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© Copyright Dr. B.M. QUENUM All rights reserved - November 15, 2006

Walter Rodney
(1942-1980), a Guyanese born historian and politician, published in 1972 a book titled: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – that is an invaluable source of documentation about sub-Saharan African region’ social and economic development; before the encounter with the Europeans; during the lengthy epoch that followed the encounter and leading to the colonization; during the colonial period and afterwards.

Walter Rodney analysed Western scholars’ academic works and publications (in all lines of knowledge,) to refute the white-race ethnocentric approach used by most of these scholars to explaining the economic development backwardness of sub-Saharan African countries.

Indeed, these Western scholars – implicitly or explicitly – implied that sub-Saharan Africa’s developing was lagging far behind other regions of the world because of the “obvious” innate inferiority of black people to organize themselves, to master the environment in order to improving social and economic conditions.

Walter Rodney, in the contrary, dug out and revealed historic findings (deliberately ignored by ethnocentric scholars) that shed light to the real causes, which explain the underdevelopment of sub-Saharan African region.

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All through the book's pages, Walter Rodney brought to light facts that show Africa, in mid-fifteenth century (the starting period of the encounter between Europeans and Africans), had already established and structured nations and empires in the East, West, Centre and South of the continent. The empires of Mali and Songhay, in West Africa, being the most powerful in wealth and territorial expansion. (Songay territory was larger than the continent of Europe - with the University of Sankore, in Timbuktu, that drew students from all West Africa, and scholars from different foreign countries.)

At the Eastern limit of Mali and Songhay territories, stands the Mossi Nation. A federation of several chiefdoms and kingdoms united by kinship, and ruled by the supreme chief: "The Mogho Naba." The Mossi, "nationalists" and indomitable people, resisted Mali and Songhay many attempts to destroy and occupy their national territory. They were (and still are) one of the most industrious people of the world; and the Mossi Nation's Army was one of the most organized with the greatest and most dashing cavalry in Africa. Nowadays, Mossiland's cultural area covers a large portion of modern Burkina Faso, and the Mogho Naba still rules - a sacred leader venerated by the Mossi.

During the three following centuries, the big entities - Mali and Songhay - progressively collapsed and several other smaller chiefdoms rose to replace them.

Anyway, they all have established strong state machines in charge of security, planning, and supervision of agricultural productions. The most organized have also standing Armies, which sometimes integrate Amazon’s corps – the famous African women warriors.

That was the case in particular of the Kingdom of Dan-Ho-Me (Dahomey) that occupied the central part of the actual Republic of Benin and was known to historians as the black Sparta; the case of the Asante Kingdom, located in the central part of current Republic of Ghana; and also the Kingdoms of Oyo, Ife, and Benin located in the southern part of the actual Republic of Nigeria; the Kingdom of Kuba, or the several Kingdoms (Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda) in the interlacustrine (Great Lakes) region in central Africa.

Besides, anyone with a nodding knowledge about African past had certainly heard about the great organizer of all Africans: Shaka, who transformed, in the nineteenth century, the Zululand (the actual KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa), into a powerful kingdom. Etc.

All these entities were basically farming societies. Farmers, herdsmen, artists and craftsmen (gold and silversmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, and cloth's makers; medicine men - experts in naturopathy; sculptors of wood, iron and terracotta; and transformers of agricultural products) producing goods for the communities - using proper African-designed technology and techniques.

Guilds of merchants travel long miles, criss-crossing the continent, to sell commodities and productions: cotton, millet, wheat, corn, peppers, yams, rice, peanuts, kola nuts, honey, onions; and transformed products such as fine leather works; silver, gold and copper made jewellery; ivory, cloths, basketry, straw hats, iron, lead and antimony, and copper ware, mats, jars, pots, pans, soap and dried and smoked fish. In exchange of: salt, coffee, tea, perfumes, carpets. Etc.

In short, before the first encounter with the Europeans in the fifteenth century, Africans had already established commercial networks crisscrossing the continent to trade and exchange goods between the several ethnic entities.

Starting from the arrival of Portuguese ships on West African shores in 1444, the Europeans setup a triangular trading system - Europe-Africa-Americas - to fully take control of Africa’s international trading and dictate to African rulers which products to sell abroad. That is the export of human beings as slaves to the Americas; the exploitation of tropical wood species and the “purchase” of ivory and gold.

All these goods and commodities were exchanged and bartered against overpriced bottles of drinkable alcohol (sugar cane and juniper-made “gin” alcohol), Asian, European small glassware pearls and other rubbish given to African rulers.

The pre-colonial economic domination of Europe over sub-Saharan Africa lasted 440 years – from year 1444 to year 1885 - during which the supervision of the developing process progressively shifted from African rulers to Europeans. Indeed, during that lengthy period, the introduction of criteria and values imported from Europe progressively “altered” the natives’ superstructure of beliefs and value systems, and diverted the course of the developing process from the initial endogenous path to an exogenous one.

Subsequently, the inter-African trading system, put in place by generations of Africans before Europe-Africa’s encounter, was progressively disorganized and finally high-jacked by the Europeans - acting as go-between, splitting and separating each African ethnic entity from another.

In few words, starting from the fifteenth century, Europe used high sea maritime experience combined with fire-arms’ supremacy to stage and carry out the systematic economic conquest of sub-Saharan African region.

The colonial conquests that followed 1884-1885’s Berlin Conference (the partition of Africa) established a complete political and economic domination of Europe over Africa. Therefore, Africans’ socio-cultural value systems and fabric were further altered, together with the diversion of the developing from its initial endogenous path to an “external driven process”, manipulated and managed by the Europeans.

And, after some forty years of colonial rule, around year 1925, the more than five centuries old inter-African trading system was completely annihilated; to be replaced by another trading system, North-South oriented. That is the international trading flux was established and reinforced between each single colony and the country of the European master; with under- priced bulk raw materials (minerals and agricultural cash crops) shipping to the North, and overpriced manufactured products to the South.

That unequal trading system, imposed from mid-fifteenth century on Africa by Europe, contributed tremendously to the progressive accumulation of capital in European countries, and assisted Europe - towards the end of mid seventeenth century - to carry out and finance the industrial revolution. Said revolution put Europe’s global economy on a sustained growth path that accelerated the developing process.

Therefore, Europeans moved increasingly toward more development and better living conditions.

In the contrary, during the pre-colonial period, from mid-fifteenth century to the end of the ninetieth century, Africa was “cornered” into the position of selling human beings (shipped as slaves to toil on European cotton and sugar cane plantations and estates in the Americas) in exchange of rubbish goods as earlier listed. And during the colonial period, from the last years of ninetieth century up to the 1960’s, she had been the supplier of under-priced raw materials commodities (mineral and agricultural) to Europe and buyer of overpriced manufactured products.

For one to fully apprehend the consequences of the unequal trading system established by Europe over Africa, it is essential to quote Walter Rodney (Page 149 of the book):

“Colonial Africa fell within that part of the international capitalist economy from which surplus was drawn to feed the metropolitan sector. As seen earlier, exploitation of land and labour is essential for human social advance, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place. Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labour out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.”

In other words, the domination of Europe over Africa, starting from mid-fifteenth century, impeded sub-Saharan African countries, for five running centuries, to accumulate capital in spite of shipping huge quantities of commodities to Europe.

In the meantime, for five running centuries, Europe made good use of the encounter with Africa. She organized herself, accumulated capital gained from her overseas colonized territories (with a huge contribution from Africa), shrewdly invest the surplus in productive economy, industrialized the economy, steadfastly moving toward more developing; increasing national wealth and riches for all.

In the same time, Africa deprived (by Europe) of politic and economic decision making power, and lacking sustained investment funds, trod the reverse path, sinking deeper and deeper into non-development and poverty.

Walter Rodney’s book is packed with hundred of documented and numbered examples that expose the multifaceted aspects of the deceiving scheme put in place to transferring to Europe economic surplus generated by Africa’s labour and resources.

The political independence Europe “granted” to her overseas territories in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1960’s, changed nothing to the above described trend. In the contrary, Europe economic domination over sub-Saharan Africa deepened.

And now, at the beginning of the 21st century, one can assert the situation is aggravating and might become a complete disaster in the near future, if African policymakers do not react quickly to defend the continent against predatory trading practices exercised by the developed countries.

Further, a new global domination structure is shaping up since mid 1980’s that is labeled with the vague and deceiving denomination of “Globalization”, which would perpetuate the economic dependence of Africa. [Watch videos about globalization: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7].

To sum up, Walter Rodney’s book proved that – contrary to the assertion made by several Western ethnocentric scholars – the current developing backwardness of sub-Saharan Africa had nothing to do with any innate inferiority or inability of black people to organizing themselves.

That backwardness was in fact the result of the “cultural collision” between two different developing spheres, when they come into close contact. And one of these, Europe, having a strategic and technology edge (high sea sailing’s experience and fire-arms supremacy), choked and progressively subdued the other one, Africa; and astutely maneuvered, over centuries, through well designed multifaceted political and economic measures, to maintaining Africa as a subsidiary client.

Why have we chosen to review Walter Rodney’s "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa", when he is “only” one among several other illustrious Pan-Africanists – George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Marc Kojo Tovalou Quenum, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. William Alpheus Hunton, Cheihk Anta Diop, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Chancellor James Williams, et al?

African-American, Caribbean, African, scholars and activists who had forcefully expressed Pan-African ideas and dealt with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent and Black people.

They have done so in hostile social and intellectual environment, sometimes at the expense of their professional career and even risking their lives.

They had done a tremendous job providing arguments and “spiritual” background to the endless African liberty fighters, which led to the political independence of the continent.

They have, however, mostly dealt with the cultural aspect, the revival of African conscientiousness, identity, dignity and renaissance of the Black people

This article is a tribute to all of these Pan-African spiritual leaders, with a special nod to Walter Rodney who stands out as the only one who thoroughly analyzed the economic aspect of Europe’s domination over Africa throughout centuries.

Surely, African dignity and consciousness rebirth would be definitely accomplished only if backed by sustained economic prosperity.

That is why Walter Rodney contribution is essential and paramount. The surgical analysis he performed about the economic and political mechanisms engineered and carried out by the Europeans, over five centuries, to appropriating and “sucking” the economic surplus (fruit of African labour and resources), completely exposed the pattern of domination, and indicates to African policy-makers the roadblocks and traps to overcome to reversing the trend.

As per African popular saying, “He, who knows his people’s history, knows where he comes from, and is mentally and spiritually well equipped to understand present time problems, to prepare for a better future.”

For that reason, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a must read book for African decision and policy-makers. It is a breviary that would assist African delegates attending international economic forums, or negotiating deals with Northern counterparts. It would make them aware of past (political and economic) traps and sharp practices applied to their forefathers and foremothers.

They would further understand and apprehend present time challenge faced by African countries with regard the deceptive superstructure [Watch videos about globalization: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] on the making, that is unbridled Globalization - in order to defend the Black people’s rights and interests for the best; as the race is “under perpetual siege and fighting an almost invisible war for survival…” – quoting Chancellor James Williams.

Indeed, modern times Africans should rekindle the torch and emulate the organizational skills deployed by their ancestors in the past, as revealed by the academic works of several Pan-African scholars; taking the developing process back into their proper hands; and, using new modern techniques and technology do better jumping centuries to bridging the developing gap.

In few words, they should endeavour turning around the economy and stop the economic decline; producing wealth for all; marching on towards prosperity.


Besides, without referring to African past, one can consider a contemporary example that shows Africans can do better.

Indeed, right now, there is an African country that stands as a vivid example for the organizational capacity Africans can deploy. That country is the Republic of Somaliland that broke from the chaotic Republic of Somali in May 1991, to proclaiming its independence.

However, till today (November 2006) it is not recognized by a single other government in the world. It has no siege at the United Nations or in any other international organization. Therefore, it does not receive a penny of international financial aid to supporting the developing.

Nevertheless, Somaliland does exist as a nation and is developing by its own means. It has a government, a parliament, and an Army; a Central Bank and a stable currency. The economy is in fairly good shape, and trading with neighbouring countries. Civil servants are paid in times. The Education system and Health Centers are operational and performing better that in some African countries recognized by the international community.

Therefore, if proof needs to be given about the capacity of Africans to organizing themselves, Somaliland is the shining one.

The Destruction of Black Civilization – Great Issues of Race From 4500 B.C. To 2000 A.D. – By Chancellor Williams – Third World Press – Chicago, Illinois, USA- 1987- P 22.
© 2006 - Dr. B.M. Quenum
Investment and Business Planner
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