Review of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Part 2/3

Review of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Part 2/3

Review of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Part 2/3

In order to understand why Africa is so impoverished and powerless today, one has to examine the history of power and economy. Development, underdevelopment and power are intertwined. Africa today is a product of its past, just as the imperialist world is also a product of its past.  Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a classic work on the political economy of Africa. Even fifty years after it was written, it, for the most part,  stands the test of time. Rodney’s work is a proto-Leading Light Communist one that describes in great detail how Africa’s poverty and underdevelopment is a result of imperialism.

The slave trade… Africa loses

The slave trade played a huge role in the development of Europe and the United States.  It also played a role in the underdevelopment of Africa. Even though the transatlantic slave trade ended in the nineteenth century, its effects are still with us. It is not enough to understand the slave trade as morally reprehensible. Similarly, moral indignation is not enough to understand global exploitation and inequality today. Humanism is not enough, then or now. It is necessary to understand these things scientifically. There are sharp dividing lines. There were real winners and losers in the transatlantic slave trade. Europe, the United States, and their African compradors were the winners, the African peoples were the losers. According to Rodney:

“When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word. “ (95)

Millions of Africans were turned into slaves, most going to the New World. It was one of history’s greatest human catastrophes. Millions of deaths were a direct consequence of the trade in Africans. Deaths during the middle passage ranged from 15 to 20 percent, according to Rodney. (96)  According to Rodney, no reliable estimates exist for the total number of those enslaved. Rodney does provide a telling table for world population (in millions) at the time:


A quick look at the chart shows the impact of slavery on the African continent. The rest of the world’s population grew by leaps and bounds, while Africa’s population, in comparison, was relatively stagnant due to slavery. “[O]n every other continent from the fifteenth century onwards, the population showed constant and sometimes spectacular natural increase; while it is striking that the same did not apply to Africa.” (97) Around the same time, population growth had played a role in the development of Europe; population growth was a key factor in creating the workforce for early capitalism. In Africa, the loss of population due to the slave trade hindered healthy socioeconomic development, both directly and indirectly.

Slavery resulted in a massive loss of both labor power and brain power. The African labor force was robbed of able-bodied and thinking men and women. (96) This loss of people tends to snowball over time because Africa did not simply lose a person when a slave was transferred to the Americas, Africa lost their descendants also — descendants today who are no longer African in any real sense. Out of this exodus, the Black nation would be formed in North America. Nonetheless, this exodus of people also represents a snuffing out of brain power in Africa. Millions of people taken from a population equates to less technological innovation and discovery. Slavery not only stole African muscle, but also represented a brain-drain of epic proportions. By contrast, Europe was leaving the medieval period behind, entering the post-Renaissance and entering the industrial revolution. Europe was advancing, Africa declining.

“The connection between Africa and Europe from the fifteenth century onwards served to block this spirit of technological innovation [in Africa] both directly and indirectly.” (105)

“The European slave trade was a direct block, in removing millions of youth and young adults who are the human agents from whom inventiveness springs. Those who remained in areas badly hit by slave capturing were preoccupied about their freedom rather than with improvements in production.” (105)

“[E]enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature.” (98)

The slave trade also resulted in the loss of traditional social cohesion. Slavery spread social violence within Africa, European violence and African violence. More often it took the forms of kidnappings and raids, rather than regular warfare. It undermined traditional cohesion between African societies and within African society. Stability was undermined. Chaos snowballed as the violence of slavery penetrated deep into African society:

“A chain reaction was started by European demand for slaves (and only slaves) and by their offer of consumer goods — this process being connected with divisions within African society.” (79)

Europe remade Africa according to Europe’s design:

“One the other hand, there were European countries who decided on the role to be played by the African economy; and on the other hand, Africa formed an extension to the European capitalist market.”  (76)

Integration of African economies into the European system through the slave trade did not help Africa develop local industries or develop technology. Europe flooded the African market with finished goods. The trade goods that Africa received in exchange for slaves destroyed local industry.  (101) Prior to the slave trade, Africa had booming industries, sometimes even exporting products to the Arab world. For example, with the introduction of the slave trade, Africa ceased exporting cloth.

“When European cloth became dominant on the African market, it meant that African producers were cut off from the increasing demand. The craft producers either abandoned their tasks in the face of cheap available European cloth… or they continued their tasks in the face of cheap available European cloth, or they continued on the same small hand-worked instruments to create styles and pieces for localized markets. Therefore, there was what can be called ‘technological arrest’ or stagnation, and in some instances actual regression, since people forgot even the simple techniques of their forefathers. The abandonment of traditional iron smelting in most parts of Africa is probably the most important instance of technological regression.” (104-105)

Even today, Western charities have destroyed indigenous textile manufacture by dumping used clothing on Africa. Local manufactures are put out of business. The access to European finished goods became a kind of crutch. Africa ceased producing for herself. This resulted in further technological stagnation. There was no impetus for industrial development since Europe was providing finished goods to Africa. Instead, what little capital existed was redirected toward plunder, the capturing of humans for trade, or toward resource extraction. J. S. Mill commented on the relation of England to her colonies: “the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.” (82)

It was not just the coastal areas that were affected. All of Africa suffered. Not only did social violence stretch inland, but economies of the interior were reconfigured to serve the slave economy. (100)

“European trade goods percolated into the deepest interior, and (more significantly) the orientation of large areas of the continent towards human exports meant that other positive interactions were thereby ruled out.” (100)

Rodney quotes another researcher:

“‘What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of them been put to work as slaves outside of their homelands over a period of four centuries?’ Furthermore… one could speculate further on the probable effects on their development had continental Europe been enslaved. Had that been the case, its nearest neighbors would have been removed from the ambit of fruitful trade with Britain.”  (101)

Few aspects of African society were untouched by slavery. The effects of slavery were profound and far reaching. There were many African attempts to resist the institution and its effects. Even though many African leaders saw the terrible effects of slavery, they were unable to resist as individual states:

“Once trade in slaves had been started in any given part of Africa, it soon became clear that it was beyond the capacity of any single African state to change the situation. In Angola, the Portuguese employed an unusual number of their own troops and tried to seize political power from Africans. The Angolan state of Matamba on the river Kwango was founded around 1630 as a direct reaction against the Portuguese. With Queen Nzinga at its head, Matamba tried to coordinate resistance against the Portuguese in Angola. However, Portugal gained the upper hand in 1648, and this left Matamba isolated. Matamba could not forever stand aside. So long as it opposed trade with the Portuguese, it was an object of hostility from neighboring African states which had compromised with Europeans and slave trading. So in 1656, Queen Nzinga resumed business with the Portuguese — a major concession to the decision-making role of Europeans within the Angolan economy.” (80)

In isolation, it was virtually impossible for any regime to resist the slavers and their allies. Isolated According to Rodney, African societies did not have the ability to take on the imperialists and their allies. This is why many African revolutionaries to this day push for pan-African or regional strategies against imperialism. This isn’t to reject “socialism in one country,” as the Trotskyists do. One can embrace a pan-African strategy while still recognizing that the liberation of the whole of Africa will happen in steps. Some countries will be liberated before others. To expect Africa to be liberated at one time would be a utopian and Trotskyist dream, not material reality. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend  scientific, stageist, regional or pan-African strategy.

The slave trade… Europe and the United States win

Africa lost out from her interaction with Europe and the United States. The imperialists reaped tremendous benefits from the trade in humans. There were very direct benefits from the slave trade. Cheap labor in the Americas was one. Africa became a market for European consumer goods. The great English sea ports rose as part of the trade. Twenty percent of French trade was based on the slave economy of the West Indies. (85) Even more importantly, the slave trade sped up the rise of capitalism in Europe and the United States. (86) Value from the slave trade was injected into early capitalism and the early industrial revolution. Thus capitalism began to fan out from Europe. Rodney describes how slavery was key:

“American economic development up to mid-nineteenth century rested squarely on foreign commerce, of which slavery was a pivot. In the 1830s, slave-grown cotton accounted for about half the value of all exports from the United States of America. Furthermore, in the case of the American colonies of the eighteenth century, it can again be observed that Africa contributed in a variety of ways — one thing leading to another. For instance, New England trade with Africa, Europe, and the West Indies in slaves and slave-grown products supplied cargo for their merchant marine, stimulated the growth of their shipbuilding industry, built up their towns and their cities, and enabled them to utilize their forests, fisheries, and soil more effectively. Finally, it was the carrying trade between the West Indies slave colonies and Europe which lay behind the emancipation of the American colonies from British rule, and it was no accident that the struggle for American independence started in the leading New England town of Boston. In the nineteenth century, the connection with Africa continued to play an important role in American political growth. In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labor played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the United States — notably in the South, but including also the ‘Wild West,” where black cowboys were active.” (87-88)

Even though slavery was a boost for early capitalism, it eventually became a fetter, according to Rodney:

“Slavery is useful for early accumulation of capital, but it is too rigid for industrial development. Slaves had to be given crude non-breakable tools which held back the capitalist development of agriculture and industry. That explains the fact the northern portions of the U.S.A. gained far more industrial benefits from slavery than the South, which actually had slave institutions on its soil; and ultimately the stage was reached during the American Civil War when Northern capitalists fought to end slavery within the boundaries of the U.S.A. so that country as a whole could advance to a higher level of capitalism.

In effect, one can say that within the U.S.A. the slave relations in the South had by the second half of the nineteenth century come into conflict with the further expansion of the productive base inside the U.S.A. as a whole, and a violent clash ensued before capitalist relations of legally free labor became generalized… even in Europe there came a moment when the leading capitalist states found that the trade in slaves and the use of slave labor in the Americas was no longer in the interests of their development. Britain made the decision early in the nineteenth century, to be followed later by France.” (87-88)

Although Rodney does not hold the old Communist Party, USA position that the American Civil War was a conflict between a feudal Southern order and capitalist Northern one, he sees it though a similar prism. According to Rodney, the conflict is one over the organization of production, a conflict between a lower and higher kind of capitalism. His view is a kind of return to the teleological productionism that is critiqued in the earlier part of this review. By contrast, Andre Gunder Frank sees the war as a conflict between an American production-oriented system and a European export system, a conflict repeated throughout the Americas. J. Sakai sees the conflict as the clash between two types of settler empires, two ways of organizing national oppression. Such interpretations need not necessarily contradict each other. Any complex social phenomena like the American Civil War will be over-determined. Any complete explanation will be complex and somewhat open-ended. Regardless, Rodney is spot on: slavery greased the wheels of early capitalism, even though capitalism later abandoned it.

Slavery is not ancient history

“Development means a capacity for self-sustaining growth. It means that an economy must register advances which in turn will promote further progress. The loss of industry and skill in Africa was extremely small, if we measure it from the viewpoint of modern scientific achievements or even by standards of England in the late eighteenth century. However, it must be borne in mind that to be held back at one stage means that it is impossible to go on to a further stage. When a person was forced to leave school after only two years of primary school education, it is no reflection on him that he is academically and intellectually less developed then someone who had the opportunity to be schooled right through to university level. When Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance.” (105)

“[T]he European slave trade was economically totally irrational from the viewpoint of African development.” (100)

Slavery’s effects are still with us. The slave trade pushed Europe and America forward. And it held Africa back. Slavery helped shape global power. Slavery contributed to the great global divide that we see today between the poor and wealthy countries, between the Third and First World, between the exploiter and exploited nations. This global divide is the principal contradiction. Africa is a giant in waiting. A whole continent of brutally oppressed and exploited peoples. Our revolution will come from the darkest places. When Africa wakes, when she picks up the banner of the Libertarian  Communism, we will see a storm. As comrade Lin Biao said, the whole cause of world revolution hinges on the Asian, African and Latin American populations who make up the vast majority of humanity.


Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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