Rodney, Walter 1942-1980
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 scholar-activist 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).
Rodney returned to lecture at the University of Dar es Salaam from 1969 to1974. In 1972 he published his best-known 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.
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 African-based 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.
SEE ALSO Black Power; Caribbean, The; Colonialism; Decolonization; Ethnic Fractionalization; Exploitation; Imperialism; James, C. L. R.; James, William; Marxism; Pan-Africanism; Rastafari; Underdevelopment; Williams, Eric
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.
March 23, 1942
June 13, 1980
Walter Rodney, whose father was a tailor and whose mother was a homemaker, was born in Georgetown, Guyana. He won a government scholarship that enabled him to enter Queen's College, then the leading secondary educational institution in the colony. There he did well scholastically, edited the school's newspaper, and took an active part in the debating society. The 1940s and the early 1950s, which saw the emergence of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), Guyana's first mass-based political party, was a period of intense political activity oriented specifically toward the attainment of political independence. Rodney's own political awakening and the beginning of his lifelong adherence to Marxist theory and praxis occurred in the 1950s, when as a youngster he distributed PPP manifestos. He learned while doing so that it was imprudent to enter yards with long driveways, because those who lived in the houses there were of a higher social class and lighter pigmentation than he, and therefore unlikely to be sympathetic to the nationalist aspirations of the PPP.
After winning an open scholarship in 1960 to study at the University College of the West Indies, later called the University of the West Indies (UWI), Rodney majored in history and graduated with first-class honors in 1963. While at the UWI, his intellectual and political sensibilities were further sharpened when he noted that West Indian history was deemphasized, which to him meant seeing reality through European eyes with no connection between history and politics. Upon graduation, Rodney continued the study of history in Englanas awarded a Ph.D. in 1966 by the University of London. His doctoral thesis, "A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800," involved research in fascist Portugal, where he became aware of the contradiction of imperialist racism that privileged an educated black like himself while exploiting and repressing uneducated blacks.
In England Rodney also continued to be exposed to a brand of scholarship that divorced history from politics and politics from scholarship, as well as to the trials of racism. Undaunted, he took the opportunity to hone his public-speaking skills by addressing audiences at London's famous Hyde Park, where soap box orators who exercised the right of free speech found willing audiences for whatever topic interested them.
Leaving England in 1966, Rodney accepted an appointment as lecturer in African history at University College in Tanzania, but left to accept a teaching appointment in January 1968 at the Jamaica campus of the UWI, where he launched and taught a course in African history. Consistent with his view that scholarship should not be divorced from politics and that the most meaningful education comes from an understanding of the condition of the people, Rodney took his pedagogy to the "dungles," or the most dispossessed parts of Kingston. This led him, perhaps inevitably, to a sustained critique of the government of Jamaica, whose policies, he maintained, perpetuated the dispossession of black Jamaicans. However, after attending a Conference of Black Writers held at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in October 1968, Rodney was declared persona non grata by the Jamaican government and banned from reentering the island.
Rodney's exclusion from Jamaica led to various protest demonstrations and confrontations by students and others with the police. Another significant result of the ban was the publication of his 1969 book, The Groundings with My Brothers. This book provided Rodney with the opportunity to address issues of major concern to African intellectuals in the diaspora and enabled him to fuse scholarship and reality through the eyes of a person of African descent. Rodney thus addressed the Jamaican situation that had led to his exclusion by challenging what he referred to as the myth of a harmonious Jamaican society that was being perpetuated by the same people who had named Marcus Garvey a national hero, while at the same time using the full force of the law to repress darkerskinned Jamaicans. He warned that black youths were becoming "aware of the possibilities of unleashing armed struggle in their own interests" (Rodney, 1969, p. 15).
Turning his attention to Black Power, Rodney continued to revert to history to explain the oppression of peoples of color by whites. However, fully cognizant of the differences between the experience of the colonized in the United States and those in the West Indies, some of whose territories, like Guyana and Trinidad, had large East Indian populations, Rodney noted that the Black in Black Power in the Caribbean must include all colonized individuals who were not of European descent and whose forebears earlier on had been forced to work on the plantations in the West Indies. Black Power, he continued, must involve efforts by these individuals to control their own "destinies." Moreover, he argued, the major and first responsibility of the nonwhite intellectual in the diaspora was the struggle over ideas and, as a "guerrilla intellectual," participation in the struggle for the transformation of his own orbit.
After his exclusion from Jamaica, Rodney taught in Tanzania from 1968 to 1974 before returning to Guyana to accept a position as professor of history at the University of Guyana (UG). In Tanzania he concluded that he had contributed as much as he could, and that as a non-Tanzanian, his participation in the political culture of that country would be marginal and thus restricted to the university. He could more easily master the nuances of Caribbean culture than those of Tanzania, which were so critical to political activity. However, following the blocking of the UG appointment by the repressive government of President Forbes Burnham, Rodney remained permanently in the country of his birth, where he became a founding member of a political party, the Working People's Alliance. A dynamic speaker with a penchant for breaking down complex ideas into everyday language, Rodney set about mobilizing the Guyanese masses against the regime of Burnham by educating and raising the consciousness of the thousands who attended his lectures in the heart of Georgetown, the capital, all the while using his knowledge of history as his main weapon.
Since some of Rodney's rhetoric was uncompromising and directed at Burnham personally, some felt that Guyana had reached a point where the country was too small for the two antagonists. Thus, in addition to various retaliatory acts by the government, in July 1979, along with seven others, Rodney was arrested and charged, but later acquitted, with arson in connection with the burning of two government offices. At a mass rally on June 6, 1980, Rodney used humor not merely to ridicule Burnham and his government but to criticize the constitution, which arrogated a tremendous amount of power to Burnham as president for life, which Rodney felt was incompatible with democratic socialism. Interspersing his speech with historical references, and much to the amusement of his listeners, Rodney dealt with the serious issue of oppression and death meted out to so-called enemies of the state, referring to Burnham as "King Kong," revealing that some individuals had decided that a certain public convenience should be renamed "Burnham's Palace."
On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was killed instantly when a walkie-talkie in his possession, allegedly given to him by an electronics expert in the Guyana Defense Force, exploded. Before his death Rodney had revised a manuscript, which he had submitted for publication to the Johns Hopkins University Press. In that manuscript, published posthumously as A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905, Rodney continued to emphasize the class nature of Guyanese history, whether he was analyzing the political economy of slavery in general, the capricious labor withdrawal by the Creoles (the former slaves), the role of the planter-controlled legislature in perpetuating the peculiar institution, or Creole opposition to immigration policies that resulted in the introduction of indentured laborers from India to plantation life in the colony. Thus, he remained faithful to the significance of social class and its race/color dimensions, which he had first observed in the 1950s during the struggle for political independence, in his treatment of a particular moment in Guyanese history.
Alpers, Edward. "The Weapon of History in the Struggle for African Liberation: The Work of Walter Rodney." In Walter Rodney, Revolutionary and Scholar: A Tribute, edited by Edward Alpers and Pierre-Michel Fontaine. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies and African Studies Center, University of California, 1982.
Dodson, Howard, and Robert Hill. Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.
Lewis, Rupert Charles. Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought. Kingston, Jamaica: The Press, University of the West Indies; Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Rodney, Walter. The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle L'Ouverture, 1969.
Rodney, Walter. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905. Baltimore, Md., and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
maurice st. pierre (2005)