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Antecedents to Modern Rwanda

The Nyiginya Kingdom

Jan Vansina

Publication Year: 2004

To understand the genocide and other dramatic events of Rwanda’s recent past, one must understand the history of the earlier realm. Jan Vansina provides a critique of the history recorded by early missionaries and court historians and provides a bottom-up view, drawing on hundreds of grassroots narratives. He describes the genesis of the Hutu and Tutsi identities, their growing social and political differences, their bitter feuds, revolts, and massacres, and the relevance of this dramatic history to the post-genocide Rwanda of today.

2001 French edition, Katharla Publishers

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book is an introduction to the history of Rwanda before 1900 and in particular of the kingdom that forms its core. It has not been written for specialists only, but for all those who are interested, Rwandans and others, whether their goal be to better understand the present through a better knowledge of the past, a past that stretches back over several centuries ...

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pp. xi

To a large degree this work is a product of research pursued in Rwanda between 1957 and 1962 as part of a large-scale endeavor to collect together the genre of historical tales known as ibit

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Note on Spelling

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pp. xiii

In general we follow the usual spelling for Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. We do not indicate suprasegmentary segments (vowel length, tones) except when a linguistic argument requires it. The letter sequence “li” is always written “ri,” which is the canonical variant. Hence we always have Cyirima, for instance, never Cyilima. Ordinary substantives ...

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pp. 3-13

... in the history of Rwanda before 1900 has been reawakened today by recent events and the topic has become embroiled in a good deal of controversy linked to contemporary political, social, and cultural issues that confront the Republic of Rwanda. It is essential to know the early history of Rwanda, and in particular the history of the former Nyiginya kingdom, if one is to understand the history of the country in ...

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1. Central Rwanda on the Eve of the Emergence of the Kingdom

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pp. 14-43

... main theater in which the Nyiginya kingdom emerged and where its history was played out is central Rwanda. But it did not appear in a total void. It was built on the economic, social, and cultural practices that its founder encountered there. Hence any history of the kingdom must begin with the situation in the country on the eve of its creation, which is what we attempt to do in this chapter. We will therefore ...

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2. The Rwanda of Ndori

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pp. 44-66

... founded the Nyiginya kingdom. That statement contradicts all of Rwanda’s historians and most of the oral traditions about the country’s history. And yet, it is so, since the so-called kings of the preceding era are purely imaginary. Their whole history has been cobbled together from a collection of fictitious tales in order to legitimize the Nyiginya dynasty and to exalt its majesty by claiming a past more ...

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3. Toward the Centralization of Power

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pp. 68-98

... pick up the thread of history around 1720 and examine the evolution of the kingdom until the death of Ndabarasa in 1796, which triggered a particularly destructive civil war. Over the course of almost three quarters of a century, the kings and the elite at the court succeeded in creating a centralized kingdom by laying their hands on all the cattle and the land, the essential factors of production, by fashioning ...

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4. Government in the Eighteenth Century

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pp. 99-125

... offered a general presentation of the progress of centralization in the Nyiginya kingdom during the eighteenth century, we now come to a discussion of government in action in which we will focus on the doings of the historical actors. These actors formed a community at court that included the leaders of the elites as well as the kings. It is important to emphasize the role of the leaders of the elites, for the ...

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5. Social Transformations in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 126-139

... political dynamic appeared in the kingdom after the civil war of 1796–1801. It grew in importance during the whole nineteenth century and ended up transforming the overall structure of society.1 The essential steps of this process were the following. The civil war destroyed the personal power of the king to the advantage of the great families at court whose aspirations will henceforth dictate the internal ...

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6. The Triumph of the Great Families and Its Consequences

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pp. 140-163

... this chapter we examine the political history of the kingdom from the death of Ndabarasa to that of Rwogera in 1867. The internal affairs of those seventy years were characterized by the political weakness of the kings in countering the activities of the elite and by the internecine rivalries of the great families at court. In foreign affairs, the most important consequence of these activities and rivalries was an extension of ...

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7. Nightmares: The Age of Rwabugiri (1867–1897)

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pp. 164-195

... overwhelming impression one is left with after a study of the age of Rwabugiri and his successors is that of the unrelenting rise of a tide of terror that starts at court and engulfs the whole country, finally erupting into a social crisis that has now lasted for well over a century. We witness here the tragic paradox of increasing centralization (for the court ...

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In Conclusion: History and the Present

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pp. 196-206

... we reach the end of this study, the reader will remember that the main objective of it was to present a starting point for thinking about Rwanda’s past in the light of the present. Let us hope it has achieved that goal. To enter into a series of reflections about and detailed recommendations for the future does not fall within the province of an historian and hence I refrain from doing so. But it is pertinent and proper for ...

Appendix 1: Chronology

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pp. 207-216

Appendix 2: Predynastic Fairy Tales: Central Rwanda before Ndori

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pp. 217-220


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pp. 221-300

Works Cited

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pp. 301 -312


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pp. 313-354

E-ISBN-13: 9780299201234
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299201241

Publication Year: 2004