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Decolonization has shaped modern world history, and continues to do so. In the eighteenth century the American Revolution (1776–1783) laid the foundations for the United States’ regional, then world influence. In the early nineteenth century Latin and Central American territories freed themselves from Spanish and Portuguese control (e.g., Paraguay in 1811 and Brazil in 1822). The European settler populations there, and in Canada, Australia, and other areas, used European styles of organization and, if necessary, warfare, to pressure imperial powers, and the result was full independence or more limited self-government, depending on the flexibility of the imperial power. But the most dramatic wave of decolonization was concentrated in the period from 1918 to the 1960s, when more than fifty countries and more than 800 million people gained independence from European rule. More recently, since the 1990s, the breakup of the Soviet Union’s “empire” of satellite states has dramatically changed European and wider international relations, leaving the United States as the only global superpower.
As late as 1914, however, it seemed likely that most Asian and African countries would have to wait generations for internal self-government, let alone full independence. Their populations were limited to traditional forms of resistance, often involving royal elites and their retainers and levies, or to localized peasant revolts against harsh rule, high taxes, and alien customs. For Asians and Africans, decolonization’s roots lay with the development of new local elites trained in modern disciplines—law, medicine, civil service—and their establishment of national-level political and, later, military organizations. These organizations had a dual significance: They could bridge tribal and regional differences to provide a “nation” in whose name sovereignty could be demanded, and they could organize state-wide resistance, ranging from peaceful civil disobedience to sustained guerilla warfare.
In analyzing these trends, scholars have identified three types of cause of decolonization: metrocentric, peripheral, and international. In short, these involve causes in the imperial power, in the colonized territory, and in the wider world. Some argue that one or another cause has the greatest influence: for example, that the cold war (an international cause) made postwar European empires expensive, as communist ideology blamed western capitalism and imperialism for indigenous poverty, and communist countries encouraged and aided revolts. In truth, such world or systemic tensions are not deterministic. They do exert pressure, but ultimately imperial powers may choose to maintain their empires if they are willing to accept increased costs.
The influence of metrocentric agency becomes obvious when we examine cases of empires that persisted during the cold war. One such case is the informal empire of the Soviet Union, which dominated satellite states in eastern and central Europe. When any of these states attempted to relax adherence to Soviet military and ideological norms, as Hungary did in 1956, they quickly discovered that Soviet tanks blocked their way. When Soviet “decolonization” did gather pace in the 1980s to 1990s it was not so much a result of pressures from the periphery as from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision that openness and reform were necessary for central economic rejuvenation. Likewise, Portugal, which by the time of the cold war had one of the smallest European empires, tolerated guerilla warfare until the fall of its dictatorship in 1975 brought to power a left-wing government averse to the cost, and authoritarianism, of empire. After 1975 Portugal more or less scuttled its empire, leaving Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor to their own devices. Portugal’s empire thus proved more durable than Britain’s and France’s, most of which was gone by 1971. In short, just as metrocentric concerns— centered in a metropolis or dominating central state— sometimes drive expansion, they sometimes accelerate or delay decolonization too.
Even in the case of Portugal, however, where metrocentric changes triggered the end of an overall imperial system, peripheral pressures did exist, with rebellion having started in Angola as early as 1961. Peripheral approaches also help explain individual examples of decolonization, and details such as the timing and nature of events. The demonstration effect of success in one colony can also create a domino effect, as in the Spanish colonies in the early nineteenth century, and in Soviet satellites in the 1990s, thus helping to explain the end of entire empires. In addition, in some cases only the peripheral explanation can explain how imperial powers were forced to disgorge territories they desperately clung on to. Key examples include Indochina (Vietnam), where the determination of first France (1946–1954) and then the United States (1965–1975) was ground down by Marxistinspired nationalist guerilla forces. Likewise, in Algeria, France reluctantly ceded independence in 1961 despite initially claiming the territory as an overseas department and integral part of the French state.
Although peripheral causes can help to explain the pressures on an imperial power, and metrocentric approaches can help explain how each empire responds, neither is adequate to explain the pulses or waves of decolonization outlined above, when several empires simultaneously decolonized. International pressures and events are also indispensable in explaining how some imperial powers crashed from glory to dissolution in the space of just a few short years.
Portugal’s grip on Brazil and Spain’s on its colonies, for example, were at first loosened by the Napoleonic Wars, which brought virtual autonomy to Brazil. Britain’s inability to quell revolt in its American colonies was as much due to France broadening the conflict as the colonists’ determination. More dramatically, defeats in war allowed enemies to quickly deconstruct the AustroHungarian Empire after 1918, and the Japanese Empire after 1945. Clearly, changes in the international environment, for example Woodrow Wilson’s championing of “self-determination” as a fundamental principle in international affairs in 1917, and the United Nations’ support for decolonization after 1945, also raised the costs and lowered the benefits of empire.
The above discussion adheres to a classic idea of decolonization as constitutional and legal liberation. This is decolonization as the formal handover of sovereignty, the lowering of the old flag and the raising of the new. Some people argue that decolonization is precisely that, others that it is much more, and does not always end at the point where formal independence starts. At one level, formal independence does not preclude metropolitan companies’ controlling much of the economy, and metropolitan scheming in local politics, even up to encouraging the removal of elected local rulers. After 1961 French culture continued to have an effect on elites in formally independent French-speaking Africa, and military and economic agreements ensured ongoing influence. This raises the question of how far decolonization goes to remove the ongoing political and economic hegemony of a former colonial power.
If decolonization is the removal of domination by nonindigenous forces, this could include the colonizer’s legacies in other areas, such as race and culture. One might think of full decolonization in terms of three Ms: the mass, the mind, and the metropole. Traditional approaches concentrate only on the mass, or the colonial territory itself and its main political, security, and financial institutions. Newer approaches also emphasize decolonizing the mind (i.e., freeing postcolonial culture and thought from tutelage to western ideas) and the metropole (i.e., freeing the metropole from its own tendency to inferiorize and dominate other peoples and territories). In this latter sense, postcolonialism (as a process of contesting the impact of colonialism after formal independence) and decolonization (as a process of removing control of indigenous peoples by other groups) overlap. The object of decolonization is not just government, but also other areas such as economics and its effect on the culture, ideas, and institutions of imperial domination.
The two approaches can be seen operating together through individuals such as Martinique’s Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), for whom imperialism was not so much a formal process as a mental hegemony, a domination of how people think. French imperialism aimed to absorb indigenous elites as francophone, and Fanon came from a family in Martinique—a French overseas department— which initially thought in these terms. But his experiences of discrimination in the Free French Forces, as a doctor in France, and of imperial violence in Algeria, where as a psychiatrist he treated victims of torture, convinced him that domination was exercised by a social system and experienced as a mental state not dissimilar to a mental illness. He later concluded that violent struggle was a powerful antidote to the condition. For him the violence was in itself empowering and liberating. He later supported the Algerian resistance, and his books Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961)—the latter calling for peasant revolution to ensure real transfer of economic power, rather than mere accommodation— influenced other revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara (1928–1967) and Steve Biko (1946–1977). Fanon’s own ideas, such as his conception of imperialism as an affliction affecting both the colonized and the colonizer, are important as an example of a general trend toward highlighting the cultural and aspects of decolonization and postcolonialism.
Decolonization remains a very real issue. It is an issue in terms of whether existing groups under outside domination, such as Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang under China’s hand, will one day assert nationhood, perhaps using force to demand independence. It is an issue in terms of whether the United States has inherited Britain’s mantle as an “informal empire,” asserting supposedly universal liberal and democratic values by “gunboat imperialism.” It is an issue in terms of how far “first peoples” such as Canada’s Inuit and Australia’s Aborginals will demand, and receive, further compensation and assistance to counter past repression and past appropriation of their lands. And finally it is an issue in terms of ex-imperial powers reexamining the domestic vestiges of imperialism in their populations, their prejudices, and their cultures.
- Betts, Raymond. 1997. Decolonization. London: Routledge.
- Darwin, John. 1991. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. London: Macmillan.
- Dawisha, Karen, and Bruce Parrott, eds. 1997. The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspective. London: M. E. Sharpe.
- Ferro, Marc. 1997. Colonization: A Global History. London: Routledge.
- Loomba, Ania. 1998. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge.
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