The Retreat from Empire
For this much the whole world knows, that the right of a people to rule
themselves does not depend on the generosity of the overlords, nor does it
depend on the preparedness of the people. The truth is. . . that any man has
the right to break crockery in his own house. If he bungles, he will soon learn how to set up things right.
A Black African Journalist, 1961
After 1945 members of the British royal family found unanticipated
employment as ceremonial representatives on those many occasions when
political power was transferred from Great Britain to its former colonies. The
quick retreat from empire, generally labeled "decolonization," was one of the
major characteristics of postwar world politics and stands as striking proof
that the older Eurocentric state of global affairs now only has a place in the
However, few were the prophets who had imagined the end of the
empire would occur so quickly and completely. During the interwar years
theorists estimated that colonies would remain part of political reality for
perhaps another century. Even in the early 1950s, more than one experienced
observer assumed that European rule in Black Africa could possibly continue
until the year 2000. Such predictions were all grossly wrong. Within two
decades empire was over in Africa too.
Despite the rapidity of the transaction, there had been some signs that
the old order could no longer be maintained. Two events in the interwar
period occurred which altered the landscape of the colonial world. The first
was Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; the second was the growth of
"passive resistance" in India.
When Mussolini boastfully spoke of creating a new Rome, he certainly
had empire in mind. A series of petty border disputes between the Italian
colony of Somalia and the state of Ethiopia gave Mussolini an excuse for
invading Ethiopia on October 3, 1935. The ensuing military campaign, waged
by the Italians with tanks, aircraft, and poison gas against the Ethiopians who
were heroically fighting with nineteenth-century equipment, was condemned
by most of Western Europe. The Ethiopians held the Italians off for half a
year, an embarrassing development for the belligerent Mussolini and a
magnificent defense to the credit of the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian emperor,
Haile Selassie, appeared before the League of Nations to plead his country's
case, and in so doing, he emphasized the brutality of the power politics and
the rapacious imperialism pursued by Mussolini. If the Italian campaign was
the last act of militant overseas imperialism on the part of a European state, it
was also seen as one of the most vile. It had the historic effect of announcing
that the older form of imperialism was no longer defensible, whatever
rhetorical statements about "civilizing missions" might be conjured up.
More telling of the altering composition of empire were the
developments in India. Under the direction of Mohandas Gandhi, leader of
the large and powerful Congress Party, anticolonialism became a popular
cause. There is no doubt that Gandhi was one of the most influential leaders
of his day—and one of the most respected.
This small and fragile man, clad in a loincloth and carrying a walking
staff, was a figure of striking contrast to the chest-thumping, bemedaled
Mussolini. His policies were equally at variance. Gandhi made "passive
resistance" a workable political instrument. He personally went on hunger
strikes which threatened his life and greatly annoyed the British who feared
his death would provoke civil disturbances. Although Gandhi did not enjoin
his followers to engage in the same practice, he did encourage them to avoid
cooperation with the British and yet also to avert conflict with them. This
neither-nor policy, perhaps most closely resembling a boycott, was designed to
impede British rule. For the British the policy was singularly disturbing. First,
it removed the political support they had earlier received from the Congress
Party; and, second, it ran counter to the violent type of political resistance they
had already learned to deal with elsewhere. Passive resistance forced the
British into a "no-win" position: the resisters tolerated arrest and
imprisonment, thereby making the British appear as the aggressors; and they
disrupted colonial rule by "standing in the way," by not assisting in the
everyday operation of a colonial system that so heavily depended upon
In an era when public opinion was becoming a new force, by way of
movie newsreels, the radio, and illustrated magazines, Gandhi found a
marvelously confounding formula that made him the most important
decolonizing force of the age. What Gandhi proved possible in the 1930s,
other leaders, by differing means, would prove possible after the next world
Italian aggression and Indian passive resistance, at opposite ends of the
political power spectrum, were nonetheless both factors in dissuading Europe
from a continuation of the colonial rule defined in the late nineteenth
century. Then came World War II, devastating in its effects on European
global policy and thereby accelerating colonial change so that plans for reform
soon gave way to demands for independence.
India gained its independence in 1947, but in the process split into two
rival nations: India and Pakistan. One decade later, in 1957, the first black
African colony gained independence as the state of Ghana, formerly the
British Gold Coast. And in the next two decades the rest of empire
disappeared so that today only a few remnants of the once global imperial
The two terminal decades of decolonization in the middle twentieth
century and the two initial decades of imperial conquest in the late
nineteenth century were both characterized by rapidity of change in the
political order. That such a grand-scaled affair as European empire was so
quickly constructed and then so quickly dismantled suggests that it was a
rather flimsy undertaking. But if it was Disneylike in its facade and even in its
mock-heroic activities, colonial empire did have enduring effects. Therefore,
the transitory nature of the political edifice must be contrasted with the
persistence of the social system.
The End of Empire
Some sixty nations emerged from the five major colonial empires in
about twenty years. That is an arresting sum in modern political arithmetic.
It also adds up to an interesting problem in historical causation, which
provokes two questions: Did the colonized peoples gain their own
independence? Or, did the European nations grant it? Once again historical
reality allows for an affirmative answer to each of the opposing questions.
Immediately after World War II, the major colonial powers formulated
grand schemes for reform. Empire was then going from an administrative
phase to one of economic development or modernization. State planning,
which had become an element in contemporary European life, was now
transferred to colonial endeavors. Ports were enlarged, airports were
constructed, new roadways developed, medical and educational facilities
increased. The universal symbol of modernization, the high-rise building,
made its appearance in just about every colonial city, so that Singapore in the Far
East, Nairobi in East Africa, and Casablanca in North Africa, all looked rather
like variations of Los Angeles from the air.
The technician now replaced the colonial officer. Bare-headed (the
colonial pith helmet was no longer worn), with shirt sleeves rolled up, he
pored over charts and diagrams. "Development" was the key word, and it
suggested a new effort to reorder the "native world" so that it would be set on
the way of Westernization. In a few years, when the United States became an
influential force in the former colonial world, this process of change would be
derisively known as the "Coca-Colazation" of the world.
Nevertheless, these economic efforts were far from being of universal
benefit. Rapid urbanization created a colonial proletariat, with Africans and
Asians crowding cities that could not support them, but which they regarded
as the setting for economic opportunity. The further incorporation of colonial
economics into the global market system placed each such local economy at
the mercy of vacillating world prices. And this situation soon proved very
disadvantageous because industrial goods rose in value while agrarian
products remained rather static. As importers of industrial goods, the colonial
regions would find a severe imbalance of payments after independence.
In the final years of the colonial era, European planners sought to
diversify the local economies. Then they began to stress the commercial and
industrial sectors as much as the agrarian, a stress to be continued after
independence by the new national leadership. A major outcome, however,
was denial of anything approaching agricultural self-sufficiency. Along with
industrial imports, food imports increased.
The unintended result of these efforts at modernization was a
precarious dependency which often conflicted badly with contemporary social
aspirations of the decolonizing peoples. The "revolution of expectations," the
assumption that with independence a better life would be achieved, was not
to be realized. The former colonial world lies in a general condition of
economic desperation nearly as bad as it had ever been before.
Significantly, it was in this changing and unbalanced economic
environment that the politics of independence expanded. Economic hopes
and economic difficulties created a new political consciousness. Urbanization,
as has frequently been asserted, is an important factor in stimulating
nationalism. Labor unions, newspapers, universities, and political clubs were
generally urban in location. Modernization was thus an important element
in popularizing the independence movements.
Until after World War II, the colonial political situation had been
broadly characterized by the confrontation of two political minorities: colonial
administrators and a colonized elite. The mass of the population was
generally indifferent to the activities of both. Indeed, the colonial elite shared
more in common with the administrators than it did with the general
population from which it had emerged. Speaking the same European
language, using the same political philosophy - essentially, liberalism - and
often trained in the European professions, the colonial elite established a
symbiotic relationship with the colonial administration. Therefore, until the
last decade of colonial rule, the relationship between these two leadership
groups was one of cooperation as frequently as it was one of confrontation.
Immediately after the war, widespread contemplation of independence
was not yet evident. Retrospectively, however, we can see - or impose - a
pattern of decolonization. In crescentlike fashion, nationalist protest grew and
succeeded in Southeast Asia, then swept westward to North Africa, across to
the Caribbean, then back to West Africa and over the continent to East Africa.
Much as geographical proximity was a cause for further annexation of
colonies in the late nineteenth century, now it was a cause for decolonization.
Power abhors a vacuum, reads the old European political argument. And the
new power of national independence swept in where European colonial rule
The decline of colonial rule was, of course, a function of the decline of
European power in general. It should be again stated that World War II was
itself a major factor. No European colonial power, except Great Britain,
emerged from the war victorious - and Great Britain was badly weakened.
The others had been defeated, an outcome that starkly proved the myth of
European invincibility. Moreover, the temporary success of the Japanese
military effort in Southeast Asia helped stimulate a sense of national
awareness. Later, as the Japanese retreated, they turned power over to local
nationalist groups. Thus, when the Europeans returned to Southeast Asia
after the war, they found an entirely different - and hostile - political climate.
Of equal importance was the role once again played by the colonies in a
war not of their own making. African and Asian troops served in the
European armies in a war that was being waged against dictatorship and a
form of military imperialism: the empire of Hitler in Europe; and the empire
of Japan in Asia. The war became a school of indoctrination for many colonial
troops who witnessed the discrepancy between European colonial practices
and European principles. In Ghana, for instance, the military veterans were
an important element in urging independence.
Last but not least was the impact of the United States and the Soviet
Union as anticolonial powers. Both were officially opposed to overseas
empire, and each stood as representative of a different political alternative.
The United States had been the first group of colonies to revolt in the name
of "self-determination." And the Soviet Union offered communism as the
solution to colonial, capitalist exploitation. In the United Nations, which
served as a world forum for the colonial peoples, the two superpowers lent
support to the arguments for decolonization.
But the United States and the Soviet Union would soon be involved in
a world power play for client states in the colonial world. In the 1950s the
European Cold War was globalized, when North Korea invaded South Korea
and the Truman administration committed American troops in what was
now seen as a world struggle against communism. At the same time, the
French, who were frantically fighting to hold on to Indochina, took on a new
political appearance in American eyes. Heretofore denounced as colonialists,
they were soon praised as being engaged in a defense against militant
This global turmoil and competition, in which Europe was no longer
the center, worked to the disadvantage of empire. It was the combination of
new world problems and new colonial dissatisfaction that caused overseas
empire to collapse.