Walter Rodney
Walter Anthony Rodney

(1942-03-23)23 March 1942
Died13 June 1980(1980-06-13) (aged 38)
Georgetown, Guyana
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of London
SOAS, University of London
Academic work
Main interestsAfrican studies
Notable worksHow Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)

Walter Anthony Rodney (23 March 1942 – 13 June 1980) was a Guyanese historian, political activist and academic. His notable works include How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, first published in 1972. Rodney was assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1980.


Early career

Walter Rodney was born in 1942 into a working-class family in Georgetown, Guyana.[citation needed] He attended the University College of the West Indies in 1960 and was awarded a first-class honours degree in history in 1963. He earned a PhD in African History in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England, at the age of 24.[1] His dissertation, which focused on the slave trade on the Upper Guinea Coast, was published by the Oxford University Press in 1970 under the title A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545–1800 and was widely acclaimed for its originality in challenging the conventional wisdom on the topic.[citation needed]

Rodney travelled widely and became known internationally as an activist, scholar and formidable orator. He taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania during the periods 1966–67 and 1969–1974 and in 1968 at his alma mater University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.[citation needed] He was sharply critical of the middle class for its role in the post-independence Caribbean. He was also a strong critic of capitalism and argued that only under "the banner of Socialism and through the leadership of the working classes" could Africa break from imperialism.[2]

On 15 October 1968, the government of Jamaica, led by prime minister Hugh Shearer, declared Rodney persona non grata. The decision to ban him from ever returning to Jamaica and his subsequent dismissal by the University of the West Indies, Mona, caused protests by students and the poor of West Kingston that escalated into a riot, known as the Rodney Riots, resulting in six deaths and causing millions of dollars in damages.[3] The riots, which began on 16 October 1968, triggered an increase in political awareness across the Caribbean, especially among the Afrocentric Rastafarian sector of Jamaica, documented in Rodney's book The Groundings with my Brothers, published by Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications in 1969.

In 1969, Rodney returned to the University of Dar es Salaam. He was promoted to senior lecturer there in 1971 and promoted to associate professor in 1973.[4] He worked at the university until 1974 when he returned to Guyana.[5][3] He was promised a professorship at the University of Guyana in Georgetown but the Forbes Burnham government rescinded the offer when Rodney arrived in Guyana.[5]

Rodney was close to C.L.R. James, among others, and supported the socialist government of Julius Nyerere. While his academic work contributed "to the emergence of decolonised African social sciences," Rodney worked to disseminate knowledge in Tanzanian villages, where he spoke in Kiswahili, the language of the people.[6] He continued his pan-African activism and, analysing the causes of the continent's underdevelopment, published How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1972. With a view to the Pan-African Congress of 1974, he prepared a text on the "international class struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America." In this landmark work, Rodney denounced leaders who, like Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Idi Amin Dada and Joseph Mobutu, were turning to tribalism under the guise of "negritude."

Rodney became a prominent Pan-Africanist and Marxist, and was important in the Black Power movement in the Caribbean and North America. While living in Dar es Salaam, he was influential in developing a new centre of African learning and discussion.

Later life

In 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana from Tanzania.[7] He was due to take up a position as a professor at the University of Guyana, but the Guyanese government prevented his appointment. Increasingly active in politics, he joined the Working People's Alliance (WPA),[8] a party that provided the most effective and credible opposition to the People's National Congress government and aimed to "create political consciousness, replacing ethnic politics with revolutionary organisations based on class solidarity."[6] In 1979, he was arrested and charged with arson after two government offices were burned. The trial was deferred three times and later dropped due to lack of evidence.[9]


On 13 June 1980, Rodney was killed in Georgetown, at the age of 38, by a bomb explosion in his car, a month after he returned from celebrations of independence in Zimbabwe at a time of intense political activism. He was survived by his wife, Patricia, and three children. His brother, Donald Rodney, who was injured in the explosion, said that a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force and a member of the House of Israel,[10] named Gregory Smith, had given Walter the bomb that killed him. After the killing, Smith fled to French Guiana, where he died in 2002.[11]

It is widely believed, but not proven, that the assassination was set up by Guyana's president, Linden Forbes Burnham.[12][13] Rodney believed that the various ethnic groups historically disenfranchised by the ruling colonial class should work together, a position that challenged Burnham's hold on power.[14]

In 2014,[15] a Commission of Inquiry (COI) was held during which a new witness, Holland Gregory Yearwood, came forward claiming to be a long-standing friend of Rodney and a former member of the WPA. Yearwood testified that Rodney presented detonators to him weeks prior to the explosion asking for assistance in assembling a bomb.[16] Yet the same Commission of Inquiry (COI) concluded in their report that Rodney's death was a state-ordered killing, and that then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham must have had knowledge of the plot.[17][18]

Donald Rodney, Walter's brother, was in the car with him during the time of the assassination, and was convicted in 1982 of possessing explosives in connection with the incident that killed his brother. On 14 April 2021, the Guyana Court of Appeals overturned this judgment and Donald's sentence, exonerating him after forty years in which he contested his conviction.[19][20]

On 9 August 2021, the National Assembly of Guyana voted to adopt "Resolution No. 23" to implement the 2016 findings of "The Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Enquire and Report on the Circumstances Surrounding the Death in An Explosion of the Late Dr. Walter Rodney on Thirteenth Day of June, One Thousand, Nine Hundred and Eighty at Georgetown".[21]

Academic influence

Rodney's most influential book was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1972 by Jessica Huntley and associates of Bogle L'Ouverture Publications. In it he described how Africa had been exploited by European imperialists, which he argued led directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent. The book became influential as well as controversial: it was groundbreaking in that it was among the first to bring a new perspective to the question of underdevelopment in Africa. Rodney's analysis went far beyond the previously accepted approach in the study of Third World underdevelopment.

"Instead of being interested primarily in the interrelations of African trade and politics, as many of us were at that time, Rodney focused his attention on the agricultural basis of African communities, on the productive forces within them and on the processes of social differentiation. As a result, his research raised a fresh set of questions concerning the nature of African social institutions on the Upper Guinea coast in the sixteenth century and of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade. In doing so, he helped to open up a new dimension to the study of colonialism in Africa. Almost immediately his work stimulated further writing and research on West Africa, and he initiated a debate, which still continues and now extends across the whole range of African history.

When teaching at the Universities of Dar es Salaam and the West Indies, he launched and sustained a large number of discussion groups which swept up and embraced many who had had little or no formal education. As a writer, he reached out to contact thousands in The Groundings with my Brothers (1969) and in his influential How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)." — Remarks by Professor John Richard Gray, History Today, Vol. 49, Issue 9, 1980.

"When we think of Walter Rodney as a Revolutionary Scholar we are talking about two things, Radical Scholar and his revolutionary contribution to the study of History ie. History of Africa. Walter Rodney was a pioneering scholar who provided new answers to old questions and posed new questions in relation to the study of Africa." — Remarks by Professor Winston McGowan at the Walter Rodney Commemorative Symposium held at York College, USA, in June 2010.

"Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and its contemporary heir black opportunism and exploitation in the eye." — Remarks by Wole Soyinka, Oduduwa Hall, University of Ife, Nigeria, Friday, 27 June 1980.

In his book "The Enduring Relevance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" Karim Hirji states that "Walter Rodney wrote about a continent that had been misrepresented, devalued, and denigrated for centuries. Those portrayals had justified the subjugation and exploitation of its people. So, he did not mince words when characterizing that reality. If anything, he deserves praise for breaking the silence, and jarring the conscience of his colleagues"

"The Caribbean has been deprived of a great creative mind; but Walter Rodney had achieved at an early age, the special distinction of being a permanent part of a unique tradition of intellectual leadership among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas. He belongs to the same order of importance as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois, George Padmore and C.L.R James. Products of various doctrines of imperialism, they had initiated through the work, as writers and orators of distinction, a profound reversal of values. It is not possible to have a comprehensive view of all the ramifications of Africa's encounter with Europe without reference to these men. Walter Rodney consolidated and extended that work. His scholarship was sure, but it was also a committed and partisan scholarship. He believed that history was a way of ordering knowledge which could become an 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" (George Lamming 1981)

"In many ways Walter Rodney was the best of the UWI, a brilliant young intellectual, rooted in Caribbean development discourse; A student demonstrating his extraordinary intellectual gifts in his participation in pedagogy around African and Caribbean history and translating that knowledge into community activism, representing the intersection between scholarship and social activism.

Walter Rodney's moment in the 1960s represented the midpoint of the UWI's academic journey, in that he was participating in that transition that pushed the UWI away from 30 years of the colonial scaffold as it was seeking to lay the foundation for the nationalist, regional, liberational liberating university. His conception of history as concept for understanding the past and at the same time developing an empirical base for political action. What he presented was liberation history and in so doing, he connected campus to community to global liberation. The success with which he executed these projects enabled him to emerge within a short time as a phenomenal icon of academia.

Walter Rodney would have been conscious therefore of the colonial UWI at pain to give birth to a university that was rooted in the intellectual and political work of the region. His moment therefore was the highpoint in the decolonisation of the intersection between the UWI and the wider Caribbean.

His was a humanist history, a humanist political practice. He saw the entire Caribbean World as his community. He was not a nationalist, though he recognized that the Caribbean in its diversity was structured in terms of multiple nations and communities. He was able to develop both a specific practice as well as a Caribbean and global practice. Historicising then his role; at the beginning he was the energy source that sought to push the University and the Region away from the colonial scaffold to enable West Indian/Caribbean identity to emerge with its own authenticity. The loss of his mind, his energy, his personhood and his friendship, has been a tremendous tragedy for the region and for the world. We lost arguably one of the finest minds this region has ever produced" (Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor, University of the West Indies)

In a new foreword to Rodney's book, academic and political activist Angela Davis writes: "To mark time," he [Rodney] insists, "or even to move slowly while others leap ahead is virtually equivalent to going backward". In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney painstakingly argues that imperialism and the various processes that bolstered colonialism created impenetrable structural blockades to economic, and thus also, political and social progress on the continent. At the same time his argument is not meant to absolve Africans of the "ultimate responsibility for development."[22] Davis also draws attention to the fact that Rodney did not ignore gender issues. On the contrary, he addresses the role of gender. He pointed out that under colonialism, African women's “social, religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights disappeared while the economic exploitation continued and was often intensified".

Rodney's community-grounded approach to mass education during the 1960s and his detailed descriptions of his pedagogical approach in Groundings (1969) document his role as an important critical pedagogue and contemporary of Paulo Freire.[23]

Honors and awards

A sculpture of Rodney in Benin

Rodney's death was commemorated in a poem by Martin Carter entitled "For Walter Rodney," by the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in "Reggae fi Radni," and by Kamau Brathwaite in his poem "Poem for Walter Rodney" (Elegguas, 2010). David Dabydeen also wrote a poem on Rodney in his 1988 collection Coolie Odyssey.

In 1977, the African Studies Centre at Boston University inaugurated the Walter Rodney Lecture Series.

In 1982, the American Historical Association posthumously awarded Walter Rodney the Albert J. Beveridge Award for A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905.

In 1984, the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick established the Walter Rodney Memorial Lecture in recognition of the life and work of one of the most outstanding scholar-activists of the Black Diaspora in the post-World War II era.

In 1993, the Guyanese government posthumously awarded Walter Rodney Guyana's highest honour, the Order of Excellence of Guyana. The Guyanese government also established the Walter Rodney Chair in History at the University of Guyana.

In 1998, the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies inaugurated the Walter Rodney Lecture Series.

In 2004, Rodney's widow Patricia and his children donated his papers to the Robert L. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. Since 2004, an annual Walter Rodney Symposium has been held each 23 March (Rodney's birthday) at the Center under the sponsorship of the Library and the Political Science Department of Clark Atlanta University, and under the patronage of the Rodney family.

In 2005, the London Borough of Southwark erected a plaque in the Peckham Library Square in commemoration of Dr. Walter Rodney, the political activist, historian and global freedom fighter.

In 2006, an International Conference on Walter Rodney was held at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam.

In 2006, the Walter Rodney Essay Competition was established in the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

In 2006, the Walter Rodney Foundation was established by the Rodney family. It is headquartered in Atlanta and aims to share the works and legacy of Rodney with the world.[24]

In 2010, the Walter Rodney Commemorative Symposium was held at York College.[25]

The Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University has established the Angela Davis/Walter Rodney Award of Academic Achievement.

The Department of Afro-American and African Studies (DAAS) at the University of Michigan established the DuBois-Mandela-Rodney Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.

In 2012, the Walter Rodney Conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was held at Binghamton University.

In 2022, at the 36th Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture, 50th Anniversary of Dr. Walter Rodney's Book: "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa", was presented by Horace G. Campbell at University of the West Indies.

Rodney is the subject of the 2010 documentary film by Clairmont Chung, W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney.[26]

The Walter Rodney Close in the London Borough of Newham has been named in honour of Rodney.

Walter Rodney is listed on the Black Achievers Wall in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, UK.

In 2022 and 2023, SAVVY Contemporary, an independent art space in Berlin (Germany), dedicated a research, performance and exhibition project, titled to Walter Rodney, fifty years after the publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.[27]

Father-and-son filmmaking duo Arlen Harris and Daniyal Harris-Vadja directed a 2023 documentary exploring Rodney's life, Walter Rodney: What They Don’t Want You to Know.[28]


Further reading


  1. ^ Price, Katie (1 July 2021). "Revolutionary historian: Walter Rodney (1942-1980) – SOAS Centenary Timeline". Retrieved 16 June 2023.
  2. ^ Rodney, Walter (1975). "Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America". Pan-Africanism: Struggle Against Neo-colonialism and Imperialism - Documents of the Sixth Pan-African Congress: 18–41. Archived from the original on 16 August 2021.
  3. ^ a b Michael O. West (November 2005). "Walter Rodney and Black Power: Jamaican Intelligence and US Diplomacy" (PDF). African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies. 1 (2). ISSN 1554-3897. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2011.
  4. ^ "The Dar es Salaam years". Retrieved 28 December 2022.
  5. ^ a b Harisch, Immanuel R. (1 January 2018). Walter Rodney's Dar es Salaam Years, 1966–1974: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Tanzania's ujamaa, and Student Radicalism at 'the Hill' (Thesis). University of Vienna.
  6. ^ a b Ferrarini, Hélène (1 September 2020). "Guyana turns its back on its past". Le Monde diplomatique. Archived from the original on 7 May 2021. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  7. ^ Campbell, Horace (May 1960). "Walter Rodney: A Biography and Bibliography". Review of African Political Economy (18): 132–137. JSTOR 3997943. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  8. ^ Chukwudinma, Chinedu (12 May 2022). "The birth of the Working People's Alliance in Guyana". Review of African Political Economy. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  9. ^ Edward Kamau Brathwaite (June 1981). "A poem for Walter Rodney". Index on Censorship. The Caribbean. 10 (6): 26. doi:10.1080/03064228108533287. S2CID 152261408. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  10. ^ Stabroek News (30 April 2014). "House of Israel was hit squad – Rodney's brother". Stabroek News. Archived from the original on 23 November 2021. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  11. ^ Azikiwe, Abayomi (28 February 2016). "Guyana commission confirms Burnham gov't murdered Walter Rodney". Worker's World. Archived from the original on 10 May 2021. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  12. ^ "Walter Rodney Biography". The Grenada Revolution Online. Archived from the original on 13 February 2021. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  13. ^ "THE GRAND BETRAYALS OF WALTER RODNEY". Kaieteur News. 16 June 2012. Archived from the original on 1 April 2019. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  14. ^ "Gregory Smith dead". 24 November 2002. Archived from the original on 14 December 2018. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  15. ^ "The Walter Rodney Murder Mystery in Guyana 40 Years Later". National Security Archive. 2020. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  16. ^ Eleazar, Gary (17 February 2015). "Rodney hearing takes dramatic twist. New witness tells of attempted cover up". Guyana Chronicle. Archived from the original on 25 February 2015.
  17. ^ Stabroek News (20 February 2016). "Rodney was victim of state-organised killing, PM Burnham had to have known –CoI finds". Stabroek News. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  18. ^ Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Enquire and Report on the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of the Late Dr. Walter Rodney on Thirteenth Day of June, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty at Georgetown, 8 February 2016, p. 133, hdl:20.500.12322/coi:rodney_report, Wikidata Q106716611
  19. ^ Stabroek News (14 April 2021). "Appeal Court sets aside Donald Rodney's conviction, sentencing". Stabroek News.
  20. ^ Chabrol, Dennis (14 April 2021). "BREAKING: Guyana Court of Appeal sets aside explosives conviction, sentence of Donald Rodney". Demerara Waves. Archived from the original on 9 May 2021.
  21. ^ "RESOLUTION NO. 23" (PDF). National Assembly of Guyana. 9 August 2021. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2021. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  22. ^ Davis, Angela (24 April 2019). "Walter Rodney's legacy". Versobooks/blog. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  23. ^ Vaught, Seneca (2015). "'Grounding' Walter Rodney in Critical Pedagogy: Toward Praxis in African History". South. 1 (1): 4–5.
  24. ^ "WHO WE ARE". Walter Rodney Foundation. Retrieved 5 September 2020.
  25. ^ The Walter Rodney Commemorative Symposium @ York college, archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 6 April 2021
  26. ^ W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney, Roots and Culture Media.
  27. ^ "UNRAVELING THE (UNDER-) DEVELOPMENT COMPLEX". S A V V Y Contemporary. 2023. Retrieved 23 January 2023.
  28. ^ Shoki, William (3 April 2023). "This is what they don't want you to know". Africa Is A Country. Retrieved 28 November 2023.
  29. ^ Plys, Kristin (2021). "Theorizing Capitalist Imperialism for an Anti-Imperialist Praxis". Journal of World-Systems Research. 27: 288–313. doi:10.5195/jwsr.2021.1022. S2CID 233689871.