Rodney succinctly demonstrates how capitalism and colonialism, and nationalism and imperialism, function to create a rigid hierarchy by which color is fused with class to keep the Black majorities disenfranchised and marginalized.
Slavery in the West Indies started as an economic concern rather than a racial one. But it rapidly became racist because all white labour was withdrawn from the fields, leaving black to be identified with slave labour and white to be linked with property and domination.
In January, 1968, the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney left the University of Dar es Salaam and returned to the Caribbean to take up a faculty position in Jamaica, at the Department of History of the University of the West Indies, Mona. While in Jamaica, Rodney launched a new course in African History and began giving open lectures across the campus. He also taught beyond the university gates, venturing into the slums of Kingston where he met with the Rastafari brethren and Jamaica’s poor and dispossessed African youth. Rodney spoke on African history, on the histories of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism in the Caribbean, and on the history of Black liberation and resistance. He also sat and listened, learning the nature and history of Jamaica’s Black suffering. “I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage,” Rodney wrote of these sessions, “and some black brothers and I have grounded together.”
Rodney’s time in Jamaica was short-lived. In the fall of 1968, he travelled to Canada to participate in the Montreal Congress of Black Writers. On October 15, when he attempted to return to Jamaica, he was barred from re-entering and officially banned from the country by Jamaican Prime Minister Hugh Shearer. Shearer claimed that Rodney was a threat to Jamaican national security, citing his “destructive, anti-Jamaican activities” across the island. Rodney’s deportation sparked two-days of protests in Kingston—dubbed the “Rodney Riots”—that saw hundreds of middle class university students link up with the poor and working classes. The protests were part of a growing Black consciousness in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean that challenged the conservative, post-Independence order.
“Jamaican Prime Minister Hugh Shearer claimed that Rodney was a threat to Jamaican national security.”
“The Rise of Black Power in the West Indies” was one of the talks that Rodney gave during his Jamaica years. The version below was published in 1969 in the radical Jamaican newspaper Abeng, while a longer version appeared in The Groundings with My Brothers, published in London by Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications.
Typical of Rodney’s speeches and writing, the talk gives a grand historical sweep of Caribbean history in clear, accessible language while shredding many of the ideological and political contradictions of Caribbean society more broadly. Rodney succinctly demonstrates how capitalism and colonialism, and nationalism and imperialism, function to create a rigid hierarchy by which color is fused with class to keep the Black majorities disenfranchised and marginalized. Rodney writes: “The British solution was to pull out wherever possible and leave the imperial government in the hands of the U.S.A., while the local government was given to a white, brown and black petty-bourgeoisie who were culturally the creations of white capitalist society and who therefore support the white imperialist system because they gain personally and because they have been brainwashed into aiding the oppression of black people.” Rodney’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1968, perfectly describing the conditions of whitesupremacy and neocolonialism throughout the contemporary Caribbean.
The Rise of Black Power in the West Indies
Walter RodneyThe West Indies have always been a part of white capitalist society. We have been the most oppressed section because we were a slave society and the legacy of slavery still rests heavily upon the West Indian black man [sic]. The road to black power here in the West Indies and everywhere else must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks and with a redefinition of the world from our standpoint. I will briefly point to five highlights of our West Indian past.
RACISM UNDER SLAVERY
Slavery in the West Indies started as an economic concern rather than a racial one. But it rapidly became racist because all white labour was withdrawn from the fields, leaving black to be identified with slave labour and white to be linked with property and domination. Out of this situation where blacks had an inferior status in practice, there grew social and scientific theories relating to the supposed inherent inferiority of the black man, who was considered as having been created to bring water and hew wood for the white man. This theory then served to justify white exploitation of blacks all over Africa and Asia. The West Indies and the American South share the dubious distinction of being the breeding ground for world racialism. Naturally, our own society provided the highest expression of racialism. Even the blacks became convinced of their own inferiority, though fortunately we are capable of the most intense expressions when we recognise that we have been duped by the white men.
Black Power recognises both the reality of black oppression and self-negation as well as the potential for revolt.
By the end of the 18th century, Britain had got most of what it wanted from black labour in the West Indies. Slavery and the slave trade had made Britain strong and now stood in the way of new developments, so it was time to abandon those systems. The Slave Trade and Slavery were thus ended; but Britain had to consider how to squeeze what little remained in the territories and who to maintain the local whites in power. They therefore decided to give the planters £20 million compensation and to guarantee their black labour supplies for the next six years through a system called apprenticeship. In that period, white society consolidated its position to ensure that slave relations should persist in our society.
The Rastafari bretheren have always insisted that the black people were given £20,000,000 at emancipation. In reality, by any normal standard of justice, we black people should have got the £20 million compensation money. We were the ones who had been abused and wronged, hunted in Africa and brutalised on the plantations. In Europe, when serfdom was abolished, the serfs usually inherited the land as compensation and by right. In the West Indies, the exploiters were compensated because they could no longer exploit us in the same way as before. White property was of greater value than black humanity. It still is. White property is of greater value than black humanity in the British West Indies today, especially in Jamaica.
Britain and the white West Indians had to maintain the plantation system in order to keep white supreme. When Africans started leaving the plantations to set up as
independent peasants they threatened the plantation structure and therefore Indians and Chinese were imported. That was possible because white power controlled most of the world and could move nonwhite peoples around as they wished. It was the impact of British commercial, military and political policies that was destroying the life and culture of 19th century India and forcing people to flee to other parts of the world to earn bread. Look where Indians fled to-- the West Indies! The West Indies is a place black people want to leave, not to come to. Slavery ended in various islands of the West Indies between 1834 and 1838. Exactly one hundred years later the black people in the West Indies revolted against the hypocritical freedom of the society. The British were very surprised. They had long forgotten all about the blacks in the British West Indies so they sent a Royal Commission to find out what it was all about. The report of the conditions was so shocking that the British Government did not release it until after the war, because it wanted black colonials to fight the white man’s battles. By the time the war ended it was clear in the West Indies and throughout Asia, and Africa that some concessions [appears as “confessions”] would have to be made to black peoples.
One must appreciate the pressure of white power on India which gave rise to migration to the West Indies. Indians were brought here solely in the interest of white Society, at the expense of Africans already in the West Indies and often against their own best interests. For Indians perceived imported labour to be a form of slavery and it was eventually terminated through the pressure of Indian opinion in the homeland. The West Indies has made a unique contribution to the history of suffering in the world, and Indians have provided part of that contribution since they were first introduced there. This is another aspect of the historical situation which is still with us.
In that year Britain found a way of perpetuating White Power in the West Indies after ruthlessly crushing the revolt of our black brothers led by Paul Bogle. The British Government took away the constitution of Jamaica and placed the island under the complete control of the Colonial Office, a manoeuvre that was racially motivated. The Jamaican legislature was then largely in the hands of the local whites with a mulatto minority, but if the gradual changes continued the mulattoes would have taken control—and the blacks were next in line.
When we look at the British Empire in the 19th century, we see a clear difference between white colonies and black colonies. In the white colonies like Canada and Australia the British were giving white people their freedom and self-rule.
In the black colonies of the West Indies, Africa and Asia the British were busy taking away the political freedom of the inhabitants. Actually, on the constitutional level, Britain had already displayed its racialism in the West Indies in the early 19th century when it refused to give mulattoes the power of Government in Trinidad, although they were the majority of free citizens. In 1865 in Jamaica it was not the first nor the last time on which Britain made it clear that its white “kith and kin” would be supported to hold dominion over blacks.
In general, the problem as seen by white imperialists was to give enough power to certain groups in colonial society to keep the whole society from exploding and to maintain the essentials of the imperialist structure. In the British West Indies, they had to take into account the question of military strategy, because we lie under the belly of the world’s imperialist giant the U.S.A. Besides, there was the new and vital mineral, bauxite, which had to be protected. The British solution was to pull out wherever possible and leave the imperial government in the hands of the U.S.A., while the local government was given to a white, brown and black petty- bourgeoisie who were culturally the creations of white capitalist society and who therefore support the white imperialist system because they gain personally and because they have been brainwashed into aiding the oppression of black people.
The present government knows that Jamaica is a black man’s country. That is why Garvey has been made a national hero, for they are trying to deceive black people into thinking that the government is with them. The government of Jamaica recognises black power. It is afraid of the potential wrath of Jamaica’s black and largely African population.
Black Power in the West Indies means three closely related things:
1) The break with imperialism which is historically white racist.
2) The assumption of power by the black masses in the islands.
3) The cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of the
These are the areas with which we as black people must concern ourselves hereafter.
Walter Rodney, “The Rise of Black Power in the West Indies,” Abeng (8 March 1969): 3. Back issues of Abeng have been digitized by the Digital Library of the Caribbean.
The Black Agenda Review
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]