Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney
Born Walter Anthony Rodney
(1942-03-23)23 March 1942
Georgetown, British Guiana
Died 13 June 1980(1980-06-13) (aged 38)
Georgetown, Guyana
Academic background
Alma mater

University of the West Indies

School of African and Oriental Studies
Academic work
Main interests African studies

Walter Anthony Rodney (23 March 1942 13 June 1980) was a prominent Guyanese historian, political activist and academic. He was assassinated in 1980.


Born into a working-class family in Georgetown in the then British Guiana (now Guyana), Walter Rodney was a very bright student, attending Queen's College, where he became a champion debater and athlete, and then attending university on a scholarship at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in Jamaica, graduating in 1963 with a first-class degree in History, thereby winning the Faculty of Arts prize.

Rodney earned a PhD in African History in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England, at the age of 24. 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.

Rodney traveled widely and became very well known internationally as an activist, scholar and formidable orator. He taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania during the period 1966-67 and later in Jamaica at his alma mater University of the West Indies in Mona. 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 for a socialist development template.

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 which escalated into a riot, known as the Rodney Riots, resulting in six deaths and causing millions of dollars in damages.[1] The riots which started 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, where he served as a Professor of History until 1974.[1]

Rodney became a prominent Pan-Africanist, 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. 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 founded the Working People's Alliance, a party that provided the most effective and credible opposition to the PNC government. In 1979 he was arrested and charged with arson after two government offices were burned.


On 13 June 1980, Rodney was killed in Georgetown, at the age of thirty-eight, by a bomb in his car, a month after returning from celebrations during the independence in Zimbabwe in 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, named Gregory Smith, had given Walter the bomb that killed him. After the killing Smith fled to French Guiana, where he died in 2002.

It is widely believed, but not proven, that the assassination was set up by then-President Linden Forbes Burnham.[2][3] Rodney believed that the various ethnic groups that had been historically disenfranchised by the ruling colonial class should work together, which was in conflict with Burnham.[4]

In early 2015, a Commission of Inquiry (COI) was held during which a new witness, Holland Gregory Yearwood, came forward claiming to be a longstanding 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.[5]

Academic influence

"Rodney's most influential book was his magnum opus, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1972. In it he described an Africa that had been consciously exploited by European imperialists, leading directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent. The book became enormously 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 inter-relations of African trade and politics, as many of us were at that time, Walter 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 whole set of fresh 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. Almost immediately he stimulated much 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.

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.[6]


  • The Groundings with my Brothers (London: Bogle L'Ouverture Publications, 1969)
  • West Africa and the Atlantic Slave-Trade. (1970)
  • A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970)
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)
  • World War II and the Tanzanian Economy (1976)
  • Guyanese Sugar Plantations in the Late Nineteenth Century: a Contemporary Description from the "Argosy" (Georgetown, Guyana: Release Publications, 1979)
  • Marx in the Liberation of Africa (1981)
  • A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981)
  • Walter Rodney Speaks: the Making of an African Intellectual (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990)
  • Kofi Baadu Out of Africa (Georgetown, Guyana) - children's book
  • Lakshmi Out of India (Georgetown, Guyana: The Guyana Book Foundation, 2000) - children's book
  • The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World ( New York: Verso Books,2018)


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).

In 1977, the African Studies Centre, 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 of 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, University of the West Indies, inaugurated the Walter Rodney Lecture Series.

In 2004, Walter 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 of the University of Dar es Salaam.

In 2006, the Walter Rodney Essay Competition was established at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan

In 2010, the Walter Rodney Commemorative Symposium was held at York College

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

The Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) at the University of Michigan established the DuBois-Mandela-Rodney Post-doctoral 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.

Rodney is the subject of the 2010 documentary film by Clairmont Chung, W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney.[7]

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


Further reading

By Walter Rodney

By others

  • "And finally they killed him": speeches and poems at a memorial rally for Walter Rodney, 1942-80, Oduduwa Hall, University of Ife, Nigeria, Friday, 27 June 1980.
  • Walter Rodney: Revolutionary and Scholar: A Tribute. (Los Angeles: Center for African-American Studies and African Studies Center, University of California, 1982)
  • C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney and the Question of Power, (London: Race Today Publications, 1983)
  • Edward A. Alpers and P. M. Fontaine (eds), Walter Rodney, Poetic Tributes. (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1985)
  • Horace Campbell. Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1985)
  • Gabriehu. Dangerous Times: The Assassination of Dr. Walter Rodney. (Brooklyn, NY: Gibbi Books, 2003)
  • Rupert Lewis. Walter Rodney`s Intellectual and Political Thought, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998)
  • Rupert Lewis. Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited
  • Issa G. Shivji, "Remembering Walter Rodney", Monthly Review, Volume 64, Issue 07 (December 2012).
  • Clairmont Chung, "A Promise of Revolution" in Monthly Review Press (2013)
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