Next Sunday, June 13, will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1980 assassination of Water Rodney, who was killed by a bomb in the middle of Georgetown, Guyana. Rodney, a prominent pan-Africanist born in Georgetown on March 23, 1942, had been founder of the Working People Alliance Party and author of the influential book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1972. In it he described an Africa which had been consciously exploited by European imperialists, leading directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent.
Rodney, the child of a tailor and a seamstress, won an open exhibition scholarship to attend Queens College as one of the early working-class beneficiaries of concessions made in the filed of education by the ruling class in Guyana to the new nationalism of the 1950s. In 1963 he graduated with a first-class honors degree in history in 1963 from the University of the West Indies and received an open scholarship to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where, in 1966, at the age of 24 he was awarded a Ph.D. with honors in African History. His doctoral and multilingual research on slavery on the Upper Guinea Coast (Rodney was fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese) was the result of long meticulous work on the records of Portuguese merchants both in England and in Portugal, and was published by Oxford University Press as A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. This work was to set a trend for Rodney in both challenging the assumptions of western historians about African history and setting new standards for looking at the history of oppressed peoples. According to Horace Campbell “This work was path-breaking in the way in which it analyzed the impact of slavery on the communities and the interrelationship between societies of the region and on the ecology of the region.”
Walter took up his first teaching appointment in Tanzania before returning to the University of the West Indies, in 1968, where he became a central voice in the Caribbean manifestations of the Black Power Movement. An early supporter of the Rastafarian movement and other manifestations of groundroots movements, and a devoted student of C. L. R. James, he wrote about his commitment to the poor and downtrodden in his “Grounding with My Brothers.” Expelled from Jamaica for his work with the Rastafarians—an expulsion that sparked widespread riots in Jamaica—Rodney returned to Tanzania after a short stay in Cuba. There he lectured from 1968 to 1974 and continued his groundings in Tanzania and other parts of Africa. This work resulted in his second major work, and his best known —How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – emerged. His encounters in Tanzania deepened his commitment to a Marxist approach to the study of politics, class struggle, race, and the role of the exploited in social change.
In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. Rodney, however, remained in Guyana, where he joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance. Between 1974 and his assassination in 1980, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government.
Rodney’s death was commemorated in Martin Carter’s For Walter Rodney and in Kwesi Johnson’s “Reggae fi Randi.” Walter was married to Dr Patricia Rodney and had three children- Shaka, Kanini and Asha.
In 2004, his family 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.
For a longer biographical sketch go to http://www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com/wpa/rodney_bio.html