During the era of mercantilism, empire building appeared desirable as a means of building up a nation's wealth. In addition to economic motives, colonies were held to be useful for naval bases and as a sign of national prestige. The impulse peaked in the eighteenth century and waned on the impact of free enterprise economics. Colonies were found to be an economic burden and of scant benefit to the mother country. Late in the nineteenth century a new age of imperialism began. Much of the impulse was geopolitical, based on the desire to control key resources, geographical locations, and populations and deny these to a rival. The first colonial era had generated extensive migrations of Europeans. The second wave, however, was more along the lines of a commercial and political arrangement. Europeans exploited their colonies as they were; they usually did not seek to make them over in the image of the homeland. This was particularly true of the British, but the French did at least profess to believe in their civilizing mission, and Germans spoke about exporting their Kultur. Investments in infrastructure and social programs were limited, and the co-option of elites was a preferable means of gaining local cooperation in exploiting a colony's natural resources. When the Europeans, Japanese, and Americans largely concluded the race for empire by 1914 or so, almost all of Africa and much of Asia were under the control of colonial powers. European states had approximately eighty colonies, with the British Empire far and away the largest and the only one that really formed anything approaching an economic unit.
World War I encouraged nationalist forces in colonies around the world, who took inspiration from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech on war aims, while World War II broke the existing system apart. Colonial powers such as France and Britain emerged from World War II in a greatly weakened state and with their prestige in tatters. The war also heightened nationalism in the colonies, as it severed or severely weakened ties with the mother countries. The defeat of France by Germany in 1940 sent shock waves through the French Empire, and Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle acknowledged that there would have to be a new relationship after the war between Metropolitan France and its overseas empire, which had helped keep the struggle against Germany alive in the name of France. The Japanese, who brought their own form of colonial domination, nonetheless skillfully exploited resentment of European control in such places as Malaya, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies. The emergence, for very different reasons, of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet leader Josef Stalin as staunch opponents of colonialism also did not help the colonial powers.
In many colonies by the 1940s and 1950s, elites seized the opportunity to play the nationalist card. Often the colonizing power simply granted independence and the transition was peaceful, as in the case of the United States and the Philippines. The UN 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples stated that all people have the right to self-determination. A Special Committee on Decolonization came into existence in 1962 to observe its implementation and recommend ways to apply the declaration.
The British had already begun decolonization well before the UN declaration. In the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Britain had granted virtual full independence to the self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Egypt received nominal independence in 1922, although the British continued to dominate Egyptian affairs until after World War II, and the last British hold on that country did not end until after the 1956 Suez Crisis. Indian independence came in 1947, but only amid sectarian Muslim-Hindu religious bloodshed and considerable chaos that produced India and Pakistan, states that remained bitter rivals thereafter. Burma and Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Ghana and Malaya followed in 1957. British decolonization accelerated after 1960, the focus switching primarily to Africa as the following nations became independent: Nigeria (1960); Sierra Leone and Tanzania (1961); Jamaica, Trinidad, Uganda, and Western Samoa (1962); Kenya and Zanzibar (1963); Malawi and Zambia (1964); and Gambia, Lesotho, and the Cook Islands (1965). Guyana, Barbados, Lesotho, and Botswana were decolonized in 1966, and Mauritius and Swaziland were decolonized in 1968. Next came Fiji in 1970, followed by Tuvalu in 1978, Kiribati in 1979, Zimbabwe and Vanuatu in 1980, and finally Hong Kong in 1997.
Because Britain had prior experience and less at stake in its overseas possessions, decolonization was usually a matter of negotiation, transfer of sovereignty, and little resistance. Europeans recognized that negotiation was more palatable than forced decolonization through internal resistance. Generally, the transfer was gentle enough in the British Empire that a representative of the royal family could attend the ceremonies.
Indicative of this process was the new appellation that the British had for their holdings. Previously the British Empire, during World War II it became the British Commonwealth of Nations, and in 1945 it became simply the Commonwealth of Nations. This implied that Britain was merely one member.
Similarly, the French Empire became the French Union in 1945. Under President de Gaulle in 1958, it became The Community. But French decolonization was far more turbulent than its British counterpart. The French controlled their possessions tightly from Paris, whereas the British tended to grant considerable self-government and autonomy. The French attitude toward decolonization was colored in part by their defeat by Germany in 1940 and the belief among many French leaders that only with its empire could France continue to be counted as a major power. Thus, Paris declined to recognize the inevitable in Indochina. The French refused meaningful concessions to the new government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam led by veteran communist Ho Chi Minh. Mistrust and miscalculation led in November 1946 to the eight-year Indochina War. The 1954 Geneva Conference called for independence for Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, with elections set to occur in a divided Vietnam two years later.
In 1956 France gave independence to Morocco and Tunisia, but no peaceful transition occurred in the case of Algeria. The French had acquired Algeria in 1830, and the modern Algerian political entity was largely their creation. Algeria was technically an integral part of France, formed into three French departments, but the Muslim Algerians did not have full rights, and Algeria was in effect controlled by the European minority there. The French had crushed an Algerian nationalist outbreak at Sétif in 1945, but in November 1954 the National Liberation Front (FLN) began a guerrilla war against the French to bring about Algerian independence.
The ensuing Algerian War was long and bloody. Successive French leaders were determined to hold onto this possession, seeing it, as Premier Guy Mollet put it, as "France's California." The French Army was also determined that it would not again be betrayed by the politicians, and when it appeared as if Paris might open negotiations with the FLN, the army professionals teamed up with the Europeans in Algeria to overthrow the Fourth Republic and bring de Gaulle back to power. De Gaulle announced an ambitious developmental program for Algeria known as the Constantine Plan, but it came too late. Finally, he entered into negotiations with the FLN that saw Algeria independent in 1962.
Portugal also fought long, costly colonial wars in Africa, for Portuguese dictator António Salazar was determined to maintain control of his nation's considerable overseas empire. Fighting began in Angola in 1961, in Guinea in 1963, and in Mozambique in 1964. Ultimately, Portugal committed a sizable force of manpower and routinely spent half of its national budget on the fighting. In consequence, pressing problems in Portugal itself went unaddressed. A revolution in Portugal in 1974 brought about by younger army officers who were convinced that the colonial struggles could not be won led, by the end of 1975, to independence for its two giant African colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as for Portuguese Timor in Southeast Asia.
In 1945 Belgium still retained control of the mineral-rich Belgian Congo in central Africa. The colony was among the worst-administered of any in Africa, and virtually nothing had been done to prepare it for independence, with few university-educated native doctors and lawyers or trained administrators present. In December 1959 riots broke out in the capital of Leopoldville (Kinshasa), sparked by the French grant of independence for the neighboring French Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). In January 1960 King Baudouin of Belgium announced his intention to end colonial rule, leading to independence for the Congo in June 1960. Soon the Congo lapsed into a bloody civil war.
The UN played an important role in the decolonization process. Articles 73–74 of Chapter XI of the UN Charter called for self-determination and set guidelines for decolonization. The UN set up a new format of trust territories to replace the mandate system set up after World War I. These included territories taken from the Axis powers or placed into the trusteeship system voluntarily. The term "trust" implied that these territories would work their way toward self-rule.
Nations administering trusteeships had an obligation to help the territories develop self-government and educational institutions as well as to foster social and economic development. Periodically the UN received and reviewed reports on the trust territories and their progress toward self-rule. Trusteeships that became independent included British-administered Togoland, which joined the Gold Coast in 1957 to form Ghana; Somaliland, which joined British Somalia in 1960 to create Somalia; French-administered Togoland, which became Togo in 1960; French-administered Cameroon, which became independent under the same name in 1960; and the British-administered Cameroons, which split in 1961, with the north combining with Nigeria and the south joining Cameroon.
Tanganyika won independence in 1961 and combined in 1964 with Zanzibar, independent in 1963, to create the United Republic of Tanzania. Belgian-administered Ruanda-Urundi split into the independent Rwanda and Burundi in 1962. In the Pacific, Western Samoa became Samoa in 1962. Nauru became independent in 1968. New Guinea joined with Papua to become Papua New Guinea in 1975. Micronesia (1990), the Marshall Islands (1990), and Palau (1994)—three states of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands—became self-governing in free association with the United States in the 1990s. The Northern Mariana Islands became self-governing in commonwealth with the United States in 1990.
Decolonization left a mixed legacy. During the Cold War years, in Asian nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and China and also throughout much of Latin America, the United States was often perceived as seeking to substitute its own brand of anti-communist imperialism in place of Western colonialism. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, sought to encourage and align itself with nationalist movements in the developing world and to win the loyalties of such nations once they gained independence.
Some of the new states prospered, while others remained poor and backward. India and some Pacific Rim states such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia adjusted well and played important economic roles in the 1980s and 1990s. Poverty continues to plague the nations of sub-Saharan Africa, where the states are often artificial constructs carved out by the European imperialist powers with no regard for tribal or cultural boundaries and with few or no economic resources. Often the leaders of such states were able to work the Cold War to their advantage, playing the superpowers against one another. After the end of the Cold War, the Americans and Russians lost interest in the developing world, and long-standing rivalries reemerged as foreign aid was sharply reduced. Often civil war and famine were the result.
The postcolonial era saw the developing world's debts grow at a rate that made them impossible to repay. Much of the debt was owed to the most powerful states economically, the so-called G-8 countries. Nations in the developing world faced soaring oil prices in the 1970s, and they were forced to borrow heavily to stay afloat. Debt during 1973–1993 grew at more than 20 percent a year. With compound interest, the area's total debt by 1993 was $1.5 trillion. After renegotiation in 2000, the debt was still $350 billion. Only in the first decade of the twenty-first century did the G-8 states begin to take steps toward canceling that debt and developing coherent aid programs that had the potential to lift much of Africa from poverty and end the negative legacy of decolonization there.
John H. Barnhill and Spencer C. Tucker
Christie, Clive J. A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism and Separatism. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996.; Gifford, Prosser, and William Roger Louis. Decolonization and African Independence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.; Holland, R. F. European Decolonization, 1918–1981. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1985.; Naylor, Phillip C. France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.