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How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Paperback – October 1, 2011
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About the Author
Walter Anthony Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942. He is recognized as one of the Caribbean s most brilliant minds. Rodney attended Queen s College, in Guyana, and graduated first in his class in 1960, winning an open scholarship to the University of the West Indies (UWI). He attended UWI Mona Campus in Jamaica, and graduated with 1st class honors in History in 1963. Rodney then attended the School of Oriental and African Studies in London where, at the age of 24, he received his PhD with honors in African History. Rodney s thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, was published by Oxford University Press in 1970. Rodney combined his scholarship with activism and became a voice for the under-represented and disenfranchised a distinction from his academic colleagues. His interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age with an introduction to politics by his father. His PhD thesis illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged the prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples. Influenced by the Black Power Movement in the U.S., third world revolutionaries and Marxist theory, Rodney began to actively challenge the status quo. In 1968, while a UWI professor in Jamaica, he joined others to object to the socio-economic and political direction of the government. Unlike his counterparts, however, Rodney involved the working class, including the Rastafarians (one of Jamaica s most marginalized groups) in this dialogue. His speeches to these groups were published as Grounding with My Brothers, and became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement. Rodney's activities attracted the government s attention and after attending the 1968 Black Writers' Conference in Canada he was banned from re-entering Jamaica. This decision sparked widespread unrest in Kingston. In 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana to take an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. He remained in Guyana, joining the newly formed political group, the Working People's Alliance. Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave talks across the country to engender a new political consciousness. As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment including police raids, house searches, and beatings. On July 11, 1979, Walter, with seven others, was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the Referendum Five) faced charges of arson, but without proof, and scrutiny from international supporters, the government was forced to drop the charges. The persecution continued; two party members were killed, and the government denied Rodney permission to travel. Despite this, he continued his political work and attended Zimbabwe s independence celebrations in May 1980. Rodney s voice was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton. On Friday, June 13, 1980, at age 38, Rodney was assassinated by a bomb while in Georgetown, Guyana. Rodney completed four books in the last year of his life: A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905; People s Power, No Dictator, and two children s books: Kofi Baadu Out of Africa and Lakshmi Out of India. Walter Rodney was married to Patricia Rodney and together they have three children Shaka, Kanini and Asha.
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While the book's Marxist agenda and the European colonial history in Africa appears to absolve other players of their petty crimes on the African continent, it is said that Walter Rodney surprised a few others by holding a few African players, at least in modicum, accountable for their complicity. The trade in people had existed in West and East Africa with demand for slaves in Muslim North Africa and, in much smaller numbers, within various African societies. As Rodney explains, Europe accelerated the small breeze of trade into a hurricane of supply and demand.
As the anti-capitalist thesis goes, the rich nations of Europe required a supplier to feed their growing appetites. Europe had the advantage in everything from modern shipping to specialized production. While Europe depleted the human and cash crop resources to feed the capitalist monster, the Wolof, Asante, Dahomey, Kongo, Swahili and East Arab traders simply met the ill-fated demand. If the African chiefs were to reject the trade in slaves, guns and ammo, it was tantamount to self-destruction. As imperialism turned to colonialism, Europe caused unhealthy competition and bitter tribal rivalries while taking advantage of the splintered internal relations to divide and conquer.
The counter-factual to the colonization of Africa is an intriguing thought exercise. The land was so wide, so rich, and as al-Dimashqi (d. 1327), an Arab scholar wrote, filled with so many happy people that it was all too tempting for the post-Westphalia, populated and proud neighbors to the North. In 1648, West Africa boasted a number of empires; East Africa a system of city states on the coast. But Central Africa's political structure was still fluid and evolving to fill the land around it.
While Islam had introduced written Arabic to much of West Africa by 1800, East Africa maintained Islamic studies for the elite few. By 1900, literacy training and modern education was found in a number of madrasas and missionary schools for the former, and for the latter, missionary schools still far outweighed in quality and quantity any meager attempt by colonial masters to "civilize" their colonies. True to history, colonialism neglected more than just education for Africans. Infrastructure projects served only to build the export machine. Raw materials left Africa and they returned in the form of processed goods and finished products against which few African producers could compete.
Walter Rodney's ideas are to be found in the a majority of African studies curriculum's, his arguments now taken for granted. Rodney emphasized the still deep plight of Africa's agricultural development. Africa entered colonialism with the hoe and welcomed independence with the same hoe. As some argue, 60% of Africa's arable land lies untapped, under-utilized in terms of mass agricultural production through modern methods. Countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and Sierra Leone have come to symbolize the hyperbolic rhetoric of "land grabs"; outside companies leasing land with promises at mutual gain.
On the downside, the Marxist agenda never looked fondly upon religion or its influence. Rodney falls prey to confirmation bias in all matters of Christian missionaries; yet oddly, Islam is given a pass if still a slight slap on the hand. When Rodney fails to appreciate the important heritage of the Ethiopian church and even more so, the strong spiritual nature of most all African traditional religious beliefs he misrepresents the entire continent. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, according to recent 2014-15 Pew Research, is ranked highest throughout the world where "religion plays a large part in daily life" (90%-99%). Religion need not be the enemy; nor does it deserve credit, from any confession, for the "under-development of Africa".
So what then is the best method to understanding Africa's developmental challenge? Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney blame capitalism. People like William Easterly or Dambisa Moyo would accept that colonialism has run its awful course. It is up to African leaders to now make decisions that serve their people and for outsiders to leave development not to outside managers but to ground level "searchers" and doers. There is enough money and opportunity to go around that requires a morally responsible trajectory that no ideology, from Marxism to capitalism, could write on the hearts of men.
Kenyans, Nigerians and Senegalese deserve more credit for their tenacity and economic savvy than many Euro-scapegoaters allow. Today there is a new scapegoat: China. With so much emphasis being given to the extraction of resources, very little is provided to the creative African now living in China by his/her own accord. Supply and demand is more than a geographic location. Remittance networks, African overseas businessmen and their foreign suppliers all challenge the boogey-man of neo-colonialism. A balanced argument is required from all sides, and most certainly one that recognizes the heritage of African entrepreneurship and their local traditions.
Colonial Africa may still be the best garden for Marxist thought. In reality, Western imperialism is only the latest in history's series of empires, dominations and reformations. The most recent always sticks as the most relevant on our minds. The counter-factual to European dominance will forever remain a mystery. In the end, Africa's youth are demanding a better chance. They can be the current counter-factual.
Other books that treat the question of underdevelopment that I recommend are Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. But capitalism creates the seeds of its own destruction by creating a working class, even in the most underdeveloped countries, and along with reading Rodney I recommend Capitalism and the Transformation of Africa. And one has to add to these the speeches and writings of two of the greatest African revolutionaries: Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87;The Struggle Is My Life; and Nelson Mandela Speaks: Forging a Democratic, Nonracial South Africa.