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Decolonization – Part 1 (Britain and France)

Notes on decolonization:

Decolonisation marked a historical transition when the world shifted from colonial empires to nation-states. This transitionary point in history has its detailed history and numerous narratives. Dane Kennedy gives us four phases of decolonisation; the decolonisation of the new world (1776-the 1820decolonisationtion of the old world (1917-the 1920s), decolonisation of the third world (1940s-1970s) and lastly, the liberation of Soviet Republics after 1989.

The global wars between empires created fertile ground for various liberation movements to perpetuate. However, it took many wars, terror, and revolutions to reach the Wilsonian moment to the Atlantic Charter and the actual transfer of power.

In the following article, we present a montage of the decline of two empires; the British and French empires.

The decline of the British Empire


British Colonies in Asia include the Jewel itself, i.e., British India, Burma, Ceylon and the Malaya Peninsula. Here, we will discuss the independence of Burma and Mayala.


Burma was annexed to British India in 1886 after the three Anglo-Burmese wars. It was separated in 1937 to prevent the mingling of Indian and Burmese freedom fighters. Ba Maw became the first Prime Minister and premier who was a staunch advocate for Burmese independence. However, he resigned when Britain joined the second world war making Burma belligerent by default.

In 1940, when Japan was on an invasion spree, Aung San, a communist revolutionary, formed the Burma Independence Army to assist Japan against the British. The British administration in Rangoon collapsed, and the Japanese installed a Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw in 1942. The BIA changed its name to the Burmese National Army (BNA). They later realised they had just had a change of colonisers, not a liberation.

By 1944 the allied started attacking Burma to end the Japanese rule in July 1945. The BNA switched sides to Britain. In 1947, the Panglong Agreement was signed between different ethnic groups and a Union of Myanmar was constituted in 1948, consisting of diverse ethnic communities. This diversity is the contributing factor in today’s political situation in Myanmar.


The Malaya peninsula got its independence in 1945, but not without any difficulties. Malaya consisted of nine states ruled by different Sultans, two British settlements; Malacca and Penang, and Singapore, a small island located a mile from the mainland. Apart from this issue, the population was multiracial, mostly Malays and Chinese, with some Indians and Europeans. This complex problem was solved by forming a federation in 1948 and keeping Singapore a separate colony. With Universal Adult Franchise, the Malays were to dominate with their largest population.

The ethnic Chinese communist guerrillas led by Chin Peng, who had fought against the Japanese occupation, started their campaign for establishing a communist state. As a result, a state of emergency was declared in 1948, which remained until 1960, when the communist movement was defeated. During this period, the Malayans were mostly pro-British and gave no support to the Chinese.

The process of independence accelerated when the Alliance Party, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, brought together the main Chinese and Indian groups which won the 1955 elections. This was a sign of stability, and Malaya was granted complete independence in 1957.

In 1961 Tunku proposed that Singapore and three other British colonies: North Borneo (Sabah), Brunei and Sarawak, should join Malaya to form a federation. After a UN investigation, the Federation of Malaysia was proclaimed in 1963. However, Brunei decided not to join, and Singapore left the Federation in 1965.


1945 saw the rapid spread of nationalism as more and more Africans were getting educated in Britain and USA and were aware of the racial discrimination. The British were ready to grant independence with hopes of continued economic dependence or neo-colonialism. They thought to move towards independence gradually but could not suppress the popular movements. The decolonisation of British colonies in Africa can be studied in three groups:


Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gambia

In West Africa, very few Europeans were settled only for administrative purposes. This made west African liberation relatively easy.

The Gold Coast

The fall of the British Empire in Africa started with the Gold Coast in 1957. The country to the name Ghana. The process of decolonisation was comparatively smooth, with Kwame Nkrumah leading the nationalist movement.

Nkrumah is a well-known name in third-world history. He was educated in London and the USA. He led the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in 1949 and organised national movements constituting boycotts of European goods, violent demonstrations and a general strike (1950). All this led to his imprisonment along with other leaders.

Ultimately, realising that popular mandate was with Nkrumah, displayed by his victory over 34 seats out of 38 in the election of 1951, he was released from prison and made Prime Minister in 1952. All this was under the new constitution that granted self-government, not complete independence. The Gold Coast administration gained experience under Britain’s supervision for the next five years and received its complete independence in 1957.


Nigeria was the largest British colony in Africa. However, the hugeness and regional differences made the independence of Nigeria gruesome. The Muslim Hausa-Fulani tribes dominated the vast northern portion of the colony; the Yorubas dominated the West and the Ibos in the east.

The national movement was led by Nnamdi Azikiwe or ‘Zik’. He got his education in the USA and moved to the Gold Coast to work as a newspaper editor. He returned to Nigeria in 1937 to start a series of newspapers and got involved in the nationalist movement. In 1945, when he organised a general strike, the British realised it was time to leave.

Given the situation in Nigeria, the federal system was chosen in the new constitution of 1954, dividing the country into three local provinces with a centre in Lagos. The country got its independence in 1960 but saw a civil war erupt in 1967 when the Ibos declared the eastern region an independent country named Biafra.

Sierra Leone and Gambia successfully achieved their independence in 1961 and 1965, respectively.


Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika

Here, independence became complicated by the ‘settler factor’ – the presence of European and Asian settlers.


The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was leading the national movement of Tanganyika. The movement’s leading figure was Dr Julius Nyerere, who had studied at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Nyerere emphasised a government led by Africans in a mixed population of Africans and settlers. In 1961, Tanganyika gained its independence with black majority rule, and Dr Nyerere was president till 1985 until; his retirement. When the island of Zanzibar got its liberation, it was united with Tanganyika in 1964, and the country called itself Tanzania thenceforth.


Uganda suffered from the typical problem of tribal dispute. The Kabaka, the ruler of the Buganda region, was against democracy. In the end, the solution was sought in the Federation with some power to Buganda. The country became independent in 1962, with Milton Obote as the prime minister.


Kenya’s struggle for independence holds a significant position in the history of decolonisation. The problem was the presence of large numbers of non-whites who were ‘were violently opposed to black majority rule’. There was also a significant presence of Indians and Muslim Arabs. The settlers claimed white Africans who had worked hard on their lands and saw Kenya as their homeland.

Jomo Kenyatta led the movement for Kenya’s liberation. He came from the Kikuyu tribe and led the Kenya African Union Party after returning from Britain in 1947. The moderate part of the party wanted to acquire the African seats on the legislative council, but the radical wing wanted the total eradication of the British.

Africans had a long list of grievances, the most significant being the unfair distribution of land. The whites had for themselves the most fertile lands for farming. Africans were also past their tolerance level towards the racial discrimination and the second-class citizenship they had in their homelands. However, while serving in the army during World war II, many Africans realised that racial discrimination was not their ultimate reality.

Moreover, they also knew that the white settlers had no intention of sharing their power with the Africans after independence. On the other hand, the settlers refused to negotiate with Kenyatta and hoped that the party would self-destroy itself due to violence.

With little progress in resolving grievances, an uprising burst in 1952, now known as the Mau Mau Rebellion. It was initially a student movement organised by the Mau Mau Secret Society, mainly consisting of the Kikuyu tribe. In response, a state of emergency was declared, and several leaders, including Kenyatta, were arrested, even though KAU was not involved in the rebellion.

Several extreme measures were taken to suppress the violent uprising. Detention camps were made where people were starved, beaten and hanged. The rebellion was suppressed by 1960 and the so-called ‘wind of change’ was noticed and accepted. The discrimination in land distribution was removed along with the restriction on the items the Africans could cultivate.

In 1960, Africans got the majority seats in the council and four out of ten seats in the council of ministers. Kenyatta was released in 1961.

The independence was delayed due to tribal rivalries. When Kenyatta was in jail, new leaders emerged; Tom Mboya and Oginda Odinga. They were the members of the Luo tribes, forming the second largest community. In addition, a new organisation had emerged, the Kenya African national union (KANU), which had successfully united the Kikuyus and Luos. When Kenyatta was released, he was immediately declared the leader of KANU. Although these two tribes had a coinciding vision of forming a strong and centralised government, there were other smaller tribes apprehensive of their dominance.

Consequently, a rival party was formed by Ronald Ngala called the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). They demanded a federal government against the centralisation envisioned by KANU. Both parties worked together for the upcoming elections in 1963, hoping to form a coalition government. The mandate gave a clear majority to KANU, and Kenyatta became the Prime Minister of a self-governing Kenya in May 1963. The demand for a federal government was dropped, and Kenya got complete independence in December 1963.


Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia

Central Africa was deeply entrenched with white settlers, which made the region’s decolonisation quite troublesome. Moreover, unlike in west Africa, the area lacked a significant presence of well-educated Africans, as the white settlers did not allow much to be spent on the education of Africans.

When African nationalism was rising, the whites persuaded the British government in 1953 to form a union of three colonies: Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, known as the Central African Republic. This step was taken to preserve the supremacy of the white minority.

The distrust in Africans kept rising, and the campaign for black majority rule started. Dr Hastings Banda led it in Nyasaland, Kenneth Kaunda in Northern Rhodesia and Joshua Nkomo in Southern Rhodesia.  

The campaign soon delved into violence and a state of emergency was declared in Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia. All this happened in 1959 when Britain’s Labour government was in power, which was empathetic towards the Africans. The Monckton Commission was set up in 1960. It recommended votes for Africans, an end to racial discrimination and the right of territories to leave the Federation.

Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia opted to leave the Federation, which was terminated in December 1963. The settlers were defeated. In 1964, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia became fully independent as Malawi and Zambia.

Southern Rhodesia got its independence with the black majority only in 1980. It was here that the 2,00,000 minority of white settlers fought most fiercely to maintain their privileges over the 4 million black Africans. All the black African parties were banned. The racist Rhodesia Front party was unwilling to let go of power and requested the British government grant Southern Rhodesia independence. The British Conservative government refused, saying that at least one-third of seats should be given to the Africans.

The prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, Ian Smith, rejected this idea saying that white rule was essential to prevent southern Rhodesia from the same fate as other newly African-ruled states. However, the new labour government of Britain continued declining the independence request, now asking for black majority rule.

Ian Smith found no other way and declared Southern Rhodesia’s independence unilaterally, called the ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965. Initially, the British government resorted to economic sanctions by not buying sugar and tobacco from Rhodesia. The UDI was also condemned by the UN for a complete trade embargo on Rhodesia by all the member states. The neighbouring country of South Africa, ruled by a white minority and Mozambique, still colonised by Portuguese, were sympathetic towards the Smith Regime. While publicly condemning the UDI, many countries were privately trading with the regime, making the embargo inefficient. The Commonwealth countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, saw through the deliberate soft pedalling sanctions and wanted Britain to use force.

Rhodesia declared itself a republic in 1970. Gradually, the situation of the African citizens deteriorated to the levels of Africans in South Africa. But in 1976 first signs of compromise by whites started appearing due to various factors. Most significantly, Mozambique, one of the two supporting neighbours, got independence in 1975, imposing sanctions and allowing rebels to work in their territory. Other neighbouring states also started supporting the insurgents. As a result, the area controlled by the rebels began expanding.

Now Smith used the differences between the nationalist parties, ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) and ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union), as an excuse to delay the power transfer. However, these differences were reduced in 1976, and both the parties came together as the Patriotic front.  

Smith further tried by proposing a joint government of the whites and the UANC, the most moderate African parties forming the country of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. The Patriotic Front continued their guerilla war as they had mass support. Smith gave up. The British called the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, which agreed to the black majority rule.

In the election, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU won, and he became the prime minister of independent Zimbabwe in April 1980.

The Decline of the French Empire

The main French possessions at the end of the Second World War were:

• Syria in the Middle East, from which they withdrew in 1946

• Guadeloupe and Martinique (islands in the West Indies)

• French Guiana (on the mainland of South America)

• Indo-China in south-east Asia: together with vast areas of North and West Africa

• Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria  

• French West Africa

• French Equatorial Africa

• the large island of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa.

The decolonisation of the French colonies began with suppression. The Brazzaville Declaration of 1944 out and out rejected any idea of autonomy or even self-government. But the lessons from Indo-China and observing their co-imperialists, the British, gave them a reason to rethink their declaration.


The Vietnam struggle for independence is central to the decolonisation history.

Before the second world war, the French directly controlled Saigon and had a protectorate over Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia and Laos. During the war, the Japanese occupied the whole region. They were resisted by the League for Vietnamese independence (Vietminh), led by Ho Chi Minh. The Japanese withdrew in 1945, and Ho Chi Minh declared independence. The French were fighting for their sovereignty in the second world war but were not okay with the idea of accepting the sovereignty of their colonies.

Ultimately, the French were defeated in 1954 after an eight-year armed struggle, and the Geneva conference granted independence to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Tunisia and Morocco:

Tunisia was ruled by a ruler called Bey, and Morocco had a king named Mohammed V. Both the countries became French protectorates after the second world war. This enraged the people demanding independence even before World War II. The situation was complicated by the significant presence of settlers who had no desire to cut links from France.

Habib Bourguiba led the nationalist group New Destour in Tunisia. The group had widespread support among people who believed that independence would improve their situation. The New Destour launched a guerilla war. In retaliation, the French banned the group and arrested Bourghiba in 1952. The French used all their power but couldn’t repress the guerilla movement, which was now becoming more left-leaning and less interested in negotiation. The French had too much on their plate, fighting against the Moroccans and Indo-Chinese simultaneously. They also realised that giving away power to a moderate like Bourguiba would help them maintain their influence post-independence. So, in March 1956, Tunisia was granted complete independence under the leadership of Bourguiba.

Similarly, in Morocco, there was a nationalist party called Tstiqlal or Independence. It was supported by the King himself. The French removed the King in 1953 but were met by violent demonstrations and a guerrilla campaign. French didn’t wait for long and expensive warfare. The King was reinstalled, and Morocco became independent in 1956.


Algeria has been called the centre of the third world as the country witnessed the most extreme resistance by its coloniser country. It was not ruled as a colony or protectorate but as a province of France. For some, ‘France without Algeria was no France. The problem was the large settler population which didn’t want to lose its privileged position by cutting off ties with France.

The popular opinion in France was so mobilised that no government, despite what happened in Indo-china, Tunisia and Morocco, could dare to consider independence for Algeria. Moreover, it was thought that retaining Algeria would help the army to restore its reputation. This absence of dialogue meant that now the extremists had to try their way. The French defeat in Indochina also gave hope to the militants who formed the National Liberation Front (FLN) led by Ben Bella. They started Guerilla warfare at the end of 1954. The French government kept sending a large number of troops to fight these militants.

This war was changing opinions in France. Many French leaders realised that ultimately the popular support lay with FLN. But the army was stubborn in keeping the status quo, even prepared to overthrow any government trying to give Algeria independence.

In May 1958, seeing no way out, the government in France resigned. President Coty called general de Gaulle to become prime minister. De Gaulle ended the fourth regime of France and drew up a new constitution. The new constitution gave the president much more power. De Gaulle was elected the president of the fifth republic in 1958, where he remained till his resignation in 1969.

His supporters were infuriated when de Gaulle, opposed to his earlier stand, took the path of negotiation with FLN. General Salan set up Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (OAS) in 1961. It was a terrorist organisation that murdered critics in both France and Algeria. They even tried to assassinate de Gaulle in 1962 after independence was granted to Algeria.

The violence was going too far; de Gaulle appeared on television in his general’s uniform and condemned the OAS. This caused a split in the army, and the rebellion collapsed. Tired of constant violence, the French people approved the peace talks in Evain and the release of Ben Bella, who had been in prison since 1956.

Algeria finally got rid of the French yolk in July 1962, with Ben Bella as its first president.

The other French colonies in Africa were: French West Africa, consisting of eight colonies: Dahomey, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauretania, Niger, and Senegal. Sudan and Upper Volta; French Equatorial Africa composed of four colonies: Chad, Gabon, Middle Congo and Oubangui-Shari; a third group consisting of Cameroon and Togo and the island of Madagascar.

When the wave of decolonisation had started, France devised a plan to retain its colonies. It turned their status into overseas provinces instead of colonies, giving token concessions. But with the global wave of independence on rise, France first tried to grant them self-government only. When they pushed for complete freedom, de Gaulle assuming that these new states won’t survive without French help, said that he would grant them independence on the condition that all the French aid would stop flowing to them. Eleven of the twelve West and equatorial African countries agreed to remain in the French community. Still, Guinea, under the leadership of Sekou Toure, voted to be separate from this union. It was given complete freedom immediately in 1958, but all the aid was stopped. Guinea took it with bravery. This inspired the other eleven states also ask for total freedom. These eleven states, along with Togo, Cameroon and Madagascar, were given independence in 1960.

Lastly, three French cololonies; Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana were not given independence. They are now called overseas departements, with their people voting in French elections.


The centuries of colonization and disruption of people, resources and borders haunt many countries even today. The erstwhile colonial powers want to erase the memory of colonialism or at least white-wash it. They are too slow in recognising and apologizing for the not-so-civilised acts done by their co-national the third world countries. Many post-colonial countries too didn’t hesitate to use the violence they inherited from their predecessors on their own people and ethnic minorities. Myanmar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo are few countries among many who suffer even today due to the structure of Nation-State that was adopted for them after the independence. Even then, most countries and their people have been striving every day to uphold the ideals of liberty and equality that their founders came up for their countries.

Posted in World History

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