Posted on

The story of Rodney 1942-1980

The story of Rodney 1942-1980


“The Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines will from the 2005/2006 academic year award to a deserving student a national scholarship in the area of the Social Sciences and the humanities to be called the Walter Rodney Scholarship.” (Searchlight 17th June, 2005){{more}}

In January 1968, Walter Rodney, a young Guyanese, began to teach African History at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He also challenged the myth that Jamaica was a harmonious multi racial society, and he spoke about “black power” to groups at the university, in city meeting halls and “anywhere where a group of black people was prepared to sit down and talk and listen.” He recounted “I would speak…in a gully – dark dismal places with a black population who have had to seek refuge there…. I have spoken in what people call “dungle” I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage, and some black brothers and I have grounded together”

Now, what was a man with a London University doctorate doing, giving himself to the Jamaica underclass in Western Kingston rubbish dumps? Dr. Walter Rodney was uncovering and affirming the dignity and destiny of these African Jamaicans. But even as he was building their self esteem, he was also being built. He told a Black Writers’ Conference, which the late Alfie Roberts helped to organise, that … I learnt. I got knowledge from them; real knowledge…..And when you get that you get humility because look who you are learning from! Ja Rastafarians, yes, in Western Kingston, Rodney’s work was to share revolutionary and liberating good news with the poor. “…unemployed, they have no housing, they have no education, they have no prospect in the society, save to go to what the Brothers call ‘Must pen’ – May Pen Burial Cemetery…’
The ground breaking, consciousness sharing project of Rodney ended when Jamaica government banned him from Jamaica in October 1968. The Prime Minister was Hugh Shearer, the finance minister was Edward Seaga, the party was the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

Today in Western Kingston areas, e.g. in Tivoli Gardens, the households are held hostage to dependence on drug lords and warlords who provide handouts to them, and supply votes to political parties. Mr. Seaga was the ‘political don’ in Tivoli Gardens. Mr. Dudus and his father before him is/was the ‘Garrison Boss’ for the JLP. In fact, in 1976, 8 years after Rodney’s exit, as the investigate bulletin ‘Covert Action’ detailed, in the JLP stronghold of Tivoli Gardens, residents threatened violence if 11 persons associated with the People’s National Party (PNP), and victims of political gunning, were buried in “their” cemetery at May Pen. Even when the burials were planned for Spanish Town, the gravediggers had to work under police protection!
Walter Rodney in 1968 envisioned a Jamaica emancipated by the poor (c.f. Bob Marley), but the JLP and PNP have cultivated another, tribalist Jamaica which cannot stand up straight. Rodney showed us his mettle in 1968, aged 26. He was to be assassinated in 1980, aged 38 in Guyana.


But where did Walter Rodney come from? Walter Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1942. He grew up with his parents and siblings in Bent Sheet, with a tailor father and household worker mother. Walter did well at school, and in 1953, the PPP Government of Dr. Jagan, Messrs. Burnham, King, Carter, Westmaas and others opened up more scholarships to Secondary Schools. Young Guyanese seized the time and Walter was one. “At Queen’s College he broke or equalled 4 high jump records, but led the school’s debating team to a number of victorious sorties, he won an international essay competition while he was in 4th form, performed in plays and feted and partied with the intensity of any of today’s youth.” He had also sold the early PPP Party newspaper and learned which homes to pass by on his newspaper rounds.

With all this, Rodney won a Scholarship to study at the University (UCWI) in Jamaica. He did well there. “When our lecturer was introducing the class to a new school of thinking, Rodney had already written a critique of that intellectual position.” At London University, to which he won a scholarship, the authorities required that he do a further year of study, before entering their doctoral programme in history while their British students with exactly the same 1st class honours he had could enter directly to do their doctorates.

Rodney would have none of that. His intellect really began to grow in scope and depth during his London years of 1963-1966, and there he got married. In his study of a History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800, he came to a crystal clear conclusion. The Africans who bear part of the responsibility for the slave trade were “… the tribal rulers and élites. They were in alliance with the European slave merchants, and it was upon the mass of the people that they jointly prayed.” Clearly Rodney was making his mark as a scholar for whom a society was not a harmonious whole, but rather a site of contradictions and coalitions. When Rodney worked and moved in Jamaica, he pointed out the Jamaica contradictions and its implications for all to acknowledge.

The government banned him from returning to Jamaica after he travelled to Canada.
While the Jamaica government described Rodney as undesirable and a subversive threat to that country, the students at the university desired that Rodney return to teach them. The President of the Students Guild, Ralph Gonsalves “….immediately organised a protest march into Kingston…. We were beated and tear gassed. Pat Rodney was pregnant with her first daughter.”

In that encounter, student leader Gonsalves lost his innocence, he had his political birth, resolved “…never to allow that kind of barbarism to continue without being involved … to put a stop to it”.
After the student protest had been shattered, the city residents, particularly the down pressed brothers with whom Rodney shared hope, trounced the city targeting the sites and symbols that represented injustice. October 1968 closed chapter 1 of the Rodney Story. The next 2 chapters were based in Tanzania, and then in Guyana.

At the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Dr. Rodney was an exemplary revolutionary intellectual. He joined in the ferment of thought in the East Africa milieu. He taught, he guided research students; he researched and wrote an amazing popular opus: “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, and he established a global reputation in development thought, Pan African struggle and African studies. Distinguished historian Ali Mazruie dubbed Rodney “… a walking piece of global Africa.” He returned to Guyana and the Caribbean in 1974. He was still banned from Jamaica, and at the University of Guyana, even before he took up his post in the history department, the Burnham Government sacked him.

Rodney Chapter 3

At home without a job, Rodney would do lectures overseas, mainly in Europe and North America to raise bread for his family. Then he would do research and writing, he would keep at his groundings and organising with Guyanese working people, he would engage in various strategies and tactics to weaken the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham and to dislodge Jagan’s PPP from its commitment to Indianness, and latterly, he would share in forming an alternative Guyanese politics. The working People’s Alliance (WPA) with political talent like Eusi Kwayana, R.Rooparine, Andaiye, Omowale, Clive Thomas, Karen Da Souza, Vanda Radzik and others drew searching Guyanese closer to it. It troubled Burnham.

The Guyana which Forbes Burnham ruled in the mid to late 1970’s was a Caribbean dictatorship. A socially, culturally, racially and politically divided country gave Burnham a “race card” to play and keep African Guyanese on his side, but of fear and hate of Indian rule. One generation earlier, the British and the Americans had feared the nationalist party, the PPP, in which Indian and African communities had struggled side by side and won the general elections under an open Marxist commitment.

 It was the 1st time that a British Colony had voted a Marxist oriented group into government and the same year, 1953, the British and the Americans crushed the people’s voice and threw the government out! They divided the political party-PPP and supported the Burnham section of it, the People’s National Congress-PNC, thus putting the Indians under Jagan against the Africans under Burnham.

[Next: The wiping out of Rodney]