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VOL. XXVI. Issue 3 (Summer 2019): How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: A Tribute to Walter Rodney

Vol. XXVI, Issue 3 (Summer 2019):

 How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: A Tribute to Walter Rodney


Table of Content



Biko Agozino, Rethinking Education for Underdevelopment and Education for Development in Africa

Kimani Nehusi: Forty-seven Years After: Understanding and Updating Walter Rodney

Nigel Westmaas: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the contemporary relevance of Walter Rodney



 Guest Editor (Special Edition of  Africa Update)

Professor Biko Agozino

Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


With a view to countering misperceptions and explaining Rodney’s ideas, Karim F. Hirji, a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences has published The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He argues that the main work of Walter Rodney, ‘a pre-eminent, paradigm-shifting text,’ remains as relevant for Africa today as it was when it was first published in 1972.[1] Africa Update joins committed scholars like Hirji and Angela Davis (who wrote the race-class-gender based preface to the 2018 edition of the book by Verso Press) to appreciate the contributions of Walter Rodney.[2]


Walter Rodney was one of the major Pan-Africanists and historians of the 20th century. But his principal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, faces strong ideological antagonism in the modern political and social discourse in Africa and beyond. It is claimed that Rodney may be relevant for the study of the enslavement of Africans and the colonial era but for the postcolonial era, the African rulers bear the full responsibility for the underdevelopment of Africa. Thereby, young people in Africa and the Caribbean today have no clue who Rodney was.


Starting with a chapter by chapter summary of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Hirji goes on to outline the global context in which Rodney wrote his book. It was an era of worldwide struggles against imperialism. However, the imperialist forces mounted a ruthless effort to counter the revolutionary forces and grand reversals occurred almost everywhere. After outlining Rodney’s life and contribution to historiography, he examines how the main textbooks on African history in use today deal with How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. It is demonstrated that Rodney’s ideas are usually presented in distorted forms and the criticisms against them lack a valid foundation.


Rodney was not a person rigidly bound to some idea. He was a scholar who applied Marxist theory in a creative fashion to the African condition. In addition to the economic exploitation of the African people, Rodney also dealt with the anti-imperialist and anti-racist political struggles in Africa. In the process of critiquing the works of some influential African scholars of today who ignore basic economic factors and focus on legal and cultural issues, Hirji presents a strong case for the continued relevance of Rodney and his major work. He notes that the predictions implied by How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as to the economic domination of Africa today are ‘stunningly accurate.’ Rodney’s method of social analysis which combined theory with practice is essential for analyzing the African and global societies.


Some critics accuse Rodney of over-emphasizing external forces and neglecting the agency of Africans. Hirji points out that such criticisms are flawed because Rodney’s analysis integrated external and internal factors.  And the core role that imperialism plays in the underdevelopment of Africa cannot be overemphasized. The liberation of Africa from the clutches of imperialism has to be led by Africans. African masses have to take control of state power in order to halt the underdevelopment of Africa by the West and their African class allies.


The apologists of neo-liberalism say Rodney was too polemical and mixed the role of the scholar with that of an activist. Yet, it is a misguided view since history abounds with cases of exemplary scholars and scientists who were also prominent activists in their days. In sum, Rodney does not offer a simple binary choice between hope and struggle to Africans and others but an integrated emphasis on hope and struggle.


Walter Rodney was assassinated by local reactionary forces working in conjunction with imperialism in 1980 in his home country, Guyana. Yet, his legacy as a revolutionary and public intellectual survives. Despite the concrete and ideological reversals since his times and the erasure of anti-capitalist texts from syllabi in Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and America, some prominent scholars continue to refer to How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as a foundational text. His major book still commands a global audience.


In this special issue of Africa Update, we have invited eminent scholars to evaluate the continuing relevance of Walter Rodney to Africa and the rest of the world in line with the Enduring Relevance thesis of Hirji and in accordance with the Postscript to the original publication by Rodney written by A.M. Babu. We are fortunate to include the piece by Kimani Nehusi, The Walter Rodney Professor of History, University of Guyana and Professor of Africology at Temple University. He updates the relevance of Rodney by indicating the attention paid to his work today by top theorists and by popular musicians alike and concludes that the themes of unequal exchange that Rodney theorized in the dialectical relationships between Europe and Africa persists today. Also included is a piece by the editor of this special issue of Africa Update, Biko Agozino, Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, with a focus on the enduring relevance of the analysis of education for underdevelopment and education for development in Africa by Walter Rodney. Finally, Nigel Westmaas, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College, completes the special issue with an overview of the contemporary relevance of Walter Rodney’s popular education work against imperialist domination and to Marxist historiography, innovation of world system analysis and the application of dependency theory to Africa.


Guest Editor (Special Edition of  Africa Update)

Professor Biko Agozino





Rethinking Education for Underdevelopment and Education for Development in Africa

Professor Biko Agozino



In this article, I will focus on the importance of education as a tool for domination and for ending the underdevelopment of Africa in appreciation of the book that I was assigned to read and review by Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe and colleagues who co-taught my elective course on Introduction to Political Science at the University of Calabar in the early 1980s. I have continued this tradition by always requiring my students to study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as the main text in my Introduction to African Studies classes.


Bemba children of Zambia knew 50-60 tree and plant names by age 6, according to Walter Rodney in chapter 6 of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.[3] Colonialism was imposed and the very little education provided mainly by missionaries replaced the indigenous knowledge systems by teaching the Bemba about daffodils, roses, and other ornamental plants in Europe that were irrelevant to the slash and burn system of agriculture which required Bemba children to learn the plants that were medicinal, necessary for crafts or for food enough to be spared when preparing the farms for cultivation. The result has been that educated Africans were effectively mis-educated as Carter G. Woodson would put it. They saw education in terms of distancing themselves from African culture and mimicking European languages, names, mannerisms, dressing styles, religion, food, cars, houses, skin color, entertainment, patriarchy, chauvinism, elitism, individualism, militarism, genocidism, gangsterism, etc., as the indices of normal civilization.[4] They saw Africa as characterized by the gap that needed to be filled by banking in their tabula rosa heads the deposits of what Soyinka dismissed in Season of Anomy as ‘erudite irrelevances’ (from sociologists who kept silent about the genocide against the Igbo in Nigeria).[5] Both the quality and the quantity of education provided by colonizers in Africa were so derisively poor that Rodney concluded that we should not put education in the plus column of the so-called balance sheets of imperialism because he saw colonialism as a ‘one-armed bandit’ with the only thing good about it being when it was forcefully ended by Africans.


The question that Rodney indirectly posed for Africa is why, after decades of decolonization, both the quantity and the quality of education provided by neocolonial regimes are still less than satisfactory with the result of enduring technological weaknesses? It may have something to do with the fear by colonial and post-colonial authorities alike that education is a breeding ground for sedition, a law against critical free speech that the colonizers imposed on Africa but which neocolonial regimes continue to enforce even after Agwuncha Arthur Nwankwo won the celebrated case that deleted the sedition clauses from the Nigerian Criminal Code in 1983, long before the abolition of sedition in the UK in 2009, though it is still retained across Africa.[6]


According to Samora Machel, colonialism is extremely contrary to humanity; ‘No a colonialismo democratico, no a colonialismo humano’.[7] Therefore, decolonization is not an act of charity or the transfer of power from a benevolent colonizer, it is the precondition for the emancipatory education of Africans. FRELIMO, the Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Mozambique under the leadership of Samora Machel, was quoted by Rodney as stating that any education provided for the enslaved by the enslavers is designed to sustain slavery. Think about this briefly and see if you agree with it completely. The statement of FRELIMO comes from the conventional definition of education as a systematic means of transmitting a society’s traditions and cultures from the older to the younger generations. The irony is that many of the leaders of the liberation struggle for the restoration of independence in Africa (including Rodney himself, as George Lamming once) were educated by the colonizers for the purpose of what Paolo Freire called ‘massification’ or domestication and not for liberation;[8] yet they exercised the basic human agency to choose to resist imperialism while others chose to become compradors. In other words, education is not simply a conduit for the transmission of knowledge but also a field of struggle where the old Africa and the Renascent Africa of the future, according to Azikiwe, struggle against the legacies of imperialism or struggle to maintain those legacies for the benefit of the phantom bourgeoisie.[9] Azikiwe also called for the application of scientific methodologies in the struggle for liberation but Awolowo published a rejoinder in Liverpool and stated that Africans use juju as science to kill one another.[10] General Olusegun Obasanjo sided with Awolowo when he called for Africans to use juju to fight apartheid.[11] Even professors of natural science disciplines are more scared of juju than anything else today.[12] Fanon observed that African peasants were more scared of spirit forces than of the police and the armed forces and, like Azikiwe, he called for us to innovate new concepts and make new inventions rather than mimic Europe or return to superstition.[13] In the struggle to decolonize education in Africa, the dialectics allow us to take what is valuable from the past while challenging what is oppressive in order to empower us to actualize the vision of a progressive and prosperous Africa of the future. Cabral was outraged that one of the cadres in the national liberation struggle tried to gain promotion by offering to sacrifice his son for success in a battle because a spirit told him to do so.[14] Cabral asked him to show him where the spirit was so that they could fight and defeat it first because it must be the spirit of the Europeans, alluding to the fact that the Greeks sacrificed the daughter of their leader for victory in the Trojan wars and Abraham decided to go along with the test to sacrifice his only son in obedience to God who later sacrificed his only Son in a story strikingly similar to ancient African narrative about Isis, Osiris and Horus.


Santos in Epistemologies from the South warned against the imperialist preference for epistemicide or the destruction of indigenous knowledge systems by European colonizers to make way for the globalization of apartheid as the universal epistemic standard.[15] The Malaysian sociologist, Hussein Alatas also identified the captive minds of the colonized to indicate that imperialism is not only political and economic in nature but also intellectual to the extent that Bob Marley called for us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because none but ourselves can free our minds.[16] This was the point that Claude Ake made when he dismissed western Social Science as Imperialism in Africa because they serve to sustain the domination of Africa by Euro-Western systems of thought and value systems by, for example, promoting corruption as a necessary evil, to the detriment of Africans.[17] ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ was how Fela Kuti put it. But the question remains why the masses of the people with little or no education in music have been able to originate captivating musical genres across Africa and the African Diaspora while the highly educated Africans with doctoral degrees from around the world have failed to innovate a single original theoretical framework, invention, discovery, or start-up firm unlike their peers from other parts of the world and despite the foundations laid for us by the likes of Azikiwe, Nkrumah, Diop, James, Fanon, Rodney, Cabral, First, Hall, Babu, Toyo, Onimode, Ousmane, Amin, Ngugi, Chinweizu, Soyinka, Achebe and currently being built upon by the likes of Adichie, Mammah, Jeyifo, Mamdani, Mbembe, and Madunagu?


CLR James pointed out in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution that one outstanding achievement of Nkrumah was his education initiatives especially when the colonizers started expelling students and teachers who supported the nationalist struggle.[18] Nkrumah launched the National School Movement that developed a chain of schools that were independent of the colonizers. Azikiwe was forced to visit the Northern Regional Assembly in 1947 to warn that it was a mistake to oppose schooling simply because educated children tend to be critical thinkers less likely to be obedient to parents.[19] Azikiwe advised the Northerners to ensure that their children go to school and then teach them obedience at home but the current Boko Haram campaign is an indication that many in the North still believe that schooling is forbidden when books should be regarded as Halal rather than Haram in accordance with the intellectual traditions of Uthman Dan Fodio.[20]


Bagele Chilisa, author of Indigenous Research Methodologies, concluded that a big part of the answer to the question of why Africans are still enslaved mentally is that Africans are still educated in the alien and alienating languages of their colonizers and so their minds remain captive and incapable of originality.[21] Chika Ezeanya agrees that it is high time we developed teaching and learning in Indigenous Knowledge Systems by recognizing that African indigenous methods of irrigation and agriculture, for instance, may be more effective for scarce water management than techniques developed for water-rich industrialized regions of the world.[22] Her TedTalk also showcased her efforts to develop picture books for her daughter and for other children to teach them about the promise of thinking as Africans and not only in terms of their hometowns.


I once wrote a paper in Igbo language and sent it to a scholarly association that specializes on the study of the Igbo for possible publication in their journal. They turned it down on the basis that the journal policy required all submissions to be written in English because some well-educated Igbo scholars were not capable of reading or writing in Igbo and so it would be difficult to subject my paper to peer review. I sent the paper to a community journal in Lagos and it was published as the very first ever scholarly paper written and published in Igbo language.[23] By coincidence, Adiele Afigbo also published in the same issue of the Igbo Journal, calling for a Museum of Igbo History and Culture to be established, though he made the call in English language. I have nothing against the language of colonizers and I have published the bulk of my work in English but since Africans say that no palm is big enough to hide the sky, there is ample room in scholarship for indigenous African languages to make original contributions alongside other modern languages.


Language sovereignty is the invariant law of socio-economic development and there has never been a culture that achieved increased capacity and material well-being by relying on the language of the colonizers while neglecting indigenous languages. The colonizers held African minds captive by imposing the language of the colonizers throughout Africa as the language of instruction in schools and as the official language for policies. The only exceptions are in East Africa where Swahili was briefly adopted and abandoned, North Africa where Arabic language has been indigenized and South Africa with strong survival of indigenous languages where the socio-economic development records show medium to high levels on the Human Development Index of the UNDP. Almost all the countries in the low Human Development Index are black African countries that have been forced to retain the language of colonizers as the language of instruction and governmentality. They shamelessly call themselves Francophone, Anglophone or Lusophone when they should all be called Bantuphone if resources are made available for the development of teaching and learning in indigenous languages.


This is not only the responsibility of the neocolonial governments in African states but also the responsibility of individual scholars and writers who can write in the indigenous languages and allow translations to follow in line with the strategy of Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the decolonization of the African mind, though Ngugi still writes all his critical essays in English and they are not yet translated to Kikuyu.[24] Achebe said that he preferred to allow writers to write in any language that they are comfortable with and allow translators to do the rest but it is a shame that Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart is yet to be published in his Igbo mother tongue.[25] Come on, African educators, what will it take for us to teach mathematics and science in our indigenous languages to avoid the ridiculous situation where textbooks from France forced West African children to parrot that their ancestors were the Gauls with blond hair and blue eyes, contrary to the Negritude of the world cup winning team in 2018?[26] Let textbooks blossom in the 2000 indigenous languages across Africa and let our legendary creativity in music and the arts be translated into the STEM disciplines urgently. Let more research grants be made available in Africa.


Eskor Toyo challenged African social scientists to show what are their original contributions to theory and methods in their fields.[27] African natural scientists may claim that they lack adequate funding for laboratories and research but the only laboratory that sociologists or economists need is the one between their ears and yet they have allowed their minds to be held captive by intellectual imperialism. Chinua Achebe also dismissed the Cargo Cult mentality of African educators and policy makers who beg for technology transfers whereas technology is not a juju in anyone’s pockets waiting to be transferred to the sorcerer’s apprentices.[28] Technology is a way of thinking and doing things and Africans have demonstrated that in times of necessity with an activist government, say in Biafra, they are capable of making awesome inventions. Agwuncha Arthur Nwankwo says that the African genius found in Biafra is still around waiting to be mobilized even though there were also examples of corruption and mediocrity in Biafra to be avoided in the future.[29] Nwankwo leads by example through his Fourth Dimension Publishing Company in Enugu that has commissioned and published thousands of scholarly books by authors from across Africa, including a mathematics textbook in Igbo language.


Bassey Ekpo Bassey said it all when he stated that only the people can develop themselves through the struggle for a progressive future for all Africans. By this he meant that education should not be seen only as textbook education in classrooms.[30] Rather, the political struggle for the restructuring of Africa beyond colonial boundaries should be seen as a practical school through which the people will educate themselves and make new discoveries that will empower them to change Africa for the better as Frantz Fanon concluded in The Wretched of the Earth.[31] Bassey implemented this vision by leading the Directorate for Literacy in Calabar in the 1980s with Eskor Toyo and with the support of university scholars like Akpan Ekpo, Princewill Alozie, Yakubu Ochefu, Bene Madunagu, and myself in Calabar and with Edwin Madunagu from Lagos. The effort led to the formation of the Labour Party in collaboration with organized labour with the aim of winning power for the working people to replace the military dictatorship in Nigeria. As Municipal Government Chairman who was elected twice in a rerun election against the opposition of the military government to his candidacy, Bassey immediately abolished tuition fees in primary and secondary schools and constructed more school blocks to accommodate more children in Calabar. The Directorate for Literacy also published a free literacy journal and ran weekly literacy classes for the workers in addition to monthly public enlightenment lectures. Making education publicly funded and tuition-free is a necessity at all levels in Africa as I concluded in a paper about equity and quality in post-apartheid South Africa that was published in a journal edited by Professor Ngozi Osarenren.[32] The government of the African National Congress appears not to have heard about the recommendation but I forwarded a copy to the office of the presidency when students started demanding that the rising fees must fall in addition to their decolonization campaign that Rhodes Must Fall. Traditional African education never charged tuition fees at any level of learning.


Amilcar Cabral, in Resistance and Decolonization, identified culture as part of the struggle for liberation from colonial domination contrary to the colonial anthropological definition of culture as a way of life.[33] The poor under capitalism, women under patriarchy and Africans under racism did not choose to live that way since those were the conditions that they struggle against with the creativity of the culture of struggles and resistance. Edwin Madunagu exemplified the revolutionary theory of education by running a conscientization program for male students in Calabar while his wife, Bene Madunagu, did the same for girls. The boys were being taught that it was all right to think in ways different from their fathers by taking more responsibility for domestic chores and by treating their girlfriends with more respect, as reported by Girard.[34] The girls were being educated to take more responsibility for their sexual and reproductive health and to be more assertive in the defense of their interests. The Human Development Index shows that the poor countries are the ones that do not allow their girls to enter or complete secondary education and Africans can solve this problem by insisting on the higher education of more of our sons and daughters by, for instance, ending childhood marriages for girls and child labour.


Agozino and Agu have also produced a draft manual that they presented at the Headquarters of UNICEF at an international conference that focused on gender equity in education.[35] Our presentation on Progressive Masculinity urged the participants to extend to boys the successful methods that were used to raise the participation of girls in education because boys were falling behind in many countries. We suggested successful study skills that could be taught to boys and girls to help them to enjoy learning in order to achieve more success. It is true that Africa still has low participation rates for girls in secondary education and this may be the major factor determining the low rating of most African countries in HDI but many African boys are also dropping out of school before reaching the secondary level. We have offered that manual to many states in Africa for possible implementation but there are no takers yet.


Systems theory suggests that poor inputs into education result in poor outputs; or rubbish in, rubbish out. I beg to differ because human beings are neither rubbish nor just inputs and outputs. Once motivated to learn, even with poor infrastructures, many students will excel while the best inputs might produce low achievements in some students who do not value education enough or who are not equipped with effective study skills. Even with poor inputs, Africa has managed to educate hundreds of thousands of highly qualified professionals who go on to provide technical foreign aid to industrialized countries where they work as doctors, nurses, engineers, managers, sports professionals, professors, researchers, and writers; as Ali Mazrui once put it. Achebe reminds us in There Was A Country that the infrastructures and contents were not that great during colonialism for his class often sat on the bare earth under the shade of a breadfruit tree to listen to lessons on the geography of Britain.[36] On one occasion, the village mad man intervened and seized the chalk from the teacher and started teaching the history of the town which the students found more relevant. If that were to happen today, the teacher is more likely to call the police and the army to come and restore order by shooting the mad man dead if necessary. The traditional Igbo democratic tendencies may have allowed the mad man to have his say and move on as is expected under the tolerant roof of Mbari communal sculptures. Rodney recognized the independent yearning for education among the Igbo (he called them Ibo) who built and equipped schools without waiting for the government and he condemned the genocidal war against the Igbo in post-colonial Nigeria by saying that it was not a tribal war given that there is no such tribes as Shell BP and the UK government that orchestrated the genocide, later validated by Achebe and by Ekwe-Ekwe.[37]


Finally, the Peoples Republic of Africa United Democratically will leverage resources that Africans could invest in education to raise the level of funding to the 26% recommended by UNICEF as the minimal standard. There is a role for corporations that make huge profits across Africa to be required to dedicate a portion of their profits as a tax to support education given that the graduates are the future employees of the companies and similar corporations endow funding in universities outside Africa. Parents and the communities have a role to play too by volunteering to help build school structures with community labor so that the students will learn the importance of education once they see their parents helping to build the schools with pride. For instance, most schools in Africa lack toilet facilities and lack sports play grounds. These are not too difficult to construct with community labor if the government and corporations provide the funding to support community volunteers. Students and their peers should also be able to take responsibility for their own learning by watching less Nollywood movies, getting enough sleep every night, eating breakfast and reading more books every day and by volunteering for community projects. Before or after families buy television sets, let them buy book shelves and stuff them with books and let them make time to read and learn as a family daily.


With the reunification of Africa and the decolonization of our educational systems, we will be able to educate more nation-builders and also attract back some of our brain drain from the thankless task of providing foreign aid to industrialized countries and redeploy them to help solve many of the technological weaknesses in Africa that made it possible for a handful of Europeans to divide and weaken us in order to exploit us for more than 600 years and counting. For instance, we can mobilize to banish illiteracy across Africa within four years the way that Cuba did by deploying those who can read and write to teach those who cannot. We can educate thousands of doctors and agricultural extension officers and deploy them across Africa to tackle tropical diseases and help to increase food security. We can offer huge research grants to scientists, writers, artists, athletes, farmers, cooperatives to innovate technologies that would make Africa more just, healthier, more prosperous, happier, more learned, more loving, and more united.



Forty-seven Years After: Understanding and Updating Walter Rodney

Kimani Nehusi


Walter Rodney  Professor of History

University of Guyana & Assoc. Prof of Africology, Temple University




The publication of Walter Rodney’s third book,[38] How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) is now recognized as a very special event in the world, especially because of Rodney’s explanation of the entangled historical relationship between Afrika and western Europe, a designation that includes North America in this presentation. This resource challenged part of Europe impoverished Afrika while its countries became world powers, precisely because of its domination and exploitation of Afrika. The immense popularity of this text, especially but by no means only among Afrikans seeking explanation and understanding of their current condition in this world and ways forward, has underscored its significance from the time it was first published in 1972.[39] It has been translated into many languages and reprinted on numerous occasions. Its continuing relevance has been recently emphasized by renewed attention in a book by Karim F. Hirji[40] and essays by Angela Davis[41] and Giovanni Vimercati.[42] The graphic representation of Rodney in the cover art for reggae artiste Akae Beka’s recent album, Mek a Menshun, points towards Rodney’s continuing popularity among conscious young Afrikans working in many intellectual and cultural dimensions of humanity.[43] This essay looks at the intellectual and activist context in which Rodney wrote and at our current context with a view to identifying what may be new and or different between the time of the early 1970s and now, nearly fifty years later, in the closing years of the second decade of the twentieth century. It also considers what was new about Rodney’s text at the time of its publication, assesses the strategic importance of the work, examines some of the ways in which the study of Afrika has developed since that seminal moment in the popular understanding of this most important part of our increasingly globalized world, and attempts to find out how any or all of this may be related to HEUA.  



It is true now, in this era that we have learnt to call modern, and perhaps it has always been so, that power always seeks to dominate knowledge and information, as well as the production of knowledge and information, and to convert them to its own purposes; to use them in its own interests. Mental enslavement has always been a significant aspect of the oppression and subjugation of Afrikan populations by western Europeans. The aim is social control of those populations through cultural genocide and the inculcation of a Eurocentric system of ideals, values, attitudes and patterned behaviors that support the fundamental myth of western European domination, which is the supposed inherent superiority of Europeans and the alleged inherent inferiority of Afrikans.

It is imperative, though, to recognize the significance of western European capacity for greater naked military violence — and the desire to employ this technological advantage — as the starting point and ultimate guarantor of European predominance, and thus a major determining factor in this relationship. There followed the subsequent structuring of conquered societies: the economy, with supporting ideology articulated through institutions such as the European Christian church, the law, mass media, education and a colonial state to organize and orchestrate it all. The major aim of this institutional arrangement was the exploitation of Afrikan people’s labor and material and spiritual resources and the transfer of the wealth created to the western world. The result has been a materially prosperous west, with institutions organized in and functioning in the interests of the majority of its peoples, and distorted Afrikan societies in which the vast majority of the people are materially poor, culturally penetrated and dominated by western Europeans in whose interests the economy and society are organized and function.       

The corollary to western European material prosperity is the material, social and spiritual contradictions lived by the majority of Afrikans around the world today. The fundamental contradiction between a materially prosperous west and the poverty of the oppressed and exploited peripheral region mainly in the global south, has been noted before.[44] HEUA was the first text to undertake a comprehensive investigation and explanation of this condition.

But it is also true that wherever people are oppressed they will rebel, for that is also a condition of our humanity, as necessary for our understanding of this text and the conditions to which it is a response, as the inhuman greed of western Europeans who, in erecting their system of domination, committed the largest crimes against humanity by enslaving Afrikans and continuing the practices of institutionalized miseries under colonialism and neo-colonialism. They have largely refused to acknowledge their crimes and to make reparations for these evils and their continuing effects upon the lives of Afrikan people throughout the world. The humanity of Afrikans as well as the inhumanity of western Europeans compel Afrikan resistance and revolution to which HEUA is a response and so a context of which it is a part.   


Same Condition; Different Generation

      The continuing relevance, even fierce urgency of HEUA, is a statement of how little the forces and patterns identified and examined by Rodney have changed over the last forty-seven years. The relationship between Afrika and western Europe has remained fundamentally the same — one of exploited and exploiter. A comparatively small number of Afrikans, usually the class allies and accomplices of western Europeans in the exploitation and impoverishment of the mass of the Afrikan people, may have grown somewhat less poor. But as a generality, Afrika still lives some of the most vulgar contradictions ever. Materially, it is the richest continent with the poorest people. Afrika possesses the longest history in the world and a people who are the most ignorant of their history. It is the creator of spiritual resources that are stolen, distorted and recycled to imprison the mind of the continent and redirect its energy to the benefit of others. Afrika’s peoples are the creators of civilization, but they benefit the least from civilization. The knowledge and training developed in a population at great national expense is constantly depleted by a brain drain to western Europe and North America. Significant numbers of untrained and uncertified young people follow hazardous migration routes across deserts and other inhospitable terrain in the desperate hope of reaching western lands in the belief, often mistaken, that they will have a better life there. Thus, a significant proportion of the cream of Afrika, the continent’s most productive forces, are now inculcated with a desire to leave their land and contribute to the development of people who oppress them. To compound matters, it is a desire born out of forces set afoot by the system of oppression and exploitation uncovered and explained by Rodney: the ravishing of Afrika that creates unattractive conditions for the majority of its people, the false belief in Afrikan inferiority and European superiority so assiduously cultivated as a necessary aspect of the ‘explanation’ of the barbarism of oppression, and the material prosperity of western Europe that resulted from this great evil. Migration of enslaved Afrikan labor was enforced by physical means for over four hundred years from the middle of the fifteenth century to the early decades of the last century in some instances. Today the forces that dictate the migration of Afrikan labor are less obvious, more invisible.

The system continues to update and perfect itself. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other western agencies have been revealed more clearly as agencies of the capitalist west; agents of underdevelopment controlled by the west, run in the interests of the west.[45] Structural Adjustment Policies and other forms of economic sabotage dictated by these agencies sapped the productive capacity and contributed to Afrika’s underdevelopment as surely as naked physical violence. In recent times economic and intellectual violence may have featured more prominently in the toolkit of neo-colonialism. But such measures have not replaced the guns and bombs of naked oppression. As always in this system, those are readily available when judged to be necessary, as demonstrated in the recent examples of Laurent Gbagbo and Ghadaffy. Political murder, usually reported by the less repugnant term assassination, as well as military coups, have been regularly sponsored by the west in its quest to continue enforcing this system. Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah and numerous other Afrikan leaders were deposed by western sponsored coups. 

The vast outflow of resources continues. The comparatively low levels of technological development among Afrikan people and industries, the correspondingly low proportion of value added to the primary products produced on the continent and the addition of value in the west ensure relative stagnation in Afrika and the dynamism of the west. The deployment of aid to convince all and sundry of western European humanitarianism is regularly contradicted by its inhuman economic strategies, guns and bombs.

            None of these prevailing conditions which result from the enforcement of the system is attributable to the alleged inherent incapacity of Afrikans; a racist myth cultivated by European churches, education, media and other agencies of misinformation and mental enslavement. In fact, it is very necessary to recognize in this relationship between Afrika and the west that the claims of the latter to be acting in the interests of Afrika is clearly undermined by the evidence of centuries of western tutelage and goodwill in which the Afrikan patient continues to decline, while it is the western ‘humanitarians’ who continue to enrich themselves.


History as a Weapon

Rodney recognized history as a mass of information, the understanding of which should guide a people’s political goals and actions, which are shaped into a logical program that is derived from the understanding of that knowledge.:

He believed that history was a way of ordering knowledge which could become a[n]

active part of the consciousness of an uncertified mass of ordinary people and which

could be used by all as an instrument of social change. He taught from that

assumption. He wrote out of that conviction. And it seemed to have been the

informing influence on his relations with the organized working people of Guyana.”[46]

In this integration of scholarship and political activism Rodney’s most obvious precursors in Guyana were the Ultra Left, the most knowledgeable, disciplined and radical tendency within the original People’s Progressive Party that led the anti-colonial nationalist movement in Guyana from 1950 to 1956. This tendency was inhabited by Martin Carter, Keith Carter, Rory Westmaas, Eusi Kwayana, Eric Huntley and Lionel Jeffrey,[47] but, as is shown below, there were other examples in the wider Caribbean and Pan Afrikan tradition of radicals and revolutionaries of scholar-activists, or activist-scholars, or organic intellectuals that were available to Rodney. 

Hence also, standing as itself as well as the logical implications of itself, HEUA is a source of inclusion and empowerment of the uncertified mass of people, the largest social forces in Afrikan society, the most economically and culturally productive forces and real base and basis of society. It is these who are traditionally the most oppressed, disempowered, exploited and impoverished under the system of colonial and neocolonial domination. These are predominantly women, workers, youths, small farmers, the underemployed and the unemployed. By writing these groups into history as their real selves and articulating their interests, Rodney’s work restores agency and dignity to this great majority of Afrikan people. This restoration is a significant step in the positive self-perception of the oppressed, which itself is an important step on the road to liberation and social transformation.


The Intellectual and Activist Context of Rodney

The writings of Karl Marx, F. Engels, V. I. Lenin and other scholars who studied western European capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, established a theoretical platform and provided models of activism and examples that were helpful to Rodney. Afrikan, Caribbean and other anti-colonial, anti-capitalist scholars, scholar-activists, and activists established an anti-colonial, radical and revolutionary tradition in the region. It is a tradition populated by Hautey, Makandal, Kofi, Atta, Accrabe, Boukman, Cecile Fatima, Marie Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Jose Marti, J. J. Thomas, Marcus Garvey, Sholes, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, Eric Williams, Cheddi Jagan, the already mentioned Ultra Left in Guyana, Eusi Kwayana in his own right, George G. M. James, Denis Williams, Jan Carew, Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara, Richard Hart and numerous others. Many of these foremost resisters of western European oppression in the region had developed a radical and revolutionary tradition of scholarship as a necessary aspect of activism.[48] Rodney studied this tradition and was very aware of it. His membership of a Marxist study group led by C.L.R. James in London provided a direct link with an active participant as well as theoretical, historical and practical information about this tradition. He became one of its most distinguished members. His first book, The Groundings with My Brothers, is a record of his early social activism among the working people in Jamaica and an early indication of both HEUA and the tremendous logical implications he held for people-centered history and for HEUA, as well as the great significance that others have continued to recognize in it. 

A detailed examination of these antecedents of Rodney, his vision and his work, is not possible in this brief presentation. However, it is possible to see how Rodney’s thesis in HEUA is foreshadowed in the thought and action of scholar-activists such as Firmin, Marti, Garvey, Padmore, Guevara, Castro, as well as C. L. R. James[49] and Eric Williams.[50] Caribbean scholarship was beginning to apprehend and demonstrate a fact that HEUA makes obvious: that the material prosperity of Europe is closely related to the mas poverty and technological, industrial, economic and other forms of relative backwardness of Afrika, the Caribbean and other parts of the world which have been subjugated and exploited by western Europeans who, as Rodney demonstrates in HEUA, have perfected a system of subjugation, exploitation and transferring the loot to their homelands.

The immediate roots of western European racism experienced under enslavement, colonialism and neo-colonialism, as the western European intellectual enterprise to try to justify western European barbarism, was also uncovered by early Caribbean scholarship. J. J. Thomas,[51] Anténor Firmin,[52] Williams, and others began to challenge racism in European scholarship and the practice of this evil in the Caribbean and elsewhere. In Williams’ case, the way in which British historians rationalized the national project of the UK, that of enslaving and exploiting Afrikans and their land, received attention in his text entitled British Historians and The West Indies. In Williams’ own words, he was seeking “to emancipate his compatriots whom the historical writings that he analyses sought to depreciate and to imprison for all time in the inferior status to which these writings sought to condemn them.”[53] Williams and others decisively rejected mental enslavement. It should not be surprising, therefore, that both James and Williams, though from differing perspectives and with differing results, became scholar activists of note. Rodney knew these examples and stood, consciously, in this tradition.    

Part of Rodney’s genius is that he deepened and extended this radical praxis. HEUA is an intellectual fruit and but one aspect of a much wider engagement with the oppression as well as with the liberation of Afrika and Afrikans, and ultimately, also that of other oppressed peoples around the world.  


Radical Departures in HEUA

      The radical departure in HEUA lies in Rodney’s detailed explanation of how the development of western Europe is caused by western European oppression and underdevelopment of Afrika. His is a major achievement in unearthing, ordering, assembling and explaining a vast array of detailed information to identify the various elements in the system of development and underdevelopment, and explain their origins, evolution and functioning over centuries. Part of his genius is to demonstrate, by comparing the cumulative impact of the various elements of the system he describes, analyses and evaluates, that the entire system functions for the continuing benefit of the west and to the continuing detriment of Afrika in every way. The total impact upon western Europe is the state Rodney terms development, which he defines as the continuous expansion of the economy and society, the obvious consequences of which include overall increase in the quality of life offered by a dynamic society. The total impact upon Afrika is the opposite process, which he terms underdevelopment. He defines this as an active process of resource extraction, including labor power and material resources, and transfer of profits to western Europe. By contrast this part of the world is undynamic, lacks technical sophistication, and economic and political self-determination.          

By providing the detailed and comprehensive explanation it does, this text clarifies the processes and outcomes of development and underdevelopment and shows them to be intimately related; the one is the other side of the other. Western Europe is materially rich because Afrika has been rendered materially poor by western European oppression and exploitation.

HEUA has become a force for liberation, for a great part of oppression and the exploitation it engenders lies with the capacity of the system to obfuscate and even disguise itself in the imprisoned minds of its victims. It is Rodney’s special genius that he uncovered, described and analyzed the most important forces that have shaped the lives and livelihood of both Afrikan people and western Europeans — though in remarkably different ways — over the last five hundred years (his examination ends in the 1950s, p. 19) and continue to do so today. His results are made available in this book in simple language that is accessible to everyone. Rodney, a Pan Afrikanist, is more concerned with the fate of Afrika and its peoples.




The Strategic Importance of HEUA

            It is far from possible to treat each of the following aspects of the strategic importance of HEUA with any degree of detail. However, the outline below ought to demonstrate its strategic significance.

            Rodney was very conscious of the role of knowledge and information in both oppression and in liberation.[54] HEUA contributed towards the self-awareness of Afrikan people because it provided very critical information and popularized the study of Afrika from the points of view of Afrikans among a growing number of Afrikan students and intellectuals and most significantly among the masses.

      HEUA thus threatens the intellectual empowerment of the Afrikan masses in their own name, as a necessary basis for the journey towards the liberation and development of the foundational continent of the planet.  

            By making the advances it does in methodology, vision and scope, HEUA positioned the study of Afrika for further significant advances. Its rigorous reconstruction and critical analysis and evaluation of the ‘moving parts’ of Afrikan economy and society, including the historical development, role, functioning and impact of the significant elements in the economy, social organization, education, western scholarship and the Christian church in the oppression and exploitation of Afrika opened many doors to the better understanding of various aspects of Afrikan history.  

By painstakingly explaining, in clear and simple language, what is, by showing how it came to be the way it is, and how it functions, Rodney rendered the solutions to many of Afrika’s challenges not merely more logical and therefore more obvious, but easily accessible to the understanding of everyone. HEUA is not a primer on how to undertake the reversal of western European oppression and underdevelopment and launch the development of Afrikan people and their land. However, its comprehensive explanation provides the intellectual basis for the necessary vision and activism that are imperative for the human, economic and social liberation, development and transformation of the continent of Afrika.    

The military violence deployed by western Europeans to conquer and subjugate Afrika, the Americas, the Caribbean and elsewhere was not the only kind of violence they unleashed in their subjugation of large parts of the world and the peoples who live in these lands. In HEUA, Rodney maintains a critical dialogue with the intellectual defenders of the oppressive system and points out the weaknesses in their arguments. This approach is a tremendous aid to the demystification of learning and the word that is so necessary to counteract the Eurocentric tradition of education and scholarship, which Rodney recognizes as education for underdevelopment.  

Revelation of this world renders it easier to liberate and transform. Rodney’s scholarship is in the service of humanity. It provides a model and an example of the importance of the intellectuals and other trained people in underdeveloped societies where people suffer from diminished opportunities because of underdevelopment. As Rodney often stressed and Fanon, Mondlane, Cabral, Che, Fidel and a host of others also demonstrated with their lives, that in the fight for a better world, every vocation is an occasion for liberation.


New Departures since HEUA

At first glance the idea of updating such a massively impressive, magisterial and continually relevant work may appear adventurous. So comprehensive is HEUA that almost every intellectual departure is likely to be a development of something explicit or implied in this text. Yet it is true that at almost any given point in time there are contradictions that are recognized but not yet politicized. In addition, the advance of struggle, and the clarity this usually dictates, almost always reveals new perceptions, new understandings and new frontiers of conflict; different battle lines and battlefields and fresh territory to be won as the ongoing war for the liberation and development of Afrika and its peoples around the world continues to unfold.  As stated above, Rodney’s text opens many doors to the study of Afrika. But Rodney could not explore fully or at all everything that lies beyond each door he opened. So formidable is the text and so vast is the field of knowledge, that it is impossible for a single scholar in a single text to explore fully all its possibilities in the study of Afrika.   

One area of concentration that has become increasingly popular in the study of Afrika since the publication of HEUA is the concept of mental enslavement and its logical objective of mental liberation. Rodney commented on the role of the European Christian church, missionaries, Eurocentric scholarship and Eurocentric education in the mental enslavement of Afrikan people, though he did not employ this terminology. The increasing attention to Afrocentric education is a direct consequence of the awareness that HEUA undoubtedly helped to promote.


Indigenous Knowledge Systems

The mental enslavement of significant sections of the Afrikan population and the social control that has been its consequence occurred on the back of the genocide, fully or partly, of Afrikan culture. This distortion and destruction of Afrikan culture and histories, of indigenous traditions, destroyed or distorted vast storehouses of millennia worth of knowledge, information and technique, of different ways of knowing. Knowledge and information accumulated over uncounted generations of observation, trial, error, distillation and inspiration have been endangered or lost in this criminality of the greatest proportions masquerading as science, scholarship, Christianity and even as civilization.

This destruction and endangerment as well as the knowledge and awareness stimulated by HEUA and other sources, have influenced a renewed interest in indigenous knowledge systems among Afrikan scholars and other groups.



            The re-embrace of Afrikan culture by some groups and individuals has led to renewed interest in Afrikan culture among scholars and a growing number of Afrikans around the world, but especially in the west. The increasing practice of Afrikan rituals such as Libation, Marriage Rites, Naming Ceremonies and Transition Rites is predicated upon growing consciousness and conviction among significant sections of Afrikans on the continent and its Diasporas. Growing scholarly and popular interests has also been observed in Environmentalism, Holism, Afrikan Womanism, Manhood Rites, Mentoring, herbal medicine, Ma’at, Ubuntu, Iwa Pele and other aspects of Afrikan philosophy and culture.



Western wrong-doing has occasioned a growing movement among Afrikans for Reparations, which includes repatriation. This latter is popular among Rastafari.  Quite apart from compensation, a very large part of Reparations is the repair and restoration of the Afrikan self. The quest for self-knowledge as an aspect of this repair of self has led to much interest in Kemet (ancient Egypt), where the injunction “Know Yourself’ has been rearticulated millennia later in the Wolof Wisdom Utterance: ‘The Beginning of Wisdom is knowing who you are.’



An often-neglected aspect of the intellectual violence of western Europeans is epistemology. Although the influence of power relations upon language is a part of his analysis, (p. 35), Rodney deploys terminology inherited from enslavers to report the people and other phenomena he discusses. Recent developments in this area of scholarship will render some of the terminology in HEUA to be obsolete. However, it is not possible to fault the general intent and accomplishment of the text on this or any other grounds. There is an epistemology of oppression and an epistemology of liberation. Rodney’s work belongs to a scholarship of liberation called forth in answer to the scholarship of oppression. A key to the continued functioning of the oppressive system Rodney reveals is the continued imprisonment of the Afrikan mind; a key to the liberation of Afrika is the unlocking of the Afrikan mind. Rodney’s HEUA is a shining example of that scholarship that reveals the system and so helps transformation. Rodney’s life and vision constitute a broader canvas of our imaginings of full liberation, and our labor in that direction.  



The ultimate meaning of HEUA lies in the use of this information to promote awareness, empowerment, organization, struggle, and victory for Afrikans.

The New Afrikan, informed and aware about her/himself and the world, about his heritage and about the international context in which he and his people exist, must assume the strategic advantages offered by the material, spiritual and undoubted intellectual resources and possibilities of the continent by re-taking control of these resources from those who seized them and have kept control of them, chiefly by military, spiritual, economic and intellectual violence, and benefited from their fruits. It is here that the reader will benefit by reading Rodney in company with other intellectual and political giants such as Fanon, Diop, Cabral, Nkrumah and others who contributed a context of scholarship in the struggle for the liberation of a people and their world around the world.

Today, close to half a century after its publication, this text is still relevant, in fact it is still urgently necessary. That is a damming reference to the fact that the system of exploitation laid bare by Rodney is still dominant in Afrika and in the lives of Afrikans.

            The forces that oppressed and colonized large parts of the world invested heavily in scholarship that upheld and perpetuated the values, attitudes and practices of the colonizers, usually by validating and even valorizing its best examples in master narratives that subvert truth. Walter Rodney fought against these forces with his scholarship as well as with his political activism. HEUA is his grandest intellectual endeavor. It shows both the scholarship of Rodney and the aim of his scholarship as a contribution to the liberation of Afrika and Afrikans. But Rodney wanted, demanded more that just relevant scholarship. His understanding of human work is fundamentally as a social contribution towards greater and greater liberation from limitations of all sorts. But he also recognized that much useful scholarship is imprisoned in the ivory towers of European style universities and Eurocentric education. It is this realization that helped to instruct his direct involvement in the tasks of political liberation and advancement that is the second aspect of his scholar-activist personality and the concept and tradition of the organic intellectual to which HEUA belongs.





How Europe Underdeveloped Africa 

and the contemporary relevance of Walter Rodney

By Nigel Westmaas

Associate Professor of Africana Studies, Hamilton College


"It is the supreme distinction of Walter Rodney that he had initiated in his personal and professional life a decisive break with the tradition he had been trained to serve...the reader is made to feel that his academic authority is always fused and humanized by a sense of personal involvement with the matters at hand. He lived to survive the distortions of his training and the crippling ambivalence of his class"
(George Lamming) [55]

Every now and again in history, a scholarly enterprise emerges that breaks new ground and provokes an impact that exceeds the confines of narrow academia. Walter Rodney’s seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) in combination with his other projects performed precisely this function. Its publication and reception exemplified the strains and fissures in the scholarship focused on the continent at the time. It would go on to become one of the most influential books in the “Third World” and beyond. In this article, I offer a brief overview of Rodney’s activist life and the impact and import of his influential text on the past and present.


Presaging Rodney

I submit that the framing and growth of Walter Rodney’s radical vision that resulted in the great, paradigm-changing text about Africa was long in the making. We could say the environment that produced HEUA began in its modern manifestation (among many other forms of resistance on the ground) with the refutation of racism and empire in the late 19th century Caribbean. Anthony Froude, a British journalist and writer wrote a book called the English in the West Indies, where he purported to understand the Caribbean better than its own denizens after visiting ten Caribbean territories. Froude was the epitome of scientific racist sentiment and ideas. Trinidadian schoolteacher John Jacob Thomas challenged Froude in his book Froudacity: West Indian Fables. Before Thomas took down Froude there was Antenor Firmin from Haiti who challenged the extant racist world view or white supremacy that appeared in Arthur de Gobineau’s philosophy in an era in which these path-breaking assailants of the world system were practically on their own.[56] Following in the “de-icing” legacies of Thomas and Firmin CLR James’s Black Jacobins was another powerful and iconic anti colonial text for the Caribbean anti colonial sensibility as was Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery.  Rodney’s experience in growing up in a household where his parents were supporters of the anti-colonial and leftist Peoples Progressive Party and his scholarly achievements at Queens College the leading school (in resources and reputation) at the time in the colony, in a sense prepared him for the stellar scholar-activist career that was to emerge. His activism at the University of the West Indies in two iterations the early 1960s and post PhD in 1968, brought his name on to the stage as an iconoclastic, radical intellectual figure.


Rodney embraced both the epistemological and political trends in academia. His embryonic development and work as a scholar was subsisted at every turn by his political and social activism. It was galling to some of his adversaries that Rodney’s academic activism was informed by a radical Marxist approach. By the early 1960s the philosophy of Marxism had retained a strong influence in various countries in the colonial world. This would dramatically lead to a political explosion in Jamaica in 1968 (after he was banned from re-entering the country) a direct consequence of this fusion of politics and professional history. His doctoral thesis A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800  Rodney, utilizing the experience of ethnic groups like the Mande and Balantas, established how these ethnic groups harnessed their environment. His careful analysis was sensitive to the complexity of the Upper Guinea coast and provided several examples contrasting the levels of economic and political development among certain African kingdoms. But it was the chapters dealing with the slave trade and the economic activity around slave trading that were more important for the historiography of Africa. Some scholars and commentators concur that the inspection of this theme gained Rodney a reputation as a leading authority on the subject. More importantly the analysis of the slave trade was significant for the manner in which he parted company with the method of European scholars who had tended, up to that point to examine and measure the slave trade from the vantage point of its repercussions on Europe and the Americas. In direct contrast Rodney's emphasis was clearly the impact of the slave trade on Africa especially in the West Coast and interior. He dissected the ways in which these traditional African societies were weakened in economic, social, political and cultural terms. 

Then came How Europe Underdeveloped Africa 

I quote at length a fragment of what I wrote in a previous article on Rodney and HEUA:


“The book’s publication led to a veritable revolution in the teaching of African history in the universities and schools in Africa, the Caribbean and North America. Its content became contagious and was an element in the developing world historical sociology stream in embryo in the USA in the 1970s – more specifically the “world systems analysis” framework. Rodney’s doctoral thesis – A History of the Upper Guinea Coast had earlier set the parameters and standard for this later decisive intervention in African historiography.

Rodney compiled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa from extensive archival research systematically identifying causes and outcome of the historical turbulence on the African continent. In doing so he identified the world capitalist system, both mercantile and modern, as the principal agency of underdevelopment of the African continent for over five centuries.

The book covers a wide range: an introductory discussion on the concepts ‘development and underdevelopment’;  the state of Africa prior to European entry;  Africa’s contribution to capitalist development; the effects of colonial education and  impact of missionary activity; the collective nature of African organisation; and of course the exploitation of African resources during the colonial era and consequent ‘underdevelopment.’” [57]

Rodney’s scholarly orientation made him one of the main critics of the positivist tradition in historiography. The positivists consider humanities or the natural and social sciences as solely derived from sensory experience. Consequently, the logical and mathematical treatment of any data is seen as exclusive and authentic. Positivism, which prevailed in the humanities, and in the social and natural sciences, remained dominant until historians like Rodney, the feminist movement and oral history advocates, among others, punctured its limitations and pretensions.


As a part of a pantheon of several works, including Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth Rodney’s book galvanized the “Third World” at a point in time when anti-systemic revolts against tradition exemplified by 1968 were still in evidence. But even in its preliminary stage the book faced some resistance. Lewis cited as evidence of this a letter Rodney wrote to his hesitant publisher on the eve of its publication. It clearly demonstrates his modus operandi as well as his philosophical outlook. An excerpt states:


The main request, which you made, is that the manuscript should be passed on

to an African historian, because you felt yourself unequal to the task of

judging its worth as ‘serious history’. It is an ideological challenge. …to

pass it on to a serious bourgeois historian would be a sheer waste of time…The

text aims at strata of literate Africans in universities, secondary schools

the bureaucracy and the like. They will have to judge whether it makes sense

in the light of present conditions in Africa.[58]


After its publication, the book led to a veritable revolution in the teaching of African history in the universities and schools in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Its ideas became contagious and even became an element in the developing World historical sociology stream that was in embryo in the USA in the 1970s – more specifically the framework of “world-systems analysis”. Rodney compiled his work from the basis of extensive archival research and systematically identified the perturbations on the African continent placing the world capitalist system, both mercantile and modern, as the principal agency of underdevelopment of the African continent for over five centuries.


At the base of his thesis in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was the observation of a dialectical relationship between the underdevelopment of Africa and the development of Europe. More specifically the relationship between local economies and the world capitalist system. In several sections of the famed book, he probes the dynamic of a ‘world-system’ which he appears to accept did exist, and its dialectical relationship with Africa. As he explained at a later stage,  “even if one begins from a position that national means simply that which exists within a national boundary, one still has to ask whether a particular economy is independent, whether it is self propelled…because different economies are integrated into this international system in different ways.” [59]


How Europe Underdeveloped Africa also made an impact on a social science paradigm that had developed by this time, namely dependency theory as framed by Andre Gunder Frank. In short Rodney was recognized as the historian who applied Latin American dependency theory to African history[60].


There is likewise a powerful passage on the vagaries of colonial education in Rodney’s tome – especially given his own experience in colonial education this was even more an active voice of rage:


“On a hot afternoon in some tropical African school, a class of black shining faces would listen to their geography lesson on the seasons of the year – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. They would learn about the Alps and the river Rhine but nothing about the Atlas mountains of north Africa or the river Zambezi. If these students were in a British colony, they would dutifully write that ‘we defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588’ – at a time when Hawkins was stealing Africans and being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for so doing. If they were in French colony, they would learn about ‘the Gauls, our ancestors, had blue eyes,’ and they would be convinced that ‘Napoleon was our greatest general’ – the same Napoleon who reinstated slavery in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and was only prevented from doing the same in Haiti because his forces were defeated by an even greater strategist and tactician, the African Toussaint L’Ouverture”[61]


As indicated the British colonial education was a reality in Rodney’s early schooling in his home country of Guyana. He went on to break with aspects of the colonial education system by just sheer practice and hard work as in the development of his “groundings” framework – that is, his passionate proclivity to work amongst the neediest and exploited sections of the community. This trait would carry him throughout his life.


The “old” formal education system that had historical roots in the political culture of the colonial rulers, more specifically the British  “increased the tendency of  the masses to act without contemplation when ordered to do so, since the mode of instruction used in schools militated against the development of a spirit of enquiry among those who were being educated. "Students were taught to accept unquestioningly the “facts” which were presented to them to follow rules and not to challenge the assumption behind, or the importance of these “facts“ [62]

Walter Rodney was assassinated in 1980 but this work, published 8 years before his demise continued to make shockwaves in both academia and the world of positive activism.


One of the more important themes that distinguished him as a historian with a difference was the issue of ‘living history’. The conception of ‘living history’ which is quite apparent in the methodology of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is explained by Rodney himself:


“ Many historians are afraid to deal with living history and I can understand why, because sometimes it is dangerous, especially in Africa. The moment that the social scientist begins to reflect too closely on the present, he or she is subversive in the Third world. It is safer to be with the mummies and the bones.”[63]


Rodney’s bustle in his native Guyana and elsewhere prompted his friend and academic colleague Clive Thomas (also an activist-scholar) to advance some useful reasons for Rodney's significant political activism while still a professional historian (one who could have lived well in any university system but chose instead to remain and fight in Guyana with the same passion with which he engaged the Shearer administration years earlier). For Thomas, Rodney’s activities included three essential principles:


  1. The notion that history is the science of social development and  as such must be used as an instrument to promote the development of humanity


  1. that as a social scientist and academic one cannot exist either creatively or purposefully in isolation from the mass of humanity in which all must  necessarily function.


  1. that to live and function in any pretended isolation leads to the reinforcement of that inertia which exists in all human society and which favours the status quo. [64]


In like vein, I would add Rodney’s organic desire to take the classroom out of a formal space to include the political platform and other forms: from the use of unstable bottom house chairs to holding classes atop a big rock, in a yard, or the regular classroom.[65]


All this underscored Rodney’s own personal mantra – an ability to connect beyond academia to a public audience and his own active disposal on behalf of the working people and poor. 



HEUA and the present

Now 47 years after the HEUA was first published what is the global reality, especially on the African continent? What is the situation today, in 2019? And why is the text still relevant?


A look at the world today is obviously remarkably different from the excitement on social response to global racism and underdevelopment and poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. In the decades of the 1960s through to the 1980s (with a decline in the 1990s) there were a plethora of movements, institutions and international bodies tied to nation states at the global level that afforded activists like Rodney space in which to agitate for a more equal world order and freedom and justice for the poor and to challenge imperialism and colonialism on many fronts.

Many of these organisations and global organisations have either fractured or were dissipated by the updated onslaught of neo-liberal and laisse faire capitalism in recent decades. I can name one  - the call and organisation for NIEO (New International Economic Order) which was never realised.


Internecine wars still prevail in sections of the African continent. The continuing civil war in the Sudan, and insurgent groups in Mali, are but two examples. European and US imperialism are still very active in Africa. Just peruse the behaviour of the French in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and many other places on the continent.  Surveillance drones, bomber aircraft, economic exploitation, political manipulation, bribery, support for insurgent groups are all part of the ensemble of Western intervention.


The rise of mass migration to powerful metropoles is evident in Africa as in other parts of the world.  And the rejection of these refugees and immigrants by former colonizers is steeped in the history of colonial racism and white supremacy. Sri Lankan novelist and activist Ambalavaner  Sivanandan’s  has a forceful descriptive for the situation: “we are here, because they were there”[66]


That struggle continues against many obstacles. Democratic challenges in Sudan and elsewhere also provide some hope.  Decolonization of education is now in vogue and it would be impossible to exclude HEUA from a syllabus of ‘colonisation’ or ‘decolonization’, as it is one of the most decolonizing texts ever.


This leads to the question – where are the revolutionaries today challenging the modern world capitalist system? The world capitalist system is by no means monolithic yet it manages time and again to put down any challenge to its global economic domination. “Reparations” or the call for reparations appears to be gathering momentum and is among the few radical principles and actions these days.  As this article was being written we notice the Caribbean led reparations movement has succeeded in convincing at least one British institution in providing a form of reparations.  This is an arrangement between the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Glasgow to sign “the first ever agreement for slavery reparations since British Emancipation in 1838”. The £20 million agreement was signed at the UWI main campus office in Kingston, Jamaica in August. [67]


As I argued before if Rodney were “to rewrite How Europe Underdeveloped Africa he would doubtless, given the scholar within, reconfigure sections, tighten certain arguments and perfect the narrative. But his overall thesis would stand.”[68] The overt fangs that slave traders and corporate giants like Barclays, Unilever, and Firestone openly displayed in early profiteering and exploitation of the continent have been  replaced by charming corporate public relations smiles and handouts. Yet the profits sequestered from Africa over several centuries, as effectively argued by Rodney, still stand as a foremost if not exclusive source and substance of Africa’s underdevelopment. In short, Europe and North America continue to interfere with the politics and exploit the natural and economic resources of a continent rich in human and natural resources.


How would Rodney reconfigure the work in light of modern experience?


Very few now mouth any hope for socialism or pan-Africanism as the way forward for Africa.

We have to push back this age of social media with a counter narrative of imperialism and laissez faire capitalism that has prevailed across the world –inclusive of new actors in the form of China. The increasing involvement of China is not to be underestimated but China’s significant entry into Africa has had mixed reviews.


Climate change would have to be a new ingredient – it was obviously not a significant factor (at least not in the usage of ‘climate change)  in the imagination in 1972 but it has become the most serious threat to global survival. We already witness the horrors of global warming in Africa as exhibited by the shrinking of Lake Chad. Horace Campbell identifies some of these perils in an email describing a visit to the area: 

“Lake Chad has lost 95 per cent of its water over the past fifty years. It has shrunk from over 25,000sq km to less than 2000 sq km. I cannot mention the incalculable harm that is being unleashed by this drying up of the Lake  The livelihood of the peoples, over 13 million living immediately around the Lake have been affected negatively; low levels of water, land for grazing cattle shrinking, fishing grounds receding. In essence the new economy that is being put in place is that of financing young jihadists and the counter terror business. I saw this vividly where a fish processing facility was turned into a barracks.”[69]

For Lake Chad’s survival and the protection of the environment Campbell suggests four factors:

  1. Social peace (which he deems the “biggest task”)
  2. Political will;
  3. Use of African resources;
  4. Mobilising the mass of the people on the meaning of global warming for Africa[70]

Economic progress in several African societies including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, and other states and their people’s efforts offer a different if flawed alternative to global domination of the Western countries and more especially the United States France and the UK.


A powerful counter-narrative that incudes reparations, social and economic justice and decolonization of education have to go forward, the latter, the decolonization of education is an unfinished project. Despite its origins in the 1970s, HEUA remains a powerful tool of research, extrapolation, explanation, and change. And not only in academia. Ideological oppositions and all, the book still occupies an urgent presence in the activist “groundings” of our time. HEUA - one book: one huge, persistent impact.










[1] Hirji, K.F. (2017) The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Montreal, Daraja Press.

[2] Davis, Angela Y. (2018) ‘Foreword’ in Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London, Verso.

[3] Rodney, Walter (1982) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Washington, D.C., Howard University Press.

[4] Woodson, Carter G. (1933) The Mis-Education of the Negro, Lanham, Dancing Unicorn Books

[5] Soyinka, Wole (1973) Season of Anomy, London, Arena.

[6] Nwankwo, Agwuncha Arthur (1986) Justice: Sedition Charge, Conviction & Acquital of Arthur Nwankwo, Enugu, Fourth Dimension Publishers.

[7] Machel, S. (1975) ‘Samora Machel: The Beira Speech’, in  African Yearbook of Rhetoric, 2(3)

[8] Freire, Paulo (1989) Education for Critical Consciousness, New York, Continuum.

[9] Azikiwe, Nnamdi (1937) Renascent Africa, London, Franc Cass & Company Ltd.

[10] Awolowo, Obafemi (1939) “Making Use of Juju: Obafemi Awolowo Suggests a Useful Field of Enquiry,” West African Review. Reprinted in M.A. Makinde, ed. Awo as a Philosopher, Ile-Ife, Obafemi Awolowo University Press, 2002



[13] Fanon, Frantz (1963) The Wretched of the Earth, New York, Basic Books

[14] Cabral, Amilcar (2016) Resistance and Decolonization, New York, Rowan & Littlefield.

[15] Santos, Bonaventura de Souza (2015) Epistemologies of the South, New York, Routledge.

[16] Alatas, S. Hussein (2004) ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’ in P.N. Mukherji and C. Sengupta, eds., Indigeneity and Universality in Social Science: A South African Response, New Delhi, Sage.

[17] Ake, Claude (1982) Social Science as Imperialism: The Theory of Political Development, Ibadan, University of Ibadan Press.

[18] James, C.L.R. (1978) Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, London, Lawrence Hill.

[19] Azikiwe, Nnamdi (1961) Zik: A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


[21] Bagele, Chilisa. (2012) Indigenous Research Methodologies. Thousand Oaks, Sage.


[23]  Biko, Agozino. (2010). ‘Ogbunigwe Bekee Gbulu Umu Igbo Ha Gbalu Ohu’ in Ndigbo Journal, Vol2, Edition 21, pp24-28.

[24] Thiong’o, Ngugi wa (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Oxford, Heinemann.

[25] Achebe, Chinua (1965)


[27] Toyo, Eskor (2001) Delusions of a Popular Paradigm: Essays on Alternative Path to Economic Development, Lagos, Nigerian Economic Society.

[28] Achebe, Chinua. (1983). The Trouble With Nigeria, Enugu, Fourth Dimension Publishers.

[29] Nwankwo, Arthur. (1972). Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra, Enugu, Fourth Dimension Publishing Co.

[30] Bassey, Ekpo Bassey. (1989). ‘Only the People Can Develop Themselves’ in Mass Line: The Liberation Journal, February.

[31] Fanon, Frantz. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth, New York, Basic Books

[32]  Biko, Agozino. (2007). ‘Equity and Quality in Higher Education’ in International Journal of Education Research, Vol.3 No.2, 283-292.

[33] Cabral, Amilcar (2016) Resistance and Decolonization, New York, Rowan & Littlefield.

[34] Girard, F. (2003) ‘My Father Didn’t Think This Way: Nigerian Boys Contemplate Gender Equality’, in Quality/Calidad/Qualite, Washington, D.C., The Population Council, Inc.

[35] Agozino, Biko and Agu, Augustine. (2009). ‘Progressive Africana Masculinity: A Rites of Passage Manual’ Commissioned by UNICEF, and presented at UNICEF conference in New York, November.

[36] Achebe, Chinua. (2012).There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, New York, Penguin.

[37] Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert. (2011). Readings From Reading. African Renascent Press, Darkar.

[38] Following upon (1969) The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications and (1970). A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 to 1800, Oxford University Press.

[39] London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications and Dar-es-Salaam: Tanzanian Publishing House. Hereafter HEUA. All references are to this first edition.

[40] (2017) The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Montreal: Daraja Press.

[41] Davis, Angela. (2019) “Walter Rodney’s Legacy” Foreword to Rodney, Walter, HEUA, Verso. [Accessed 8/7/2019].              


[42] Vimercati, Giovanni. “The Persisting Relevance of Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’” Los Angeles Review of Books. April 18, 2009. [Accessed 8/7/2019]

[43] (2019) Zion High. [Accessed 8/15/2019].

[44] For example, Rodney quotes Che Guevara on this point in HEUA, p. 9.

[45] See, for example, Perkins, John (2004). Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

[46] Lamming, George. (1981). “Foreword” in Rodney, Walter, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. xvii; Rodney, Walter (12 October, 1968). “African History in the Service of Black Liberation.” Lecture given by Rodney to the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, Canada.

[47] Nehusi, Kimani (2018). A People’s Political History of Guyana, 1838-1964, Hertfordshire, UK: Hansib Publications, pp. 507-548; See also Nehusi, “Contradictions Between Dr. Jagan and the Ultra Left: The Split in the People’s Progressive Party of Guiana, 1956/57,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. Vol. 15, Nos. 1-2, 24 July, 2013, pp. 56-88.

(48] Nehusi, Kimani (2012). “Introduction” in Richard Hart, Caribbean Workers’ Struggle, London: Socialist History Society with Bogle L’Ouverture Press, pp. 3-10. See also Nehusi, Kimani. A People’s Political History of Guyana, 1838-1964. Hertfordshire, UK: Hansib Publications pp. 444-448; See also note 47 above. For information on the women of the revolution in Ayiti (Haiti), consult Christine Ru Pert-em-Hru (2017). Heroines of the Haitian Revolution: Tales of Victory and Valor. London, UK: BIS Publications. 

 (49) James, C. L. R. (1989). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Second Edition, Revised. New York: Vintage Books, p. 47.

[50] Williams, Eric (1964). Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch Limited. See also Williams, Eric (1964). British Historians and the West Indies. Port-of-Spain: P.N.M. Publishing Company Limited.
[51] Thomas, J. J. (1889). Froudacity: West Indian Fables by James Anthony Froude Explained by J. J. Thomas. London: T. Fisher Unwin. 

[52] (1885, 2002). The Equality of the Human Races, Urbana and Chicago: The University of Illinois Press. Translated by Asselin Charles.

[53] (1964) British Historians and The West Indies, Port-of-Spain: P.N.M. Publishing Company Limited, p. vi.

[54] See note 9 above.

[55] George Lamming, Foreword, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, xxv

[56] Charles Mills has a useful defection or explanation of white supremacy in his book Racial Contract : “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. A standard undergraduate philosophy course will start off with Plato and Aristotle, perhaps say something about Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli, move on to Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx, and then wind up with Rawls and Nozick. It will introduce you to notions of aristocracy, democracy, absolutism, liberalism, representative government, socialism, welfare capitalism, and libertarianism. But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years.” Charles Mills. Racial Contract

[57] Nigel Westmaas, “40 Years of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, Pambazuka News, June 14, 2012

[58] Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought p. 70.

[59] Walter Rodney, “One Hundred Years of Development in Africa …” p. 27.

[60]. Lewis,  p. 48.

[61] Walter Rodney, HEUA, pp. 246-247

[62] M.K Bacchus, “Education in the Pre-Emancipation Period with special reference to the Colonies which later became British Guiana) Guyana Historical Journal Vol II. 1990. p. 24.

[63] Rodney, Ibid, p. 20.

[64] Clive Thomas, “Walter Rodney and the Caribbean Revolution”(speech at a symposium, University of California, Los Angeles, 1981.

[65] The current author benefited from Rodney’s bottom-house classes, at the historian’s home in a ward of Georgetown, Guyana called “South Ruimveldt.”

[66] The Guardian, February 7, 2018

[67] “The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of Glasgow Reparations Agreement: £20 million Caribbean Reparations Agreement” St Lucia Star, August 4, 2019

[68] Nigel Westmaas, “40 Years of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” Pambazuka News, June 14, 2012

15 Horace Campbell, e-mail correspondence, February 7, 2018

16 Horace Campbell, “Saving Lake Chad: a Pan-African Project” Pambazuka News, March 16, 2018








Charles Mills, The Racial Contract Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997


Lewis, Rupert. Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998


Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Washington DC: Howard university Press, 1982


Walter Rodney, “One Hundred Years of Development in Africa”  A Tribute to Walter Rodney. Hamburg: University of Hamburg, 1984



Gloria Emeagwali 
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