This blog is the product of a running conversation, often angry, that I have had over the years with Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The book has become a classic, and is regarded with unquestioning reverence by many black scholars and laypeople. I read the book as an undergraduate, and began, like many educated Africans, thinking the book the answer to every question about why Africa is backward in relation to the developed parts of the world.
But with time, and more knowledge about the world, I started to ask some very hard questions of this book that blames African woes almost exclusively on the acts of Europe and its diaspora in the rest of the West. While Rodney superficially touches on a few aspects of indigenous African behavior, he ignores many of the very glaring sins that can be laid squarely at the feet of African elites in the centuries before and after 15th century European contact. Worse, he does not consider the possibility that while European pre-colonial and colonial exploitation were indeed very real, they may not necessarily be the cause of African backwardness, and there may be other more powerful reasons for African underdevelopment. I will discuss some of these reasons in later posts.
When I talk about the sins of African elites, I am not merely talking about alleged traitors “collaborating with Europe,” the simple bogus excuse Rodney makes for the continent’s elites, an excuse that has been adopted by some Afrocentric scholars; 1 I am talking about the willful and incredibly short-sighted decisions made by African leaders and members of the ruling classes—emperors, kings, chiefs, priests, merchants, and assorted petty officials—that can be shown to have led to the disastrous situation Africans find themselves in today.
This blog then is a necessary reaction and corrective to the lazy acceptance of Rodney’s questionable theories found among many educated Africans and blacks in the African diaspora—and even among some liberal whites. It will look at what we know—and can know—about sub-Saharan Africa before Portuguese arrival in the 1400s. It will look at the era of slavery, and at colonialism, the two bugbears of those who buy into the belief that our woes are caused primarily if not exclusively by European intervention.
This is of necessity an historical examination of sub-Saharan Africa, especially West Africa, and the general area that used to be known as “The Slave Coast.” This is not to say that contemporary African events will be avoided entirely. They will be examined to show links between some ancient African traditions and the present. Also, other parts of Africa will of course be examined from time to time, as will parts of Europe when the need arises. This blog will seek, as much as possible, to discuss African history free of the usual ideological biases of the Afrocentrics and African nationalists on the one hand, and the concealed and overt racists on the other.
It is nevertheless true that many false images about sub-Saharan Africa have been propagated by Europe and its intellectuals over the centuries. One of the most notorious examples of this is the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s claim in Philosophy of History that Africa can be safely dismissed in any study of world history because it has nothing worthy of being called “History.” 2 Outraged African intellectuals rightly sought to correct this ignorant and ridiculous view, and to challenge similar perceptions about Africa abroad in the world.
It is my belief, however, that in that laudable quest, Africans have gone too far in the other direction. Today, we are deluged by an African—and friends of Africa—reconstruction of the continent’s history that focuses too much on an uncritical promotion of Africa and Africans, and an equally uncritical denigration of European actions in Africa, a history that blames every terrible African event on this or that Western machination.
It is an approach that fails to understand the importance of agency. To put it very simply, if you blame others for all your problems, why do you have to do anything to escape your difficulties? You place the onus on them, not you, to change behavior, and it may not be in their interest to change. Worse, you will have a hard time looking critically at yourself in order to make the necessary changes that will help you get out of your troubles.
- 1. An online copy of Rodney’s book can be found here . For a leading Afrocentric scholar who believes traitor collaboration explains African complicity in its own exploitation, see Molefi Kete Asante on African participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade here .
- 2. “The Philosophy of History remains the heart and center of Hegel’s philosophy….it is the work that has exerted the most profound influence over the years. And rightly so,” writes C.J. Friedrich in the introduction to the Dover paperback edition. Beginning on page 91, Hegel abuses and dismisses sub-Saharan Africa in a few quick paragraphs. He begins, “Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained—for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World—shut up.” This gross generalization is terribly uninformed and just plain wrong, and this blog will, in time, show why. “The Negro, as already observed” writes Hegel, “exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling—if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.” Well. Surely proof that even great philosophers can say the sorts of things that would be associated today with the most retrograde and ignorant racists. We should not be too harsh on Hegel though; he here proves his own (paraphrased) dictum that “everyone is a son of his time; no philosopher can transcend his time.” He cannot have known, for example, about the empires of Mali and Songhai, or about the discovery of the vast Timbuktu Manuscripts that reveal learned cultures of the codex in the Sahel alone that go back to the 13th century: much of this came to the world’s attention in the 20th century. Still, Hegel gave the lectures that became The Philosophy of History in the 1820s and 1830s. European exploration of interior Africa did not really take off until the mid-19th century, so Hegel could just have easily said, “We really don’t know much about sub-Saharan Africa, so we will refrain from commenting on it.” Nevertheless, a few European travelers and explorers had penetrated interior Africa by then and written about it, such as the Swede C.B. Wadstrom (An Essay on Colonization, 1794), and the Scotsman Mungo Park (Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1799). Their eyewitness accounts soundly refute Hegel’s odious claims. Surely he must have been aware of such writings? Hegel concludes with the following, “From these various traits it is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them to this day, such have they always been…..At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”