EXPLODING THE JEWISH-ISRAEL-HEBREW MYTH OF IGBO ORIGINS
There are various hypotheses regarding Igbo origins. The rise of these myths and legends when traced historically are found to originate from outside influences and that they were very much a part of the colonial discourse of the British imperialists over their colonized subjects. The most popular of these myths was that of Jewish origins or what is generally called the “Oriental Hypothesis” which was itself based on the “Hamitic Hypothesis.” The Hamitic hypothesis proposed that the Igbo were of Middle Eastern origin, either Egyptian or Hebrew. The most outspoken proponent of the Hamitic hypothesis was the colonial Christian missionary Archdeacon G.T. Basden. The question of Igbo Jewish identity to which many Igbos lay claim was a result of the colonial discourse based on the Hamitic hypothesis.
“Despite the very negative impression of Igbo culture popularized by the British during their administrative reign in Nigeria…both British and Igbo chroniclers also noted much in common between the Igbo cultures and ‘civilized’ European culture. As a result, the myth grew that the Igbo were either descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel or the ancient Egyptians, or had at some point in their history been influenced by one of these societies. This Hamitic myth of Igbo origins was originally supported by limited circumstantial evidences…but is entirely unsubstantiated by either linguistic or archeological evidences…The Hamitic theory came to be a part of apolitical debate on the intrinsic value of Igbo society and culture and has lingered to this day for the same reasons.”
Igbo History and Society: The essays of Adiele Afigbo, Ed. Toyin Falola, World Africa Press, 2005, p. 8
“Later [colonial] educated Igbo would glom onto the Hamitic theory ‘“to show that they had not always been as ‘despicable’”’ as the colonialists found them. In the post-independence period, Afigbo argues that the theory of Hebrew origin has continued to be attractive to the Igbo. For instance, he suggests that:
Publicists and others soon started drawing parallels between Igbo business acumen and their sufferings at the hands of other Nigerian ethnic nationalities on the one hand, and Jewish experience throughout history on the other. Between 1967 and 1970 embattled Biafra provided the perfect parallel to the state of Israel surrounded by hostile Arab nations. The Igbo not only made this comparison themselves, but believed in it. They also came to hope that they would weather the Nigerian storm just as the Israelis are weathering the Arab storm. Thus there is no mere history…but an ideology for group survival.
“In this way, the Hamitic theory of Igbo origin has survived among the Igbo.
“For their part, the British colonizers had their own reasons for promoting the idea that certain Igbo peoples had been influenced by ‘civilized’ Middle Eastern societies like the Hebrew or Egyptians but were not necessarily biological descendants of those peoples. To claim the Igbo were one of the lost tribes of Israel Afigbo explains, ‘would, in the intellectual climate of the time be to assign this despised colonial people a higher place on the world tree of culture than the colonial masters would find convenient.’ A much more politically savvy explanation was that ‘these traits showed that the Igbo were once under Egyptian or Jewish cultural dominance.’ The political ramifications of this interpretation were quite advantageous to the British because, ‘implicit in this claim was the idea, not hitherto emphasized by any one, that British colonialism was not a radical departure from the past. Instead it was in some sense a continuation of the cultural education of the Igbo which had been started long ago by the Egyptians.’ Furthermore, this theory helped the British established a typology through which they could administer the notoriously decentralized Igbo areas directly. Thus, Afigbo explains, ‘it came to be argued first that Igboland was once under Egyptian influence, secondly that the spread of Egyptian culture in Igboland was the work of a small elite who after inter-breeding with the people became the Nri and the Aro of today, and thirdly, that if the British really wanted to rule the Igbo ‘indirectly,’ then they had to do so through the Nri and the Aro.’ Politically, the Hamitic theory was the key to the benevolent imperialism of the British in Igboland.
“As politically compelling as the Hamitic theory of Igbo origin was to different people, Afigbo notes, the theory is not based in fact and has long been debunked in academic circles.” Afigbo, pp. 9, 10
“G.T. Basden in Niger Ibosregaled popular Igbo imagination in 1937 with Hebraic origins and proved it through cultural norms that resonate, ranging from the symbolism of blood, through rites of passage to specific forms of economic and political organization. Communities in the north-western Igbo culture theater adulated him with honorific titles; one of these imaged him as the ‘mouth that speaks for the people’.” Afigbo, p. 19
“One of the other principle contribution of Afigbo to the rehabilitation of African history is found in the decolonization of Igbo origins from the shackles of the Hamitic hypothesis. The proponents of the monstrous paradigm had, for no other than mischievous intents, assigned any item of cultural achievements found in Negro Africa to some kind of oriental origin. Its application to the Igbo was first encountered in the work of Equiano, an ex-slave freed in Britain, who claimed that the Igbo are a lost tribe of Israel. Equiano based his claim on such common cultural practices as circumcision, conferment, purification of women, naming children after specific events and experience as also found in Hebrew culture. Along this perspective, the colonial scholars who started research on Igboland from about 1900 quickly spread the Hamitic hypothesis is eastern Nigeria. Such aspects of Igbo life as its traditions of origins, democratic political culture, Aro trading and oracular oligarchy, Nri priestly tradition and cult ceremonials, Nkwerre and Abiriba skilled iron works and lot more – were all misunderstood to be of oriental origin. In what Afigbo has described as their search for ‘noble ancestry’ these flattered Igbo communities (the Aro, the Nri and Abiriba), began to concoct histories of origins that linked their remote ancestors with either Israel or Egypt.” Afigbo, pp. 46-7
“Early in the century the Rev. G.T. Basden saw a very close resemblance between Igbo culture and Jewish culture without quite saying the Igbo were of Jewish descent. But such was his form of words that the hasty would draw that conclusion.” Afigbo, p. 126
“The Oriental Hypothesis
“The theory was put forth [from British colonialists] that the Igbo came from the East. Some commentators had speculated that the Igbo were either one of the lost ‘tribes’ of Israel or Egypt and that for some inexplicable circumstances, they left the East and wandered across until they finally came to their present abode. The exponents of this theory found similarity of culture between that of Igbo and some of the Eastern peoples. Circumcision, system and manner of naming children, sentence structure and similarity in some words, religion and ritual symbols, love of adventure and enterprise were used to explain derivation from the East. Even as late as April 1984, one Dr. Chuks Osuji (1984, p.2) claimed in an article in the Sunday Statesman that:
Some scattered efforts have been made to investigate origin of the Igbo man. Some of these efforts have yielded some positive results. All of them have traced the origins of the Igbos to Hebrew. Many foreign scholars working independently have earlier given clue to this fact. They have associated the overwhelming characteristics of the Igbos to those of the Jews.
“Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo ex-slave and an eighteenth century commentator on Igbo society, links the Igbo with the Jews (Edwards, 1967, p. 12). G.T. Basden (1912) has also opined that:
The investigator cannot help being struck with the similitude between them (the Igbo) and some of the ideas and practices of the Levitical Code.
“The Aro, in particular, were believed to have derived from an alien stock because of the level of socio-political organization the Aro had reached at the time of British invasion. The Nri were also attributed to culture carriers of Eastern provenance (Jeffreys, 1956). These speculations have no historical basis.”
A Survey of The Igbo Nation, Ed. G.E.K. Ofomata, Professor of Geography, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 2002, p. 40