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Decolonization has shaped modern world history, and continues to do so. In the eighteenth century the American Revolution (1776-1783) laid the foundations for the United States regional, then world influence. In the early nineteenth century Latin and Central American territories freed themselves from Spanish and Portuguese control (e.g., Paraguay in 1811 and Brazil in 1822). The European settler populations there, and in Canada, Australia, and other areas, used European styles of organization and, if necessary, warfare, to pressure imperial powers, and the result was full independence or more limited self-government, depending on the flexibility of the imperial power. But the most dramatic wave of decolonization was concentrated in the period from 1918 to the 1960s, when more than fifty countries and more than 800 million people gained independence from European rule. More recently, since the 1990s, the breakup of the Soviet Unions empire of satellite states has dramatically changed European and wider international relations, leaving the United States as the only global superpower.

As late as 1914, however, it seemed likely that most Asian and African countries would have to wait generations for internal self-government, let alone full independence. Their populations were limited to traditional forms of resistance, often involving royal elites and their retainers and levies, or to localized peasant revolts against harsh rule, high taxes, and alien customs. For Asians and Africans, decolonizations roots lay with the development of new local elites trained in modern disciplineslaw, medicine, civil serviceand their establishment of national-level political and, later, military organizations. These organizations had a dual significance: They could bridge tribal and regional differences to provide a nation in whose name sovereignty could be demanded, and they could organize state-wide resistance, ranging from peaceful civil disobedience to sustained guerilla warfare.

In analyzing these trends, scholars have identified three types of cause of decolonization: metrocentric, peripheral, and international. In short, these involve causes in the imperial power, in the colonized territory, and in the wider world. Some argue that one or another cause has the greatest influence: for example, that the cold war (an international cause) made postwar European empires expensive, as communist ideology blamed western capitalism and imperialism for indigenous poverty, and communist countries encouraged and aided revolts. In truth, such world or systemic tensions are not deterministic. They do exert pressure, but ultimately imperial powers may choose to maintain their empires if they are willing to accept increased costs.

The influence of metrocentric agency becomes obvious when we examine cases of empires that persisted during the cold war. One such case is the informal empire of the Soviet Union, which dominated satellite states in eastern and central Europe. When any of these states attempted to relax adherence to Soviet military and ideological norms, as Hungary did in 1956, they quickly discovered that Soviet tanks blocked their way. When Soviet decolonization did gather pace in the 1980s to 1990s it was not so much a result of pressures from the periphery as from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachevs decision that openness and reform were necessary for central economic rejuvenation. Likewise, Portugal, which by the time of the cold war had one of the smallest European empires, tolerated guerilla warfare until the fall of its dictatorship in 1975 brought to power a left-wing government averse to the cost, and authoritarianism, of empire. After 1975 Portugal more or less scuttled its empire, leaving Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor to their own devices. Portugals empire thus proved more durable than Britains and Frances, most of which was gone by 1971. In short, just as metrocentric concerns centered in a metropolis or dominating central state sometimes drive expansion, they sometimes accelerate or delay decolonization too.

Even in the case of Portugal, however, where metro-centric changes triggered the end of an overall imperial system, peripheral pressures did exist, with rebellion having started in Angola as early as 1961. Peripheral approaches also help explain individual examples of decolonization, and details such as the timing and nature of events. The demonstration effect of success in one colony can also create a domino effect, as in the Spanish colonies in the early nineteenth century, and in Soviet satellites in the 1990s, thus helping to explain the end of entire empires. In addition, in some cases only the peripheral explanation can explain how imperial powers were forced to disgorge territories they desperately clung on to. Key examples include Indochina (Vietnam), where the determination of first France (1946-1954) and then the United States (1965-1975) was ground down by Marxist-inspired nationalist guerilla forces. Likewise, in Algeria, France reluctantly ceded independence in 1961 despite initially claiming the territory as an overseas department and integral part of the French state.

Although peripheral causes can help to explain the pressures on an imperial power, and metrocentric approaches can help explain how each empire responds, neither is adequate to explain the pulses or waves of decolonization outlined above, when several empires simultaneously decolonized. International pressures and events are also indispensable in explaining how some imperial powers crashed from glory to dissolution in the space of just a few short years.

Portugals grip on Brazil and Spains on its colonies, for example, were at first loosened by the Napoleonic Wars, which brought virtual autonomy to Brazil. Britains inability to quell revolt in its American colonies was as much due to France broadening the conflict as the colonists determination. More dramatically, defeats in war allowed enemies to quickly deconstruct the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1918, and the Japanese Empire after 1945. Clearly, changes in the international environment, for example Woodrow Wilsons championing of self-determination as a fundamental principle in international affairs in 1917, and the United Nations support for decolonization after 1945, also raised the costs and lowered the benefits of empire.

The above discussion adheres to a classic idea of decolonization as constitutional and legal liberation. This is decolonization as the formal handover of sovereignty, the lowering of the old flag and the raising of the new. Some people argue that decolonization is precisely that, others that it is much more, and does not always end at the point where formal independence starts. At one level, formal independence does not preclude metropolitan companies controlling much of the economy, and metropolitan scheming in local politics, even up to encouraging the removal of elected local rulers. After 1961 French culture continued to have an effect on elites in formally independent French-speaking Africa, and military and economic agreements ensured ongoing influence. This raises the question of how far decolonization goes to remove the ongoing political and economic hegemony of a former colonial power.

If decolonization is the removal of domination by nonindigenous forces, this could include the colonizers legacies in other areas, such as race and culture. One might think of full decolonization in terms of three Ms: the mass, the mind, and the metropole. Traditional approaches concentrate only on the mass, or the colonial territory itself and its main political, security, and financial institutions. Newer approaches also emphasize decolonizing the mind (i.e., freeing postcolonial culture and thought from tutelage to western ideas) and the metropole (i.e., freeing the metropole from its own tendency to inferiorize and dominate other peoples and territories). In this latter sense, postcolonialism (as a process of contesting the impact of colonialism after formal independence) and decolonization (as a process of removing control of indigenous peoples by other groups) overlap. The object of decolonization is not just government, but also other areas such as economics and its effect on the culture, ideas, and institutions of imperial domination.

The two approaches can be seen operating together through individuals such as Martiniques Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), for whom imperialism was not so much a formal process as a mental hegemony, a domination of how people think. French imperialism aimed to absorb indigenous elites as francophone, and Fanon came from a family in Martiniquea French overseas department which initially thought in these terms. But his experiences of discrimination in the Free French Forces, as a doctor in France, and of imperial violence in Algeria, where as a psychiatrist he treated victims of torture, convinced him that domination was exercised by a social system and experienced as a mental state not dissimilar to a mental illness. He later concluded that violent struggle was a powerful antidote to the condition. For him the violence was in itself empowering and liberating. He later supported the Algerian resistance, and his books Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961)the latter calling for peasant revolution to ensure real transfer of economic power, rather than mere accommodation influenced other revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara (1928-1967) and Steve Biko (1946-1977). Fanons own ideas, such as his conception of imperialism as an affliction affecting both the colonized and the colonizer, are important as an example of a general trend toward highlighting the cultural and aspects of decolonization and postcolonialism.

Decolonization remains a very real issue. It is an issue in terms of whether existing groups under outside domination, such as Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang under Chinas hand, will one day assert nationhood, perhaps using force to demand independence. It is an issue in terms of whether the United States has inherited Britains mantle as an informal empire, asserting supposedly universal liberal and democratic values by gunboat imperialism. It is an issue in terms of how far first peoples such as Canadas Inuit and Australias Aborginals will demand, and receive, further compensation and assistance to counter past repression and past appropriation of their lands. And finally it is an issue in terms of ex-imperial powers reexamining the domestic vestiges of imperialism in their populations, their prejudices, and their cultures.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Nkrumah, Kwame; Third World; Williams, Eric


Betts, Raymond. 1997. Decolonization. London: Routledge.

Darwin, John. 1991. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. London: Macmillan.

Dawisha, Karen, and Bruce Parrott, eds. 1997. The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspective. London: M. E. Sharpe.

Ferro, Marc. 1997. Colonization: A Global History. London: Routledge.

Loomba, Ania. 1998. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge.

Karl A. Hack

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"Decolonization." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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decolonization. As with many historical processes, the term ‘decolonization’ was improvised ex post facto to indicate a transformation which was not always perceived at the time. Decolonization certainly does not denote the simple loss of authority over an overseas possession—the ending of British rule over the thirteen American colonies in 1783 was not, for example, an act of decolonization, any more than was the loss of Calais in 1558. The origins of British decolonization as an exercise in the devolution of constitutional authority may be found in the transition during which responsible government was granted to self-governing settler colonies in the Canadas, Australasia, and southern Africa from the 1840s onwards. But just as responsible government in the 19th cent. was not an enemy to empire, so later policies feeding into decolonization in the 20th cent. were by no means intended as an abrupt abandonment of British preponderance.

There was certainly no decolonization, as such, between the two world wars. Rather, conditions alerted British policy-makers to the wisdom of making alien domination less blatant and, as Lord Milner put it in his report on Egypt in 1920, to the need to make appearances more acceptable to the indigenous population while retaining imperial reality. The formal empire experiment with the method of dyarchy, especially in India following the 1919 Government of India Act, whereby some branches of public affairs were reserved for the imperial government while others were to be gradually devolved into the hands of elected representatives, reflected the same spirit.

The Second World War may have ultimately proved the prime cause of the disappearance of the British empire, but it cannot be said to have led at the time to any coherent vision of decolonization—if anything the reverse. Although Prime Minister Churchill joined in the Atlantic charter (August 1941) which affirmed the right of peoples to determine the governments under which they lived, his subsequent statement that he ‘had not become His Majesty's Chief Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire’ is just as well known. Some possessions—principally Malaya and Burma after December 1941—were overrun, but planning for their reconquest got under way immediately. The British government formally recognized in Parliament during July 1943 a responsibility ‘to guide Colonial people along the road to self-government, within the framework of the British Empire’, but self-government was not decolonization, and the goal was made contingent on conceptions of social and economic improvements which were clearly decades, perhaps centuries, away.

It was in south Asia after 1945 that decolonization in its characteristic British formulation as the ‘transfer of power’—for which phrase there is no French equivalent—took shape. During the events leading up to the independence of India and Pakistan (August 1947) the Labour government's essential requirements were that British prestige should not be impaired, that the process should take place on an agreed basis, and that no important political, strategic, or economic interest of the United Kingdom should be harmed. Lord Louis Mountbatten, as the last viceroy, showed how along the way new friends could be made out of old adversaries, as with Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party, even if it was at the cost of colder relations with such traditional allies as Ali Jinnah's Muslim League. It was convenient for all concerned in 1947 that the position of the crown remained at first untouched, though in 1949 the expressed wishes of India and Pakistan to become republics were accommodated within a multiracial Commonwealth, of which the British monarch became head. Meanwhile Burma's statehood (January 1948) outside the Commonwealth, and Ceylon's independence including a treaty guaranteeing Britain's strategic presence (February 1948), constituted the two poles of British decolonization on the margins of the subcontinent.

The transition in south Asia, however, did not necessarily set precedents for other parts of the British empire. No British colonial territory became independent during the peacetime premiership of Churchill (October 1951–April 1955). In some cases, most notoriously that of Cyprus (July 1954), it was stated in Parliament that the principle of self-determination could never be applied. Although subsequently Sudan became the first country in British Africa to attain statehood (January 1956), it did so as part of the unravelling of the old Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, not as symptomatic of a wider shift of colonial policy. Both the Gold Coast (January 1957), renamed Ghana, and Malaya (August 1957) acquired independence having met certain political and financial requirements, though whether the same tests would be applied to other territories remained uncertain.

The second main phase of British decolonization came with the ‘acceleration’ of colonial policy in Africa following the re-election of Harold Macmillan's Conservative government in October 1959, and especially his speech before the South African Parliament on 3 February 1960, warning of the ‘winds of change’. Macmillan's colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, later claimed that this acceleration was governed by the stark alternative of bloodshed. This was justification for a policy which had more complex causes at a variety of levels. Nigeria became independent during 1960, Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Sierra Leone in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963, Zambia and Malawi in 1964, the Gambia in 1965, Lesotho in 1966, and Swaziland in 1968. These complicated arrangements were often negotiated at ‘Lancaster House conferences’ in London which replicated, in narrower compass, the ideal inaugurated in India of a constitutional and amicable separation in which Britain itself seemingly played the leading role. More or less simultaneously the British Caribbean provided a footnote to African decolonization, Jamaica and Trinidad opting in August 1962 for independence apart from the ill-fated West Indian Federation, and other Caribbean territories following at intervals. The emergence of the Republic of Cyprus (August 1960), although highly idiosyncratic in the limitations on its external sovereignty, had already signified that smallness was no longer a constraint on the application of self-determination.

If British governments ever pursued a distinct policy of decolonization, it was in the Afro-Caribbean world between 1960 and roughly 1966. The lack of alternatives meant that any controversies between, or within, the main British political parties remained limited. More polemic surrounded the scuttle from Aden (November 1967) and the abandonment of contractual obligations to Gulf rulers—this was the real ‘swansong of empire’. Thereafter the process of bringing down the curtain on Britain's imperial history was largely a matter of coping with cases which were sui generis. The category of ‘Associated State’ was invented to meet the needs of the poorer and least viable West Indian islands. By far the most complicated and dangerous ‘unfinished business’ of decolonization in the later 1960s and 1970s was Rhodesia, where a white settler rebellion was not quelled and the territory brought back into the mainstream of legitimate independence-making till the emergence of Zimbabwe in April 1980. The final phases of the Rhodesian story showed that it had become the proper acknowledgement of the forms of the transfer of power which mattered more to Britain than anything else. Perhaps, if the Galtieri regime in Argentina had understood this point, the status of the Falkland Islands might not have remained so rigidly frozen in the image of the British population in the wake of the war of 1982.

Since it is the writing of the final page in any historical experience which fixes the record in perpetuity, during the prolonged run-up to the last great British decolonization, that in Hong Kong (30 June 1997), the preoccupation of the British government and its representative, Governor Patten, was to establish beyond dispute the commitment to democracy and the welfare of the local population, which Britain's rulers have always contended lay at the basis of their colonial mission overseas. The speech before the joint British Houses of Parliament by the greatest living ‘freedom-fighter’, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, on 5 July 1996, in which he legitimized Britain's moral statecraft abroad from the ending of colonial slavery through to the granting of African ‘freedom’ by Harold Macmillan, testified to the final triumph of the British version of decolonization.

Robert Holland


Darwin, J. , The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate (Oxford, 1991);
Holland, R. F. , European Decolonization, 1918–81 (1985);
Low, D. A. , Eclipse of Empire (Cambridge, 1991);
Porter, A. N., and and Stockwell, A. J. , British Imperial Policy and Decolonization, 1938–64 (2 vols., 1987).

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