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Walter Rodney was born on March 23 in the colony of British Guiana and educated at Queen’s College in the capital, Georgetown, and the University of the West Indies in Jamaica where he gained a First Class Honors BA degree in history. Rodney grew up during the country’s anticolonial movement; his father was a member of the Marxist-oriented People’s Progressive Party, which led the struggle for freedom from British rule. Rodney went on to complete his doctoral dissertation, titled “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800,” at the University of London in 1966. He taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania during the period of radical political and agrarian reform led by Julius Nyerere.
Tanzania was the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity’s Liberation Committee, and Dar es Salaam became the base for many of the exiled liberation movements of Southern Africa. Among these organizations were the African National Congress of South Africa, Frente da Libertaçao de Moçambique (FRELIMO) of Mozambique, and Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola (MPLA) of Angola. In this atmosphere Rodney developed his Pan-African perspectives along Marxist lines and sided with Southern Africa’s left-wing activists.
He returned to Jamaica to teach at the University of the West Indies in 1968. His radical views and association with Rastafarians and the Black Power movement in Jamaica led to Rodney being banned from reentering Jamaica by the government after he attended a Black Power conference in Canada in October 1968. The demonstration of university students together with Kingston’s urban youth against the ban marked a watershed in Jamaica’s political development; the scale of mass action in support of Rodney surprised the regime. There were protests throughout the Caribbean, and in Tanzania, Canada, and London. Rodney’s reputation as a scholaractivist with a relevant critique of the Jamaican and Caribbean post-colonial elites was firmly established. In the nearly ten months in 1968 that Walter Rodney spent in Jamaica he not only taught but also spoke to groups in the slums of Kingston and in the rural areas. He had an extraordinary ability to speak with and listen to working people and unemployed youth. He explained the significance of Africa to Caribbean history and the importance of the struggles against the racial and social legacies of slavery and colonialism. His articles and speeches embodying these positions were published in the book The Groundings with My Brothers (1969).
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Rodney returned to lecture at the University of Dar es Salaam from 1969 to1974. In 1972 he published his bestknown work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. This work brings together historical scholarship and development theory to argue that the transatlantic slave trade and European and North American capitalist slavery did serious damage to Africa in depriving it of millions of its young people from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Rodney was also critical of the impact of colonialism in retarding the development of the continent. The book is more than protest literature in that it advances a revolutionary humanist view of development and decolonization at a time when many countries on the continent were achieving political independence, a process that was also under way in the English-speaking Caribbean whose territories were populated largely by descendants of African slaves.
Some scholars argue that Rodney relies too heavily on the dependency theory of the 1960s and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa has been criticized for not looking sufficiently at the internal factors in Africa that accounted for the slave trade and African underdevelopment. Ironically, however, much of his early work had focused on internal factors that retarded Africa’s development and Rodney’s analysis of Africa’s traditional elites was caustic. So in a sense How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was a departure and the emphasis on European involvement in the hugely profitable trade completed his treatment of the relationship between European slave traders and plantation owners on the one hand and on the other hand Africa’s elites who facilitated the slave trade. Also in 1972, Oxford University published Rodney’s doctoral thesis A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545–1800. In 1975 two chapters titled “The Guinea Coast” and “Africa in Europe and the Americas” were published in the Cambridge History of Africa. The latter essay was a pioneering study of the African Diaspora.
A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905
Walter Rodney returned to his native country, now called Guyana, in 1974 and was denied a job at the University of Guyana by President Forbes Burnham. Burnham saw the young scholar-activist as a political opponent and hoped to keep him out of Guyana. Rodney was associated with the Working People’s Alliance, a political organization that sought to offer a nonracial approach to Guyanese politics in a country where party politics had been divided between Cheddi Jagan’s East Indian–based People’s Progressive Party and Forbes Burnham’s Africanbased People’s National Congress. Between 1974 and 1980, when he was murdered at age thirty-eight by a booby-trapped walkie-talkie given to him by a member of Guyana’s Defense Force, Rodney lectured in the United States and Europe for short periods in order to ensure an income. He continued his research and completed working on A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905, which was published posthumously in 1981. This work embodies his philosophy on the creative role of ordinary people in the making of history and introduces the contribution of African slaves “to the humanization of the Guyanese coastal environment” in creating “an elaborate system of canals … to provide drainage, irrigation, and transportation” (Rodney 1981, pp. 2–3) in a remarkable transfer of Dutch technology to a coastal landscape that was below sea level. It was the first book on the Guyanese working people written in the twentieth century. In 1982, the book won the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Prize and in 1983 the Association of Caribbean Historians gave Rodney a posthumous award.
Rodney’s reputation as a historian of the Caribbean was duly recognized. He harnessed history in the service of African and Caribbean decolonization with a view to giving his readers a sense of their creative capacity to build postcolonial societies. The Barbadian novelist George Lamming, in his foreword to A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905, described Rodney’s approach to history as “a way of ordering knowledge which could become an active part of the consciousness of an uncertified mass of ordinary people and which could be used by all as an instrument of social change. He taught from that assumption. He wrote out of that conviction” (Rodney 1981, p. xvii).
Rodney was also a gifted and compelling speaker whose arguments were backed up by a mastery of contemporary data. He possessed a capacity to communicate complex ideas to small study groups and large audiences with great clarity drawing on his solidly rooted knowledge of African and Caribbean history.
- Lewis, Rupert. 1998. Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
- Rodney, Walter. 1969. The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle–L’Ouverture Publications.
- Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications.
- Rodney, Walter. 1981. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
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