Walter Rodney, the Prophet of Self Emancipation
* Horace Campbell is chair of the Walter Rodney Commemoration
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to
find out more about planned events.
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
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
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
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'.