Decolonization Research Paper

This sample Decolonization Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

The emergence of many independent states from under colonial rule or domination by European powers between 1945 and 1990 was more significant to a large portion of the world’s population than the Cold War, yet this decolonization has received less attention from historians. The process led to the sovereign independence of many states in spirit, as well as in name.

Not many years ago decolonization was a Cinderella subject in international relations, the poor sister to the study of the Cold War. For historians, it was the “inevitable” terminus to the history of empire, a sort of punctuation mark before the new history of postcolonial states got under way. In a world in which the division between the communist and noncommunist worlds still seemed the most important issue in world politics, and the great fissure of 1917 the real beginning of modern history, this was perhaps inevitable. Even so, it was always a curiously Atlantic-centered view of the world. It disregarded the fact that for most of the world’s peoples, the most important political fact after 1945 was the dismantling of the apparatus of colonial rule or semicolonial domination that had extended over so much of the world, and its replacement by around 150 independent states. There was always a powerful case for saying that the “headline story” of world history between 1945 and 1990 was decolonization.

Toward a Definition

Part of the difficulty, of course, was definition. Like imperialism, decolonization is a slippery, elusive term that historians and others frequently use without defining the meaning that they want to attach to it. But to think about decolonization, its significance, and its causes is necessarily to ponder its meaning. We can hardly explain it, or decide when it began, without being sure what it is. Typically it has been used in a narrow and restrictive way to mean the moment at which sovereign independence is granted to a former colonial territory. On occasions, this has been extended to include the process, or series of events, by which independence is reached. In other words, the term has usually been confined to those countries that were formally subordinated to an imperial power (by annexation, settlement, conquest, or protectorate status), and to the political and legal stages whereby they gained sovereignty. Defined in this way, it is easy to see why decolonization has often seemed no more than a brief and predictable epilogue to the age of imperialism.

There are two reasons why this conventional definition is of little use if we want to grasp the real nature of the change that took place. First, it makes no account of those countries where foreign domination in less formal (and less obvious) guise was the dominant fact in their external relations. The list is a long one: it would include China for much of the period from 1842 until 1949; Egypt from 1882 until 1956; Iran from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century; and the “mandate” countries of Syria and Iraq until after 1945. It might include parts of South America between the 1880s and the 1940s, or even later. It ought to include those parts of the former Soviet empire that were complacently regarded by the outside world as willing members of the Soviet Union. In other words, a legalistic definition of decolonization drastically reduces the scale of the phenomenon, and ignores the reality of foreign control in many countries where its overthrow after 1945 (or since 1989) has been the most powerful influence on their international attitudes.

Second, decolonization as the gaining of sovereignty is an unhelpful guide to the substance of freedom and independence. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all received full sovereignty by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Each became free to pass its own laws, change its constitution, and conduct its foreign policy. But all remained part of the British Empire and freely accepted the British Crown as head of state. When were they decolonized? Indeed, Australia and New Zealand became more dependent upon Britain for defense than they had been before 1931. Similarly, Egypt was declared independent after the wartime British protectorate was given up in 1922. But no realistic observer would have doubted that the wishes of the British ambassador were a cardinal factor in Egyptian politics.

Decolonization is more usefully thought of as the demolition—slow and gradual in some places, more rapid in others, long delayed in some—of a global regime that had existed in several dimensions since the 1880s, and which had largely disintegrated by 1960. The most obvious aspect of this regime was the partition of large parts of the world into the imperial possessions of the European powers (including Russia) and their junior partners, the United States and Japan. These powers also claimed rights of “informal empire,” through extraterritoriality and “unequal treaties” in theoretically independent states (nineteenth-century China is the best example). They also asserted a legal “norm” that conferred the right to intervene in states whose “standard of civilization” fell below their own—a right usually exercised on behalf of their own citizens. This global regime assumed a division of labor in which imperial states made manufactured goods, or supplied capital, while colonies and semicolonies produced the raw or semifinished commodities with which they were exchanged. Enforced free trade, like that imposed on China by treaty, was the means to achieve this beyond the frontiers of imperial rule. There was a demographic face to this global system. It was the mass emigration of Europeans to places of permanent settlement or (where their numbers were less) social mastery in the extra-European world; and a much-smaller-scale migration of Afro-Asian labor as transients with few rights and little prospect of citizenship in the lands that they settled. Finally, undergirding the whole was the pervasive notion of a cultural hierarchy (often expressed in terms of “race”). Those cultures not rooted in northwestern Europe might be sighed over for their beauty, admired for their subtlety, or envied for their spiritualism. But they lacked what the late Victorians called social efficiency: the capacity for the “moral and material progress” on which the British rulers of India sent an annual report to the parliament in London.

This broader and more realistic definition may allow us to think more precisely about the causes of the change that decolonization brought. It has become fashionable recently to claim that empire has revived—or perhaps never gone away. But if the criteria above are accepted, it is clear that although empires still exist, and perhaps will always exist in some form, empire as the organizing principle in international affairs, governing the ethos of interstate relations, was a historical phenomenon that gave way around 1960 to a new world order in which its characteristic features were largely obliterated. Indeed one useful way to think about decolonization is to see it as the successor phase in global politics between the end of empire and the onset of the new international conditions that set in after 1990.

Conditions of Decolonization

If decolonization is defined in this way, what were the conditions that brought it about? Typically historians have elected to emphasize one main cause: the irresistible rise of anticolonial nationalism, which forced the imperial powers to abandon their unequal privileges and concede national sovereignty to an emergent group of nationalist politicians. It is possible to find cases where this holds true, but as a general explanation it is defective. It ignores the extent to which, before World War II, colonial rulers had invariably been able to divide or outmaneuver their colonial opponents and keep overall control of the political process. This was what had happened in India, where the nationalist movement was stronger than anywhere else in the colonial world. For colonial rulers to lose their footing required the intervention of some exogenous force. A second school of historians has seen the decisive change as a loss of interest among the colonial powers, as new domestic priorities (financing the welfare state), new international concerns (the turn toward closer European unity), or more democratic values forced a drastic reappraisal of the imperial “burden.” But this claim is weakened by the fact that after World War II almost all the colonial powers showed a heightened interest in the exploitation of their colonial possessions. Third, it is often argued that the rise of the superpowers after 1945 handed global dominance to two states who agreed about little except their opposition to the survival of a Europe-centered colonial order. But this argument, too, must be treated with caution. American attitudes to European colonialism were at best ambivalent before the later 1950s, and superpower dominance before around 1960 is easily exaggerated. It is worth bearing in mind that the smallest and weakest of Europe’s colonial powers, Portugal, did not abandon its colonies until 1974.

The solution is not to retreat into a catchall explanation in which every plausible suspect plays an ill-defined part. What precipitated the fall of the imperial order that had imposed varying degrees of subordination on so much of the world was the astonishing course of World War II, which saw the catastrophic defeat of one of the two greatest colonial powers (France) and the virtual bankruptcy of the other (Britain). It was hardly surprising that the political controls, ideological norms, and economic structures over which they presided, and to whose legitimacy they gave strength, would be drastically if not terminally weakened. The most obvious symptom of this loss of power was the rapid postwar withdrawal of Britain from India, the colony whose military resources had underwritten much of the British imperium in the Afro-Asian world. To all intents, the imperial order was over by 1945. It was rescued by the Cold War, which allowed the old colonial powers, with American help, to recover some of their prewar position, and to offset their losses by accelerating the development of their remaining possessions. But the strain of this effort and the hostility it roused among colonial populations imposed heavy costs, both political and financial. It was aggravated by the partial (but irrecoverable) breakdown of the old order in East and South Asia and the Middle East in the postwar turbulence after 1945. When the superpower rivalry for influence became global in the late 1950s, the remaining apparatus of European colonialism was quickly demolished. By that time, its ideological legitimacy, cultural authority, and economic system had already largely vanished.

Decolonization, then, cannot be reduced to the achievement of sovereignty by former colonial states in a sequence that began in 1947 and was largely completed by the late 1960s. Decolonization was a much larger process that made sovereign independence possible for many small, weak states, and made it much more real than the nominal sovereignty enjoyed by China or Egypt in the interwar years. Decolonization was a transformation of the international system that occurred under conditions of a gradually intensifying bipolar rivalry. It was slow, untidy, and incomplete—leaving a Portuguese Empire until the mid-1970s, two white minority “settler” states in southern Africa until 1980 and 1994, and a Soviet empire until after 1990. As a phase in world history, decolonization may be considered at an end. Empires will survive (there is a “Chinese Empire” in inner Asia, and a “Russian Empire” in the Caucasus). New empires may appear, not necessarily in the form of territorial dominion. But the Europe-centered world order that decolonization dismantled has gone for good.


  1. Betts, R. (1991). France and decolonization 1900–1960. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  2. Cain, P. J., & Hopkins, A. G. (2002). British imperialism (2nd ed.). London: Longman.
  3. Darwin, J. (1988). Britain and decolonisation: The retreat from empire in the post-war world. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave- Macmillan.
  4. Darwin, J. (1999). Decolonization and the end of empire. In R. Winks (Ed.), Oxford history of the British empire: Vol. 5. Historiography. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  5. Fieldhouse, D. K. (1999). The West and the Third World. Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.
  6. Gallagher, J. A. (1982). The decline, revival, and fall of the British empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Hargreaves, J. D. (1996). Decolonization in Africa (2nd ed.). Harlow, U.K.: Addison Wesley Longman.
  8. Holland, R. F. (1985). European decolonization 1918–1981: An introductory survey. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  9. Howe, S. (1993). Anti-colonialism in British politics: The left and the end of empire. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  10. Kahler, M. (1984). Decolonization in Britain and France: The domestic consequences of international relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  11. Louis, W. R. (1977). Imperialism at bay: The United States and the decolonization of the British empire 1941–1945. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  12. Louis, W. R., & Robinson, R. E. (1994). The imperialism of decolonization. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 22, 462–511.
  13. Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. Manning, P. (1988). Francophone sub-Saharan Africa 1880–1985. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Moore, R. J. (1983). Escape from empire: The Attlee government and the Indian problem. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  16. Robinson, R. E. (1972). The non-European foundations of European imperialism. In R. Owen & R. Sutcliffe (Eds.), Studies in the theory of imperialism. London: Longman.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655