British Empire, End of

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When was the beginning of the end of the British Empire? One possible answer is 1776, since the loss of the American colonies constituted in some sense the first act of British decolonization. Another answer might be the 1839 Durham Report, which, though muddled and ill conceived, constituted Britain's first step toward granting self-government to its settler colonies within the overarching framework of empire. The report related to Canada and associated dependencies, but the model eventually established was applied also to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa; as self-governing dominions, all fought alongside Britain in both world wars. Although the Republic of South Africa broke away from direct British rule in 1910, it remained part of the Empire-Commonwealth until 1961, when the contradictions between African decolonization and South African apartheid became overwhelming. (A very different South Africa was readmitted to a very different Commonwealth in 1994.) A central "pillar" of empire crumbled away after World War I, as Home Rule for Ireland was wrested from the imperial inheritors of many centuries of English rule, although six counties remained in what became Northern Ireland, where local majorities were loyal to Britain. Unlike the dominions, Ireland remained neutral in World War II, although many Irishmen enlisted in British forces.

Each of these turning points arguably served to underline the empire's protean capacity for renewal and reinvention. While this capacity drained away during the twentieth century, most decisively from 1939 to 1945, the story of the British Empire from 1914 is one not simply of decline and fall but also of persistent efforts to redefine and indeed modernize the empire. These efforts failed, since they were sustained neither by economic and political realities nor by late-twentieth-century ideological orthodoxies, but in the end, and notwithstanding the legacies of empire, the capacity for reinvention helps explain why postimperial Britain seems strangely unmoved by memories of its imperial past.


On the eve of World War I the British Empire had never been more powerful or extensive, and indeed, formal British colonial rule did not reach its fullest territorial extent until after 1919–1920, when the Versailles and Sèvres treaties shared German colonies and former Ottoman lands among the victorious colonial powers under League of Nations mandate. For a brief period British imperial control was even extended into, but soon retreated from, former tsarist-controlled (and soon to be Soviet) areas of central Asia. There were to be further retreats in this period: in 1922 Britain granted independence to Egypt after a forty-year "protectorate" (only officially called that in 1914), although British forces maintained control of the strategic linchpin of the Suez Canal, and Egyptian independence did not preclude massive military occupation during, and for a while after, World War II. British support for the wartime Arab revolt against Ottoman rule was famously cynical (even discounting T. E. Lawrence's mythmaking). Britain nonetheless engaged in state building across the Middle East, granting nominal independence to the newly created kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan in 1931; the British position in the region did not begin to unravel seriously until the Iraqi revolution of 1958. British policy in a third mandate, Palestine, never reconciled the aims of Arab nationalists and advocates of a Jewish homeland; the British foreign secretary in 1917, Sir Arthur Balfour, had expressed support for the latter in 1917. This led to one of Britain's most humiliating imperial failures, when it withdrew from its mandate in 1948, making way for the formation of the state of Israel.

British rule after World War I was shaken in the heart of empire, in India, where a politically innovative campaign of noncooperation united the Indian National Congress, radical peasant movements, and Muslims demanding the restoration of the recently abolished caliphate. At its height in 1919 this movement provoked one of the most notorious imperial atrocities, when troops fired on unarmed demonstrators at Amritsar: according to no doubt conservative official estimates, 379 were killed and a further 1,200 wounded. The figurehead of noncooperation, Mohandas Gandhi, preached a morally unimpeachable doctrine of nonviolence and promised a nebulous swaraj (self-rule); twice, after Amritsar and again in 1922, he halted the movement, appalled by its violence. A further campaign of civil disobedience followed in 1930–1931. Aside from the reflex of repression, British policy makers' response, in the 1935 Government of India Act, was a tightly framed constitution that, although never fully implemented because war intervened, provided for Indian ministerial responsibility at the provincial level but forestalled development toward complete self-government. British India in 1935 was a veritable showcase of modern imperial endeavor, with a thriving industrial sector, forty-two thousand miles of railway, and a civil service and police force both staffed and increasingly officered by Indians, but also, crucially for British power, limited suffrage and a 300,000-strong army. Although official policy had partly determined the emergence of divisive Hindu and Muslim "communal" politics, there was little to suggest that this might lead by 1947 to partition between separate states of India and Pakistan. World War II would reveal how rapidly British rule could become vulnerable.

By contrast, British formal colonial rule in Africa was still, relatively speaking, in its infancy in 1914, so the interwar period represented its highwater mark, when the doctrines and methods of rule were refined and rationalized. Two underlying parameters of rule may be identified here, both with important precedents elsewhere in the empire. The first of these was the need to accommodate substantial settler communities in East and Central Africa. In Kenya and Southern Rhodesia (later Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe), white farmers occupied the best land and looked to South Africa for a model of white economic and political dominance, often resisted by British officials but bolstered by the support of "kith and kin" back home. Even during the Mau Mau insurrection and with decolonization looming, emigration to Kenya doubled in the 1950s. In Rhodesia a rebellious Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1964 delayed African majority rule until 1980. Tanganyika, taken over from German rule after 1919, was declared to be "black man's country" and enjoyed a more peaceful transition to independence in consequence (as Tanzania). Across East Africa, a South Asian emigrant community, more numerous than Europeans but still a small minority, occupied the dubious position of commercial middlemen. They weathered the vagaries of "multiracial" politics in the 1950s and the early years of independence only to be expelled en masse, most brutally by the vicious regime of Idi Amin Dada in Uganda, in the 1970s. This substantial diaspora went on to form a mainstay of the Asian community in postimperial Britain.

Secondly, the preference of the British "official mind" for so-called indirect rule left substantial power in the hands of local "traditional" rulers. The archetype for this system was developed in India following the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion (the "Mutiny"), whereby several hundred Indian princes—the rajahs of many an Orientalist fantasy—ruled some two-fifths of Indian territory under the watchful eye of a British Resident. These "British officers in Indian dress," as Gandhi called them, effectively allowed the British to run an "empire on the cheap" in India and more widely. Indirect rule was adopted across British Africa, most notably in northern Nigeria, the Asante kingdoms, the northern territories of the Gold Coast (presentday Ghana), and the kingdom of Buganda, which dominated Uganda. The principle also informed British relations with the Malay sultans—who successfully resisted British efforts to reduce their status after 1945—and with kings, sheikhs, and emirs across the Middle East, disguising the nature of British power and eventually masking its decline.

Even nominally direct rule depended on a "thin white line" of British administrators, largely recruited from a "ruling class" educated in the exclusive so-called public school system and at Oxford or Cambridge ("Oxbridge") or perhaps London but picked on the basis of "character" more than intellectual attainment. The elite Indian Civil Service, for example, numbered less than a thousand. Across Africa also, a very few district officers relied on local chiefs to raise taxes and recruit labor. The idea, developed by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, of a "collaborator system" based on the identification of mutual interests has been used to explain not only the workings of colonial rule (though the term collaboration brings unwarranted associations with the history of Nazi-occupied Europe), but also the manner of its end, as the need to identify and coopt reliable collaborators eventually became too difficult to sustain.

Aside from colonial practicalities, indirect rule also meshed with a whole range of invented traditions of monarchy and a hierarchical social order imported from British society, allowing imperial rulers to claim, and perhaps even to believe, as David Cannadine has suggested, that communities of class could transcend those of race. Thus the scions of Asian and African royalty attended the public schools and Oxbridge, and schools imitating illustrious British models were created in Buganda, Khartoum, and Singapore. Meanwhile the pageantry of Empire Day or, especially, the coronations of George VI (in 1937) and Elizabeth II (in 1953) allowed the "official mind" to assert the continuities of empire while also acquiescing in its evolution or, more generally, to fudge the contradictions confronting, say, France's republican imperialists. Thus, while her father's title "emperor of India" lapsed in 1948, Queen Elizabeth II was styled "head of the Commonwealth," a suitably egalitarian title that allowed newly independent states, as India had already done, to join the Commonwealth without accepting the queen as head of state.

In many ways the preferred mode of British imperialism was neither settler imperialism nor formal colonialism, much less the pomp and circumstance of the House of Windsor, but lay in the informal imperialism characterized by trade and overseas investment and by the status of sterling as global "top currency": in short, by the invisible hand of a resilient "gentlemanly capitalism" based in the City of London. British informal empire in its pre-1914 heyday thus extended far wider than the formal empire, for example to South America and China. Here too decline set in from the outset of the period after World War I, both in absolute terms and relative to the emergence of a formidable financial rival in New York: this much was clear in the American-led boom of the late 1920s. However, the Depression brought the beginnings of irreversible change, as Britain abandoned both the gold standard and the principle of free trade. A new, protectionist "Sterling Area" formed after the gold standard was abandoned in 1931, comprising a group of countries, not all of them in the empire, which depended on British trade and on the pound sterling; this protected its members against the worst of the Depression but could not mask the decline of ailing, uncompetitive British industry or prevent the emergence of an economic pax americana, even before World War II. After 1945 the Sterling Area was even more essential, buttressing sterling against the strength of the dollar; the dollar-earning capacity of imperial resources, for example Malayan rubber and tin and West African cocoa, thus sustained Britain's postwar recovery. Curiously, in economic terms the empire thus became more "empire-like" as it approached its end.


The diplomatic challenges of the 1930s were enough to put the "official mind" on the defensive, though perhaps not enough to suggest that imperial dissolution was just around the corner. Still, fears of British chiefs of staff were real enough that the emerging powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan might between them straddle imperial lines of communication around the home islands, in the Mediterranean, and in the Far East. Indeed, a large part of the rationale for the despised British policy of "appeasement" was to prevent a disastrous war on three fronts. War when it came could hardly have been more devastating for British imperial power, short of Axis victory. The lowest point came with the fall of Britain's allegedly impregnable Far Eastern fortress at Singapore in February 1942, the climax of a Japanese campaign that eclipsed Western colonialism across Southeast Asia, directly threatened British India, and provoked violent insurrection by the Indian National Congress, backed by Gandhi, seeking to compel the British to "quit India."

The war forced the British Empire to fight for its life and to do so by allying itself with two dangerous rivals, both in different ways radically anticolonial, though the more immediate threat came from Washington, not Moscow. This threat was first manifested, even before Pearl Harbor, by the August 1941 Atlantic Charter signed by the prime minister, Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which asserted the "right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live"—which Churchill implausibly took to refer only to those suffering under the "Nazi yoke." British policy makers made extensive efforts to reinterpret the imperial idea in ways that might be acceptable to hostile American opinion, though as the tide of the war turned it became clearer that Washington would not interfere unduly in the internal affairs of its ally. This was the start of a lasting ambiguity, only finally resolved after the Suez Crisis of 1956. A succession of British leaders sought to finesse their American allies by equating imperial interests with those of the Western camp in the developing Cold War. Suez, where Britain had in 1954 abandoned its massive military base, seemed a casebook example of how this should work, since the Egyptian leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's relationship with the Soviet Union was growing close. However, an improbable Anglo-Franco-Israeli collusive attack on the Suez Canal Zone led the United States to threaten Britain at its weakest point, its currency on world markets, meanwhile exposing the uncomfortable truth that Britain was now the submissive partner in the so-called special relationship—whose special nature was barely acknowledged in Washington.

In late 1942, at a moment of renewed confidence, Churchill claimed that he had "not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." However, Pyrrhus-like, by 1945 he had presided over the depletion of imperial power—strategic reserves, manpower (including colonial troops and labor), economic resources, financial credit, and diplomatic capital—to an extent that put its recovery in doubt. As after 1919, Britain initially found itself committed even beyond imperial boundaries: British troops occupied a populous zone of western Germany and assisted French and Dutch authorities returning to their Southeast Asian dependencies—a last, insensitive, and, given the subsequent course of Vietnamese and Indonesian decolonization, fruitless deployment of the Indian Army. Indeed, military overcommitment and near-bankruptcy, as well as the threat of violent disorder and administrative collapse, largely explain the urgency of British policy in India. However, although brilliantly stage-managed by the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as a final act of imperial generosity, the Transfer of Power in August 1947 from Britain to two separate states of India and Pakistan undercut British ambitions to maintain a strategic stake in a friendly and undivided subcontinent, not least because the Indian Army was also divided. More immediately, it was not simply the fact of Partition that overshadowed Britain's retreat, but its hasty implementation and the unprecedented scale of the population transfers, violence, and massacres that ensued. Two further Asian transfers of power followed in 1948, which may be summed up, from the British perspective, by the suggestion that future policy should aim for "more Ceylons and fewer Burmas"—one, now Sri Lanka, a mainstay of the new Commonwealth; the other hostile and rapidly shifting toward military dictatorship outside the Commonwealth.


These first steps in Asia, however, were not intended to initiate a wider process of decolonization. Rather, they accompanied a last concerted effort by the British "official mind" to reform the empire, particularly the hitherto neglected dependencies of tropical Africa. The new Labour government in London thus introduced a Colonial Welfare and Development Act in 1945 (superseding a 1940 act scuppered by bad timing) and oversaw a process seen by historians as a "second colonial occupation," whereby a small army of technicians and advisors sought to modernize the African countryside by methods often deeply resented by African producers, who bore the brunt of their efforts—or who, alternatively, were bypassed completely, as in the notorious "Groundnuts Scheme," which sank huge resources into failing to produce the eponymous root crop on barren Tanganyikan scrubland.

Economic development was complemented by cautious constitutional reforms designed to lead—very gradually, over a generation or longer—to a measure of self-government. In Britain's most politically "advanced" West African colonies, the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and Nigeria, however, the constitutional process was rapidly overtaken by the rise of dynamic nationalist movements. In 1951 in the Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah, in prison at the time, won a "famous victory" for his Convention People's Party, confounding officials, conservative nationalists, and traditional chiefs alike. A level-headed governor accepted Nkrumah's ascendancy, labeled him a moderate, and helped steer Ghana on an accelerated route to independence in 1957. This created a model for other dependencies, earning Britain a somewhat unexpected reputation as a "liberal" decolonizing power. In Nigeria, British policy centered on cementing the three constituent parts of a federal state, which local political forces tended rather to pull apart, in ways that already pointed forward to Nigeria's civil war of the late 1960s; despite British misgivings, Nigeria carried one-fifth of the population of Africa to independence in 1960.

This "late" colonialism was typically violent, and although a series of British colonial "emergencies" nowhere reached the scale of the Franco-Algerian conflict (1954–1962), they sometimes matched its intensity. British troops, including conscripts enduring National Service (which ended in 1960), saw action every year from 1945 until the late 1960s, while police, prison guards, and locally recruited militias and "home guards" had much to occupy them. This was not just diehard colonialism; Britain now faced new enemies and deployed new tactics and doctrines to combat and sometimes defeat them. Two examples must suffice here. First, from 1948 British troops fought and overcame a communist insurgency in the difficult terrain of the Malayan jungle. Their victory may be attributed to military persistence and to the isolation of the insurgents, almost all drawn from the Malayan Chinese minority, more than to an oft-vaunted appeal to colonized "hearts and minds." Nonetheless, containing the insurgency entailed negotiating with "moderate" political forces from all communities, thus paving the way for the independence of Malaya in 1957 (subsequently Malaysia); in 1963, the majority-Chinese city-state of Singapore gained separate independence. Secondly, the Mau Mau movement among the Gikuyu of Kenya was also a new kind of enemy, though officials and settlers depicted them as atavistic savages, performing unspeakable blood-soaked rituals in forest clearings. Part peasant rebels, part urban gangs, part adept proto-nationalists, their own name for themselves, the Land and Freedom Army, reflected their grievances against their own people, though these grievances originated in colonial structures and policies. Defeating Mau Mau turned Kenya into a police state, with judicial executions exceeding those in Algeria, with "fortified villages" cutting off rebels from their supporters (a technique developed in Malaya, used also in Algeria and by the Americans in Vietnam), and with the mass internment of suspected Mau Mau in concentration camps, the so-called Pipeline. Although documented abuses in Kenya never remotely approached the systematic use of torture in Algeria, the revelation, in March 1959, of the deaths of brutalized internees in one of these camps finally brought change. Here too a familiar pattern led to independence, as the Gikuyu elder Jomo Kenyatta, wrongly convicted in 1953 of leading Mau Mau, and still described by the governor in 1960 as "leader unto darkness and death," was transformed into the "moderate" nationalist leader of independent Kenya.

In 1957 a new British prime minister, Harold Macmillan (brought to power by the Suez debacle and conscious of its lessons), asked colonial officials to provide "something like a profit and loss account" of colonial possessions, which suggested that British interests, narrowly defined, might weigh more heavily than British commitment to development goals and constitutional advance in determining the future of empire. By 1960 Macmillan was preaching the "winds of change" to an unconvinced white audience in Cape Town, while his colonial secretary, Ian Macleod, was soon sponsoring "Westminster-style" constitutions for a succession of independent new Commonwealth members in Africa and the West Indies. Although a Labour prime minister in 1964, Harold Wilson, claimed improbably that Britain's frontier was "on the Himalayas," the reality was one of unimpeded imperial retraction; the final retreat from "East of Suez" came in 1971, when the emirates of the Persian Gulf moved to an independence comfortably sustained by oil revenues. The imperial reflex has occasionally resurfaced since the 1960s, most notably during the last gasp of gunboat diplomacy by which the Falkland Islands were recaptured from Argentinian occupation in 1982. Perhaps the last symbolic act of decolonization came in 1997, with the cession of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, although Britain in 2004, like France, maintained a scattering of tiny dependencies.

The end of the British Empire has been treated here largely from a British perspective: a different entry might consider how the colonized endured and resisted colonial rule, affirmed new identities while doing so, and finally liberated themselves—even if, for many in the early twenty-first century, that liberation still seemed imperfectly realized. One final, paradoxical, aspect of the British perspective needs briefly to be touched upon, that of British public opinion. Historians differ in their accounts of how much the empire mattered to ordinary Britons. The evidence of imperial propaganda, or of the proportion of British production or investment feeding imperial markets and development, certainly suggests popular exposure to imperial values, though whether this equates with consent or imperialist enthusiasm is more problematic. Running the empire per se was always a matter of class, since, as we have seen, only a tiny "ruling class" was needed (though Scottish and Irish involvement in empire was more socially inclusive). In any event, the evidence for widespread loss of confidence occasioned by the end of empire is less compelling, and Britain eschewed the upheavals that visited France in the 1950s: Suez brought down a British prime minister, but Algeria toppled a regime and brought tanks and terrorism to the French capital; debates or protests equivalent to those in Paris over, say, colonial abuses or the overseas deployment of conscripts were notable by their absence. Decolonization was accompanied by a more general "decline of deference," perhaps, detectable in television, fashion, pop music, or the satire boom of the early 1960s. None of this precludes the possibility of deeper structural changes wrought by the end of empire and still ongoing in the early twenty-first century, whether reflected in the emergence of a strongly multicultural demographic profile in British cities, popular resistance to full British engagement in the affairs of Europe, or in the sometimes reluctant embrace of postimperial policies in world affairs.

See alsoBritish Empire; Colonialism; Commonwealth; Decolonization; French Empire; India; Pakistan; Suez Crisis; United Kingdom.


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Martin Shipway