Category Archives: Antiracist education and black history

What happened on the other side of Africa? Afro-Asians in Sri Lanka

Black history in British secondary schools focuses mainly on the Atlantic slave trade and civil rights movement in the US. The question of what happened on the other side of Africa is rarely touched on and it would be a mistake to think that some sort of parallel or symmetrical experience was at work here, that the Indian Ocean was some sort of mirror reflection of the Atlantic experience. The Indian Ocean, unlike the Atlantic, was, prior to the ascendancy of the European colonial powers, a busy region which people criss-crossed on monsoon winds between Africa and Asia, trading goods and spreading ideas and knowledge for a thousand years or more with little reference to Europe. This was brutally interrupted in 1497 when the Portuguese arrived seeking a sea route to Asia. From this point on, the histories of most of the peoples of this region would be at least partially defined by their relationships with European powers and somehow, in this process of colonisation, their relationships with each other which once were rich in cultural exchange and even some mutual tolerance would be submerged – hidden from history.

Author and academic Amitav Ghosh describes this process whereby the cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean became dominated by Western colonial power as being one in which Asians and Africans are now all `travelling in the west…[participating] in the dissolution of centuries of dialogue which had linked us…` (from `In an Antique Land` by Amitav Ghosh 1993).

And so it may come as a surprise to people to hear that there are communities of African descent living in South Asia including in Sri Lanka. According to author Jihan da Silva Jayasuria

“Afro-Asian communities are the result of a continuous centuries-old phenomenon but why are they not widely known? The obvious reason for this is their hidden presence as forest-dwellers, villagers and people on the margins. Those who live in urban areas are not easily identifiable either and are lost in the diversity of South Asia’s cosmopolitan cities. Afro-Asians are taken for African tourists until they begin to speak in the local Asian language!” ( )

Despite the present day marginality of many of these these Afro-Asian communities, their ancestors had a significant impact on the culture and history of South Asia including Sri Lanka.

It is estimated that around 12.5 million Africans moved from Africa to South Asia but unlike the Atlantic Slave trade, this happened over a much longer period of about a thousand years. Sri Lanka was one of the important points of contact according to the sixth century Greek traveller Cosmos Indocopleustes who wrote

“As its position is central, the island is a great resort for ships from India and from Ethiopia and in like manner it dispatches many of its own to foreign ports.” (From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Many Africans moved across the Indian Ocean as free people and this continued even during the European slave trade era. They travelled as soldiers, sailors, policemen, traders, bureaucrats, clerics, bodyguards, concubines and servants.

“The island of Janjira (off the west coast of India near Mumbai), for example, was a base for African traders long before it became the powerbase of a princely state ruled by Africans from 1618 for about three and a half centuries. Another state, Sachin, was also ruled by Africans from 1791. In 1948, the year after India gained independence, both these states became part of the new nation. Ex-Royal Africans, still live in India and are well respected locally. (From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Many African people were also traded as slaves throughout this time, not so much during the pre-colonial era as labour for plantations and mines but mainly as high status servants for Indian and Sri Lankan princes.  Many were given military training and became elite and trusted bodyguards and were able to achieve positions of power, wealth and prestige over a number of generations.

Sinhalese King Raja Sinha II (1635-87) had a “guard of Cofferies or Negroes in whom he imposeth more confidence than in his own People. These are to watch at his chamber door and next to his person” ( From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

“Elite military slavery, though not unique to Africans or South Asia, provided the mechanism for some slaves to reach high positions and wield power” ( From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

So, although these could be brutal times, it could also be true to say that the Indian Ocean experience of Africans even when enslaved was not the intensive and mass brutalisation perpetrated against a large number of African people over a short period of time in the Atlantic slave trade.

Africans continued to come to or be brought to Asia throughout the colonial period and played a significant part in the history of those times as soldiers and also to work on building and plantation projects. In 1630, the Sinhalese army defeated the Portuguese at the battle of Randeniwala and advanced on the what is the present day capital Colombo, a trading port held by the Portuguese. The Portuguese only managed to stop them by bringing in a company of African soldiers from Goa. A Sri Lankan ballad composed in the 17th Century to commemorate this war mentions the role of African mercenaries in the Portuguese army. (Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Of the 20,000 Portuguese soldiers in Portuguese forts in Sri Lanka, 19, 000 were from Portuguese African and Asian colonies. At the end of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka, some African soldiers went on to serve under the Dutch while others settled in the Kandyan kingdom which was still under Sinhalese rule and served the Sinhalese kings.

The Dutch brought in more Africans including slaves from Malagasy (present day Madagascar) to do heavy building work on the forts and battlements throughout their colonies in South and South East Asia. Slave Island is the name of a suburb of Colombo where slaves were housed under the Portuguese and Dutch. It is just south of Fort – now Colombo`s central business district – where the Portuguese landed and built a fort, later reconstructed by the Dutch – or perhaps more accurately we should say by Africans under Portuguese and Dutch rule. In the early 18th Century, the African slaves in Colombo Fort revolted killing the Fiscal, Barent van der Swann and his wife and causing massive damage to property.

The British also brought Africans to Sri Lanka. Many were freed from slavery in return for military service. In 1803, they fought for the British against the Kandyan Kingdom which was finally defeated. During the British era, Africans formed a large part of the Ceylon regiment. They also worked on road construction. But during the nineteenth century their numbers declined in Sri Lanka – many returned to Africa but many were also killed by the Kandyans. They also intermarried with the local populations and they gravitated towards the Portuguese burgher population who, like the Africans spoke Portuguese creole.

Those Africans who retired from British military service were given some land to settle on and small Afro-Sri Lankan communities known locally and not derogatorily as Kaffirs continue to exist to this day. In Leonard Woolf`s book `The Village in the Jungle` based on his experiences in the colonial civil service between 1904 and 1911, there is a Kaffir character whose father is a trader and who like many Kaffirs in Sri Lanka traces his origins back to Mozambique although this may not be strictly accurate.

In Sri Lanka the Kaffir community along with the Portuguese burghers has had a significant impact on popular music. Kaffrinha or Kaffrinha Baila is a fusion of African, Portuguese and and South Asian music and often accompanied by dances. Music and dance is a very important part of the community life of those remaining Kaffir villages as the video clips below show.

Two really good books about African Asians are

`The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed by Shihan de S Jayasuriya and Richard Pankhurst 2003

India in Africa Africa in India Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms ed John C. Hawley 2008





The Ruvuma Development Association – Daring to do things differently in Tanzania

In December 1961 Tanzania became an independent country. In April 1962 President Julius Nyerere published his vision for the country`s development in a pamphlet entitled `Ujamaa – The Basis of African Socialism`. Ujamaa is a traditional concept of extended family in which there is respect for everyone and everyone is expected to work and be responsible for the welfare of the whole community. Tanzanian socialism was to be an extension of this concept of family. The individual pursuit of wealth at the expense of others was deemed incompatible with Ujamaa.

Inspired and encouraged by Nyerere, groups of farmers organised themselves into small co-operatively organised communities. By 1963 about a 1000 of these had been set up with very little government support. Many failed but in Ruvuma in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania 17 such settlements prospered and became an enormous success. They formed the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA) the organisation through which they could co-ordinate their labour, educate their children, sell their produce and develop their small scale industries.

According to Ralph Ibbott, a technical adviser, who was invited to work with the RDA, this was

“the most striking and most successful example of self reliance and Ujamaa in Tanzania and possibly Africa.” (Ibbott, R. quoted in Edwards, D.M., Matetereka, Tanzania`s Last Ujamaa Village Edinburgh University 1998).


I first heard about the RDA at an inspiring talk given by author and activist Selma James of Women`s Global Strike at the King`s Cross Women`s Centre. She presented it as an example of how it is possible for people to not only survive and dream of a better world when faced with the most challenging of circumstances but also manage to successfully create a thriving self-reliant community organisation, one that is even more relevant today as a model of development when we examine what our options are for the future in the face of unemployment, cuts in welfare and the looming threat of climate change.

The RDA grew slowly by supporting existing villages and new settlements. Before a village was accepted it was made clear that the villagers should not expect to get rich overnight and membership would be deferred or refused if it there was uncertainty about a community`s commitment to co-operation.

Villages belonging to the RDA became self-sufficient in food, improved the health of their residents, built a school, provided water supplies and set up village industries. They also created an outreach service called the Social and Economic Army (SERA), made up of experts in various fields who could provide support for member villages.

The RDA bought a maize mill with a grant from Nyerere himself who regarded their organisation as a poster child for his ideas. They also bought a saw mill which became the main supplier of sawn timber in the country. A primary school was established and developed in an experimental manner by creating a syllabus that was flexible and responsive to the needs of the villages. A three year post primary technical training for the children was planned as the next stage of education.

By 1969, the RDA consisted of 17 villages making up about 500 households. It was, to quote Ralph Ibbott again,

“ an organisation completely built up by the people who were in it, who always made all decisions and controlled development” (in Edwards, D.M.).

So what happened? What went wrong? Well, it is important to stress that this remarkable experiment did not fail despite the many practical difficulties and challenges that the people involved faced. It was killed off.

Despite publicly declared support from Nyerere, the RDA had attracted considerable opposition from many others in the government. In September 1969, it was announced that TANU – the ruling party – would run all Ujamaa villages and the RDA was declared a prohibited organisation. Their equipment was confiscated, the expatriate staff working with them left and the school was closed. Only one village managed to continue its communal activities and survives to this day.

To look in detail at why this happened is beyond the scope of this blog. But in an obituary written for Ntimbanjayo Millinga, a local politician and later Head of Ujamaa Villages for TANU and who was the driving force behind the success of the RDA Ralph Ibbott writes that

“…Regional Commissioners and most government officials … could not accept a situation where the villagers were deciding the details of their own development. They could not sit down with and discuss with these village people as equals. Nyerere took many steps in an attempt to spread the practice of the RDA ideology. One of these was a week-long seminar for the members of the Central Committee of his party, which was held at Handeni. Three RDA members attended. Shortly after this the whole of the Central Committee met, and at this meeting 21 out of the 24 members voted for the banning of the RDA. Millinga had very successfully built a team of people able to understand what was needed for the development of their dreams. Nyerere was not able, despite great efforts, to build such a team at government level. The party took over. People power was not accepted.”

If you try to find out about Ujamaa villages often what you discover is that what many people understand by this term is the process of enforced villagisation that followed the closing down of the RDA. This happened in the 1970s when rural Tanzanians were forced into villages nationwide resulting in hardship and resentment. It was not a success but it has overshadowed the real historic success that was the Ruvuma Development Association.


Note: Walter Rodney (see post) spent some time teaching in Tanzania and admired Nyerere`s African Socialism

Africa`s Stolen Leader – Patrice Lumumba

“Dead, living, free, or in prison on the orders of the colonialists, it is not I who counts. It is the Congo, it is our people for whom independence has been transformed into a cage where we are regarded from the outside… History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington, or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets… a history of glory and dignity.”

 Patrice Lumumba 1960

At the end of 2013, Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa died. He was 95 years old. All around the world, he is hailed as an icon of democracy, peace and reconciliation. His wisdom is an inspiration to many.

 But what of those other heroes of black African liberation who did not make it to old age through the struggles of their respective countries for freedom, democracy and independence? Between 1961 and 1973, six African leaders were assassinated by their former colonial masters; Felix Moumie (Cameroon). Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Mehdi Ben Barka (Morocco), Edouardo Mondlane(Mozambique) and Amilcar Cabral (Guinea and cape Verde).

 The second of these, Patrice Lumumba, was the first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was only thirty five years old when he was murdered. He was also ten years younger than Nelson Mandela.

I first learnt of Patrice Lumumba when I read Barbara Kingsolver`s powerful novel `The Poisonwood Bible` which has as one of its central themes the Democratic Republic of Congo`s painful beginnings as an independent country and the tragic fate of its popular young prime minister just over fifty two years ago.

I next became aware of Patrice Lumumba when I was teaching a group of young unaccompanied asylum seekers. Two Congolese students produced drawings of a statue of a man in front of a very modern building.

 “ `E eez our national `ero` they explained in their French accented English. A third Congolese student muttered something I couldn`t hear but a fierce discussion erupted in French. None of these young people or even their parents is old enough to actually remember Patrice Lumumba but he is quite clearly an important and controversial historical figure for them.

But why should we, here in Europe, be interested in Patrice Lumumba?

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country fabulously rich in mineral resources including gold, copper and coltan. These minerals are integral to the `developed` lifestyle of industrialised Europe and the USA. Coltan in particular is an important ingredient in the manufacture of mobile phones and copper keeps the electricity circulating round our homes and cities. Controlling the supply of these minerals and the wealth generated by them is of vital importance to the Western neo-colonial countries, Britain, France, Belgium and the USA, that continue to dominate the economies of many African countries and they will find ways of moving against anyone who threatens their control over these minerals. 

 In 1994, war broke out in the Congo. It has left more than five million people dead, over half of the dead are children and it has driven thousands of Congolese people into exile. Seven neighbouring countries were directly involved in the fighting at various times and it is said to be the deadliest conflict on the planet since World War Two. Yet, according to War Child International, it “has rarely caught the attention of the international media despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most of the phones and gadgets we rely on are made from the valuable minerals that fuel the conflict”  

 Although the war is officially over, the country is desperately poor, conflict still erupts from time to time and sexual violence is endemic.

 On the fiftieth anniversary of Lumumba`s death, author and journalist Adam Hochschild reflected in a New York times article that

 “Many factors cause a war, of course, especially one as bewilderingly complex as this one. But when visiting eastern Congo some months ago, I could not help but think that one thread leading to the human suffering I saw begins with the assassination of Lumumba.”

 Britain along with France, Belgium and the United States was implicated in the assassination of this democratically elected and popular leader in 1961. Four years after this assassination, Mobutu, an army general and one of Lumumba`s captors took power in a military coup. He was supported by the Western democracies implicated in Lumumba`s murder. What followed was a corrupt and brutal thirty two year dictatorship, and war which according to author Adam Hochshild left the country in a `state of wreckage from which it has not yet recovered.`

 The reason Patrice Lumuba was murdered in the first place was because the Western powers involved in his murder could not stomach the idea that they would lose control of the Congo`s vast mineral wealth to a leader who they feared would nationalise the mines, particularly the copper mines in order that the wealth they generate might benefit the Congolese people.

Last summer a marvellous opportunity presented itself to learn more about Patrice Lumumba. The Young Vic in London revived the play `A Season in the Congo` with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead as Patrice Lumumba himself. The play, a classic text, originally in French by Aime Cesaire, poet and politician from Martinique was written just a few years after Lumumba`s death and is a straightforward account of what happened and could easily be read with teenagers in school. It is slightly out of date in just one point of information. At the time of writing it was thought that the Katangan soldiers (Congolese opposition) executed Lumumba but more recent evidence suggests that Belgian soldiers organised and carried out his execution by firing squad.

So what happened? Who was Patrice Lumumba? It is impossible to justice to this story in a blog. As well as reading Aime Cesaire`s  play, I recommend Leo Zeilig`s ` Lumumba Africa`s Lost Leader` (Haus Publishing, London 2008)  and Ludo de Witte`s `The Assasination of Lumumba (Verso London DATE). Here also are links to a couple of really good shorter articles as well as to the War Child International website which is useful for understanding the impact of the ongoing conflict in the DRC.


Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba

I recently attended a creative writing course with a group of students aged 11-14. One workshop was on performance poetry with well known poet Francesca Beard. We learnt how to create some simple list poems – easy to remember, easy to perform. One of these was a “yes and…” poem which two or more people can perform together. It is an informal chatty form in which the two conversationalists seem to be trying to please each other by trying to agree with and add to everything the other one says. We discovered that it lends itself well to building up a dramatic, political narrative. It works a bit like a chorus in a traditional Greek play. I thought this might be a good way to recount the events leading to Patrice Lumumba`s murder in a simple way suitable for younger teenagers.  It is best read aloud by more than one person and I make no claims for it being in any way a good poem but here it is.

Do you know what happened to Patrice Lumumba?

 I saw a brilliant play last summer.

It was called `A Season in the Congo`

 Yes and it was about a man called Patrice Lumumba.

 Yes and he was the first leader of the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo.

 Yes and he was very popular.

 Yes and before he was elected, the Congo was ruled by Belgium.

 Yes and the Belgian rulers were extremely brutal.

 Yes and they chopped the Congolese people`s hands off if they did not collect enough rubber for them.

 Yes and the Congo has lots of precious minerals as well as rubber.

 Yes and Patrice Lumumba believed these riches should be used to help the people of Congo.

 Yes and the banks and the mining companies in Belgium, France and Britain disagreed with him.

 Yes and they stirred up trouble in the Congo to stop him.

 Yes and they encouraged some corrupt politicians to say that Katanga wanted to be independent from the rest of Congo.

 Yes and Katanga is the place where all the precious minerals are.

 Yes and the Belgians sent their army to protect Katanga`s independence.

 Yes and there was lots of fighting.

 Yes and the United Nations arrived to sort things out.

Yes and it turned out that they were no help at all because they just took the side of the Belgians.

 Yes and Patrice Lumumba had to ask the USSR for support.

 Yes and this upset the United States of America.

 Yes and so the USA, Belgium, Britain and France decided Patrice Lumumba must to go.

 Yes and it is likely they had planned to get rid of him many months before this.

 Yes and the Belgian soldiers arrested him when he was on his way to Katanga.

 Yes and they tortured him.

 Yes and then they shot him in the back of his head.

 Yes and they dissolved his body in acid.

 Yes and he was only thirty five years old.

 Yes and he was the democratically elected prime minister of Congo

 Yes and thousands of people in cities across the world came out onto the streets to demonstrate their anger and grief when they heard the news.

 Yes and all this happened more than fifty years ago.

 Yes and we will not forget.



Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela – Brothers in Arms

Before we get too far into 2014, I would like to reflect on a couple of important events in 2013.

2013 was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King`s iconic `I have a dream ` speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. It was also the year that saw the passing away of that other iconic figure of peace and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela. The emergence of these two men into public consciousness as symbols of peace, reconciliation and democracy, has sanitised their heroism and obscured the historical context of the struggles they took part in. This makes it too easy for those people who now wish to claim association with what both men have come to symbolically represent to disguise the fact that they once regarded both men as villains who they wished to see in prison or even dead.

Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on the other hand might have regarded themselves as brothers in arms.

 The Civil Rights movement in the USA, which is also taught in British schools is rarely discussed in the global context of the wider struggle by black people for freedom and recognition of their rights in Africa and the Caribbean. These movements in different places drew inspiration and support from each other. While en route to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, who was himself influenced and inspired by India`s Mahatma Gandhi, spoke in London about the difficulties facing black people in South Africa. The following extracts from this speech are taken from the full text at this website

 ”Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organise to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organise the people in non-violent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned.”

 He acknowledged that the situation made non-violent action almost impossible and that one of the ways forward was through international solidarity that recognised that pressure needed to be put on the neo-colonialist states whose economies benefited from the exploitation and oppression of black South Africans.

“It is in this situation, with the great mass of South Africans denied their humanity, their dignity, denied opportunity, denied all human rights; it is in this situation, with many of the bravest and best South Africans serving long years in prison, with some already executed; in this situation we in America and Britain have a unique responsibility. For it is we, through our investments, through our Governments` failure to act decisively, who are guilty of bolstering up the South African tyranny.”

“Our responsibility presents us with a unique opportunity. We can join in the one form of non-violent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa – the action which African leaders have appealed for – in a massive movement for economic sanctions.”

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are presented as part of that rather bland pantheon of `inspiring` leaders and achievers inserted into the mainstream curriculum as a gesture to inclusive education. They are shorn of complexity, radicalism and controversy and presented in a version that does little to challenge young people`s and encourage them to question the way our society is organised in the way that they themselves did. Who teaches for example that Martin Luther King said this:

“I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world, declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”  (From: `Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam`, New York, 1967).

I found this quote in an interview with US academic Jared Ball on The Real News Network here

Walter Rodney`s `How Europe Underdeveloped Africa` – a classic text

Why are so many Africans so poor?

Why is there so much political instability and conflict in Africa?

Why are so many African countries ruled by dictators?

What is the `third world` or `developing world` and how did it get to be that way?

Why do we have racism in our society?

Forty one years ago, a young Guyanese historian called Walter Rodney published a remarkable and ground-breaking book which addresses these questions and so much more. `How Europe underdeveloped Africa` is now a classic text without which any attempt to understand what black history is would be incomplete. It provides us with the necessary theoretical framework without which as is sometimes said, history would be just one damn thing after another and black history would simply be a matter of remembering to insert the black topics into the flow – an approach which does not help us understand the present or how we got here.

According to a 40th anniversary appreciation in the on-line Pan-African magazine Pambazuka (who also publish the book) `How Europe Underdeveloped Africa` revolutionised the teaching of African history in schools and universities in Africa, the Caribbean and North America. Yet, as the title makes very clear, it is not just a history of Africa, it is a history of the development of European capitalism with specific reference to the impact of this totalising global economic system on Africa. It is a history book whose time is yet to come as far as revolutionising the teaching of history in schools in Britain. Furthermore, what Rodney has to say specifically about the relationship of the development of European capitalism to Africa is also relevant to other peoples in other places who were drawn into the European web of exploitation and so it remains influential in understanding underdevelopment in a global context.

Walter Rodney was no armchair academic. He believed strongly that it was the responsibility of each and everyone of us to work together to overthrow a system of society that oppressed and exploited millions of people throughout Africa and Asia and that it was the responsibility of radical intellectuals like himself to remain involved with the lives of ordinary people. It is this belief perhaps that lies behind the fact that this authoritative and challenging book is so lucidly written and eminently readable. It is not a book just for academics.

It was this commitment to being a politically engaged intellectual that ultimately cost Walter Rodney his life before he reached the age of forty. It would have been interesting to know what he would have had to say about developments in the world since the book was published in 1972 but tragically, eight years after it was published, he was assassinated by a car bomb in Guyana. At the time he had been working to develop the Working People`s Alliance in opposition to the corrupt and oppressive Guyanese government led by Forbes Burnham. This government were probably responsible for his death. Nevertheless, `How Europe Underdeveloped Africa` has stood the test of time and continues to be as relevant today as it ever was.

If you would like to read about this book in more detail or buy it, look on Pambazuka News here Below you will find some extracts from the book.

Selection of quotes from “How Europe underdeveloped Africa”

There is of course no substitute for reading the book yourself and I strongly recommend that you do. Under the map are some extracts to sharpen your appetite for more…

Afrique Bertius

Rodney himself summarises the key message of the book

“The question as to who, and what, is responsible for African underdevelopment can be answered at two levels. Firstly, the answer is that the operation of the imperialist system bears major responsibility for African economic retardation by draining African wealth and by making it impossible to develop more rapidly the resources of the continent. Secondly, one has to deal with those who manipulated the system and those who are either agents or unwitting accomplices of the said system. The capitalists of Western Europe were the ones who actively extended their exploitation from inside Europe to cover the whole of Africa. In recent times, they were joined, and to some extent replaced, by the capitalists from the United States; and for many years now even the workers of those metropolitan countries have benefited from the exploitation and underdevelopment of Africa. None of these remarks are intended to remove the ultimate responsibility for development from the shoulders of Africans. Not only are there African accomplices inside the imperialist system, but every African has a responsibility to understand the system and work for its overthrow.”


In schools we teach children about the Slave Trade but what we do not stress enough the way Rodney does, how absolutely central the slave trade is to the development of European capitalism and how simultaneously devastating it was to economic development in African countries.

Quoting Eric William`s book “Capitalism and Slavery” Rodney identifies some of the key figures who benefited from the Slave Trade whose names are familiar to us today.

“…Davis and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in the slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds – from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world`s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine and took it from the drawing board to the factory.”


When I was teaching about the slave trade to students aged 13-14, some of the more precocious white children, clearly feeling rather uncomfortable, challenged me by saying that Africans themselves were responsible for selling fellow Africans into slavery and that they were just as much, if not more to blame.

These young people were doing what some academics do and Rodney helps us deal with this argument

“Many guilty consciences have been created by the slave trade. Europeans know that they carried on the slave trade, and Africans are aware that the trade would have been impossible if certain Africans did not co-operate with the slave ships. To ease their guilty consciences, Europeans try to throw the major responsibility for the slave trade on to the Africans.”

He describes how one white author was urged by others

to state that the trade was the responsibility of the African chiefs, and that Europeans merely turned up to buy the captives – as though without European demand there would have been captives sitting on the beach by the millions!”

He goes on to point out that this issue can only be correctly approached by understanding that…

“…Europe became the centre of a world-wide system and that it was European capitalism which set slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in motion.”

The slave trade grew in response to a demand for labour and in fact efforts by Africans to develop economic alternatives to participating in slavery eg by developing new technologies were consistently thwarted.

“The circumstances of African trade with Europe were unfavourable to creating a consistent African demand for technology relevant to development; and when that demand was raised it was ignored or rejected by the capitalists….Capitalism has always discouraged technological evolution into Africa and blocks Africa`s access to its own technology.”

The economy of Dahomey, the African state most associated with slave trading ultimately stagnated and was in the long run blighted by being economically tied to a single dominant export – slaves.

So, human beings were one of the first `natural` resources that created the resource curse suffered by so many African and other so-called developing countries – a particularly grim example of the paradox of plenty whereby countries with an abundance of natural resources have worse development outcomes than countries with fewer resources.


Racism is clearly linked to capitalist exploitation as Rodney makes lucidly clear.

“Since capitalism, like any other mode of production, is a total system which involves an ideological aspect, it is also necessary to focus on the effects of the ties with Africa on the development of ideas within the superstructure of European society. In that sphere, the most striking feature is undoubtedly the rise of racism as a widespread and deeply rooted element in European thought….The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the colour and other physical traits of those peoples were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form.”

“It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. There was also anti-Semitism at an even earlier date inside Europe and there is always an element of suspicion and incomprehension when peoples of different cultures come together. However it can be affirmed without reservation that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology.”


Finally, some of the most exciting aspects of the book are its case studies of different African civilisations before colonialism as well as how they were changed, compromised and destroyed by slavery, and the imperialist `scramble for Africa`. Occasionally, Rodney is criticised for having to little to say about women which surprised me. While his book is certainly not a study of African women as such, women do make several important appearances in these case studies For example an important innovation that distinguished Dahomey from its neighbours was

“Dahomey`s utilization of its female population within the army. Apparently the wives in the royal palace started off as a ceremonial guard in the eighteenth century and then progressed to become an integral part of Dahomey`s fighting machine, on terms of complete equality of hardship and reward. Dahomey`s population in the nineteenth century was probably no more than two hundred thousand; and the state consistently managed to send twelve to fifteen thousand actives on its annual campaigns. Of those, it was estimated in 1845, that some five thousand were women – the so-called Amazons of Dahomey, who were feared for their ferocity in battle.”

All extracts are from Rodney,W. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa pub by Pambazuka Press, an imprint of Fahamu, Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford 2012