Charles Seligman

Controversial 'founding father'

Serving as chair of ethnology at the London School of Economics between 1913 and 1934, Charles Gabriel Seligman--pictured here during the Torres Straits Expedition in which he took part--taught Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Schapera and Fortes. In this sense he was the founding father of our department. The most remembered aspect of his legacy nowadays, however, is his controversial Races of Africa (1930). Here he asserted that members of the 'Hamitic race', who had migrated into central Africa from North and Northeast Africa and who he suggested were ‘quicker witted’ than the indigenous population, were responsible for any progress and development in African history. Later discredited, this theory – known as the Hamitic hypothesis, and adhered to, for example, by many inhabitants of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan who are shocked to hear themselves described as ‘black’ – was associated with and served to support racist ideologies and colonial paternalism. Despite criticism, Seligman kept it unchanged in new editions of the book into the 1960s. It was for this reason that the library that formerly bore his name was, in 2018, renamed the Old Anthropology Library. In line with our commitment to acknowledging these awkward aspects of our discipline rather than sweeping them aside, we have posted links to some documents that explore and debate his controversial legacy. For example, he played a key role during the 1930s in producing an anti-racist statement attacking the anthropological notion of a pure Aryan race. Such a report was never produced however, due to the interference of RAI members who were committed to defending Nazi Germany and that country’s racial policies.