Interest 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 the twentieth century, for modern Rwanda was built on the economic, social, and political foundations encountered by the first colonials. In-deed, when the first German military administrator arrived in the country, the Nyiginya kingdom had already had a checkered career spanning two centuries. Moreover, this earlier history is not just of considerable interest to Rwandans today, but it is also valuable for comparative studies of the kingdoms of the region because it reveals certain peculiar features that turned it into an extraordinary kingdom, “the greatest and the most complex” in the Great Lakes region and one that differed from all the others.
Furthermore, a plethora of information about this kingdom is available, stemming from a varied and very rich corpus of oral traditions. These sources constitute the main foundation of its historiography. Still, we should not forget that these are oral sources. They absolutely cannot be handled just like written sources, which is what most historiographers have unfortunately been inclined to do. For while an original written source is the same now as the day it was written, oral sources are evanescent and one must therefore apply appropriate rules of evidence to them before using them. To a large extent it is the oral character of the sources that has fostered historiographic controversies as well as a number of myths that have been propagated about the history of this kingdom. All too often recent authors have used one or another isolated oral utterance without worrying about its representativeness or its intrinsic reliability and that is also the major weakness of the older syntheses. Still, the historical critique of oral traditions has made considerable progress over nearly half a century and now allows for a better informed use of these data. That has encouraged me to write this history, even though in spite of all my best efforts this monograph cannot resolve all the controversies, if only because the temptation to pick out a stray oral utterance to “prove” a favorite thesis will no doubt often remain irresistible. But I may hope that my readers will accept the need for a critical approach so that, even if they end up rejecting this or that proposition made here, they will do so as a result of applying the rules of evidence. That by itself would be a nice achievement!
So far no published book deals with the history of the Nyiginya kingdom in a satisfactory way. Yes, several histories of Rwanda have recently been published, but they all focus on the history of the immediate past. When it comes to times before 1900 one can reproach them that, rather than study all the available sources anew, they are content to faithfully reproduce the by-now older syntheses produced by that great collector of traditions and oral literature, Abbé Alexis Kagame, adorned by some further considerations about the Rwandan way of life toward the end of the nineteenth century. Yet the syntheses of this scholar essentially consist in providing a chronicle of the doings of the kings. I have been disappointed by this surrender to the old views by recent authors and it was this in the end that finally pushed me to write a history of the Nyiginya kingdom, one that to my mind seems to be very different from those of Kagame and his epigones.
The legacy of Kagame should not be underestimated, for even today it is still rooted in the general historical consciousness of Rwandans and it still dominates the perception of Rwanda’s history, even that of his most virulent critics. This situation results just as much from the profusion of oral information that Kagame deploys as from the fact that his Abrégés were and still are textbooks used in many schools. Moreover, his vision of the past is not his own, nor is it the vision of the colonial historiographers—mostly missionaries or administrators—who preceded him. The essence of his vision comes from the royal court and more precisely from a handful of courtiers who were official ideologues in charge of giving a meaning to history and of elaborating the official version of its details. It was their task to set it forth, to hold it, to defend it against heresy, to elaborate on it, and to apply it to all the historical genres practiced at the court. They were that “corporate intelligentsia” that produced the essential data used by all the authors. Thus almost the whole written historiography merely reproduces the royal ideology as it existed around 1900. Such was the formal character and the thoroughness of the hold of the Nyiginya court over the production of history that no author, perhaps with the exception of Kagame, has been aware of its full extent. They thought that they were interrogating the best “informants,” they believed that they were obtaining “independent” information, but they did not escape from the hold of the court ideologues. And as the researchers did not expect to meet any institution in charge of controlling the production of history and of its representation, let alone an institution of such a wide reach and such a degree of subtlety, they have all been caught in its cognitive glue.
To a large extent Kagame’s Abrégés are mainly the written precipitate of this official vision and it is against this vision that this book rebels, especially on the following points, among others: that the Nyiginya kingdom is not equivalent to Rwanda as a whole; that a history of the kings is not a complete History in general, indeed, not even a complete political history; that the kingdom has not existed since hoary antiquity but is a relatively recent creation; that its kings were neither autocratic nor omnipotent; that its politics were not planned; that its centralization was peculiar and not founded on a homogeneous territorial administration; that its military was not always victorious; and that its upper class was not more intelligent or better able to command than any of the other classes were.