“How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

Dr. Walter Rodney

This is one of those books that I feel underprepared to read. Human interests are fractal; every topic is full of so much more detail and history than you’d ever expect. And this is a book from deep within a topic area. There’s a lot of assumed prior reading that I just don’t have.

The general thesis is pretty simple to state: through slavery and colonization, Europe took the resources of Africa to fuel its own development, and in so doing, slowed the development of—or, roll credits, underdeveloped—Africa.

And that point is made quite well throughout. There’s a lot of the history of the relationship between Europe and Africa, and it’s a whole lot of interesting, useful information. The one point that really lodged in my head was population numbers over time: using the (very) rough census data available, the extrapolated populations of Europe, Asia, and the Americas just kept growing over time; Africa’s population stayed stable for a couple of centuries. Gee, do you think there’s something environmentally unique about Africa that meant this gigantic landmass with plenty of arable land was just immune to natural population growth? Or could it perhaps be that people kept showing up with empty ships and leaving with ships full of slaves?

And the population numbers were already something I hadn’t known about, but the larger point made is that having a permanent population drain is a massive detriment to a region’s ability to develop. Every person taken away isn’t just a person taken away, they’re a whole set of possible futures cut off. Every interaction they could’ve had with someone else, every possible invention they could’ve come up with… every child they could have had, and every interaction and invention and child that child could’ve had, expanding on into the future. A massive amount of potential, stolen away… over and over, constantly, for centuries. It’s a hell of an impact, and the way Dr. Rodney talks about it really drives that point home. For that alone, this book is well worth the read.

There’s two part of the book that didn’t hold up well. Firstly, it was written in the 1960s, and has a lot to say about the future of socialism, with the unfortunate outcome of pointing to the USSR and North Korea as shining examples of development. That… aged poorly.

The other issue is a lot more mechanical, and hopefully just an issue of the specific edition I was reading: it had, very clearly, been run through OCR software at some point, and was reprinted based on that without an editing pass. It’s a tad headache-inducing to have to deliberately blur your vision at times so you can figure out what word was supposed to be there, based on the shape, instead of whatever word actually wound up there. Whatever OCR software was used, it was very bad at distinguishing between the characters f/l/t, as well as c/e, and the editing pass appears to have been “paste it into Word, hit ‘spell check,’ accept the first suggestion for everything.” Not great, Bob!

All in all, I found this to be an interesting read, and can heartily recommend it. Maybe… avoid this specific edition, though.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.