Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) is no doubt the 20th century’s most important and influential book on African history. Revolutionizing the rendition of the continent’s past and present through its methodology, substance and style, its impact was felt far beyond academia. It inspired, educated and directed countless readers, young and old, from all walks of life, towards anti-imperialist, Pan-Africanist and socialistic perspectives and actions. As such, it was a potent weapon in the struggle for social liberation,

Rodney wrote HEUA while at the History Department of the University of Dar es Salaam. The Zanzibari revolutionary AM Babu wrote the postscript. HEUA was published jointly by the Tanzania Publishing House (Dar es Salaam) and Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications (London) in 1972. A North American print by the Howard University Press came out in 1974. The UK edition has had several reprints. In East Africa, it has been kept in print continuously by two local publishing houses. A year after Rodney’s assassination in 1980, a new edition was issued by Howard University Press. It contained an introduction by Vincent Harding, William Strickland and Robert Hill that gave an apt overview of the life and work of the fallen hero.

HEUA has been translated into four languages: Portuguese (1975), German (1980), Spanish (1982) and French (1986). A Chinese translation is in the works.

In 2011, the Walter Rodney Foundation in association with Pambazuka Press, CODESRIA and Black Classic Press, Inc., brought out a new version with attractive design features. Available in both print and e-book format, it featured ringing endorsements from thirteen eminent progressive scholars and stalwarts of social justice: Samir Amin, Horace Campbell, Angela Y Davis, Bill Fletcher, Norman Girvan, Gerald Horne, Lewis R Gordon, Adam Hochschild, Amina Mama, Adebayo Olukoshi, Issa Shivji, Cornel West and Emira Woods. The major improvement in this version was the inclusion of a detailed Index.

Considering the diversity of continental conditions, societal dimensions, and historical nuances it deals with, one cannot summarize HEUA in a few pages without risking oversimplification. Yet, to facilitate the ensuing discussion, that is what I attempt below. (All the quotes and page references to HEUA are from the 2011 edition).

HEUA has six chapters and a postscript.

Chapter 1: Some questions on development

This chapter explains the two primary concepts that underpin the book: development and underdevelopment. For human society,

development implies an increasing capacity to regulate both internal and external relationships.

Development thereby is a multi-dimensional process, encompassing mode of life, production, health, transport, education, culture and other societal aspects. Of particular import is that Rodney does not regard development narrowly as equivalent to economic growth, especially as measured by conventional criteria like GDP and per capita income.

Underdevelopment, the other side of the coin, is:

  1. Progressive loss by a society over the control of its own destiny.
  2. Emergence and strengthening of structures of external dependency in the economy, health, education, culture, and state organs.
  3. Net transfer of resources and economic surplus to external companies and nations through gross underpayment to producers and unfair, illicit exchange.
  4. A growing gap between the dominant and dominated nations in terms of technological capacity, infrastructure, social amenities and the standard of life.
  5. Consolidation of a pattern of social stratification whereby local economic and political elites benefit magnificently while the masses at the bottom experience marginal progress, at best.
  6. Increasing social tensions and conflict.

Underdevelopment at its zenith is manifested by a widely-held conviction that without external ‘donors’ the nation would plunge into an abyss. Virtually all local intellectuals, journalists and political pundits beat their drums, sing their songs and dance to their tunes.

Chapter 2: How Africa developed before the coming of the Europeans: Up to the 15th century

Rodney shows that the social formations in Africa prior to the European incursion ranged from the rudimentary communal to the advanced feudal, and varied in-between forms. There were complex organizational and state structures, productive agricultural systems for food and non-food crops, expansive trade networks, elaborate transport systems, intricate state and organizational systems and an array of cultural and educational patterns. His specific examples depict a tapestry of societies where the economy, social structure, and the political and organizational order functioned in an integrated manner. Though most societies had recently emerged from communalism, a few exhibited technological capabilities approaching that of contemporary Europe.

Importantly, he observes that though slaves were present in some places, no African society had passed through the slave mode of production. Additionally, despite the prevalence of commodity production and trade networks, no African society has yet shown signs of transition to the capitalist mode of production.

Chapter 3: Africa’s contribution to European capitalist development: The pre-colonial period

In this chapter, which extends to the onset of direct colonial rule, Rodney describes the nature and extent of the contribution of Africa to the consolidation and flowering of technologically advanced capitalist societies in Europe. He begins by depicting development and underdevelopment as two interconnected sides of the same coin. One engenders the other; the development of Europe was consequent upon the underdevelopment of Africa, and vice versa.

Europe attained its initial dominance through superior armaments and ships. Unfair terms were imposed on local African populations as it traders scoured the continent for gold, other commodities and, later, slaves.  In the process, African communities were devastated as European companies prospered and its economies progressed. The former also contributed to the expansion of the knowledge base of the latter.

This was not an economically linear or socially homogeneous process. Interspersed with ups and downs, it was intertwined with class and regional divisions within Europe and Africa. Ruling elements in some African communities facilitated European exploitation of neighboring peoples. Lower classes within Europe were brutalized. Rodney does not just attend to economic structures but also considers the complex nature of social relations involved in this historical process.

Rodney does not conceptualize imperialism purely in terms of race. Yet, he does not ignore or marginalize the issue of race. While economics and internal/external class relations constitute the foundation of imperialism, racism is an integral feature of imperial domination. His nuanced approach on this issue has evaded the liberals or Africanists for whom the race issue has purely binary, black/white implications.

Chapter 4: Europe and the roots of African underdevelopment: Up to 1885

In this chapter Rodney marshals evidence for the proposition that the slave trade and associated European incursions laid the foundation for the long-term underdevelopment of Africa. Entailing ‘warfare, trickery, banditry, and kidnapping,’ the capture and transportation of Africans resulted in the loss of millions of lives. Shipment to the Americas under horrendous conditions killed about a fifth of those placed on board. The overall population loss to Africa reached up to a hundred million.

In localities where the forcible seizure of humans was extensive and of long duration, the impact was catastrophic. While energetic, economically active women and men were taken away, the infirm, elderly and the very young were left behind. Their lives were prematurely shortened. Systems of agriculture, mining, production of metal, cotton, wood, straw, clay and leather goods, trade, transport, and governance that had evolved over centuries were significantly damaged. Inter-generational transmission of cultural practices, knowledge base and vital skills was interrupted. People lived in a perpetual state of violence, insecurity and fear. Communities that had lived in relative harmony with each other became enemies overnight.

The slave trade produced networks stretching from the coast to the interior across which slaves were captured and conveyed. Africans were pitted against one another to an historically unprecedented extent. The trade also gave rise to new forms of social and class relations and struggles in Africa that had internal as well as external roots.

Rodney lambasts historians who, pointing to the gains made by a few African groups in this nefarious trade, seek to downplay its effects. Yet, his analysis of its impact is neither simplistic nor one-sided. Other than the communities that facilitated the capture of Africans for sale, he delineates three categories of impacted areas: those which suffered the drastic impact of the sort depicted above; areas where such effects were minimal because they either managed to successfully defend themselves or were distant from the coast; and areas which prospered through internal growth or developed more effective military capacity to fight off the external threat. These societies excelled due to their own innovative organizational and economic efforts.

For the continent as a whole, the impact was profoundly negative.  It placed Africa under conditions that hindered autonomous development. The bonds of dependency on Europe were entrenched. The extensive economic and trade relations between different areas of Africa were inexorably replaced by unfair trade between Africa and the Western world. Rodney draws attention to African societies where the bonds of dependency had been so firmly internalized that they actually opposed the end of the slave trade.

The slave trade ended when it was no longer consonant with the further development of capitalism. The system needed ‘free’ but cheap labour to enhance productivity, production, markets and profits. Slavery and its antecedents set the stage for the subsequent imposition of colonial rule. In an ironic twist of history, anti-slavery sentiment and ‘civilizing the natives’ became prime justifications for colonialism.

Chapter 5: Africa’s contribution to the capitalist development of Europe: The colonial period

In the previous chapter, Rodney, without going into specifics, states that Africans generally resisted direct control over their lives and lands by outsiders. But that resistance was progressively crushed, often through brutal means.

Direct rule enabled the colonial powers to convert African territories into appendages providing large quantities of essential agricultural and mining inputs for their expanding industries, and an array of consumer items like tea, coffee, spices and nuts for their growing populations. The colony formed a captive market for metropolitan industries producing things like soap, matchboxes, cooking oil, shoes, cotton goods and confectionary as well as tools and materials for construction, crafts, administrative functions and transportation.

The fundamental feature of this process was that Africans were at a distinct disadvantage compared to the managers and governmental officials from the metropolis. In all sectors including the civil service, Africans were confined to the lowest rungs of manual, unskilled and semi-skilled positions. Workers in plantations, mines and construction were paid wages insufficient to feed and clothe themselves and their families at the minimal level. Their benefits were next to nothing. Semi-skilled European workers like drivers, where present, obtained ten times the pay of their African counterparts. They also garnered benefits like housing and health service. African workers in ports, industries, railways and civil service had to make do with pay levels one-tenth or less of that of the (exploited) workers engaged in similar occupations in Europe.

The small scale rural producers were in a worse situation. Their prime land was confiscated without compensation, and through force and harshly enforced taxation policies, they were made to grow crops like cotton, coffee, cashew nuts, sun flower and pyrethrum for export. They were paid a mere pittance, and relegated to perpetual back breaking, miserable existence.

Colonial powers utilized local elites, and foreign or indigenous traders, transporters, professionals and miscellaneous service providers to perform essential functions. These groups had a higher standard of living, better residential conditions and housing, and broader access to education and health care compared to the masses.

But the real beneficiaries were the foreign companies operating within or in connection with the colony, and the colonial power. The profit margins for the capital and consumer goods industries, trading conglomerates, banks, insurance houses, shipping companies and law firms having colonial operations were consistently high. Colonial operations also served as a protective buffer in times of minor or major economic crisis.

Rodney delivers a formidable case for the thesis that super exploitation of the colonized people and their resources generated super profits for the ruling nation. It was a system for large scale transfer of wealth (economic surplus) from Africa to Europe. He points out that European nations without African colonies and the USA also derived significant gains from the colonial system. The colonized people were a prime driver of Western development. And possession of colonies conferred economic, strategic and military advantage to the ruling power in relation to rival imperial nations. Colonized subjects also played crucial roles in its military campaigns.

Chapter 6: Colonialism as a system for underdeveloping Africa

Rodney then provides a comprehensive analysis of the other side of the issue covered in the last chapter: How did Africa benefit from colonialism? What were its short and long term consequences?

He first clarifies that he will not resort to a balance sheet oriented, bad versus good, approach to deal with the issue. Instead, he adopts a systemic framework.  On consideration of the historic logic and political-economic forces that underlay colonial rule, he presents a detailed picture of life and trends affecting the different social groups in the colonized nations.

A typical colony is a three-tiered, top-down, grotesquely unequal society. At the top sit the Europeans who run governmental departments, or manage banks and other foreign firms. They live in segregated enclaves with all the manner of modern amenities. They are well remunerated and an inordinate amount of the state budget is directed for their safety and welfare. For example, in Ibadan, Nigeria in the 1940s, a well-equipped 11-bed hospital served some fifty Europeans while the half a million Africans were served by a 34-bed inferior health facility. And as the latter was likely utilized by the local elite, the masses basically had no public health facility at their disposal.

As noted earlier, the Europeans used local elements and/or external minorities to facilitate governance, economic policies, tax-collection, urban and rural commerce and provision of services. These intermediary groups often lived in reasonably maintained exclusive neighbourhoods with better housing, water, health and education services.

Over 95% of the colony’s population, especially those in rural villages, lived in destitution with little or no services from the state. Colonialism was predicated on the logic of extraction of maximum amount of economic surplus for Europe. This implied remunerating and providing services to the producers of the wealth – the African peasants and workers – just to an extent that would keep the system in operation. And this policy was implemented with surgical precision. The facts and figures Rodney reveals in that regard are utterly shocking. Thus, after nearly five hundred years of rule, the Portuguese left Mozambique with only one doctor.

Beside exploding the myth of the alleged benevolent aspect of colonial rule, Rodney makes the crucial observation that the infrastructure, economic facilities, services and amenities put up during the colonial era, by design and in effect, entrenched the bonds of dependency on Europe. Roads, rail transport, ports and trade networks thereby served import/export activities. At the same time, internal and especially inter-regional trade was stifled.

The last two sections of this chapter are devoted to colonial education. It is shown that the education available for the indigenous population was both limited in extent and of inferior quality. Minuscule resources were devoted for a system geared to provide the lowest level literate cadres for the colony, and inculcate respect for and obedience towards the colonial rulers, their values, culture and history. Local knowledge and culture were branded inferior. An educated African was one who had discarded his traditions and adopted European ways of dress, speech, behaviour and thought.  The African was taught to despise his ‘backward’ fellow Africans.

Missionary schools focused on religion, rudimentary literacy and practical topics like agriculture, woodwork, basket making and brick laying. It was an implicit but rarely articulated tenet of the colonial ideology that for the most part, the African would not benefit from the standard, intellectually oriented education. Practical training, said to be suited for his mental calibre, would give him a means for earning a living.

Yet, Africans did not take this unfair situation lying down. Education was a prime arena for which local communities consistently petitioned the authorities for higher outlays, more teachers and expanded secondary schooling. Often, they built and ran their own schools. Even though colonial schooling was designed to instil a sense of loyalty to the rulers, some educated Africans threw off those mental shackles and assumed leadership positions in civic groups, trade unions, and agricultural cooperatives that went on to confront the discriminatory practices of the authorities, employers and traders. Eventually, not content with asking for crumbs within the colonial order, they were instrumental in the formation of political movements that struggled for full sovereignty.

This is what Rodney calls development by contradiction: an entity designed to serve the colonial system subsequently generated people who would dig its grave. Yet, he is aware of the limitations of the nationalist movements. The agenda of the educated elite differed in marked respects with the long-term interests of the peasants and workers. They were inclined to make compromises that facilitated the replacement of colonial rule with neo-colonial dependency. We got our own flag and national anthem, and the imperialists continued to reap immense benefits from our labour, land and resources.


AM Babu writes on the sturdy foundation laid by Rodney to critique the development policies followed by post-colonial governments in Africa. Relying heavily on guidance, expertise and funding from global financial institutions and the imperial powers, these policies perpetuated, with minor modification, colonial economic structures. They generated some economic growth but not real development.

The local elite prospered but the conditions of the masses improved just a little. As the ability of Africa to stand on its own feet was stymied, its position relative to the West worsened. Much of the surplus generated in Africa continued to be siphoned off. Africa essentially remained an exporter of primary products and importer of manufactured goods, and that under unequal, exploitative terms of exchange.

Undue reliance on the world market and foreign investments is not a solution to Africa’s woes. On the contrary, as Babu asserts, it is the primary cause of African underdevelopment. The continent can move in the direction genuine development that will generate sustained and substantial improvement in the lives of the broad masses by implementing policies that will progressively weaken the bonds of dependency on the imperial nations.

A qualification

 My summary of each chapter of HEUA has focused on major points and historical approach. However, each chapter contains a wealth of examples that demonstrate the diversity of the historic process it covers. Taking these into consideration, we see that Rodney was not a formula driven analyzer of human society. He did not blindly adhere to the classical tenets of Marxism, dependency theory or Pan-Africanism. Though he was an unapologetic Marxist, his Marxism was cognizant of the terrain being covered. His notion of underdevelopment integrated internal-external economic structures with internal-external class relations. It depicted a complex system whose dynamics generated socio-ideological conditions that buttressed it as well as the forces that strove to transform it.

Though, Rodney wrote in a bold, uncompromising style, he did not resort to empty invective. His terminology was consistent, grounded in actuality and the finest principles of morality. In that regard he set a high standard for others seeking to integrate scholarship with humanistic activism.

An overall verdict

Walter Rodney transformed in a major way how experts and ordinary people viewed Africa and its history. HEUA was a front-line promoter of the political-economy based framework for social analysis, influencing all types of Africa related societal studies. As a finely researched, integrated text glittering with pertinent examples and written in an eminently accessible style, it could not be ignored, even by the right wing. The major stimulus it provided for the application of a neglected scientific method to African societies effectively shifted the existing paradigm for conceptualizing African history. It divided modern African historiography into two distinct phases: pre- and post- How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

The import of HEUA is captured by the galvanizing words of the endorsers of the 2011 edition. They tell us that its analytic approach is essential for understanding African history, and its key messages are directly relevant for the attainment of justice, equality and genuine development in the poor, dominated nations of the World to this day.

To quote four among them:


Rodney’s classic study …. continues to provoke, educate and inspire – it resonates more than ever before. Angela Davis

A milestone in the history of Africa thinking for itself. Samir Amin

[A] legendary classic that has galvanized freedom fighters around the world. Cornel West

[It will] help in the development of updated strategies for challenging neo-liberal globalization and neo-colonialism. Bill Fletcher, Jr.


With its publishing history and such praise from eminent personalities, what more needs to be said? Does not HEUA speak for itself? In the current era, the answer is both yes and no.

No, because HEUA is more than an academic work. It is also a potent weapon for challenging the status quo. As such it continues to be distorted and pilloried by the establishment. Academic bigwigs, development experts, politicians, political pundits and media persons by the majority say that while it may have had minor relevance when it came out, today it is of no value at all. They declare that socialism, the social system it promotes, is dead and buried for good. Moreover, Africans must stop blaming external forces for Africa’s ills. The relevant question in their view is: How Africans are under-developing Africa?

And there are well-meaning Africanists who accept its historic significance, yet on the question of its present-day relevance, they concur with the right wing voices. Africa has changed so much that utilizing it to understand the current trends will do more harm than good, they solemnly proclaim. It is not anymore a useful guide for tackling modern Africa’s litany of serious problems (Abdulazeez 2014; Mills 2011).

And there are left wing historians, few in number, who well appreciate the content and import of HEUA. They continue to assess Rodney’s approach to history in academic conferences, books and technical papers published in peer reviewed journals. Their debates and opinions, generally cast in arcane academic formulations, are divided as well.

In the ideologically stultifying and trivialising climate of today, the detractors of HEUA are owed a comprehensive response. And even in the absence of such detractors, a need to confront critical queries about HEUA exists. In my view, this consideration applies to any work of major significance once decades or more have transpired since its inception. For HEUA, I pose three queries:

  1. Intrinsic quality: Since 1972, an enormous amount of research on African history has been done. Developments of a methodological form have also occurred. In light of these, can we say that HEUA has stood the test of time, and retained its substantive and methodological value? Or has it essentially become dated?
  2. Practical value: In the struggle for social change in Africa, does it continue to embody the import it had in the earlier days? Or have the conditions on the continent changed to such an extent that it cannot any longer either inspire activists or provide a useful guide to action?
  3. Pedagogic value: Do today’s students of African history, especially those in general undergraduate level classes, encounter either the type of material, or the Marxist framework for studying history, used in HEUA? If they do, what can we say about the way these items are presented?

To address these queries, the following pages examine the contents of HEUA and look at Rodney in his unitary persona as a historian, theoretician and activist. I identify and respond to the criticisms made to date of the content, style and practical value of HEUA, and then describe how modern day students encounter Rodney. For the latter task, a focused review of eight textbooks used in undergraduate level African history courses is conducted. These books span a wide range of approaches to history.


The enduring relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Copyright © 2017 by Karim F Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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