views updated Jun 11 2018





The term decolonization took on its current meanings in the mid-twentieth century, when vast European overseas empires, largely built or consolidated in the late nineteenth century, existed and then almost completely disappeared. For this reason, decolonization usually refers to the end of direct European control of non-European territories and implies both a chronological period and a process. Some scholars date the beginning of this period from the British agreement in 1922 to restore the authority of the monarchy in Egypt, although it is more usually thought of as beginning at midnight 15 August 1947, with Indian and Pakistani independence. The end of British rule in Kenya in 1963 closed the five-year high point of decolonization, when over thirty European dependencies became independent states, although the independence of Portuguese colonies in 1974 was certainly part of the same larger cycle. Most commentators agree on including the end of white-minority rule of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1979, while there is some debate about whether the disappearance of apartheid in South Africa (and of South African rule over what became Namibia) fits within the same narrative.

A number of scholars claim that the period of decolonization ended in 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China. Activists, politicians, and scholars, however, also have invoked the decolonization process to describe other ongoing efforts—besides changes in sovereignty—to break with what they view as variants of colonialism, in fields like economics, language policy, human rights, literary criticism, and the writing of history. Events in central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1989 have encouraged further interrogations about whether the process of decolonization is necessarily linked to overseas colonies, while developments since 2001 in places like Afghanistan and Iraq have raised questions about why we presumed that the period of decolonization signaled the end of colonial empires. Such debates have emphasized that decolonization played a central role in the post-1945 history of Europe in general, and of Europe's former colonial powers in particular. They also remind us that one effect of decolonization was to obscure that role—as well as the decisive contribution of colonialism to European modernity.


What caused the post-1945 collapse of various types of formal control by European states over overseas territories and peoples remains a subject of intense scholarly debate. Certain historians focus on how anticolonial nationalists won struggles for national liberation, overcoming the resistance of the colonizers. Others propose, to the contrary, that colonial authorities in most cases pursued a "transfer of power" over state institutions to local interlocutors, relying on negotiations, collaboration, and occasionally confrontation to impose the most amenable outcome possible. Each theory explains, in general terms, certain cases: for example, Palestine/Israel (1948), Burma (1948), Vietnam (1945–1975), and Algeria (1962), the former, or India/Pakistan and most of French sub-Saharan Africa (1960), the latter. Analyses of changing international political and economic conditions, however, have made clear the limits of heroic narratives, which describe how visionary nationalist leaders carried the day. Such partial explanations served more to establish or comfort postindependence political legitimacy in former dependencies than to describe pre-independence realities. Similarly, archival studies in the imperial home countries (or "metropoles") and on the ground of the conditions and terms under which "transfer" actually happened make the rational-actor model on which it depends untenable. European leaders, in particular Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) of France and Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) of Great Britain, actively fabricated (most obviously in their memoirs) the extent to which they had precipitated events that, in fact, had been imposed on them.

A number of historians argue that the economics of empire became too costly for metropolitan politicians and voters to bear. After 1945 the need to invest in welfare states, refocus armed forces around nuclear weapons, and rebuild international prestige through novel policies supposedly made expenditures on old-style empires unfashionable as well as untenable. The French Empire, with its geographic focus in vast underpopulated and inaccessible regions of sub-Saharan Africa, had always required significant levels of state spending, which grew exponentially after the post–World War II establishment of the French Union. In the same period, British expenses also began to overtake gains. Retrospectively reasonable, such arguments do not reflect what decision-makers argued at the time. It is noteworthy, for example, that in 1956 a well-known French journalist, Raymond Cartier, used economic arguments to advocate French withdrawal from sub-Saharan Africa. As Cartier opined: "Black Africa for us is, like everything, a ledger. What is it worth? What does it cost? What does it offer? What hopes does it inspire? What sacrifices is it worth?" (quoted in Shepard, p. 38). Yet it is more important that almost nobody in France took up what were called cartiériste explanations. For Conservative British ministers in the 1950s, "prestige and economics," in the historian Frank Heinlein's words, "were rather intimately linked" (p. 88). They were convinced that pulling out of their costly West African colonies would give an impression of weakness that would lead to unstoppable decline, with catastrophic consequences for Britain's well-being. For similar reasons, all European colonial powers actively resisted giving up their empires until decolonization brought them to an end; decolonization occurred, in part, as previously convincing arguments for empire came to seem unimaginable.


While attempts to identify causes remain contentious, scholars have reached wide agreement around the use of the term decolonization to describe what happened. The word seems to have first appeared in an 1836 French-language tract, "Decolonization of Algiers," in which the journalist Henri Fonfrède calls on the kingdom of France to end the six-year-old occupation of territory in North Africa. Liberal anticolonialists in Great Britain and on the Continent continued to use the term through the 1850s; with the rise of the new imperialism, however, it disappeared from circulation. In the late 1920s, a few social scientists and communists began to employ the term decolonization. They did so either to analyze how British efforts to expand self-rule in India contributed toward the coming of an international proletarian revolution (a theory that the Sixth Congress of the Communist International condemned in 1928), or to assess such developments as signs of the decline of the West. On 14 June 1927, for example, the term decolonization appeared for the first time in the Times of London in a report on a speech by the Belgian scholar Henri Rolin, titled "Development of Colonies: Native Advance to Self-Government," while in 1926 the Indian Communist leader Manabendra Nath Roy used the word to describe the British policy of granting concessions to bourgeois Indian nationalists (The Future of Indian Politics). In both cases, the term did not imply independence. The work of Moritz Bonn, a proponent of the decline argument, finally imposed the word decolonization among European scholars. Indeed, a number of historians, following Bonn himself, mistakenly identify the German economist as the inventor of the term. By the 1950s, European and American scholars and politicians hesitantly applied it to describe specific shifts of sovereignty in particular territories. Like the French ethnologist Henri Labouret, who in 1952 published the first book with decolonization in its title (Colonisation, colonialisme, décolonisation), most Western scholars argued that such developments were wrongheaded, at least in the short term, and could be avoided through wise political choices made in Europe's imperial capitals. In English, the word itself remained rather technical and little used. The second appearance of the term in the Times of London, for example, was in August 1958, while it first showed up in the New York Times (twice) in 1959.

Since then, however, decolonization has subsumed other descriptions of what happened to European overseas empires after 1945, some widely used, such as the aforementioned "national liberation" and the "transfer of power," or the "end of empires," as well as designations that appear mainly in archived documents, like the British Colonial Office's use of "constitutional advances," or the India Office's evocations in the 1930s of "diarchy" and in 1945–1947 of "demission." Contemporary anticolonial critics proposed numerous names as well. In the 1950s, the Senegalese essayist and historian Abdoulaye Ly described what he saw happening as "a ring of fire burning all along the Tropics," while in 1956 the French anthropologist Georges Balandier referred to "the insurrection of poor and dominated peoples," in order to argue that "this is the event that defines the twentieth century." It was in French that the word decolonization first began to circulate widely. French-language writers regularly began to invoke decolonization in reference to the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), and to a far lesser extent the independence of French sub-Saharan colonies (1957–1958) and the Belgian Congo (1961). In popularizing it, they changed the term's meaning.

The most influential commentator was the revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon, in the articles and books he wrote while working with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Like earlier writers, Fanon used decolonization to describe specific situations in particular colonized territories (he usually discussed "decolonizations"). Unlike them, however, he believed that the Algerian Revolution demonstrated that such movements were immediately necessary and were the only hope for true human progress. Situating the people he described as "the colonized" in the history-making role that Marxists assigned to "the proletariat," Fanon summoned the "wretched of the earth" to take action. Radical critics like Fanon claimed that struggles for decolonizations could expose the violence and oppression inherent in the emergence of Europe's modern imperialist nation-states. Fanon also predicted that they might portend the birth of a new era when "the last shall be first." This did not occur. Many scholars today employ the term decolonization to indicate merely the end of European states' formal colonial empires, whatever cause they may attribute it to. Others, however, use it to explore and critique the gaps between what happened in terms of national sovereignty and what was hoped for in terms of freedom.

In analyzing decolonization in European history, not only does each of these interpretations remain available to scholars: from the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War, these distinct understandings of what was happening and, more important, the certainty that something dramatic was happening invested decolonization with crucial and multiple roles. European histories of decolonization, that is, are at once analyses of one of the twentieth century's foundational "events," and windows into how an array of extremely diverse phenomena together came to be considered as an event: a coherent process with wide-ranging implications that took place in a specific period. Understanding how this second development happened helps explain why, paradoxically, the enormous changes that anticolonial activists, ideas, and the end of formal colonialism sparked in Europe anchored the myth that modern European history happened only in Europe, and not also in the relationships Europeans have had with the rest of the world.


At the end of World War II, two developments placed the question of colonialism—and whether it could continue—at the heart of European concerns. The first was the success of anticolonial nationalists in South and Southeast Asia ("Monsoon Asia") and the Middle East, who confronted their colonizers with demands for immediate independence. The second was the new shape of world power politics that emerged from World War II, namely the Cold War and the sharp decline in the influence of Europe's colonial powers. The first development produced a cascade of independence days across colonized Asia between 1947 and 1949, events that made imaginable the idea that the decolonization of certain colonial dependencies would lead to outright independence. Officials, however, still refused to consider the possibility that all but a few colonies would soon become independent. Within a decade, the need for the "decolonization" of virtually every colony had become a widely invoked argument; by 1965 the imminent completion of what now appeared to be a stage of historical progress appeared obvious.

The end of colonial rule in Monsoon Asia and the Middle East

Between 1942 and 1949, nationalists in Monsoon Asia and the formerly Ottoman Arab Middle East used, in various combinations, mass actions, international pressure, armed struggle—or the possibility of armed struggle—and the weak position of their colonial overlords to quickly obtain independence over all or part of the territory they claimed as their own. British India, by far the largest and richest European colony, provided the model. Already, the nationalist Indian National Congress had succeeded during the interwar period in extending its base of support well beyond its Western-looking urban core. This had allowed the party to take advantage of British reforms, which accepted the broadening of self-rule in certain colonial dependencies in the hopes of preventing any threat to British control over what mattered to them. Alfred Milner (1854–1925), one of the preeminent British imperialists of the era, used the phrase "Why worry about the rind if we can obtain the fruit?" to explain his support for meeting anticolonial protests with the extension of local control over purely internal questions. The "fruit" he referred to was control over foreign policy and external trade.

World War II offered leaders of the Congress an opportunity to again highlight the hypocrisy of British resistance to Indian independence. The conflict also provided a context in which their attempts to put pressure on colonial authorities proved particularly effective. In September 1939, when Viceroy Linlithgow (Victor Alexander John Hope) declared that India, too, was at war with Britain's enemies, the Congress responded by arguing that "India cannot associate itself in any war said to be for democratic freedom when that very freedom is denied her," requesting instead a clear statement of the British government's war aims and immediate and significant moves toward self rule. Throughout the war, the Congress pursued mass protests in support of these demands, and by 1942 the British had agreed to establish full self-government when the war ended; this eventually led to the establishment of two republics, India and Pakistan. With relatively little conflict, and with the active collaboration of conservative local politicians, the United States of America granted the Philippines independence in 1946, and the British gave up sovereignty over Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) in 1948. In 1943 the Free French government recognized Lebanese independence, while in 1946 the British recognized the full sovereignty of the government of Transjordan (presentday Jordan). In both British Burma and the Dutch East Indies, the transition was more conflictual. After the Japanese defeat, and in relatively short order, the nationalist leaders Aung San, in Burma (1948), and Ahmed Sukarno, in Indonesia (1949), used the political authority and armed relays they had developed during the war (with Japanese assistance) to force their European suzerains to recognize their country's independence. In Indonesia, these efforts proved particularly difficult, as Dutch forces launched an aggressive military campaign to destroy the Indonesian Republic that nationalists had proclaimed in 1945. Only strong U.S. pressure led the Dutch to agree to independence. In Syria, the French responded with massive military force to large-scale demonstrations that nationalists had organized against French rule in May 1945, demonstrations meant to coincide with the end of the antifascist war in Europe. (Similar demonstrations and even more severe repression began in French Algeria on V-E Day [8 May 1945].) In this case, international pressure (the British prime minister Winston Churchill threatened to invade) forced the French to end fighting, recognize Syrian independence, and withdraw their troops in April 1946. The newly formed United Nations, which had called on the French to evacuate Syria in February 1946, soon was deeply involved in developments in neighboring Palestine. Unable to stop Zionist violence against Arab civilians, British institutions, and personnel—and under intense pressure from the U.S. president Harry S. Truman to accept the establishment of a Jewish homeland—the British handed over control of their League of Nations mandate in Palestine to the United Nations. When the British pulled out on 14 May 1948, Zionist leaders proclaimed the State of Israel, which was attacked by its Arab neighbors the next day in the name of anticolonialism. By 1949, when all the states involved had signed armistices, Israel had emerged victorious, no Arab state had emerged in Palestine, and some seven hundred thousand Arab refugees had been forced to leave their homes.

The Cold War and anticolonialism

After 1945 there were only two great powers, the United States and the USSR, and both claimed to oppose colonialism. Each had strong ideological and historical reasons for its opposition. The Soviet Union's self-definition as a worker's state guided by Marxist-Leninist principles connected it to many of the most influential anticolonial activists and movements; Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) himself had penned one of the most frequently cited critiques of imperialism; and the Soviet-run Comintern and Third International had each provided training, resources, and political solidarity with anticolonial activists through the interwar period. Still, anticolonialism was not a priority for Soviet leaders in 1945. As part of their 1930s embrace of a "popular front" strategy to fight fascism, European communists already had muted their support for immediately ending colonial rule. After 1945, the fixation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) on protecting his country from threats in Europe led the Soviets to play little active role in fomenting anticolonial struggles. The United States, born in the first modern anticolonial revolution and proud of this history, had only begun to explicitly promote anticolonialism abroad in 1932, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) as president. This new approach became clear in dealings with the Philippines, the most important U.S. colony. Whereas previous administrations had rejected any discussion with local "agitators," Roosevelt sent officials to meet with Filipino nationalists in order to establish an explicit timetable for independence. During World War II, American officials repeatedly affirmed that colonialism needed to end, or as a top advisor to President Roosevelt stated in early 1942: "The age of imperialism is dead." Their British allies, in turn, repeatedly refuted such claims, with Churchill affirming in December 1944 that "'Hands off the British Empire' is our maxim."

Between 1947 and 1951 the emergence of the Cold War led U.S. policy makers to focus on strengthening their European allies against the perils of Soviet invasion and domestic communism. This made it easy to ignore indigenous nationalist demands altogether, particularly in Africa, and actively to support the continuation of European colonial control. Whereas Indonesian nationalists' role in crushing communist activities had encouraged United States efforts to pressure the Dutch to leave, the growing importance of communists among Vietnamese antinationalists had the opposite effect on United States policy toward Indochina. This shift was particularly blatant, given that Roosevelt himself repeatedly had identified French rule there as typifying the worst excesses of colonialism: financial neglect; repression of political activity; and the consolidation of a feudal-style agricultural system. The British quickly responded to U.S. shifts, and used their 1948 declaration of the Malayan Emergency, made in the name of countering a communist insurgency (1948–1960), to sideline their earlier policy of extending autonomy. The British also began to argue that their continued control of Asian colonies was meant, in fact, to build up local nationalisms as bulwarks against spreading communism.


At the end of World War II, every European colonial power saw the continuation of their control of overseas dependencies as deserved—as well as necessary for their political and economic well-being. British and French political leaders viewed holding on to their empires as fundamental to their respective claims to play a central role in the post-war political order. Yet even countries that had no such illusions affirmed that their colonies still mattered. Most Italian leaders, for example, expressed shock when, under the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, their country renounced all claims over the colonies it had ruled until the defeat ofBenito Mussolini's Fascist regime. The famed liberal thinker and deputy Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) went before parliament to denounce this effort to take away regions that Italy "had acquired by her blood, and administered and elevated to civilized European standards by her genius and expenditure of her all too scarce financial resources." Dutch politicians saw reestablishing and maintaining their control of Indonesia as vital to their country's postwar renaissance. "The nightmare of the loss of Empire," in the Dutch historian H. L. Wesseling's words, troubled their hopes of creating a "new society out of the ruins" of defeat and occupation by the Nazis (quoted in Seton-Hall, pp. 171 and 126).


After they took power in 1945, Britain's Labour Party leaders took pride in hewing to a middle path, which avoided both the old-style imperialism still popular among Conservative leaders and the ardent anticolonialism of the Far Left. Although one prominent minister announced in 1946 that his colleagues were "great friends of the jolly old Empire," the government preferred to emphasize that their commitment to extending egalitarian politics to all British subjects had produced something wholly different from what had gone before. As one Labour Party publication proclaimed in 1948: "Imperialism is dead, but the Empire has been given new life." While Belgian governments saw little need to reform their paternalistic rule over their African colonies, and the Portuguese dictatorship actually reinforced appeals to racism in its dependencies, leaders of France and Great Britain worked to establish a "deracialized" imperialism. Against strong opposition from local British authorities and settlers, London tentatively extended eligibility for certain welfare programs to African workers in Kenya, while other officials sought to reinvent the Commonwealth to include "nonwhite" states, whether the republics of India and Pakistan or current colonies. Most anticolonial nationalists, it was hoped, would be satisfied with extensions of autonomy and participation in the Commonwealth, rather than independence. In reforms that paralleled but went further than British reforms, French legislators after 1945 proposed a new federal system, termed the French Union, to knit together and govern the French Republic and Empire. These decisions had some significant effects, with the end of both "native codes" and forced labor across the French Union the most obvious.

Both the United Kingdom and France joined their overseas efforts to transform their empires with redefinitions of national belonging that offered new possibilities for people from the empire to enter, work, and live in the metropole. The Constitution of the Fourth Republic created French Union citizenship, which put all French nationals and colonial subjects in the same category, eliminating the latter term altogether from official language. As part of an effort to solidify the connections between Britain and what remained of its empire, the nationality law of 1948 affirmed that all inhabitants of the empire/Commonwealth had British nationality, with equal rights to entry and employment within the United Kingdom. Between 1946 and 1962, taking advantage of these and other new rights—and of Britain's desperate need for workers to staff the postwar economic boom—some four hundred thousand people of color moved to Great Britain. At the same time, Britain also acted to cement connections by encouraging Britons to emigrate elsewhere in the empire/Commonwealth. Between 1945 and 1962, hundreds of thousands British people did so; many left their islands for the "white dominions," but significant numbers settled in Kenya and other colonial possessions. The Portuguese government, under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970), also sought to use emigration to invigorate its empire, or Ultramar. Asa result, the white population of Angola quadrupled between 1940 (44,083) and 1960 (172,529), while that of Mozambique tripled in the same period, rising from 27,400 to 97,200.


While British and French leaders were trying to invent new forms of transnational unions, commonwealths, federations, and the like, critics of colonialism mobilized successfully to demand national independence. Although anticolonial activism historically had taken many different forms and proposed diverse goals, by 1945 nationalists held center stage. While previous Pan-African Congresses, for example, had pushed for racial unity and antiracism, the 1945 meeting in Manchester, England, came out in support of mass nationalism and independence. With the collapse of the French Union in 1956 and the independence of Ghana (formerly the British Gold Coast) in 1957, even those anticolonial politicians or union activists who had sought to take advantage of possibilities opened by postwar French and British reforms embraced the necessity of independence. Only after independence was achieved could new forms of interstate cooperation emerge.

The "Third World," a continent-spanning space that began to be invoked in the 1950s, rather than communities put in place by their former colonizers—or, for that matter, by the super-powers—appeared for many to be the most important venue to build such connections. The French demographer Alfred Sauvy invented the term Third World for a 1952 magazine article, which claimed that there were currently "Three Worlds" (industrialized capitalist states; industrialized socialist states; the rest). He concluded by invoking the French Revolution, to warn the first two "worlds" that "this ignored, exploited, and distrusted Third World, just like the Third Estate, wants to be something" ("Trois mondes, une planète," Observateur 118 [14 August 1952]; author's translation). In August 1955, the leaders of twenty-nine newly independent or emancipated African and Asian states met for the Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia. Among the most notable attendees were Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), an Arab nationalist who had overthrown the British-supported Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and Chou En-lai (1898–1976), premier of the People's Republic of China, marking the first time since the 1949 communist takeover that China staked out an independent role on the world stage. The most important certainty to emerge from this gathering was that these states had a shared understanding that colonialism had to end, and that they were willing to do what they could to achieve this goal. Concurrently, nationalist politicians such as Kwame Nkrumah, in soon-to-be independent Ghana, Félix Houphouët-Boigny in the Ivory Coast, or Jomo Kenyetta in Kenya, used political alliances, astute bargaining, and convincing claims of popular support to transform themselves, in the descriptions of colonial officials, from thugs to unavoidable partners—often in a very short period of time.

Against urgent claims from Bandung and local nationalists that all forms of colonial rule should end immediately, European leaders continued to insist that there were multiple colonialisms, and thus multiple paths out of the current situation. Such claims increasingly appeared simply irrational. In this late 1950s context, the Americans and the Soviets again turned their attention to the colonial question. Each sought to draw what the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) termed the "nonaligned" countries of the world away from the other, efforts that the growing number of UN debates on colonialism made strikingly visible. Both also sought to check efforts by the Chinese to position themselves as the ultimate defender of Third World causes. United States policy makers had become increasingly certain that no further European state was likely to "fall" to communism. Concurrently, U.S. analysts began to give increasing attention to the destabilizing effects of struggles for decolonization in Africa, and grew concerned that Soviet influence there could threaten U.S. interests. With the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) to the presidency, the United States once again began to give strong verbal support to ending overseas colonial rule. The Soviets, too, increasingly embraced struggles they had previously dismissed as merely "nationalist" or "bourgeois." In the early 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) waxed enthusiastically about what the historians Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov term the "wave of national liberation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America," and reoriented Soviet foreign policy in their direction (p. 206).

In those same years, most European states finally left their last important colonies, with Belgium leaving the Congo in 1960, France acceding to Algeria's liberation, Holland finally accepting Indonesia's claims to Dutch New Guinea in 1962, and the United Kingdom freeing Kenya in 1963. Leaders of each country presented these decisions, which they energetically had fought to prevent, as obvious. The British prime minister Harold Macmillan's famous "Winds of Change" speech, which he delivered in February 1960 before the parliament of the Union of South Africa, announced and laid out rationales for the end of Britain's support for white minority rule of territories in its Commonwealth, and for the decolonization of all colonized territories. De Gaulle and other French politicians affirmed that Algeria's independence was part of the "tide of History" named decolonization, an inevitable development that wise politicians could only recognize, not alter. Just months after Algerian independence, de Gaulle pointed tot he United Kingdom's failure to decolonize fully as a sign of its lack of commitment to building Europe—one key reason, the French president explained, why Britain should be kept out of the European Community.


It suggests how important empires had been to the building of modern states that, once their colonies were gone, European countries actively sought to efface as many signs as possible of their imperial past. Across Western Europe, economic developments facilitated this forgetting, since expectations of postcolonial disaster proved unfounded. Indeed, the opposite was true, as European economies flourished in the decades following the end of their empires. Such a result was particularly dramatic in Belgium and Holland, where control over, respectively, Congo and Indonesia had been seen as vital to the national economy. In the Netherlands, per capita income increased at an average of about 3.5 percent between 1950 and 1970, which was seven times more than during the first forty years of the century. Against this background, Europeans worked to exclude empire from their past as well as their present. In the United Kingdom, arguments that Britain had chosen to decolonize and done so far more successfully than other nations, the French in particular, worked to obscure both the enormous effort British officials had expended to avoid such a development and the hundreds of thousands who had died in the process of Britain's successful decolonization (in India/Pakistan, Palestine/Israel, Malay, and Kenya, most notably). Most French people embraced interpretations that insisted that empire had never been very important, anyway. Concurrently, many on the right celebrated Charles de Gaulle "the decolonizer," who had extricated France from the incompetence of his predecessors; some on the left heralded antitorture activists who had reminded their countrymen during the Algerian War that colonialism was antithetical to French republicanism—ignoring the fact that every French Republic had embraced colonial rule.

European states rewrote 1940s laws that had extended membership in the national community to colonial subjects. The United Kingdom quickly sought to end the immigration of nonwhites from the Commonwealth. Reversing the 1948 Nationality Act, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants' Act restricted immigration possibilities for people without direct blood ties to Britain. Laws in 1968 and 1971 further reinforced such restrictions. The French, unlike the British, encouraged immigration from their former colonies. Yet in response to the 1962 exodus from Algeria, de Gaulle's government stripped non-European Algerians of their French nationality. The flip-side of European efforts to exclude former colonial subjects from citizenship was the need to welcome significant numbers of settlers and officials repatriated from newly independent colonies. Some 250,000 people left Indonesia and "repatriated" to Holland between 1945 and 1958 while, after the independence of Portuguese colonies in 1974, some 500,000 retornados settled in the former metropole—a significant increase in population. In the months before and after Algerian independence, France confronted what observers termed "the exodus," as close to one million people left Algeria to come to metropolitan France. In each of these countries, the reintegration of repatriates of European descent was far more successful than expected—at least in economic terms. While predictions that the retornados would provide a ready constituency for Portuguese Far-Right groups proved unfounded, French repatriates began to emerge as a political force in the 1980s. These so-called pieds noirs were particularly visible in support of anti-immigrant politicians, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National. Like the British politician Enoch Powell, whose 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech catalyzed antiimmigrant activism in the United Kingdom, Le Pen had strongly defended empire before decolonization (in 1957 he gave up his seat in the National Assembly to join the army in Algeria). As with the mid-1990s Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, Le Pen and Powell both trafficked in popular resentment that immigrants from countries that had not wanted European rule were now living in the former metropoles (since the early 1960s, Far-Right writers had warned that Europe, in turn, was being "colonized" by foreigners). In the Dutch case, for example, some 115,000 people from Surinam immigrated to the Netherlands during the 1970s—and many arrived just before the South American territory gained independence from the Dutch in November 1975. With little evidence, such politicians affirmed that maintaining access to welfare benefits, rather than to work or opportunities, was what drew immigrants.


In part as a way to respond to anti-immigrant arguments, activists and scholars have mapped more complicated postcolonial connections, which tie so many immigrants to the countries in which they and their descendants live. These analyses add nuance to fundamentally economic explanations for why people immigrated; they also can trouble xenophobic definitions of national or European identity. Discussions about the violence that decolonization entailed have been particularly tense.

Violence was central to decolonization, although the intensity, effects, and constancy of violence, actual or threatened, differed dramatically between colonies and over time. A number of anticolonial movements pursued strategies premised on violent struggle, or employed violent tactics. Among the most noteworthy were Zionist groups that began targeting Arab civilians, then British forces, before embracing blind terrorism in their successful struggle for a Jewish homeland; the ethnic-Chinese communists who used the tactics they had honed during World War II as the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army to begin fighting the British in 1948, and whom the British crushed by 1956; the Mau Mau rebellion, which emerged among Kikuyus in Kenya to resists white settlers' seizure of land and, between 1952 and 1960, butchered close to two thousand African civilians, two hundred members of the police and British armed forces, and thirty-two white settlers; their supporters were decimated in return; and the guerrilla armies that—variously aided by the Chinese, Cubans, and/or Soviets—took up arms against the Portuguese in Angola (1961), Guinea-Bissau (1963), and Mozambique (1964). In the name of responding to anticolonial violence, all of the European colonial powers generalized and intensified use of the types of lethal force they had always relied on overseas. The French government, to take the most well known case, embraced the use of torture and "exceptional justice" against suspected Algerian nationalists. These choices were presented as necessary responses to the use of terrorist attacks by the National Liberation Front (FLN). The military also introduced the use of napalm and pursued efforts to relocate peasant populations in Army-controlled camps. French violence sparked a wide-ranging international debate about its morality and legality. There was concurrent discussion of FLN tactics, as Paris distributed images of Algerian civilians whose throats had been slit, or emasculated soldiers—and accused their American allies of giving assistance and support to these terrorists, whether through anticolonial rhetoric or by allowing FLN representatives to speak and travel across the United States. By the war's end, an estimated three thousand European civilians were dead from the fighting, as were nearly eighteen thousand French soldiers. The numbers of Algerian dead are more uncertain: estimates from the Algerian government reached one million plus, while more recent demographic and archival studies point to at least 350,000 Algerian dead as a result of the war.


Other debates took place long after the actual violence had ended. In the 1980s, when one of the Netherlands most prominent historians, Louis de Jong, published his study of Dutch efforts to prevent Indonesian independence, public outcry forced him to change the Dutch title of one chapter from "Misdaden" (war crimes) to the officially approved "Excessen" (excesses). In France, there have been repeated public scandals around the use of torture by French forces in Algeria, and political groups like the "Natives of the Republic," founded in 2004, have begun to draw links to the colonial past to criticize current conditions. In Belgium, debates about Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (1998), which analyzes the horrors associated with the late-nineteenth-century Congo Free State, informed harsh assessments of Belgian complicity in the genocidal violence that wracked another former colony, Rwanda, in the 1990s. In Great Britain, on the contrary, public recognition, however limited, of the violence of the imperial past has not extended to decolonization. Caroline Elkins's demonstration in her 2004 book that the British campaign to crush Mau Mau led to some 100,000 dead in detention camps, in addition to the 12,000 to 20,000 dead in combat, has been the object of scholarly, but not political debate.


Anticolonial struggles brought to the fore and turned to their own use many of the presumptions on which colonialism had depended. Among the most well-known, and the most effective, were the ways that nationalists embraced concepts central to Europeans' self-definition as humanity's avant-garde, such as the institution of citizenship, rule by the will of the people, and national independence, to expose how colonial rule both denied them to the colonized and depended on racist presumptions to justify their absence. Subsequent European debates about the violence that decolonization entailed and postcolonial immigration continue to engage with such challenges. Decolonization has also forced politicians on the left and the right to offer new understandings of the nation and its place in the world, in order to explain the absence of empire. Some Far-Left activists have referred to decolonization to demand the breakup of "colonial" states like the United Kingdom, Spain, and France, to support the claims of "colonized" populations within Europe, such as immigrants, or to provide models of political action, whether through affirmations that oppression confers revolutionary status on groups like women or homosexuals, or by adopting terrorist tactics. The Far Right has called on Europeans to reject their "colonization" both by immigrants from Africa and the United States. Meanwhile, at the same time as scholars insist on the importance of colonial histories to understanding the European present, cultural shifts—both popular, as in French rap music, or officially recognized, as with "multicultural" Britain—make clear that sharp distinctions between European and non-European cultures are untenable. Culturally and politically, Europeans continue to grapple with the often uncomfortable truth that the hierarchies—racial and other—on which colonialism depended, and the sharp distinctions between colonized and colonizer on which anticolonial struggles and the success of decolonization relied, have given way to more complicated relations—of power, between people, and to the past.

See alsoBritish Empire, End of; Colonialism; Dutch Colonial Empire; French Empire; German Colonial Empire; Portuguese Empire.


Atieno Odhiambo, E. S., and John Lonsdale, eds. Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority, and Narration. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Betts, Raymond F. Decolonization. New York, 1998.

Birmingham, David. The Decolonization of Africa. London, 1995.

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York, 2000.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley, Calif., 2005.

Darwin, John. Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World. New York, 1988.

Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York, 2005.

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier . New York, 1967.

Heinlein, Frank. British Government Policy and Decolonisation, 1945–63: Scrutinising the Official Mind. London, 2002.

Howe, Stephen. Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire 1918–1964. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

Kahler, Miles. Decolonization in Britain and France: The Domestic Consequences of International Relations. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Le Sueur, James D., ed. The Decolonization Reader. New York, 2003.

Low, D. A. Eclipse of Empire. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Seton-Hall, Hugh, ed. "Imperial Hangovers." Special issue of Journal of Contemporary History 15, no. 1 (January 1980).

Shepard, Todd. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, N.Y., 2006.

Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. New York, 1990.

Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Todd Shepard


views updated May 17 2018



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


views updated May 29 2018

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).