‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ by Walter Rodney reviewed by Tony McKenna

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Verso, New York and London, New edition 2018. 312pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9781788731188

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


In the first section of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney treats us to an image of Africa and its peoples before the horror of the transatlantic slave trade was visited upon them. He shows us a rich and complex patchwork quilt of interlocking societies and civilisations. Some involved a basic division of labour and were profoundly communal in character: the Khoisan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, for instance, or the Kaffa cultivators, the Galla pastoralists, as well as the communities of Bozo fisherman or the nomadic Fulani herdsmen. At the same time such groups often existed alongside more developed societies: the Benin Kingdom whose powerful industry and sophisticated division of labour underlay the creation of a plethora of great art, including the famous bronze heads, or further to the North, the great civilisation of Medieval Mali whose capital, Timbuktu, was a centre for learning across the continent and beyond (at its height a quarter of its population attended its great universities), or the Fatamid dynasty of Egypt which introduced the new industries of ‘papermaking, sugar refining, porcelain, and the distillation of gasoline’ while the ‘older industries of textiles, leather and metal were improved upon’ (57). That same dynasty also happened to found the world-historic city of Cairo. Or some centuries later, and far to the South, Great Zimbabwe, another monument to the history and the grandiosity of city building in old Africa: ‘One of the principal structures at Great Zimbabwe was some 300 feet long and 220 feet broad, with the walls being 30 feet high and 20 feet thick.’ (77)

But Rodney’s purpose, in his rather far-ranging and systematic depiction of the diversity and complexity of these societies is not to provide the reader with some idealised and utopic vision of a pre-modern Africa. In actual fact Rodney recognises all too well that much of the great material and spiritual artefacts of African civilisation were often premised on a more developed division of labour in which ruling aristocracies emerged, seizing control of the means of production, thereby becoming ‘a social stratum above the clans which previously existed and which had had narrow territorial bases.’ (73) The development of a heightened set of class contradictions which allowed for an increased intensity in the exploitation of the direct producers was the precondition for great advances in both technology and culture, for in many places ‘communal egalitarianism was on its way out’ having become a ‘brake on the development’ of ‘collective communities.’(72) Many of the places which had travelled furthest along the line of development also introduced slavery, both chattel slaves and domestic slaves, though Rodney argues that slavery itself was not concentrated enough to form the central mode of production in any one region or kingdom. In any event, Rodney’s description of the great civilisations of old Africa is one which combines high culture, technological innovation, city building, art and education – with glittering powerful elites and ruthless aristocratic dynasties and more often than not the intensive and debilitating exploitation of those at the bottom. It is not in any sense an idealised portrait. It is a highly systematic analysis of a place which most of all shows that in terms of its sociological character and the sheer diversity of various societies from the most backward to the most advanced – Africa was not greatly removed from the medieval Europe of the day and was everywhere embroiled in active, vibrant historical developments.

One of the many tragic consequences of the transatlantic slave trade was that it worked to put a stopper on such developments. At the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade, there was a level of parity between Africa and Europe in many respects.  When the Dutch first visited Benin City, they were struck by its resemblance to their own cities, with one traveller describing it thus: ‘The town seems to be very great…. The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam.’ (cited 83) Many African leaders enjoyed honorary roles in European courts, indeed Africans more generally, on the cusp of the transatlantic slave epoch, were still able to become knights in European feudal society, a fact famously expressed in the painting The Kings Fountain (Chafariz d’El-Rey) where an Afro-Portuguese knight can be seen riding through a central square in 16th century Lisbon. But though ‘European technical superiority did not apply to all aspects of production … the advantage they possessed in a few key areas proved decisive.’ (90) One such area, of course, was the use of guns (a weapon which was not invented in Europe but in Yuan dynasty China). But also in terms of ships. Intra-African trade was almost always centred on the rivers and waterways inland, so that ‘African canoes on the river Nile and the Senegal coast were of a high standard, but the relevant sphere of operations was the ocean, where the European ships could take command.’ (90) In addition the Europeans controlled many of the trade routes which led to Asia and thus Africa’s trade with the outside world was increasingly monopolised by Europeans.

Once the Americas had been opened up, and once the indigenous peoples there had succumbed in their millions to the genocidal activities of the Europeans and the diseases they brought in their wake, a need to find new blood to invigorate the labouring population became a pressing one on the part of the conquerors. It was a need which was met first by indentured labourers and later by an ever increasing number of (in the main) African slaves.  European commercial interests were able to create the pattern of triangulation which would define the next several centuries: ‘They engaged in buying cotton cloth in India to exchange for slaves in Africa to mine gold in Central and South America. Part of the gold in the Americas would then be used to purchase spices and silks from the Far East. The concept of metropole and dependency automatically came into existence when parts of Africa were caught up in the web of international commerce.’ (87) European traders and merchants were able to ‘bamboozle’ African rulers of a ‘certain status and authority’ with their luxury wares so that the latter provided more and more slaves and ‘even began … to raid outside their societies as well as to exploit internally by victimizing some of their own subjects.’ (91) Thus the success of the transatlantic slave system depended on some level of collaboration between European commercial interests and African elites. Rodney notes, rather tellingly, that in ‘the simplest of societies where there were no kings, it provided impossible for Europeans to strike up the alliance which was necessary to carry on a trade in captives on the coast.’ (91) At the same time some rulers of powerful states did resist; the Angolan state of Matamba, for example, with ‘Queen Nzinga at its head … tried to coordinate resistance against the Portuguese … and this left Matamba isolated…. So long as it opposed trade with the Portuguese, it was an object of hostility from neighbouring African states which had compromised with Europeans and slave trading.’ (92-3)

The figure which is most frequently provided is that of 10 million Africans; 10 million people who were ripped from their homes and converted into someone else’s property, transported across the Atlantic and condemned to a life of inhuman brutalisation which beggars belief. But the 10 million figure neither takes into account the number of people (captured slaves) who died on the journey from the inland to the great ports of West Africa and nor does it account for the number of those who died in the slaving wars which were facilitated by European commercial interests. The true number is certainly far greater. The massive loss to the labour force in those regions meant that many local industries were weakened, which meant in turn that European products became more dominant and that the natural flow of trade which flowed from region to region within Africa was increasingly usurped in favour of the need to satisfy the commercial demands which Europeans imposed. Consequently, all sorts of industries were retarded. Rodney writes of the cloth making industry:

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 … 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 or even regression…. The abandonment of traditional iron smelting in most parts of Africa is probably the most important instance of technological repression. (119)

As Rodney goes on to argue, development presupposes ‘a capacity for self-sustaining growth’ (119) and it was this which the transatlantic slave trade truncated. The consequences were stark. Rodney provides figures showing how population growth in Africa was minimal, almost flat; from 1650 to 1900 it went from 100 million to 120 million (compare with Asia which went from 257 million to 857 million in the same timeframe). (110) In addition, the transatlantic slave trade facilitated the growth of ‘monocultures’ – that is, local economies which were almost entirely dependent on producing one raw material for exportation to Europe. For European economic development, however, the situation couldn’t have been more different:

The African contribution to European capitalist growth extended over such vital sectors as shipping, insurance, the formation of companies, capitalist agriculture, technology, and the manufacture of machinery … the French Saint-Malo fishing industry was revived by the opening up of markets in the French slave plantations; while the Portuguese in Europe depended heavily on dyes like indigo, camwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal brought from Africa and the Americas. Gum from Africa also played a part in the textile industry, which is acknowledged as having been one of the most powerful engines of growth within the European economy. Then there was the export of ivory from Africa, providing the raw material for industries in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and North America – producing items ranging from knife handles to piano keys. (97)

The final section of the book concentrates on the rapacious colonialization – ‘the scramble for Africa’ – which the European powers subjected Africa to at the end of the 19th century and into the run up to the First World War. The historical context – the legacy of slavery, the decimation of local industry, the narrowing of productive technique, the interruption of internal trade, the uprooting of labour and life from local communities, the extraction and exsanguination of a plethora of natural resources – worked to abrogate the ‘capacity for self-sustaining growth’ on the part of indigenous Africa while at the same time providing a concentrated boost to European development which would culminate in the humming, high-powered engine of the industrial revolution and the most brutal impetus to global empire the world had ever seen. The African states fell so rapidly to European power in this period precisely because European economic and productive development had developed, vampire like, by sucking the vitality out of African society and curtailing the possibility of its own. Once more, the colonists were aided by some level of local cooperation. Many of the Africans who had served in the centuries before as the intermediaries facilitating the import and export of goods to and from Europe, were already fluent in European languages and already tethered to European commercial interests. At the same time, Rodney draws attention to numerous examples of heroic resistance on the part of states and communities whose ability to resist was nevertheless meagre in light of European technological supremacy.

On assuming a political domination over the region, the colonialists sank their talons in with a savagery, rapaciousness and disregard which is even more mortifying given the way the continent had already been bled so violently. Rodney depicts the process with a combination of historical pathos and trenchant statistical research, peppered with many revealing incidents and examples. Once individual states had been overwhelmed, land and resources were sold off at bargain basement prices. So, for example, ‘after the Kenya highlands had been declared “Crown land,” the British handed over to Lord Delamere 100,000 acres of the best land at cost of a penny per acre.’ (182) These sorts of appropriations, which amounted to little more than naked robbery, were supplemented by the most incredible exploitation of African labour. In South Rhodesia, for example, in the 1930s, ‘agricultural labourers rarely received more than fifteen shillings per month’. (179) A more skilled counterpart – a truck driver travelling to the mines in the north of the country for instance – would receive more, but still only accruing a meagre three pounds per month. But the Europeans who did that same job (truck driving in Northern Rhodesia) would receive thirty pounds per month. (179)

To all of this must be added the most barbaric forms of barely-compensated, forced labour which resulted in millions of injuries and deaths, most notoriously in the Belgian Congo under Leopold II. Such draconian conditions and the incredible profits they yielded helped fuse and forge the great industrial corporations of the epoch with financial giants like Barclays Bank whose capital filtered through them. Most importantly of all Rodney’s systematic unfurling of all these processes decisively dispels the enduring myth that – despite its brutalities – colonialism nevertheless yielded a progressive modernisation of the continent. The possibilities for the development of technology, the education of the work force, the creation of a modern urban working class, the integration of communities, the development of a welfare state – all failed to transpire: ‘in other words, capitalism in the form of colonialism failed to perform in Africa the tasks which it had performed in Europe in changing social relations and liberating the forces of production.’ (260) The only slight qualification to this exists in the form of those technologies which were integral to transporting goods in and out of the continent.

There are a few points where Rodney’s book shows its age. While his historical descriptions of specific African societies are exemplary, the author has a tendency to subsume on a global basis all developed pre-capitalist forms under the single category of ‘feudal’ – the Tang, the Ming, the Guptas are each incorrectly given this designation alongside Ancient Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush. Secondly, Rodney is, in the current writer’s view, far too uncritical about the Stalinist states of the USSR, China and North Korea which he repeatedly lauds as genuinely socialist. Despite such qualms, this book remains a pathfinding piece of Marxist scholarship, a work of great empirical rigour, but also one of immense dignity and pathos. It provides an invaluable window into the Africa of today. But while Verso should be congratulated for reissuing Rodney’s seminal study, I have rarely come across such a poorly edited piece of writing. It is a book replete with spelling and grammatical errors to the extent that they often impinge on one’s concentration. Suffice to say, the work, and its author, deserved far better.

6 June 2019

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *