British decolonisation in Africa Essay

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British decolonisation in Africa

Within the context of 1880-1980, to what extent did British actions accelerate British decolonisation in Africa?

In the later years of the 19th century the scramble for the African continent by Western imperialist powers was reaching its climax. It appeared that the “dark continent” was to be no longer “dark”, but to be the product of Western colonial expansion with several European countries dividing up the land. No where was this more apparent than with Britain whose Empire was at its height at the turn of the century. Egypt, for instance, was a colony for 40 years (1882-1922) with its pinnacle at the turn of the century; however the decolonisation of the country as early as this is an anomaly in itself as only South Africa had previously been granted independence by the British, albeit as a self-governing dominion. In a bizarre turn of events which historians still debate today, the Empire crumbled and by the 1970s only two African states remained British colonies: Rhodesia and South West Africa.

The Empire had taken the best part of a century to amalgamate, yet was mostly swept away in just over a decade. Many reasons have been proposed for the vast acceleration of decolonisation including economic difficulties at the metropole (Cain and Hopkins)1 and the rise of local nationalist movements (Hodgkin)2. More recently the actions of the British have been cited as a possible factor for the acceleration of decolonisation in Africa, marking a change in the historiography of the period. Turner3 and Lapping4 are promoters of this theory, which is gaining credence in the academic world.

The 1945 election of the Labour party is a watershed in decolonisation acceleration. WW2 had recently ended which marked a shift in British culture and society, including a changed attitude to Empire. Interestingly, whilst many of the new Cabinet were anti-imperialists, the new government did not have a direct plan to fully decolonise. It was more a case of the Empire having to take a “backseat” to far more pressing matters: imperialism, in effect, slipped through the cracks of government. The party was elected on the mandate of and closely focused upon British welfare; the African colonies were working and therefore the government’s attention was deviated, however it was one of the actions directed at the metropole which accelerated independence for many colonies.

The introduction of the Welfare State in 1948 led many Britons to consider the priority and indeed the importance of the Empire when compared to home-grown issues. WW2 brought increased globalisation and it is possible that through this many British citizens saw their needs ahead of the colonies: an archaic and out-of-date segment of British foreign policy. If the colonies had representation in the British Parliament and were a province of, rather than simply a colony of Great Britain, this attitude may have been different: French Algeria, for instance, was certainly more respected at the metropole then any of Britain’s African colonies.

There is a debate however, as to whether the British public had undergone a liberal revolution or were simply acting with self-interest. White has theorised that the latter is true, citing that the reason as to why “the colonies were ditched was to release resources for domestic welfare spending”5. Moreover, the fact National Service was revoked in 1960 reduced Britain’s ability to defend its colonies against uprising nationalist movements: conscription was ended through self-interest, as the majority of British youths didn’t want to have to fight in the far off terrains of Sub-Saharan Africa. This further implies that the average British citizen was becoming disinterested by the Empire or, at the very least, impartial to its future. I will cover nationalism in greater depth below, but with such a lack of metropole interest, the Empire could not be expected to last long. The British action of electing a Labour government effectively, in an indirect form, accelerated decolonisation for many of the African colonies.

WW1 expanded the Empire both geographically and as a world power, with Britain gaining several new mandates from the Ottoman Empire. The geographical expansion of the Empire post-WW1 and the reluctance of the metropole to grant these new mandates independence6, imply that attitudes had not changed and many (both in government and in society) saw the Empire as a credible and useful segment of British politics: therefore, with the exception of the more economically advanced Egypt, African decolonisation by the British did not occur between the wars. Rather, many African colonies developed and became more stable societies.

Take the Gold Coast for instance: between the wars its economy, communications and education became, to a certain extent, “Westernised” and the country flourished. Admittedly this led to the acceleration of nationalist movements in the area which, in turn, accelerated decolonisation, but the country was undeniably prospering due to the British-led government of the time.7 Many citizens of the African colonies (including Egypt and the Gold Coast) fought alongside British soldiers in WW1 and the respect and prestige for the peoples increased because of it. Indeed, the 1914-1939 era can be seen as one of the strongest periods of the British African Empire. This implies that a post-1945 factor (e.g. the Suez Crisis, see below) accelerated decolonisation.

In comparison, World War 2 accelerated decolonisation at a far greater rate than many could have imagined just a few years prior. Effectively, the war established rather paradoxically that imperialism (both British and otherwise) was both positive and negative. Ferguson has noted that the British Empire sacrificed itself to stop the spread of the evil empire of Nazi Germany: indeed, the British Empire had “never had a finer hour”8 than when it was self-sacrificing. During the war it was inevitable that Britain would have to, to a certain extent, neglect the colonies to focus on defeating the enemy. Through this the colonies became more independent having to, for example, source resources and engage in trade without the aid of the metropole.

Moreover, the colonial peoples had a greater influence on the running of their societies; in effect, many became informal dominions. This, combined with the policies of the 1945 Labour government, further fuelled nationalism which accelerated decolonisation; in a way similar to how the two World Wars improved women’s rights in Britain, the wars seemed to suggest that many colonies could govern effectively on their own. Previously, only the more economically and politically stable societies had been granted independence (e.g. South Africa, 1910) and several colonies (e.g. the Gold Coast) seemed to show similar traits during the war. The Second World War didn’t lead directly to decolonisation, but it is this British action which occurred because of the conflict that accelerated decolonisation in British Africa.

The end of WW2 bought increased globalisation and a new world order, where the enemy didn’t appear to be Nazism or Fascism, but rather the expansion of the Soviet Bloc and the spread of communism: the Cold War was just beginning to ignite. Along with the notion of changed attitudes of the British people, there is also the argument that the Empire really didn’t fit into the new world. Now, the split between East and West had never been more apparent and British Africa looked like an oddity: along with the passing of new welfare legislation at the metropole and the changing attitudes of the British people, Britain needed to abolish the Empire for two reasons directly related to the Cold War: to concentrate efforts on halting the spread of communism and to appease the anti-imperialist US, who Britain now required as an ally more than ever before. Moreover, the world order was now unclear and Britain had far greater problems to worry about than what their small African colonies were up to: put bluntly, the new threat of nuclear inhalation seemed more important than the political shortcomings of, say, Somalia. While WW2 does spell out more crucial factors for the acceleration of decolonisation, the Cold War is another smaller factor which just added to the need to decolonise.

The post-WW2 economy is a further crucial factor in the acceleration of decolonisation. Britain was no longer able to withstand the fiscal costs of Empire; this was coupled with a lack of substantial profit coming into the metropole from the African colonies. Economically, WW2 was a great strain on Britain with the country coming out of the war in great debt; she required a loan of �145million from the US alone9. Britain was exhausted and worn down, both figuratively and physically. Many cities required money to rebuild, some from scratch, plus food badly needed to be imported following years of intense rationing. Moreover, the introduction of the welfare state (see above) required significant funding. As said, attitudes to Empire were changing which, combined with the need for intense spending on the homeland, led to many seeing the African colonies simply as a drain on Britain’s already scarce resources. Britain made the situation worse: during the war she had understandably concentrated on producing munitions for her troops, resulting in fewer exports to the colonies.

Many turned away from the metropole and looked to alternate suppliers, including their own land which inevitably fuelled nationalism further. Moreover, two acts (The Colonial Development and Welfare Acts of 1940 and 1945) were passed during wartime which forced the British government to further invest in the colonial economies10, therefore making an already problematic economic situation worse. It is possible that the government felt it was “backed into a corner” and simply did not have the patience or money to rebuild the colonies and the metropole: they had become, or at least had the potential to become, a major rupture on the British economy – a rupture Britain could not afford to fix, but only to cut out completely. In the early 20th century when British imperialism was at its height, Hobson11 saw the expansion of Britain in Africa as purely economic and an underhand method to help capitalists at the metropole – this opinion was endorsed by Lenin in 191612 and, in an albeit modified form, by the historian Darwin in 1984: “more completely than ever before, economics and empire had come together”13.

More recently, Cain and Hopkins14 have suggested that imperialism in Africa was established by “gentleman capitalists”15 who were simply aiming to make profit out of the African land. Of course, if this is the case, then with the post-war debt experienced in 1945 it would have been difficult to make money from these colonies, leading to decolonisation. The decolonisation of African colonies would effectively make Britain a richer country, therefore agreeing with the views expressed by Cain and Hopkins and others: the Empire had served its purpose of aiding Britain’s wealth but now it was draining it and, as such, it was time for it to go.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 was one of the most decisive British actions in the 20th century to accelerate decolonisation in Africa. Former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once remarked that it is “events, dear boy, events”16 which determine the success of a premiership. The term “event” is almost too light of a phrase to use when considering the Suez Crisis: not only did it annihilate Anthony Eden’s administration, but it was also the launching pad for many factors which saw British decolonisation vastly accelerated. There are two key elements of the crisis which paved the way to said factors: the deception employed by the imperialist powers of Britain and France, plus the apparent overreaction to a simple act of nationalisation by a head of state. Both these factors led to the reputations of the countries involved and international relations been damaged, as well as a decrease in trade. Britain was the driving force behind the attack hence she was particularly wounded with the political and economic fallout: for one, the special relationship with the United States was harmed (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles claimed the British government had explicitly “lied to [him]”17) and, more critically for this inquiry, her reputation within the African continent was damaged. Britain looked small and corrupt, a mere shadow of her former colonial self; she was attempting to throw her imperialist weight around in a world which it didn’t seem to fit.

Nasser had successfully stood up to the Western powers and won, thus undermining Britain and France, plus providing inspiration to the many oppressed colonies. However, it is possible that the reaction did not provoke the level of international condemnation that is contemporarily considered, showing a difference in historiography. To the African colonies, former British dominions that had experienced colonialism and anti-imperialist powers such as the USA, then yes, it is likely that Britain’s reputation was damaged. However, to other imperialists it is possible that the government simply appeared to be standing firm with a tyrant.

World War 2 had been won only 11 years prior, hence the memory of what tyrannical dictators can achieve was still fresh in most leaders’ minds. Eden may have appeared noble and selfless, “destroying not just his own political career but a carefully-crafted reputation built up over more than 20 years”18 for the greater good of a safer world, or at least a more economically stable Great Britain. White has proposed that “there [were] a number of lacklustre continuities, rather than dramatic discontinuities”19 in imperialist policy following Eden’s departure: a government memorandum circulated in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, for instance, made no mention of impending decolonisation20. Suez was not so much a watershed, but a temporary setback in Britain’s imperial decline, indicating other factors are responsible.

Economically, the Egyptian nationalisation of the canal posed a significant danger to Britain as 2/3 of the country’s oil utilised the waterway. The chief reason as to why Britain intervened in the first place (and, indeed, retained the Canal Zone in 1922) was that the government simply did not trust the Egyptians to efficiently control “the windpipe”21 of the British economy. Post-crisis, Britain’s humiliation resulted in a trade decrease and a “catastrophic”22 run on the pound, resulting in her appearing not only politically and militarily weak but also financially weak. This situation, which was caused by the Suez Crisis, meant that Britain could no longer afford to support the African colonies, implying that the British action of invading the Suez Canal Zone led to one of the factors which brought about the Empire’s collapse. Combined, these factors inspired nationalist movements within the colonies and general condemnation of imperialism, which also accelerated decolonisation.

The crisis is unique as not only did it, to a certain extent accelerate decolonisation, but it is also one of the very few examples of where a British action greatly damages the standing of the Empire. Prior to Suez, Britain was surprisingly cautious with decolonisation (with regard to Africa, only 4 of her 24 colonies had been decolonised at this point); arguably this was to retain an Empire, but also to ensure that the new societies were ready to govern. It was only following the Suez debacle that decolonisation accelerated, implying that previously Britain had took great care over the handovers of power.

South Africa was a stable society when decolonised in 1910 and, looking further afield, so were Australia, Canada and India. To many other countries and colonies, Britain appeared now unable to continue to be the metropole of a successful Empire. After all, if the dictator of a former colony could cause a country such ridicule, how could they be expected to carry on maintaining a successful Empire? Comparatively with White23, Turner has called the crisis a “military failure and political disaster”24, whilst Lapping has referred to it as the “imperial cataclysm”25 in decolonisation acceleration. The crisis was highly influential in the eventual collapse of the British Empire in Africa but it did not lead directly to decolonisation, rather greatly accelerated it.

The rise of nationalism within the African colonies inevitably accelerated decolonisation; advocates of this theory argue that for decolonisation to occur there needs to be an opposition force to the “status quo” government (in this case, colonial British rule), thereby giving the people a choice. Looking throughout history at the Empire as a whole gives this theory credibility: look at the violent independence battles of the 13 North American colonies in 1783 or India in 1947, and compare that to the peaceful colony of the Falkland Islands which still exists today. The previous decolonisation record of the British government, plus the 1947 granting of independence to India, no doubt sent the message that it “was only a matter of time” before the African colonies were decolonised. India specifically was the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and as such its decolonisation will have led many, both in the colonies and abroad, to see the Empire as deteriorating.

This accelerated nationalist movements within the African colonies, with India referencing the beginning of the end. After all, if India could be granted independence through a powerful and violent nationalist movement, then why couldn’t the other far less prestigious colonies? Indian independence inspired others to rise up and attempt to take back control of their lands, accelerating the decolonisation process for British Africa. Similarly, plus to reiterate an earlier point, the Suez Crisis accelerated nationalism: Nasser appeared to be the “David” who had managed to annihilate the imperialist “Goliath”. This inspired nationalism in other colonies to grow and attempt to take back control of their lands: after all, if Nasser could manage it then why couldn’t they? Harold MacMillan’s “Winds of Change” speech four years later further inspired this nationalism as, for the first time, the government officially acknowledged the inevitability of decolonisation.

The speech sent the message to many colonial peoples that nationalism was acceptable: for the first time in almost 100 hundred years, power was given to the Africans. MacMillan was acknowledging that the British government could no longer afford to sustain an Empire and would be willing to pass power to the local peoples if they should so wish. The speech had a great effect as over the next ten years 88% of Britain’s remaining African colonies were granted independence; by 1968, only two remained. Nationalism was suddenly acceptable which encouraged those who may have been content to be a colony to rise up against imperialism. This speech, combined with Britain’s poor economic situation and damaged credibility following Suez, vastly accelerated decolonisation.

Moreover, the vast majority of British colonies were underdeveloped both economically and socially which further advanced nationalism. Take Nigeria for instance: the peoples were so against colonial oppression many began to “strike” from work – a surprisingly Western phenomenon implying the people were more integrated than they may have wished to believe. It is estimated that from 1945-50, over 100,000 working days were lost in Nigeria to strike action against colonial rule26. Even the Gold Coast (the “very model”27 of a colony) was not free of such demonstrations against imperialism: February 1948 witnessed a violent protest, resulting in the deaths of two British servicemen28. One only has to look at Kenya and the Mau Mau rebellions to see further evidence of increasing dissent with British imperialism. It had, to use the words of one modern historian, turned into a “rapid scuttle”29 of local nationalism.

The Gold Coast was decolonized in 1957 but had been allowed to gradually master the art of modern government over many years, leading to a much more stable society post-independence, making it the “very model of decolonisation”30. In comparison, when Nigeria was swiftly decolonised in 1960 the government was a weak coalition with limited power – two army coups followed in 1964 and 1966. Britain’s damaged reputation in the continent prevented stable governments from being created, resulting in far more fragile states today.

French Algeria (despite been a province of the metropole) saw terrible violence between the FLN and colons: to use a term of warfare, the Algerian nationalists utilised violent guerrilla tactics to spread their cause, resulting in a great amount of destruction and loss of life. Algeria bullied itself into independence in 1962 further showing that imperial metropoles were not as powerful as they once were. It is an exaggeration perhaps, but it can be said that the Suez Crisis was the first instance which led to these new states’ political and economic troubles which still exist today. Look at Egypt and South Africa today or, from a more international perspective, India and Australia, all of which were granted independence pre-1956 and compare them to the troubled states of Nigeria, Kenya (1963) and Somalia (1960).

The acceleration of British decolonisation in the latter half of the 20th century is the opposite of what the government and imperialists like the legendary Cecil Rhodes would have imagined just 60-70 years previously. They had fought sometimes bloody battles for the expansion of the British Empire into the “less civilised” areas of the world, yet now the government was seemingly trying to get rid of the Empire in as rapid and inefficient way as possible. Multiple factors account for the sudden acceleration of decolonisation, but most come back to the actions of the British: if Britain had, for instance, provided more support and direct governance in a Westernised style (as seen in the Gold Coast), her colonies would have developed at a greater rate leading to a greater level of content from the colonial peoples.

However her neglect and exploitation of her own people led to dissent within the colonies, leading many to “want out” before they were politically ready. The most pivotal British action which is continually referred back to is the 1956 Suez Crisis: for the first time in the Empire’s history, the British appeared militarily, politically and economically weak, causing many in the African colonies to quite fairly believe they could run their countries better. Nationalism was inevitable, and the international conflicts of the Cold War and the two World Wars couldn’t be stopped, implying that Britain herself was responsible for the downfall of her own Empire.

If the crisis hadn’t occurred then the Empire would have faded away through gradual decolonisation as each territory became more economically, politically and socially developed; instead, the Crisis turned decolonisation of Africa into a “rapid scuttle”31, with Britain almost retreating into a corner trying to distance herself as far as possible from the embarrassment of 1956. Today, it is easy to see that decolonisation was inevitable; the Suez Crisis just accelerated that inevitability. One of the world’s greatest Empires was established by one of the most powerful countries in the world, so it is only fitting that it was destroyed by one of the most disgraced – it is just unfortunate they were both Great Britain.

1 Cain, P. J. & Hopkins, A. J., 1993, British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914-1990

2 Hodgkin, T., 1956, Nationalism in Colonial Africa

3 Turner, B., 2006, Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War

4 Lapping, B., 1985, End of Empire

5 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 32

6 Thorn, G., 2008, End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80, Pg 16

7 McLaughlin, J. L., 1994, The Colonial Era: British Rule of the Gold Coast

8 Ferguson, N., 2004, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

9 Rohrer, F., 10/05/2006, BBC News [Online] [] [Accessed 25/04/2010]

10 Chamberlain, M.E., 1985, Decolonisation: The Fall of the European Empires, Pg 35

11 Hobson, J.A., 1902, Imperialism: A Study

12 Lenin, V., 1916, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

13 Darwin, J., 1984, British Decolonization since 1945: A Pattern or a Puzzle?, Pg 197

14 Cain, P. J. & Hopkins, A. J., 1993, British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914-1990

15 Cain, P. J. & Hopkins, A. J., 1993, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914

16 Beckett, F., 2006, MacMillan, Pg 97

17 Wilby, P., 2006, Eden, Pg 79

18 Wilby, P., 2006, Eden, Pg 128

19 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 85

20 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 128

21 Wilby, P., 2006, Eden, Pg 96

22 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 84

23 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945

24 Turner, B., 2006, Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War

25 Lapping, B., 1985, End of Empire

26 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 48

27 Thorn, G., 2008, End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80, Pg 50

28 White, N. J., 1999, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945, Pg 49

29 Lapping, B., 1985, End of Empire, Pg 227

30 Thorn, G., 2008, End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80, Pg 50

31 Lapping, B., 1985, End of Empire, Pg 227

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