Shaken by the events of twentieth-century colonialism,
leaders in Asia and Africa began to reevaluate what needed to
be kept from their own cultures and what accommodations with
the West needed to be made. Reinvigoration of traditional
beliefs and political structures was critical to the process
of decolonization. The beginnings of decolonization lay in
the development of Western-educated middle classes in
colonized Africa and Asia. Relying on primarily peaceful
means, indigenous leaders expelled colonial regimes. World
War I served to sufficiently weaken the Western colonialists
so that anticolonialist movements became possible. World War
II crushed the ability of the European powers to maintain the
- Prototypes for the Independence Struggles:
The First Phase of Decolonization in India and Egypt
Colonized long before Africa, India and Asian colonies were
the first to establish independence movements. Western-
educated minorities organized politically to bring about the
end or modification of colonial regimes. India and Egypt
provide examples of early decolonization movements.
- India: The Makings of the Nationalist Challenge to the
Regional associations of Western-educated Indians located in
major cities coalesced to form the Indian National Congress
party in 1885. Without a base of mass support, the primary
function of the early party was to present grievances to the
British colonial administration. Most of the issues
concerned the Indian elite, not the poor. Despite its
limited aims, the Congress party did allow the formation of a
sense of Indian identity.
- Social Foundations of a Mass Movement
British economic and social policies helped the Congress
party attract a mass following. Indians supported the
massive costs for the colonial army, high-salaried
bureaucrats, and the importation of British manufactured
goods. Problems among the peasantry, including shortfalls of
food supplies, induced nationalists to blame the British
policies that encouraged peasants to shift from the
production of food to commercial crops.
- The Rise of Militant Nationalism
Some nationalists, such as B. G. Tilak, emphasized the Hindu
basis of the mass movement. Tilak and his supporters used
Hindu religious festivals as a means of recruitment. Tilak
urged the boycott of British manufactured goods. Tilak's
conservative Hinduism frightened moderates, Muslims, and
Sikhs. When evidence of Tilak's support for violence against
the British regime surfaced, he was arrested and deported to
Burma. Some Hindus embraced terrorism as a means of ending
British rule. Terrorist groups favored secret organizations
that targeted British officials and public buildings.
British suppression and lack of mass support reduced threats
from terrorism prior to World War I.
Peaceful schemes for protest against the British rule, such
as those developed by Mohandas Gandhi, drew support from the
more violent movements of Tilak and the terrorists. With the
repression of the latter groups, lawyers within the Congress
party emerged as leaders of the nationalist movement.
- Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism in the Middle East
British occupation following the rebellion of Ahmad Orabi
left the Egyptians with both the Turkish khedives and the
British as overlords. Lord Cromer directed British policy in
Egypt. He attempted economic reforms to reduce the khedival
debts and to improve irrigation and other public works. The
masses of the Egyptian population realized little benefit
from the changes. The ayan, the greater landlords, were able
to extend their control farther into the countryside under
the British administration. The great estates came to
monopolize most Egyptian land, with small landholders reduced
to tenancy. Resistance to the British administration of
Egypt emerged from within the ranks of the Egyptian business
Journalists were particularly prominent in the
nationalist movement. As journalists attacked the British
administration and British racial attitudes, three
nationalist parties were created. To forestall more violent
nationalist movements, the British granted a new constitution
to Egypt that included parliamentary representation. When
World War I broke out, the British suspended the constitution
and imposed martial law.
- World War I and the Postwar Crisis of
the European Empires
World War I bolstered nationalist movements by weakening the
European powers. Hundreds of thousands of African and Asian
troops were conscripted for European armies during the war.
Colonies also served as important sources of food and raw
materials. During the course of the war, European
vulnerability became evident. As troops were withdrawn from
the colonies for the European fronts and administrative
personnel were recalled, Africans and Asians began to fill
posts previously reserved for European masters. To maintain
support, European nations made many promises for future
independence, but often failed to fulfill them after the war.
- India: Gandhi and the Nationalist Struggle
The White Dominions and India within the British Empire all
played significant roles in World War I. Even the
nationalist leaders of India supported the war effort.
Wartime inflation reduced standards of living among the
Indian peasants and produced famine in some regions.
Following the war, nationalists were frustrated by British
refusal to move directly toward independence. The initial
promise of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919 was offset
by the Rowlatt Act, which limited Indian civil rights.
Frustrations permitted Gandhi to build a nation-wide protest
against colonialism. Gandhi combined the qualities of a
Hindu mystic with the acumen of a Western-educated lawyer.
Both peasants and the middle classes supported his
leadership. His boycotts and campaigns of civil resistance
made him acceptable to both radical and moderate
nationalists. As a Hindu mystic, Gandhi could mobilize
widespread support for his movement.
- The Rise of Communalism and the Beginnings of Political
The one group that Gandhi found hard to convince were the
Muslims, who in 1906 formed a separate organization, the
Muslim League. Just as the Muslims frustrated Gandhi's
attempt to create a broad-based opposition to British rule,
so did Hindu extremists opposed to religious toleration.
Gandhi's attempts to repeal the Rowlatt Act revealed the
strengths and weaknesses of his movement. When Gandhi's non-
violent opposition turned increasingly violent, he called off
the campaign. The British then imprisoned Gandhi. Civil
disobedience was renewed in response to the Simon Commission,
which considered British responses to nationalist movements.
The depression, occurring just after the Simon Commission,
led to the revival of mass movements for nationalism. Gandhi
started the renewed campaign with the Salt March of 1931,
which forced the colonial government to make concessions.
The British opened all provincial governments to Indian
leaders in the Government of India Act of 1935.
- The Middle East: Betrayal and the Growth of Arab
In the years after World War I, the Entente powers broke
promises made to Arabs for independence in the Middle East.
Instead, British and French forces occupied mandates created
artificially within the League of Nations. In Syria, Iraq,
and Lebanon, Arab resistance to the mandate system was
common. More serious was Arab concern over the British
mandate in Palestine, which was coupled with the creation of
a Jewish homeland. Lord Balfour had promised Zionists in
1917 that the British would support a Jewish homeland in
Palestine after the end of the war.
Pogroms against Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern
Europe, accelerated the creation of Zionist planning for
migration to the proposed Middle Eastern homeland. Zionism
remained a largely East European movement until 1894, when
Theodor Herzl mobilized West European Zionism and formed the
World Zionist Organization. Zionism and the British takeover
of Palestine both seemed to violate assurances to the Arabs
of nationalist independence. Rising Arab opposition caused
the British to limit Zionist settlement in Palestine.
Zionists thus began to arm in order to resist both British
government and Arab opposition to further settlement. Arabs
in Palestine remained virtually without a voice in the
diplomatic negotiations concerning the fate of their region.
- Revolt in Egypt, 1919
The imposition of martial law in Egypt during World War I
imposed great hardships on the peasantry. When the war
ended, British refusal to allow an Egyptian delegation to
attend the Versailles peace conferences touched off a
rebellion. The British were able to regain control, but
were forced to recognize the nationalist Wafd party under
Sa'd Zaghlul. Between 1922 and 1936, British forces were
progressively withdrawn to the Suez Canal zone, although they
reserved their right to defend their interests in Egypt.
Although they had achieved a degree of independence, the Wafd
party failed to enact significant social or economic reforms.
- The Beginnings of the Liberation Struggle in Africa
During World War I, most Western-educated African elites
remained loyal to the colonial regimes. The war effort
disrupted African economies and drew heavily on African
manpower. After the war, the Europeans kept few promises of
economic improvement leading to strikes and civil
disobedience. As the depression took hold during the 1930s,
dissatisfaction with colonialism spread.
The first nationalist movements appeared in Africa in the
1920s in the guise of unworkable pan-African organizations.
Charismatic African-American leaders had significant roles in
the formation of pan-African movements. In French Africa, a
literary genre, negritude, celebrated black culture as an
attack on European racist attitudes. In British colonies,
there was more direct political organization. Although
actual political parties were slow to emerge, political
associations did begin the process of developing a mass base
and agitating for political reform.
- Another Global War and the Collapse of
the European World Order
World War II proved fatal to the European colonial empires.
Rapid collapse of the Allies in Europe and Asia destroyed
illusions of colonial strength. Even though the Allies
recovered sufficiently to defeat the Axis powers, they were
unable to restore the validity of their colonial governments.
The war drained European resources. Because the U.S. viewed
World War II as a war of liberation, they supported
nationalist movements in the colonies. The Soviet Union also
- The Winning of Independence in South and Southeast Asia
During World War II, Indian resistance to the British
government produced a campaign of civil disobedience called
the Quit India movement. Only the Muslim League under
Muhammad Ali Jinnah supported the war effort. Economic
disruption during the war increased support for the
nationalist party. When a Labour government replaced Winston
Churchill's wartime ministry in 1945, the new British
ministers began negotiations for independence. The Muslim
League insisted on the creation of separate Muslim and Hindu
states. Fearing a possible sectarian bloodbath, Congress
party leaders agreed to the partition of India in 1947. Congress
emerged as the political leaders of independent India, while
Jinnah took over in Muslim Pakistan. Until the borders of
the new nations could be secured, sectarian violence marred
the independence movement.
In 1948, a radical Hindu assassinated Gandhi. With India
gone, the British rapidly arranged for independence in the
other Asian colonies Burma and Ceylon. With the British
withdrawal from colonialism, the French, Dutch, and the
United States also began the process of decolonization in
Asia. The U.S. granted independence to the Philippines.
Although they resisted nationalist movements, the Dutch
withdrew from Indonesia in 1949. The French continued to
hold Indochina, until forced to withdraw.
- The Liberation of Nonsettler Africa
World War II shattered the image of the colonizers in Africa,
while producing some industrialization. There were two
primary paths to decolonization in Africa. Kwame Nkrumah
led a more radicalized independence movement based on
confrontation with the colonial government of the Gold Coast
through boycotts, mass rallies, and strikes. Nkrumah's
ability to construct mass support for his Convention Peoples
party eventually led the British to recognize him as prime
minister of independent Ghana in 1957. Other nonsettler
colonies within the British Empire also received independence
during the 1960s.
France followed a more gradual path to independence marked by
political concessions to African leaders who wished to
retain ties to the mother country. Between 1956 and 1960,
most French colonies in Africa achieved independence. The
Belgians simply abandoned their colony in the Congo in 1960
in the absence of any nationalist movement. Only Portugal
attempted to retain control of its African possessions.
- Repression and Guerrilla War: The Struggle for the
Settler colonies with substantial white populations resisted
the process of decolonization. When it became apparent that
nonviolent political movements could not succeed, African
groups turned to violent revolution. Radicals in Kenya,
discouraged with the Kenya African Union under Jomo Kenyatta,
formed the Land Freedom Army in the 1950s and began a
guerrilla war against white settlers and the British colonial
government. Although the British were able to defeat the
military threat, the British agreed to negotiations for
decolonization with Kenyatta. Kenya achieved independence in
In Algeria, the struggle for independence was longer and
bloodier. The National Liberation Front began a guerrilla
war against the French in the 1950s, but independence
negotiations did not begin until 1958. Even after
negotiations began, the violence in Algeria was sustained by
white settlers organized in the Secret Army Organization
against Arabs and Berbers. The OAS attempted to assassinate
Charles de Gaulle and overthrow the French government to undo
the independence agreements. Independence was finally
granted in 1962.
- The Persistence of White Supremacy in South Africa
Only in South Africa was a white minority able to hold onto
power into the 1990s. With a larger white population than
elsewhere, the Afrikaner population of South Africa had no
European homeland for retreat. They regarded themselves as
white Africans. To maintain their political superiority, the
Afrikaners depended on blatantly racist systems of social and
political organization. In the 1930s and 1940s, the
Afrikaner National party dominated the political scene.
Under its direction, South Africa achieved independence in
1961. Imposing apartheid, a rigid system of racial
discrimination, the Afrikaner minority imposed economic and
political discrimination on blacks, mixed-race peoples, and
Indians living in South Africa. A police state enforced the
dictates of apartheid.
- Conflicting Nationalisms: Arabs, Israelis and the
The fate of Palestine, more than liberation of other Arab
states, continued to be a source of difficulty in the Middle
East. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many supported
Zionist demands for creation of a Jewish state. Increasing
Arab resistance to additional Jewish settlement in Palestine
forced the British to limit Jewish immigration. The Zionist
military force, the Haganah, then began a violent resistance
to British government. In 1937, a British commission
proposed partition of Palestine, which was endorsed by the
United Nations in 1948. The Arab states surrounding the
newly formed Israel immediately attacked. Despite being
outnumbered, the Israelis were able to defend their new
nation and expand at the expense of their Arab neighbors.
- Conclusion: The Limits of Decolonization
In many parts of the world, decolonization was not a
revolutionary procedure. Power passed from one class of
elites to another. Little social and economic reform was
involved. Decolonization also did little to disrupt Western
economic dominance of the system of global trade.