalized groups. However, few have examined how automated facial analysis technologies intersect with the historical genealogy of racialized gender—the gender binary and its classification as a highly racialized tool of colonial power and control. In this paper, we introduce the concept of auto-essentialization: the use of automated technologies to re-inscribe the essential notions of difference that were established under colonial rule. We consider how the face has emerged as a legitimate site of gender classification, despite being historically tied to projects of racial domination. We examine the history of gendering the face and body, from colonial projects aimed at disciplining bodies which do not fit within the European gender binary, to sexology's role in normalizing that binary, to physiognomic practices that ascribed notions of inferiority to non-European groups and women. We argue that the contemporary auto-essentialization of gender via the face is both racialized and trans-exclusive: it asserts a fixed gender binary and it elevates the white face as the ultimate model of gender difference. We demonstrate that imperialist ideologies are reflected in modern automated facial analysis tools in computer vision through two case studies: (1) commercial gender classification and (2) the security of both small-scale (women-only online platforms) and large-scale (national borders) spaces. Thus, we posit a rethinking of ethical attention to these systems: not as immature and novel, but as mature instantiations of much older technologies.
... Also, in the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the prejudice and discrimination that comes from labeling a group inferior can have adverse consequences. Between 800,000 and two million people lost their lives in four months (Andre, 2018). Before the colonization of the Belgians, the Tutsis and Hutus did not see each other as superior or inferior. ...
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The regional dominance struggles of the states after the cold war and the civil wars that broke out in the world often evolved into ethnic cleansing. Rwanda, which has been under the domination of many different colonial Powers in the historical process of Africa, is witnessing a new process of changing hands of international hegemony after the cold war as a result of the civil war and the genocide process after 1990. After the massacres in Rwanda, the directors transformed the country into a huge film plateau, both thematically and spatially. In this universe where there are no Rwandan directors, the testimony of the genocide attempts in the country is carried out through Western film directors. While the events in Rwanda are divided into those who support Hutu and Tutsi and those who do not, the genocide attempt is told on the basis of redemption where international powers accuse each other and acquit themselves. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004), Shooting Dogs (Michael Caton-Jones, 2005), Sometimes in April (Raoul Peck ,2005), Un dimanche à Kigali/ A Sunday in Kigali (Robert Favreau, 2006) and Shake Hands with the Devil (Peter Raymont, 2007) films with a structuralist approach, concepts such as redemption, white agent, and purification in relation to the concept of prosthetic memory undertaken by the films will also be discussed. It is seen that redemption is at the center of the narrative in Rwandan films, and it functions as a cathartic element of the Western perpetrator.
Nineteenth-century French scholars, during a turbulent era of revolution and industrialization, ranked intelligence and character according to facial profile, skin colour, and head shape. They believed that such indicators could determine whether individuals were educable and peoples perfectible. In Labeling People Martin Staum examines the Paris societies of phrenology (reading intelligence and character by head shapes), geography, and ethnology and their techniques for classifying people. He shows how the work of these social scientists gave credence to the arrangement of "races" in a hierarchy, the domination of non-European peoples, and the limitation of opportunities for ill-favored individuals within France. While previous studies have contrasted the relative optimism of middle-class social scientists before 1848 with a later period of concern for national decline and racial degeneration, Staum demonstrates that the earlier learned societies were also fearful of turmoil at home and interested in adventure abroad. Both geographers and ethnologists created concepts of fundamental "racial" inequality that prefigured the imperialist "associationist" discourse of the Third Republic, believing that European tutelage would guide "civilizable" peoples, and providing an open invitation to dominate and exploit the "uncivilizable."
This article examines the process through which different interpretations of ethnicity and statehood in Rwanda have been used to create and justify policies of exclusion, inclusion and claims to legitimacy, from the colonial period to the present day. Arguing that the roots of such politics can be found in the politics of the precolonial state, it considers how they have been transformed, not created, by colonial and postcolonial governments. Viewing the representation of ethnicity and statehood over time as fictions of ethnicity, ethnography and history, this article illustrates the process of creation and recreation of these fictions and their impact on Rwandan lives. /// Cet article étudie le processus dans lequel les différentes interprétations de l'ethnicité et du statut étatique au Rwanda ont l'habitude de créer et justifier des politiques d'exclusion et d'inclusion, ainsi que de prétendre à la légitimité, de la période coloniale à nos jours. Considérant que les bases de ces politiques peuvent être trouvées dans les politiques de l'état précolonial, on réfléchit à la façon dont elles ont été transformées, et non créées, par les gouvernements coloniaux ou postcoloniaux. Considérant la représentation de l'ethnicité et du statut étatique au cours du temps, comme étant l'ethnicité, l'ethnographie et l'histoire, cet article illustre le processus de création de ces fictions et leur impact sur les vies rwandaises.
The role played by group classification on national identity cards in crimes of genocide in Rwanda and in Nazi Germany should trouble all persons concerned with prevention of genocide. In Nazi Germany in July 1938, only a few months before Kristallnacht, the infamous "J-stamp" was introduced on ID cards and later on passports. The use of specially marked "J-stamp" ID cards by Nazi Germany preceded the yellow Star of David badges. In Norway, where yellow cloth badges were not introduced, the stamped ID card was used in the identification of more than 750 Jews deported to death camps in Poland. (1) Ethnic classification on ID Cards in Rwanda instituted by the Belgian co lonial government and retained after independence, was central in shaping, defining and perpetuating ethnic identity. Once the 1994 genocide in Rwanda began, an ID card with the designation "Tutsi" spelled a death sentence at any roadblock. (2 ) No other factor was more significant in
The Discovery of the Source of the Nile / John Hanning Speke Note: The University of Adelaide Library eBooks @ Adelaide.
This essay is the first account in English to examine Franz Joseph Gall and the origins of phrenology. In doing so a host of legends about Gall and the beginnings of phrenology, which exist only in the English-language historiography, are dispelled. An understanding of the context of phrenology's origins is essential to to the historicization of the movement as a whole. The first of two sections in the essay, therefore, introduces Gall's biography and the context in which his provocative science emerged. It is shown to what extent Gall borrowed from other thinkers of his time. I show that Gall's system was meant to be a certain science of human nature. In the second section I analyse the reactions of contemporaries to Gall's important two-year lecture tour of Europe. I conclude that although many critics dismissed Gall as a charlatan, there was no consensus about the proper way to disseminate scientific knowledge or the attributes necessary for the gentleman of science. For example, it was not clear whether science could be profitable, whether it should be shared with lay audiences or whether it could in fact be science at all if it was also entertaining. I argue that in any case Gall's aim was never really to impart science or to disseminate his system. His science and early means of disseminating it were meant to generate elite intellectual status. In this Gall was quite successful.
What really happened in Rwanda? Miller-MCCune
  • C Davenport
  • A C Stam
Davenport C, Stam AC. What really happened in Rwanda? Miller-MCCune. 2009 Oct. [cited 2017 Oct 19]. Available from:
Letter from Dr. F. J. Gall, to Joseph Fr[eiherr] von Retzer, upon the Functions of the Brain, in Man and Animals
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From child refugee to Rwanda's reconciliation president
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Shifman K. From child refugee to Rwanda's reconciliation president. In: Scream Bloody Murder. 2008. [s.d.] [cited 2018 Apr 02]. Available from: rwanda.kagame/index.html 18. Juvénal Habyarimana. Wikipedia. [s.d.] [cited 2018 Apr 02]. Available from:
Auschwitz to Rwanda: the link between science, colonialism and genocide
  • H Becker
Becker H. Auschwitz to Rwanda: the link between science, colonialism and genocide. 2017 [cited 2017 Aug 23]. Available from: