Walter Rodney

On this day in Caribbean history, Walter Rodney, a prominent Guyanese historian, political activist and scholar, was assassinated in Guyana in 1980.

Born into a working-class family, Walter Rodney was a very bright student, attending Queen’s College in the then British Guiana (now Guyana), where he became a champion debater and athlete, and then attending university on a scholarship at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, graduating in 1963 with a first-class degree in History winning the Faculty of Arts prize.

Rodney earned his PhD at the age of 24 in African History in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England. His dissertation, focused on the slave trade on the Upper Guinea Coast and was published by the Oxford University Press in 1970 under the title A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800. The piece was widely acclaimed for its originality in challenging the conventional wisdom on the topic.

Rodney traveled widely became known internationally as an activist, scholar and formidable speaker. He taught classes at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania from 1966-67 and later in Jamaica at his alma mater UWI Mona. He was critical of the middle class for its role in the post-independence Caribbean. He was also a critic of capitalism and argued for a socialist development template.

On 15 October 1968 the government of Jamaica, led by the then prime minister, Hugh Shearer, declared Rodney persona non grata which meant to ban him from returning to Jamaica due to his advocacy for the working poor in that country which caused riots and eventually claimed the lives of several people millions of dollars in damages. These riots, which started on 16 October 1968, are now known as the Rodney Riots. They triggered an increase in political awareness across the Caribbean, especially among the Afrocentric Rastafarian sector of Jamaica, which is documented in his book The Groundings with my Brothers.

In 1969, Rodney returned to the University of Dar es Salaam, where he served as a Professor of History until 1974, becoming a prominent Pan-Africanist, and leader in the Black Power movement in the Caribbean and North America. While living in Dar es Salaam Rodney was very influential in developing a new centre of African learning and discussion.

He became increasingly active in politics, founding the Working People’s Alliance, a party that provided the most effective and credible opposition to the PNC government.

On 13 June 1980, Walter Rodney was assasinated by a bomb in his car at the age of thirty-eight. His brother, Donald Rodney, who was injured in the explosion, said that a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force named Gregory Smith had given Walter the bomb that killed him. After the killing Smith fled to French Guiana, where he died in 2002.

It was, and is still believed that the assassination was set-up by then President Linden Forbes Burnham due to Rodney’s idea, that the various ethnic groups who were historically disenfranchised by the ruling colonial class should work together, was in conflict with Burnham’s presidential opinions.

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