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How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1982. In his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney aims at presenting a lucid and truthful explanation of Africa’s role in world affairs today by examining its history, from the earliest kingdoms to the colonial period, and demonstrating the relevance of this for today. He does this with an explicitly socialist perspective. In his preface, he states that one of his objectives is to ‘make a small contribution towards reinforcing the conclusion that African development is possible only on the basis of a radical break with the international capitalist system, which has been the principal agency of underdevelopment of Africa over the last five centuries.’1 In addition to this, he hopes that this book will ‘reach Africans who wish to explore further the nature of their exploitation, rather than to satisfy the “standards” set by our oppressors and their spokesmen in the academic world.’2 It is perhaps most convenient to arrange a discussion of Rodney’s views in correspondence to the chapters in the book. Thus, in the first chapter he defines at length the concept of underdevelopment, which is essential in understanding the subsequent chapters. In Chapter II, he gives on outline of the development which took place in Africa before the coming of the Europeans. In Chapters III and V, an analysis of Africa’s contribution to Europe’s present “developed” state is presented, divided respectively between the pre-colonial period (1445-1870)3 and the colonial period (roughly 1870 to 1960.) Finally, in Chapters IV and VI, an analysis of Europe’s contribution to Africa’s present
“underdeveloped” state is given, this too being divided between the two chapters using the same historical chronology. Underdevelopment, as presented in Chapter I, is characterized by a number of things. First, Rodney emphasizes the comparative nature of the concept of development. Africa, Asia, and Latin America are only underdeveloped in comparison with Europe, North America, and the few other industrialized nations of the world. Second, underdevelopment does not simply describe the relative economic inequality of different countries or continents; but it also implies a relationship of economic exploitation between two or more countries, the exploiter becoming developed and the exploited becoming underdeveloped. The underdevelopment of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America is indicated by many things, including amount of steel used (level of industrialization), agricultural output, amount of protein-food consumed, life expectancy, death rate among children, malnutrition, presence of diseases which are virtually non-existent in developed countries, and illiteracy. Other characteristics of underdevelopment are the inability to concentrate on sectors of the economy which would generate growth, weak or no ties between different sectors of the economy, and the frittering away or expatriation of any savings accumulated. In the second chapter, Rodney gives a general overview of what “uncontaminated” African society was like south of the Sahara, as well as specific examples the more socially complex societies in existence in Africa before the arrival of Europeans. In general, family and kinship were the determining factors in the ownership of land, recruiting of labor to work the land, and distribution of the fruits of that labor. This contrasts markedly with
feudalism or capitalism, where either serfs or hired labor are employed to work the fields, these usually being from outside of the lord’s or employer’s family or kinship group. Other key aspects of pre-1445 African culture which Rodney mentions are music, dance, art, and religion. Religion ‘pervaded African life just as it pervaded life in other pre-feudal societies, such as those of the Maoris of Australia or the Afghans of Afghanistan or the Vikings of Scandinavia.’4 He asserts that although Africa exhibited a great deal of variety in social formations (hunting bands, communalism, and feudalism), the majority of African societies prior to the coming of Europeans were ‘in a transitional stage between the practice of agriculture (plus fishing and herding) in family communities and the practice of the same activities within the states and societies comparable to feudalism.’5 Particular examples of the complexity which some African societies achieved are given by Rodney and discussed at length. Among them are Ancient Egypt, Axum, Kush, the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Bornu, as well as Bunyoro-Kitara, Zimbabwe, Mutapa, Oyo, Benin, and Kongo. In chapter III, Rodney points out the error in traditional scholarship, which tends to portray the rise of modern European civilization as something Europeans achieved by themselves, solely through their own hard work. He argues instead that trade with non-European societies was crucial in European hegemony. In particular, the African slave trade, which Europeans engaged in from the fifteenth century onwards, was a key factor in this matter. For example, slave labor was used to mine gold and silver in the Americas and in Africa, which was necessary to make coins for the growing European economy. This new wealth created opportunities for further exploration and capital accumulation. Many aspects of European society and economy were affected by
the slave trade, including shipping, insurance, the formation of companies, capitalist agriculture, technology, the manufacture of machinery, and the development of trans-national economic links within Europe. The textile industry, regarded as a powerful factor in Europe’s economic growth, was partly spurred on by gum imported from Africa, and naval technology, in particular ship-building, was greatly improved upon between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of Europe’s monopoly of sea trade between themselves, Africa, and the rest of the world. The rise of seaport towns such as Liverpool and Seville were a consequence of the slave trade, and later were connected with the rise of manufacturing centers and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. One very negative result of the slave trade was the development of white racism towards Africans. This came about largely as a way of rationalizing their exploitation of human slave labor, which Europe depended on in such great measure. The colonial era, discussed in Chapter V, was also a period in which Africa played a crucial role in developing Europe and the international capitalist system. During this period, many sectors of the European economy were involved in the exploitation of African resources, including shipping and banking services, the colonial governmental administrations, and of course trading companies, the most notorious being CFAO, UAC, and Unilever. Monetary gains were the most obvious benefits derived from these enterprises, but, Rodney says, ‘the colonial system (also) permitted the rapid development of technology and skills within the metropolitan sectors of imperialism. It…allowed for the elaboration of the modern organizational techniques of the capitalist firm and of imperialism as a whole. Indeed, colonialism gave capitalism an added lease of life and prolonged its existence in Western Europe…’6 Examples of
technological advances are to be found in the military (rivalry over colonies encouraged new ways of making war, such as destroyers and submarines), in scientific research, and in shipping (refrigeration, oil tankers, and new kinds of port installations.) The international division of labor (which saw Africans working the mines and Europeans doing the ore extraction and gem cutting, metal casting, etc.) insured growth in both employment and the level of skills existing in the capitalist nations in Europe. Other advantages Europeans derived from colonial rule include the acquisition of valuable African art and the use of African soldiers to fight in white people’s wars on African soil and in other parts of the world. The effect of all of this on the economy and social systems of Africa was, of course, immense, and this is discussed in Chapters IV and VI in Rodney’s book. In Chapter IV, he focuses on the role the slave trade played in this. The most immediate effect of enslaving people and sending them across the Atlantic was obviously a stagnation in population growth. This in turn affected the availability of labor and markets within African. In addition, much of the remaining population was engaged in slave-hunting and acquiring other goods which the European traders wanted, thus neglecting local agricultural and technological industries. The borrowing of new technology, another way in which development can occur in society, was entirely non-existent at this time due to the nature of the contact between Europeans and Africans, which was unfavorable to the spread of positive ideas and technologies from “civilized” Europe to “barbarous” Africa. Another effect of the new preoccupation with slave trading was the breakdown of interterritorial links established before the advent of the slave trade. Rodney also points out that right up to the period of
colonialism, Africans were still making their own history and development continued along the lines it was following before the arrival of Europeans. This can be accounted for by the fact that European impact was confined mainly to the coastal areas and that the ideological systems, and political and military organization were scarcely affected. He gives many examples of societies which continued to evolve along independent avenues, among them the Yoruba (Oyo), Dahomey, Babito and Buganda, Rwanda, and Ama-Zulu. Many of these societies proved themselves forces to be reckoned with militarily. During the colonial period, the primary mechanism for the underdevelopment of Africa (discussed in Chapter VI) was the expatriation of surplus produced using African labor and natural resources. In addition to this, colonialism meant the virtual eradication of African political power, impeding the further evolution of national solidarity, neglect of local subsistence economies, and insufficiency of health facilities and educational opportunities, all of which go part and parcel with underdevelopment. It truly takes much more space than this to explain everything Rodney did in his book. I found that he did achieve the objectives stated in his preface. The points he makes are valid and down-to-earth. I think he may have stressed the socialist perspective a little too much, and his comments about the success of the Soviet Union obviously sound strange today and do him no credit. But otherwise, I would be inclined to agree with him. In particular, I find interesting the argument that everyone who has partaken in the capitalist systems of Europe and North America has tasted the fruits of African exploitation, and is thus partly responsible. His style is very readable and he doesn’t confine himself to any one discipline, but incorporates history and economics as well as
social and political science. In conclusion, an excellent book, accessible to Africans and non-Africans alike, and highly relevant to the subject matter of this course, in that it explains the historical factors which have influenced Africa’s contemporary role in world affairs.
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vii viii 96 35; the Maori were actually of New Zealand. 38; hunting can probably also be added to the types of subsistence activities practiced. 173
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