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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the states of western Europe projected their power and their rivalries into much of Asia and Africa, establishing an “era of western domination over the rest of mankind” (Emerson 1960, p. 5). This creation of a global imperial order eventually generated a counterrevolution as colonized peoples organized anticolonial movements that asserted their rights to self-government. The age of imperialism spawned an era of nonwestern nationalism that gained great momentum during the twentieth-century world wars, thus changing the face of contemporary international politics.
The competition to acquire overseas territories was fueled by political, economic, and technological factors. European states developed military technologies, including naval maneuverability and enhanced firepower, that allowed them to prevail over the societies they sought to conquer. The search for exotic goods, raw materials, and new markets in which to trade provided a material motive for expansion. Political prestige was at stake as well, as states sometimes sought to compensate for defeats in Europe by victories abroad; doctrines such as the “civilizing mission” were invented to justify colonial empires. This gigantic historical enterprise transformed Asia and Africa, not the least by unleashing the will of the colonized to strike back.
Anticolonial movements such as the Indian National Congress, the Association of Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth, and the United Gold Coast Convention took form in individual colonies to confront different local situations. These diverse local movements were well aware of one another, prompting a transnational sentiment of solidarity against colonial rule. Although each movement adopted its own tactics and strategy according to its local circumstances, they shared a sense of common cause with one another. Some struggles for independence were violent, others primarily diplomatic, and yet other anticolonial forces shrewdly combined political and military means to achieve their goals.
A representative regional example of these historical processes can be seen in the case of North Africa. In 1830 France invaded the territory of Algeria, waging an extremely bloody war of conquest. Finally overcoming prolonged Algerian resistance, the French colonial administration encouraged European settlers to occupy the country. Once established in Algeria, France extended its power by imposing protectorates over Tunisia (in 1881) and much of Morocco (in 1912). Then as World War I (1914–1918) engulfed Europe, the French conscripted North African manpower into its army. When these soldiers returned from the trenches of Europe, they contributed to laying the early groundwork for what became national movements for independence. World War II (1939–1945) further eroded the foundations of empire as another generation of Africans was enlisted in the French war effort. In Algeria the National Liberation Front (FLN) took up arms in 1954, spurring France to negotiate the independence of neighboring Tunisia and Morocco in 1956. Through effective diplomacy as well as armed resistance, the FLN achieved the independence of their nation in 1962.
Movements such as Algeria’s FLN emerged, often under the leadership of western-trained elites, throughout the colonized world. Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru mobilized the Indian people against the inherent inequalities of colonial rule in the name of certain liberal principles such as self-determination, as articulated by the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. The Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh was inspired by both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the antiimperialist ideology of V. I. Lenin. Ho traveled to France and the Soviet Union on his path to organizing the anticolonial movement in Indochina. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana studied in the United States, where he was influenced by pan-Africanism, another anticolonial doctrine. The Sorbonne trained the Tunisian lawyer Habib Bourguiba (1903–2000), who assumed the leadership of the nationalist Neo-Destour Party. East African leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere studied in British universities. These intellectuals from developing countries found the means to turn the west’s rhetorical ideals of justice and democracy into tools of liberation. Thus did the imperial powers plant the seeds of the eventual formation of anticolonial movements.
Not only European wars, but also Asian ones destabilized the imperial order, allowing room for anticolonial movements to consolidate. Japan’s ambitions to become an imperial power in China in the 1930s, and later in Southeast Asia, shook the hold of the French in Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the British in South Asia. In India, where the Indian National Congress had been created as early as 1885 as a primarily elite organization, the anticolonial forces had built a mass movement incorporating a wide range of social groups by the 1920s. Thus the Congress Party was well situated to play a vanguard role in the march to independence in 1947. Nehru declared a neutralist foreign policy that offered support to other anticolonial movements. In rapid succession, Burma (now Myanmar) and Indonesia achieved independence under their prewar nationalist leaders—U Nu (1907–1995), who founded the leftist University Students’ Union in the 1930s, and Ahmed Sukarno (1901–1970), who formed the Indonesian National Unity Party in 1927. In Indochina, however, the French chose to resist the anticolonial League for Vietnamese Independence (or “Vietminh,” as Ho’s organization was known after 1941). France waged a costly war that lasted until the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.
The struggle in Vietnam was closely watched by the Algerian nationalists. The anticolonial movement in Algeria had long been divided into competing political parties and religious associations. The model provided by Vietnam’s successful guerrilla war inspired the more radical wing of the Algerian movement to organize the FLN, which carried out its first military operation on November 1, 1954, just months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Thus did a common anticolonialism lead to common strategy across colonized continents. The Algerian war in turn became a major episode in the history of decolonization. The FLN mounted an exceptionally dynamic diplomacy in the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, enlisting both recently independent governments and sub-Saharan anticolonial political parties in support of Algerian independence in such forums as the United Nations and the Bandung Conference. The latter, held in Indonesia in April 1955, was a meeting of the independent states of Asia and Africa, most of which were former colonies. The conference both celebrated this newly won independence and issued a call for ongoing efforts to end colonialism. The “spirit of Bandung” became a major mobilizational theme for the continuing anticolonial movement. The FLN was an unofficial participant in the conference (its representatives lodged within the Egyptian delegation) and it subsequently insisted upon representation of national liberation movements in similar conferences.
The pressure exerted upon the government of France by the war in Algeria became an asset for anticolonial movements in sub-Saharan Africa, speeding the process of decolonization on the continent. Likewise, the radicalization of the anticolonial movement in Ghana under Nkrumah—who proceeded from organizing the Fifth Pan-African Conference in England in 1945 to editing a paper called The New African in 1946 to serving as general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) in his homeland in 1947—accelerated the pace of events. Disillusioned by the moderation of the UGCC, Nkrumah formed the Convention People’s Party in 1949 and promptly initiated a Gandhi-style campaign called “Positive Action,” for which he was imprisoned by the colonial authorities. His popularity obliged the British to deal with his movement; by 1954 he won a promise of self-government, by 1957 Ghana was independent, and in 1958 he convened in Accra an All-African People’s Conference, which was attended by anticolonial forces from around the continent. Meanwhile, Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922–1984), a trade unionist who had assumed leadership of the Democratic Party of Guinea in 1952, persuaded his compatriots to vote for independence from France in a 1958 referendum organized by French president Charles de Gaulle in his attempt to diffuse the mounting international opposition to the French war in Algeria. Political momentum arising out of this Algiers–Accra–Conakry axis enabled anticolonial forces to sweep away the fractured colonial framework in seventeen more African countries in 1960, the “year of Africa.”
The influx of former colonies into the United Nations General Assembly allowed the anticolonial movement to harness that institution to the goal of eradicating the final vestiges of colonialism. The assembly sponsored the passage of, for example, Resolution 1514, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (December 1960). They formed new instruments such as the Nonaligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity to pursue the remaining agenda of decolonization in the Portuguese colonies and the settler states of southern Africa. Activist states such as Algeria supported the training of guerrilla movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea; upon independence in 1975 the Frelimo government in Mozambique in turn aided the Patriotic Front in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the African National Congress in South Africa, whereas Angola assisted the Southwest African People’s Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia. In South Africa, whose African National Congress (ANC, organized in 1912) was one of the oldest members of the collective anticolonial movement, the release of the activist leader Nelson Mandela in 1990 led to the election of an ANC government in 1994. These were among the final battles in the long march of decolonization.
The historian Hugh Tinker has called anticolonial militants “fighters, dreamers, and schemers.” Their common scheme was to build a local organization that could join a larger movement that restored self-rule to their peoples.
- Emerson, Rupert. 1960. From Empire to Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Mortimer, Robert. 1984. The Third World Coalition in International Politics. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Tinker, Hugh. 1987. Men Who Overturned Empires: Fighters, Dreamers, and Schemers. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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