Guyanese activist and academic Walter Rodney, the author of ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ was not just a Guyanese figure. He was known worldwide, especially in Africa, where he enjoyed great popularity for his solidarity with the struggles of the working people. This year marks 25 years since his assassination and efforts are underway to commemorate the life of a man who became known as the ‘prophet of self emancipation’.
The year 2005 marks twenty-five years since Walter Rodney was assassinated in
Georgetown, Guyana. Walter Rodney was a tireless champion of the rights of working peoples everywhere and in his short life of thirty eight years he made his mark as one of the pre eminent thinkers of the 20th century.
When one reads his monograph, ‘World War II and the Tanzanian Economy’, (published by Cornell University, African Studies and Research Centre) one can get a sense of the kind of conditions into which Walter Rodney entered this world. This reflection on the war was also contained in a paper delivered by Walter Rodney in London on comparisons between Tanzania and Guyana under colonialism. War and the destruction of human lives by capitalism were constantly on the mind of Walter Rodney.
Secondary Education in Guyana
Walter Rodney was brought into this world in the midst of war, conceived by Guyanese working class activists who were very much part of the anti colonial struggles of the society. Rodney was born on March 23, 1942 in Bent Street, Georgetown, where he grew up and spent his childhood. After attending primary school, he won an open exhibition scholarship to Queen’s College, then one of the elite schools in the colony. Rodney grew up in a time of ferment in Guyana and he paid close attention to what was happening in his society while excelling in every area of life that he participated in. He was involved as a school cadet, as a debater, as a member of the sports team and was known to be a very good bridge and chess player. Rodney came to adulthood when the questions of the centrality of the working people in the future of the country were being debated (with words and with imperial intervention). Both of his parents were active in the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) led by Cheddi Jagan and were outspoken in their opposition to racism, colonialism and imperialism. Walter Rodney often attended political meetings with his mother and went around distributing anti-colonial literature himself.
Walter distinguished himself in high school and in 1960 won another open scholarship, this time to the University of the West Indies (UWI) campus at Mona, Jamaica. In Jamaica, he was an active supporter of Caribbean Unity and he traveled extensively in Jamaica supporting the West Indian Federation during the referendum of 1961. Three years later, he obtained a degree in history with First Class (top) Honors.
While as an undergraduate he was outspoken in the defense of the poor and his activities were monitored by the Jamaican police, who were afraid of the strident defense of the rights of ordinary people. As an undergraduate, he was already writing and contributing to scholarly journals on the issues of slavery and capitalism. In one particular essay entitled, “The Slave,” Walter brought out not only the humanity of the enslaved African, but the capacity to organize and rebel under the most brutal conditions.
Walter Rodney in London
In 1963, he received yet another scholarship, to study African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. At that period, the questions of decolonization in all parts of the world were being debated. The legacies of the post war agitation by Africans who were involved in the West African Students Union (WASU) had inspired a spirit of cooperation beyond national boundaries. In London he deepened his understanding of Pan Africanism and was in contact with students from Africa and the Caribbean. C. L. R. James provided the bridge between these communities. James had been a member of the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and had cooperated with George Padmore, W.E. B Dubois, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah in placing the decolonization question squarely before the British political leaders and peoples. Walter was a member of the group of Caribbean workers and students who studied and debated with C.L. R. James. These study sessions included the cream of the anti colonial youth who were being trained in Europe at that time.
In 1966, at the age of 24, Rodney received his PhD. His doctoral thesis was published in 1970 as ‘A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800’. Because of the scholarly breakthroughs in this study, Rodney’s work was published in the most distinguished Journals of African History and he made a name for himself as a pre - eminent African historian. It was while in London when he married Patricia.
Rodney and Tanzania
His first job in academia was an appointment as lecturer in history at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, East Africa. At that time, Tanzania was the Headquarters of the OAU Liberation Committee. In 1964 the Zanzibar revolution had radicalized the politics of East Africa and in 1967 the Tanzanian government launched the Arusha Declaration. Che Guevara had also traveled through Tanzania on his way to fight in the Congo.
Returned to Jamaica
In 1968, he returned to Jamaica to lecture at Mona campus, his old university. Rodney’s second coming to Jamaica coincided with the rise of mass political activity on the island, activity in which he became deeply involved. He worked closely with poor people and “grounded” with Rastafarians in Kingston and other parts of the country. He was constantly under surveillance by the police but was not intimidated. The scholarly work of Rodney increased while he was publishing for journals, but he found time for working with the ordinary people. In this regard, Walter was the quintessential organic intellectual.
Rodney was very popular with the Jamaican masses, but his activism was frowned upon by the middle classes who felt that he was wasting his time with the Rastafari. At that time, the Rastafari were considered “outcasts” and “criminals.” The influence of Walter Rodney on the lyrics of Bob Marley can be seen from reading ‘Groundings’ and listening to the Album ‘Survival’ by Bob Marley. (See Walter Rodney, ‘Groundings With My Brothers’) In seeking to respect the culture of the people, Rodney participated in numerous sessions teaching the history of Africa in poor communities. For this, he provoked the wrath of the Jamaican government, which claimed that he was a threat to national security.
The year 1968 was historic in the uprisings all over the world. Walter Rodney attended the Black Writers Conference in Montreal in October 1968. On his return to Jamaica, the government banned Rodney from Jamaica. The JLP government sent him back to Canada on the same plane on which he had arrived. The ban resulted in major uprisings in Kingston. This was a demonstration of the love that the people had for him.
Students marched on government offices and ordinary people in Kingston, angry at the expulsion of the beloved “Brother Wally,” joined the demonstration, which eventually turned into a popular uprising. The event, which became known as the “Rodney affair,” resounded throughout the Caribbean. Some of the public presentations Rodney gave in Jamaica were published in a small book, ‘The Groundings with My Brothers’.
After his expulsion from Jamaica, Rodney spent time in Toronto, Canada and in this period traveled to Cuba. In early 1969 he returned to Tanzania, where he resumed teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam. At this time, The University of Dar es Salaam was a magnet for all of those in Africa thinking through the issues of liberation and freedom. These ideas were debated at the University of Dar es Salaam. It was in this intellectual milieu when he published his best-known work, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. This book broke with the Eurocentric conceptions of African history and immediately the book became one of the most widely-read and influential books on Africa and the third world in general.
In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Rodney was deeply involved in working with those dedicated to freedom and emancipation. He gave classes to the Workers at the Urafiki Textile Mill near the University and traveled on weekends to communal villages. Tanzania was then undergoing a revolutionary experiment, and it also served as the headquarters for many liberation movements from various parts of Africa. Rodney, who considered study and struggle inseparable, was involved in all of these activities.
He was central to the development of an intellectual tradition that became known as the Dar es Salaam School. His numerous writings on the subjects of socialism, imperialism, working class struggles and Pan Africanism and slavery contributed to a body of knowledge that came to be known as the Dar es Salaam School of Thought. Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Yash Tandon, John Saul, Dan Nabudere, O Nnoli, Clive Thomas and countless others participated in the debates on transformation and liberation in the University. He traveled extensively throughout East Africa and was one of the founders of the History Teachers Workshop of Tanzania. This workshop assigned themselves the task of rewriting the text books for high school students in Tanzania. One of the results of these debates was the effort of the World Bank and western donors to prop up a conservative brand of economic theory in the University. By the end of the eighties, World Bank thinkers and consultants were blaming Walter Rodney for the radical thinking in the University of Dar Es Salaam.
Return to the Caribbean.
Walter was a teacher, a political activist, a father and husband. Two of his children, Kanini and Asha were born in Tanzania. His son, Shaka Rodney was born in Jamaica in 1968.
Walter always wanted to return to the Caribbean and he wanted his children to know Guyana. Hence in 1974 he moved with his family back. Initially, he was appointed as Professor of History at the University of Guyana. The government of Guyana, however, canceled the appointment. Because of his independence and clarity of ideas, the government thought that he would leave. Out of paid work, he refused to leave the country. Instead, over the next six years he threw himself into independent research and political organization. He increased his work as an international scholar, teaching and researching on a full time basis. Many did not understand how he could work full time as an activist in the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) and remain committed as a serious scholar.
Walter threw himself into the study of the Guyanese working people and brought out a study of Guyanese plantations in the 19th century. He was involved in a three volume study of the Guyanese working people but before it was complete, he was assassinated on June 13, 1980. After his assassination, the first volume, ‘A History of the Guyanese Working People’, 1881-1905 was published by John Hopkins University Press. This book provided the historical foundations for the political movement he played a central role in founding and leading until his death, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). More than anything else, the WPA was committed to the politics of reconciliation among all racial groups in Guyana, beginning with the working people.
The dominant theme in Rodney’s life and work, intellectual and political, is a deep and abiding commitment to the struggles of the working people everywhere for emancipation from all forms of oppression. It was the principle for which he lived, and the principle for which he died. His last major project was the writing of books for children. It was his view that only when children learnt proper history and respect for others that the struggles against racial insecurity could be overcome. Two children’s books were produced. His legacy remains an inspiration to lovers of justice and human dignity the world over.
Walter Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980. He had traveled one month earlier to Zimbabwe in Southern Africa to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe. He had been under house arrest and the political leadership panicked when they learnt that he had met the Prime Minister and leaders of the Zimbabwean struggle.
From 1979 Rodney was under constant surveillance and close colleagues of Rodney were killed in 1979 (Ohene Kahama) and in 1980 (Edward Dublin). Finally, they killed him on June 13; murdered by a bomb concealed in a walkie-talkie. The man who handed the Walkie Talkie to Walter was whisked out of Guyana and protected by international imperialism until he expired nearly twenty years later.
His death shocked Guyanese of all racial groups, women, men, and youth. He had dedicated the latter part of his life to bridging the divisions between the people of Guyana only to end up paying with his life. Rodney was not just a Guyanese figure. He was also known worldwide, especially in the Caribbean and Africa, where he enjoyed great popularity for his solidarity with the struggles of the working people. It was for this reason Eusi Kwayana termed him as the ‘prophet of self emancipation’.
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