Category Archives: Classic Texts

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 http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/82937. 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

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