The European empires had common characteristics that marked colonial relationships including the importance of trade and extraction of wealth by the colonizers.
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The Great Britain or the British Empire conquered vast lands in Southeast Asia and the Pacific including India after which it turned to Africa beginning with Egypt, Southern Africa, and Eastern Africa. This great accomplishment meant the colonies were forced or encouraged to venture into tradable goods thus it resulted to trade for the colony and forced labor. This marked the beginning of colonization of and these countries were placed under British rule and were not allowed to choose their own political leadership.
Colonization brought many good things to the colonies including education and other forms of civilization. However, the resulting social injustices, discrimination, and forced labor with low pay led to formation of liberation movements thus revolution by the colonies thus the beginning of decolonization in the period after the Second World War (Smith 92).
The pressure of liberation movements and other factors led to the British Empire’s decolonization of its former colonies. Given that, the British Empire was one of the most successful in capturing colonies around the globe, various historical landmarks that were beyond the Empire’s ability to contain marked decolonization.
Nevertheless, the question remains; what caused decolonization and what were the effects of the same?
Well, as exposited in this paper, the Second World War, anti-colonial movements, the United States, the United Nations declaration, the Cold War and the USSR were the main forces behind the decolonization while the end of British Empire and formation of the common wealth coupled with the bearing British legacy are some of the outstanding results of the decolonization.
Decolonization may mean different things depending on the perspective from which one looks at it from. On one hand, it is regarded as the obtaining of independence and self-governance where the colonies could determine the form of government that they wished to rule them.
From the colonizers point of view, decolonization meant the giving away of political dominance of the colonies translating to loss of world power, which came after a series of historical events that discussed later (Shunhong 4).
Decolonization is the process by which a colony, in this case an oppressed country, is determined enough to demand self-governance or the right to determine the political system of their respective country.
The fact that there are many cultures in the world means that there are different ways to live thus the need for the people to determine how to live. Determining ‘how to live’ may range from how to take care of their well-being, manage their expenditure and how to express their human rights.
Though not globally accepted, decolonization is the source of today’s emphasis on democracy, good governance, and human rights activism (Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, and Smith 8).
To some extent, the imperial retreat of the British Empire was not determined by their own will though they could manage to whom and how they would transfer power to their now enlightened colonies.
The British decolonization mainly took part after the Second World War ended in 1945 that took a general direction of confrontation between the local nationalists and the British imperialists.
It consisted of different forms and sometimes, peaceful negotiations were carried out between the colonizers and the colonies like the emancipation of the British India in 1947, while sometimes it was the result of bloody liberation wars and violent protests.
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However, in most cases, there were departures of the nationals and confiscation of their goods and weapons.
The British Empire’s Stages of Decolonization
The Great Depression had a big impact on the industrialized world as much as it had on the rural colonies due to the fall in agricultural prices faster than those of industrial goods did from around 1925 to World War II. International trade flows were damaged because the colonial powers shifted focus to domestic issues.
While some colonies like British Malaya retreated to small-scale farming, others like India and Africa, diversified leading to industrialization and as a result, they could no longer fit into their colonies systems.
The colonizers owned and run plantations were more susceptible to deflation compared to the natives, which led to reduction in their dominance and finally their retreat back to indigenous elite.
Later in 1930s, colonial efforts made only hastened their end; most notably, they changed from collaborative systems to creation of genuine bureaucratic governments. Political nationalism sprouted all over colonies and the British Empire appeared less capable of dealing with it.
The Government Act of 1935 was the culmination of reforms in the British Raj and direct control was reduced in Egypt. The World War II was followed by post war chaos and it presented a loophole for colonies like India in mid 1940s.
India’s leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led the masses in a peaceful resistance against the British Empire.
He became an icon of peace in comparison to the British imperialism leading to giving people a sense of nationalism. Indian citizens viewed their colonizers as the cause their violence and miseries leading to an independent India in 1947.
The Malayan Emergency began in 1948 and lasted until 1960 and its main origin was anti Japanese movements who after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War turned to the British Empire in hope that independence would be granted.
The Malayan Muslim collaborated with the British to overcome the guerilla attacks largely made up of Malayan-Chinese. It was not until 1957 when through independence a consensus was finally reached to give independence under commonwealth.
Britain continued to dominate as a world power and established her presence in the Middle East despite losing India because of the base at Suez Canal. The Suez Crisis engineered by Britain and France in a bid to regain it from the powerful Egyptian government that had nationalized it only served to expose Britain’s hidden cracks.
It was in such agreements that followed the Suez crisis that Sudan was decolonized followed by the Gold Coast in West Africa.
The Wind of Change Speech by the British Prime Minister Macmillan marked the last stage of British decolonization.
The Prime Minister wanted to avoid a ‘colonial war’ like the one France was fighting in Algeria resulting to Britain decolonizing most of its African colonies. However, the British white settlers in Eastern and Southern Africa only served to complicate the withdrawal.
Causes of British Empire’s Decolonization
The Second World War
Britain and its Empire did win the Second World War but it could not shy away from the devastating effects that the war had left both at home and in her colonies. Although Europe had previously dominated the world, it was now a limping continent because it was in ruins.
Britain was almost bankrupt because of the high cost of the war except for a negotiation of a $3.5 billion loan by the United States that helped to prevent insolvency. The loan was been repaid to the United States and the last of its installments was repaid in the year 2006.
Anti-colonial movements increased in the European nation’s colonies in the period after the Second World War.
The British considered the African colonies as immature and only introduced democratic level at the local levels or in the villages, forgetting that they had educated a number of Africans in the Western education system in the 1930s.
The leaders mentioned include Kwame Nkrumah of Gold Coast, Senghor of Senegal, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’ivore. These people came back to their home countries only to begin a revolt and lead their respective countries in the struggle for independence.
The nationalistic movements arrived at different times in different territories of the empire and this explains why independence was obtained at different times. Generally, India and Malay got independence almost immediately after the Second World War while most colonies in Africa had to wait until the 1960s.
The movements used different approaches in their struggle for self-determination and independence. Some used violent protests and guerilla wars while others like Gandhi in India used non-violent protests.
The Role of the United States
The then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 12 February 1941 in a discussion on the world matters after the war, which resulted to the Atlantic Charter.
Roosevelt was keen to introduce a provision in the charter, which stated that the imperial colonies would become autonomous implying self-governance.
The United States had the power to do impose such a clause for she was emerging as the new world power considering she had given Britain a loan to enable participation in the war. When the war ended, the African colonies and the United States exerted pressure on Britain based on these particular provisions.
Churchill had no option but to introduce the Charter in parliament, intentionally misinterpreting the term colonies to mean the ones they had captured from Germany during the war.
The Charter passed through parliament and it was on its provisions that most African colonies got independence through non-violent protests.
The Suez Canal Crisis came after the Second World War and presented another challenge for the government of the British Empire. The British wanted to maintain its wading presence in the Middle East and maintaining its base at the Suez Canal was crucial.
However, the lack of support by the United States served to weaken the prospects of British advancements and her army left in shame and defeat that led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
The Role of USSR
The Soviet Union was the main party against colonization. The Bandung 1955 Conference of the third word countries led by Nehru for India, Nasser for Egypt and Tito for Yugoslavia led to the creation of Non-Aligned Movements in 1961 and the movements were supposedly neutral because they supported neither the “first” nor the “Second” worlds.
However, the US refused to support decolonization fully against its European allies and this led to the nationalist movements, which were yet to win independence, lean more to the East.
China later appeared on the world scene led by Mao Zedong and created a conflict between the Soviet Union and other independent movements.
Although the non-aligned movement had a goal of being independent of both the US and the Soviet Union, they finally went the way of USSR and the smaller independent movements depending on their ideologies chose either U.S.S.R or China.
An example is the Cuban government that was neutral at first but later went towards Moscow and later sponsored other liberation movements itself in Angola and Mozambique.
The Cold War
Historians do not necessarily agree on the exact time that the Cold War began but a general agreement is that, it is the period between 1947 and 1991.
The period as shown relates to the period immediately after the Second World War, which was coupled with political conflicts and economic competitions between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies.
It was because of the tension between the West and Soviet Union that each of them went ahead to support decolonization to gain global support.
Although the US was neutral in the beginning, it had to change and support decolonization based on the Atlantic Charter of 1941 that emphasized on the right of all people to choose their own form of government.
It is important to note that the Cold War rivalry complicated the aspect of decolonization further because in principle, both nations were against colonialism.
However, America was opposed to communism while the Soviet Union was against imperialism and therefore, the United States would support existence of the British Empire if only to keep communism at bay.
The United Nations Declaration
The UN General Assembly voted in favor of the ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’ (“United Nations: Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, 1960”).
The declaration said in part that it recognized the desire of the world to end colonialism and that the continued existence of colonialism was a barrier to achieving international economic co-operation.
The declaration stated that everyone had a right to self-determination and further declaring that any inadequacy whether social, political, or economic was not going to be an excuse for delaying independence.
The British Empire was a member state of the UN since its formation in 1945 and was required to implement faithfully and strictly the provisions of the Charter. The Charter was a serious step towards decolonization especially for Africa whose liberation movements was greatly out-numbered military power and few numbers.
The ‘Wind of Change’
The British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan went for a tour across the African British colony for a month. He concluded his visit by addressing the South African Parliament in Cape Town on 3 February 1960 and it is on this day that he delivered the now famous ‘Wind of Change Speech.
The speech was the clearest indication that the Conservative party led British government was planning to grant independence to its colonies in Africa. This was a continuation of what the Churchill-led government had begun during and immediately after the Second World War.
The speech owes its name to a quotation in Macmillan’s speech that declared ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent…’ (Myers, Frank 557). The speech marked the beginning of the last phase of British decolonization and most of the African British colonies won independence between 1960 and 1968.
However, this wind of change excluded Southern Rhodesia where racism had prompted the British colonial rule to supervise until 1980 when elections were held and Robert Mugabe became the Prime Minister of the newly formed state of Zimbabwe after winning the elections held in 1980.
End of the British Empire
By 1981 after granting independence to Zimbabwe, the New Hebrides and Belize in 1980 and 1981 respectively meant an end to the decolonization process that had began after 1945.
However, in 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Island one of the British overseas territories and the British were quick to respond in a bid to retake the island, which was seen as an opportunity to rejuvenate itself and prove as a world power.
Later, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand delinked their respective constitutions from Britain that meant an end to British involvement in constitutional changes of these countries. The last major British territory that remained was Hong Kong that British government had to negotiate a deal with China.
It was agreed that Hong Kong would be an administrative region of the People’s Republic of China and this remained so until the handing over that took place in 1999. This handing over ceremony according to some that marked an end to the British Empire.
The British Empire Legacy
The Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Second World War, and the decolonization period marked a downward trend of the British Empire from where it were regarded as a world power until the emergence of the US and U.S.S.R who came to undermine Britain’s superiority.
However, the British Empire has proved to be the most successful of all the colonizers of the world. Until 2002, Britain had 14 overseas territories spread across the globe although British sovereignty of some of these territories lies in dispute.
These territories still rely on the British government for foreign relations and defense although they govern themselves. Britain succeeded in passing to its former colonies several of their cultures, traditions, and institutions.
The English language is a mark of the dominance of the British Empire and spoken by approximately one and a half billion people around the globe today (Hogg 224).
Most of the former colonies used the format of the English parliamentary system as the starting point of their governments and most of their constitutions that they are still using today were drafted in the United Kingdom.
During colonization, the Empire drew boundaries some of which became sources of conflicts between indigenous people and sometimes between the indigenous and white settlers from its former colonies.
The British Empire exported among other things its sports for example, football and the idea of driving on the left hand drive.
The British Empire gave birth to the British Commonwealth, which was later to be known as The Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is an intergovernmental organization of fifty-three independent member states all of which are former colonies of Britain except Mozambique and Rwanda.
These member states work together guided by the Singapore Declaration on 22 January 1971 after the conclusion of the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting where they promote upholding of human rights, good governance, democracy and observing the rule of law among others (Shunhong 77).
The British Empire had conquered the world with its economic and military power but it is important to note that it is on these same points of economic power and military strength that was its greatest undoing. The Second World War also exposed the colonies to politics empowering them through education.
Its passion to remain a world power made it to enter into debt and the British economy almost crumbled, which was the beginning of the process of decolonization by the British Empire that ended around 1980.
These reasons certainly caused the British Empire to give in to the pressure of the independent movements and decolonize its colonies.
The British Empire however, did not become extinct and the formation of the commonwealth is a testimony of the same. Continued partnerships and bilateral trade agreements between Britain and its former colonies go a long way to state the fact that colonization had a lasting effect to the colonized countries.
However, in today’s world, the effects of colonialism have continued to cause pain and suffering to former British colonies in the form of weak governments, civil instabilities, and human rights violations.
Talking of human rights violations, a delegate of former freedom fighters from Kenya accompanied by their lawyers visited the United Kingdom last month to present a case in court to be compensated for bodily harms caused during the colonization epoch.
It will be important to look into a form of decolonization that will involve new negotiations on the benefits the Empires got through contemporary trade and political relations.
Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West Peoples and Culture. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Myers, Frank. “Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ Speech: A Case Study in the Rhetoric of Policy Change.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 3.4 (2000): 555-575.
Shunhong, Zhang. The Collapse of the British Empire. China Social Science Documentation Publishing House, 1997.
Smith, Tony. A Comparative Study of French and British Decolonization. Comparative Studies in Society and History 20.1 (1978): 70-102.