The Death of Walter Rodney

The work of historians like Walter Rodney alters the way we look at the world, and in recognition of the significance of his work and life, History Today is publishing a tribute to him written by the eminent historian of Africa, Professor Richard Gray

On June 13th the historian, Walter Rodney, died in a car explosion in Georgetown. Mystery surrounds his death, with the Guyanan regime claiming he was killed by a bomb which he intended to throw at a prison in order to release men arrested on treason charges. The opposition, however, counter-charged that Rodney was assassinated by the regime and that the bomb was planted in a radio provided by a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force. The untimely death of this fine historian forcibly reminds us in the West of the vulnerability of historians in the Third World, where the context of historical research is intimately linked to preoccupations with national identity, authenticity and liberation.

In 1963, when Walter Rodney arrived as a post-graduate student fresh from the University of the West Indies, the weekly African history seminar at the University of London was perhaps at the height of its influence. Roland Oliver and Malcolm Guthrie were together fashioning their major hypotheses concerning the problem of Bantu origins. John Fage had just left to start the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham, but he was still closely connected with the seminar. Its sessions were almost invariably full and lively, and it was attracting students of Rodney's calibre from many parts of the world. It provided a focus which at that time was still unique.

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