Ethnic Groups in Rwanda - German and Belgian Colonization

German and Belgian Colonization

The construction of divergent ethnicTutsi” and “Hutu” identities was formulated during the era of European colonization from the late 1880s to the 1950s. German colonialism did little to alter the existing stratified social system. The Germans were not interested in disrupting social affairs – their sole concern was the efficient extraction of natural resources and trade of profitable cash crops. Colonial bureaucrats relied heavily on native Tutsi chiefs to maintain order over the Hutu lower classes and collect taxes. Thus, the German affirmation of the stratified social structure was utilized by the Tutsi aristocracy as justification for minority rule over the lower-class Hutu masses.

Germany’s defeat in World War I allowed Belgian forces to conquer Rwanda. Belgian involvement in the region was far more intrusive than German administration. In an era of Social Darwinism, European anthropologists claimed to identify a distinct “Hamitic race” that was superior to native “Negroid” populations. Influenced by racialized attitudes, Belgian social scientists declared that the Tutsis, who wielded political control in Rwanda, must be descendants of the Hamites, who shared a purported closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians concluded that the Tutsis and Hutus composed two fundamentally different ethno-racial groups. Thus, the Belgians viewed the Tutsis as more civilized, superior, but most importantly, more European than the Hutus. This perspective justified placing societal control in the hands of the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Moreover, this Belgian affirmation of the Hamitic theory provided a conceptual foundation for Tutsis and Hutus to start identifying themselves as different ethnic groups. The Belgians established a comprehensive race theory that was to dictate Rwandan society until independence: Tutsi racial superiority and Hutu oppression. The institutionalization of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic divergence was accomplished through administrative, political economic, and educational means.

Primarily, Belgian colonialism stressed physical and social differences. Relentless Belgian propaganda portrayed Tutsis as the more evolved “ethnic” group in appearance, intelligence, and height, while Hutus were branded as ignorant, backwards, and vile. Tutsis naturally welcomed this ethnic schism because thinking in these racialized terms had tangible social benefits – it vindicated their minority domination over the majority Hutus. This administrative propaganda had a subconscious effect of convincing Hutus and Tutsis that they were in fact members of separate ethnic, not social groups. For Belgian colonial elites, this was a classic “divide and conquer” strategy: cleaving groups along salient social boundaries served as a mechanism in securing colonial control over indigenous groups. Initially, Belgian administrators used an expedient method of classification based on the number of cattle a person owned – anyone with ten or more cattle was considered a member of the aristocratic Tutsi class. However, the presence of wealthy Hutu was problematic. Then in 1933, the colonial administration institutionalized a more rigid ethnic classification by issuing ethnic identification cards; every Rwandan was officially branded a Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa.

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