Guyana remembers ‘intellectual rebel’ Walter Rodney
It was 32 years ago today that Guyana experienced a dark day in its young history when one of the Caribbean’s leading historians and politicians was assassinated in a car explosion as he campaigned to contest the then imminent Regional and General Elections. He was 38.
Rodney had returned to Guyana in 1974 from Tanzania and was supposed to take a position as a professor at the University of Guyana.
According to reports, the government of the day, the People’s National Congress, headed by the late Forbes Burnham, prevented his appointment. He subsequently became increasingly active in politics, forming the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), against the PNC government, and the year before his assassination was arrested and charged with arson after two government offices were burned.
Rodney’s brother, Donald, who was injured in the explosion that killed the WPA Founder Leader, said that a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force named Gregory Smith had given Rodney the bomb that killed him. Smith fled to French Guiana after the killing. He died there in 2002.
It was, and is still widely believed, that the assassination was a set-up.
In 2004, Rodney’s widow, Patricia, and his children donated his papers to the Robert L. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center.
Between 1974 and 1979, Rodney emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against what was deemed an increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave public and private talks all over the country and served to engender a new political consciousness in the country.
During this period he developed his ideas on the self emancipation of the working people, People’s Power, and multiracial democracy.
Rodney’s voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean but was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Since 2004, an annual Walter Rodney Symposium has been held each March 23 (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.
Rodney’s most influential book published was ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. It hit newsstands, 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.
Born to a working class family, Rodney was described as a brilliant student. He attended Queen’s College then went to University on a scholarship. He attended the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica, graduating in 1963.
Rodney earned his PhD in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England.
His dissertation focused on the slave trade on the upper Guinea coast.
The thesis was published in 1970 under the title A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, and it was widely acclaimed for its originality in challenging the conventional wisdom on the topic.
He traveled widely and became very well known around the world as an activist and scholar. He taught for a time in Tanzania, and later in Jamaica at his alma mater – UWI Mona.
Rodney was sharply critical of the middle class for its role in the post-independence Caribbean. On 15 October 1968, the Government of Jamaica, led by Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, barred Rodney from returning to the island.
The decision to ban him from ever returning to the country was because of his advocacy for the working poor in that country. That advocacy caused riots to break out, eventually claiming the lives of several people and causing millions of dollars in damage.
These riots, which started on October 16, 1968, are now known as the Rodney Riots, and they triggered an increase in political awareness across the Caribbean, especially among the Afrocentric Rastafarian sector of Jamaica, documented in his book, The Groundings With My Brothers.
Rodney became a prominent Pan-Africanist, and was important in the Black Power movement in the Caribbean and North America.