Walter Rodney was one of the most brilliant Black minds of the 20th Century. It is not coincidence that most Black students have never heard of him.
His name is rarely mentioned along other members of the Civil Rights movements, or on the African continent itself.
But Dr. Walter Rodney shaped Pan-Africanism in ways few others have.
One of the most important tasks of any Pan-African is understanding how the system of white supremacy works. In understanding this system, the revolutionary is able to develop defensive and offensive strategies that can protect her and her people.
That is why we study brilliant Black scholars and revolutionaries like Dr. Walter Rodney. At the young age of 24, he earned a PhD in African History in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He would go on to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and in Jamaica before returning to his home country of Guyana.
It is through his dissertation and later academic works that the assertion that Africa was born out of and destined for underdevelopment (without the help of the West), was challenged and overthrown.
Dr. Walter Rodney was more than just a thinker, teacher, and academic. He actively organized to advance the aims of Pan-Africanism and challenged the system as the leader of the Guyanese Working People’s Alliance (WPA) Political Party.
Like most prominent Pan-African’s, the greatest threat that Dr. Rodney posed to the world was his willingness to challenge the pillars of white supremacy. That threat did not go unnoticed by the white Guyanese elite.
On June 13, 1980 Dr. Walter Rodney’s life and works were cut short when a government planted explosive detonated inside of his car. He was 38 years old.
Of the 11 books that he authored, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was the intellectual crucifix that would cost him his life. His book was so powerful that those who read it took to the streets in what came to be known as the Rodney Riots.
Today, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a powerful tool for those aspiring to understand who we are, how we came to be, the world around us, and our place in the world as Pan Africans.
Using his book as a guide, we come to understand the 15 ways that white supremacy crippled the Continent, and we can put to rest the culpability of her original people for their current state.
An emphasis on population loss as such is highly relevant to the question of socio-economic development…The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of 15 and 35, and preferably in the early twenties; the sex ratio being about two men to one woman. Europeans often accepted younger African children, but rarely any older person. – Page 95
Slavery carried away millions of the healthiest, youngest, strongest, and most productive Africans. Its hard to determine an exact number, but if we take the following statistics into account, we can start to see the impact that slavery had on Africa’s population.
These statistics may seem staggering, but they are likely underestimates of the real number of casualties. All in all, the population of Africa was cut in half – and the half that were left were those who were unable to fight or work for Africa’s development.
- At best estimate, the population of the entire African continent was 100 million when the Maafa began
- About 20 million slaves survived the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to arrive in the Americas.
- About half of that population – 10 million did not survive the journey
- About 10 million were either killed or worked to death on the African continent itself
Keep in mind that these numbers do not take into account the equally devastating Arab slave trade, or casualties of the thousands of conflicts detailed in other historical accounts.
The question can then be raised “How can any group develop its nation with more than half the population gone and the other half being sick, elderly, or weakened?”
When Europeans invaded the African continent, they put an end to the development of new technology. Instead, colonies were forced to use technologies and machinery that were produced in Europe. This led to technological arrest.
Africans neither had the means of production to build such technologies on their own, nor were they allowed to. With all available technology coming from the outside world, Africa’s ability to create its own technology was never realized.
Dr. Walter Rodney writes:
…To be held back at one stage [of technological advancement] means that it is impossible to go on to a further stage. When a person was forced to leave school after only two years of primary school education…he is academically and intellectually less developed than someone who had the opportunity to be schooled right through to university level. What Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance. – Page 105
Dr. Rodney goes on to use the textile industry as an example. Whereas most nations advanced from hand made textiles to industrial mass production from the 1400s into the 1600s, Africa’s andvancement was aborted by the Europeans.
Partly by establishing a stranglehold on the distribution of cloth around the shores of Africa, and partly by swamping African products by importing cloth in bulk, European traders eventually succeeded in putting an end to the expansion of African cloth manufacture.
Over time, Africans forgot how to clothing by hand, and relied almost completely on European textiles.
One of the common means by which one nation exploits another and one that is relevant to Africa’s external relations is exploitation through trade. When the terms of trade are set by one country in a manner entirely advantageous to itself, then the trade is usually detrimental to the trading partner. – Page 22
As part of the trade imbalance that Europe forced on its colonies, African nations were forced to pay part of the cost of producing the items it traded to reduce prices for the buyer.
Dr. Walter Rodney describes how these trade imbalances led to the accumulation of white wealth at the expense of Black productivity.
These imbalances continue to this very day, with the European Union drafted Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) which are aimed at creating a free trade area between EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.
When the Europeans arrived, Africa had a long and rich history of trade between its people and with the East along the Silk Road. Since the white man had little to trade (he came as an exploiter, not a trader), he saw an opportunity to disrupt and control the markets by inserting himself as a middleman between groups.
European militaries would seize control of important trade routes, continue to move goods and people across those routes, but take a ‘cut’ of the commercial activity. Once they controlled the flow of goods, they could then dictate prices, and restrict or allow goods at will.
This allowed them to disrupt whole markets across vast expanses of the motherland.
The Expansion of Capitalism
That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late nineteenth century onwards is what we call “imperialism.” Imperialism meant capitalist expansion . It meant that European capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies , to find markets , and to find profitable fields of investment. – Pages 136 -9, 189-90
Capitalism, by its nature is a predatory system based on three primary conditions:
- That the owner of an enterprise pay as little in wages as possible to reap the highest profit
- That the owner of an enterprise control the means of production, including land, machinery, and resources
- and that the capitalist accumulates and holds as much capital as possible for as long as possible.
Africa provided the perfect conditions for white capitalism to prey on Black labor and wealth. Combined with wage depression, colonizers reaped astronomical profits from gaining control of the means of production by force, political maneuver, and technological arrest. The surplus was then exported and held in European hands where – in many cases – it remains to this day.
Expatriation of Surplus
Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources.
African trade strengthened British industry, which in turn crushed whatever industry existed in what is now called the “underdeveloped” countries. – Page 149
African workers were made to live on bare minimum wages and rations while any and all surplus was handed over to the colonizer. This left the worker completely dependent on the colonizer for their subsistence.
The idea of saving and investing was unthinkable, and the notion of development was far removed from the minds of the colonized. It was enough of a trial to merely survive.
This surplus wealth taken out of Africa was then used to fuel European research and development that led to scientific breakthroughs in Europe. Europe gained its development in proportion to its efforts to underdevelop Africa.
The Nigerian coal miner at Enugu earned one shilling per day for working underground and nine pence per day for jobs on the surface. Such a miserable wage would be beyond the comprehension of a Scottish or German coal miner, who could virtually earn in an hour what the Enugu miner was paid in a week. – Page 150, 220
The wealth gap that Dr. Walter Rodney exposed back then has only increased since the so-called end of the colonial and Jim Crow era.
By depressing the wages of Black workers, white capitalists are able to reap enormous profits. This leaves the Black worker to do more with less – a condition that is only made worse by time.
Without the compounding interest that surplus income could possibly yield through capital accumulation and investing, Black earners found themselves economically castrated.
Price Control and Monopolization
European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting to gain control over raw materials , markets, and means of communications. Page 158
To add insult to the injury of robbing Black workers of decent wages, capitalists and colonizers charged Black buyers more for goods and services. And since white companies had control over entire nations, those companies exercised monopolies within their sectors.
This is a practice still alive and well today .
Colonial Government Policy and Taxation
The colonial government also prevented Africans from growing crops so that their labor would be available directly for the whites. One of the Kenya white settlers, Colonel Grogan, put it bluntly when he said of the Kikuyu : “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” – Page 165
Everything African laborers produced for themselves was oppressively taxed.
Dr. Walter Rodney writes that “In those parts of the continent where land was still in African hands, colonial governments forced Africans to produce cash crops no matter how low the prices were. The favorite technique was taxation. Money taxes were introduced on numerous items-cattle, land, houses, and the people themselves. Money to pay taxes was got by growing cash crops or working on European farms or in their mines.”
Colonial policy conscripted every able bodied Black man, woman, and child who could work and fight to prop up their system of white supremacy. Africa became the largest labor camp on the planet.
To make matters worse, conscription was not limited to labor, but also included military service.
You have probably heard it said that “Africans fought and sold Africans during the colonial era”. This false assertion doesn’t take into account the fact that Africans were conscripted to fight against one another.
Black men and women in the British colonies were sent to war against Black women and men in French colonies, and all were dragged into Europe’s wars abroad.
For instance, the total number of Africans mobilized during World War II alone was about 2,350,000 men. Of that 2.3 Million, more than a million would lose their lives fighting Europe’s war.
Division of Labor
It is only the organization and resoluteness of the working class which protects it from the natural tendency of the capitalist to exploit to the utmost. That is why in all colonial territories, when African workers realized the necessity for trade union solidarity, numerous obstacles were placed in their paths by the colonial regimes.
One of the reasons unity is the biggest threat that existed – and still exists – against the system of white supremacy is that it threatens the economic foundation of the system.
By preventing workers from organizing, demanding higher wages, and threatening the profitability and monopoly of white enterprises, colonizers were able to preserve Africa’s underdeveloped status quo.
The division of labor was an important strategy used by white supremacy to maintain their control. It was for this very reason that Dr. Walter Rodney led the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), and why so many Black organizations have taken up the mantle of Socialism.
Growth Without Development
…growth in Africa under colonialism … did not enlarge the capacity of the society to deal with the natural environment, to adjudicate relations between members of the society, and to protect the population from external forces. – Page 234
Growth without development meant there was an expansion in the goods produced and available for consumption, but the means of producing those goods – industrial development – was absent.
Today, while there are more cars on the road, more gas stations to service those cars, and larger consumer markets, the cars, gas, and goods are all produced in China, Europe, or America.
Africans are able to buy more as consumers, but are unable to become producers due to technological arrest and other factors described throughout Dr. Walter Rodney’s book.
In Senegal and Gambia, ground nuts accounted for 85 to 90 percent of money earnings . In effect, two African colonies were told to grow nothing but peanuts! – Page 235
Capitalist colonizers were not interested in using African labor to grow anything that was not evidently profitable.
All the diverse crops that had been harvested for generations and used to diversify the African diet were removed in favor of crops produced for its commercial value rather than for use by the grower.
Not only did monoculture and cash cropping lead to limited streams of income for African nations (since they had only one crop to sell rather than an array), it led to the next source of underdevelopment…
Colonialism created conditions which led not just to periodic famine but to chronic undernourishment, malnutrition, and deterioration in the physique of the African people. – Page 236
When scientists examined the condition of pre-colonial Sub-Saharan African skeletons, they found that almost none of them showed any clinical signs of dietary deficiency. One of the most striking indications of the superiority of indigenous African diet is the magnificent condition of the teeth.
One researcher among six ethnic groups in Kenya could not find a single case of tooth decay, not a single deformation of dental arch.
But when those same people were transplanted and put on the “civilized” diet available under colonialism, their teeth began to decay at once.
This undernourishment was the result of both monoculture and the unavailability of more nutritious food due to taxation and restrictions.
The main purpose of the colonial school system was to train Africans to help man the local administration at the lowest ranks and to staff the private capitalist firms owned by Europeans… Colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion, and the development of underdevelopment.
Miseducation is defined as the cultivation of an alien identity. It was through this process of convincing African’s that they were in fact French, British, or some other European proxy that African’s began to willingly participate in their own destruction.
It was those Africans who best emulated white values who were given positions of authority and marginally higher standards of living.
Over time, the French speaking, white educated Black man lost interest in developing his own nation and instead assisted his colonial master with the further colonization of his own people.
One constant factor was disgust with the way that Europeans forced Africans to identify as Europeans . Revolting against that concept, one Zulu Independent church put the question to the local population : “Are you a Jew or a Zulu? Were you there when they crucified their Lord?” Nevertheless, many Africans came to accept the dehumanizing principle of alienation from self. – Page 254
When we look at works like those produced by Dr. Walter Rodney, we see that there are 5 “original values” that our people have used to build Black civilizations. Those original values are:
► Common heritage
► Natural law
► and Contribution
By contrast, there are 5 values that have guided white nations since their blood-soaked inception. Those values are:
► Conflict and control
► and Consumerism
When original values came to resemble white values, the destruction of Black culture and society had been completed.
Dr. Walter Rodney had this to say: “Perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism…The capitalist system [champions and protects] the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants.
When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase.
It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few.
When individualism was applied to land, it meant that the notions of private ownership and the transfer of land through sale became prevalent in some parts of the continent.
Much more widespread was the new understanding that individual labor should benefit the person concerned and not some wider collective, such as the clan or ethnic group.
Thus, the practice of collective labor and egalitarian social distribution gave way to accumulative tendencies.
The Myth Of Capitalist Exceptionalism
It is a common myth within capitalist thought that the individual through drive and hard work can become a capitalist.
In the U.S.A., it is usual to refer to an individual like John D. Rockefeller, Sr. , as someone who rose “from rags to riches.” To complete the moral of the Rockefeller success story, it would be necessary to fill in the details on all the millions of people who had to be exploited in order for one man to become a multimillionaire.
The acquisition of wealth is not due to hard work alone, or the Africans working as slaves in America and the West Indies would have been the wealthiest group in the world. The individualism of the capitalist must be seen against the hard and unrewarded work of the masses.
In Africa, both the formal school system and the informal value system of colonialism destroyed social solidarity and promoted the worst form of alienated individualism without social responsibility.
That delayed the political process through which the society tried to regain its independence.
The Legacy of Dr. Walter Rodney
All of the 15 conditions above are still alive and well across the African Diaspora – from trade deals imposed on African nations by the European Union to Black students taking on massive debt only to be miseducated by white colleges.
If we are to honor the legacy of Dr. Walter Rodney, not only must we read and study his works, but we should follow his example and organize for complete constructive change.
It is for his contribution to advancing our knowledge of the weapons of white supremacy, and for making the ultimate sacrifice to challenge that system that we name Dr. Walter Rodney one of the 50 Greatest Pan-Africans in History.
Peace be upon his name and legacy.