Menu Close

Decolonization – Part 1 (Britain and France)

1. Notes on Decolonization

Decolonisation as a practice marked the historical transition of the world from the colonial empires to the nation-states. This transitory point has its own detailed history built around numerous narratives. Dane Kennedy, for instance, had given the four phases of decolonisation namely, the decolonisation of the new world (1776-1820s), the decolonisation of the old world (1917-1920s), the decolonisation of the third world (1940s-1970s) and lastly, the liberation of Soviet Republics after 1989.

The process of decolonisation was the result of the global wars between the empires which created a fertile ground for the various liberation movements to perpetuate. However, it took many wars, terror, and revolutions to reach from the Wilsonian moment to the Atlantic Charter and the actual transfer of the power.

In the following article, we present a montage of the decline of the two empires – the British and French empires.

2. The Decline of the British Empire

2.1 Asia

The British Colonies in Asia include the Jewel itself, i.e., British India, Burma, Ceylon and the Malaya Peninsula. Here, we will discuss the independence of Burma and Malaya.

2.1.1 Burma

Burma was annexed to the British India in 1886 after the three Anglo-Burmese wars. However, it was separated in 1937 to prevent the mingling of the Indian and the Burmese freedom fighters. Ba Maw became the first Prime Minister and premier, during this period, who was a staunch advocate for the Burmese independence. However, he resigned when the Britain joined the Second World War, making Burma belligerent by default.

Image: Japanese invasion of Burma

In 1940s, when Japan was on an invasion spree, Aung San, a communist revolutionary leader, formed the Burma Independence Army to assist Japan against the British. As a result, the British administration in Rangoon collapsed, and the Japanese installed a Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw in 1942. The BIA also changed its name to the Burmese National Army (BNA).

In the later years, the nationalists came to realise that they had just changed the colonisers, and had not gained the liberation. Thereby, when the allied attacked Burma in 1944 to end the Japanese rule, the BNA switched sides to Britain and in 1947, the Pang long Agreement was signed between different ethnic groups, and a Union of Myanmar was constituted in 1948 which consists of diverse ethnic communities. This diversity is the major contributing factor in today’s political situation in Myanmar.

2.1.2 Malaya

Like other nations, the Malaya peninsula got its independence in 1945 after facing several obstacles in its path for independence.

Malaya consisted of nine states ruled by the different Sultans; two British settlements namely, Malacca and Penang; and Singapore, a small island located a mile from the mainland. Apart from this, the population in the region was multiracial, comprised mostly of the Malays and Chinese, with some Indians and Europeans. This complex problem of vast population was solved by forming a federation in 1948 which made Singapore a separate colony. Further, with the introduction of Universal Adult Franchise, the Malays came to dominate with their large population.

Image: Chin Peng

On the other hand, the ethnic Chinese communist guerrillas led by Chin Peng, who had fought against the Japanese occupation, started their campaign for establishing a communist state. Resultantly, a state of emergency was declared in 1948, which remained until 1960, when the communist movement was defeated. During this period, the Malayans were mostly pro-British and gave no support to the Chinese.

Image: Tunku Abdul Rahman

The process of independence accelerated when the Alliance Party, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, brought together the main Chinese and Indian groups in a single party which won the 1955 elections. This was a sign of stability, and Malaya was granted complete independence in 1957.In 1961, Tunku also proposed that Singapore and three other British colonies: North Borneo (Sabah), Brunei and Sarawak, should join Malaya to form a federation. After a UN investigation, the Federation of Malaysia was proclaimed in 1963. However, Brunei decided not to join, and Singapore left the Federation in 1965.

2.2 Africa

The period of 1945 saw the rapid spread of nationalism as more and more Africans were getting educated in Britain and USA, and were aware of the racial discrimination prevalent in African mainland. Further, the British were ready to grant independence to them in the hope of continued economic dependence or neo-colonialism. They thought to move towards independence gradually but were notable to suppress the popular movements. The decolonisation of British colonies in Africa can be studied in three groups:

2.2.1 West Africa

The West Africa comprised of the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gambia. There very few European settlements, which were mainly for the administrative purposes, which made the West African liberation relatively easier.

The Gold Coast

The fall of the British Empire in Africa started with the Gold Coast (part of Ghana) in 1957.The process of decolonisation was comparatively smooth, with Kwame Nkrumah, a known name in the third world history, as the leading figure in the nationalist movement. He was educated in London and then in the USA. He led the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in 1949 and organised several national movements constituting boycotts of European goods, violent demonstrations and a general strike (1950). All this led to his imprisonment along with other leaders.

Image: Kwame Nkrumah

Ultimately, realising that the popular mandate was with Nkrumah, displayed in his victory over 34 seats out of 38 in the election of 1951, he was released from prison and made Prime Minister in 1952. All this was done under the new constitution which granted self-government to the people but not complete independence. The Gold Coast administration, however, gained experience under Britain’s supervision for the next five years and received its complete independence in 1957.

“A state in the grip of neo-colonialism is not a master of its own destiny. It is this factor which makes neo-colonialism such a serious threat to world peace.”

Kwame Nkrumah


Nigeria was the largest British colony in Africa. However, the hugeness and regional differences made the independence of Nigeria gruesome. The Muslim Hausa-Fulani tribes dominated the vast northern portion of the colony; the Yorubas dominated the West and the Ibos in the east.

The national movement was led by Nnamdi Azikiwe or ‘Zik’. He got his education in the USA and moved to the Gold Coast to work as a newspaper editor. However, he returned to Nigeria in 1937 to start a series of newspapers and got involved in the nationalist movement. In 1945, when he organised a general strike, the British realised it was time to leave.

Moreover, given the situation in Nigeria, the federal system was chosen in the new constitution of 1954, dividing the country into three local provinces with a centre in Lagos. The country got its independence in 1960 but saw a civil war erupt in 1967 when the Ibos declared the eastern region an independent country named Biafra.

Image: Nnamdi Azikiwe

Furthermore, Sierra Leone and Gambia successfully achieved their independence in 1961 and 1965, respectively.

2.2.2 East Africa

The struggle for independence in East Africa was a complicated one due to the prevalence of the ‘settler factor’ – the presence of European and Asian settlers.


The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was leading the national movement of Tanganyika led by Dr Julius Nyerere, who had studied at the University of Edinburgh. Dr Nyerere emphasised a government led by Africans with a mixed population of Africans and settlers.

In 1961, Tanganyika gained its independence with a black majority rule under the Presidency of Dr Nyerere till 1985 until his retirement. Later, it was merged with Zanzibar in 1964 and came to be called as Tanzania.

Image: Gathering of members of TANU


Uganda suffered from the typical problem of tribal dispute. The Kabaka, the ruler of the Buganda region, was against the idea of democracy in the region. However, in the end, the solution was sought with the formation of a Federation with some power to Buganda. The country, however, became independent in 1962with Milton Obote as the prime minister.


Kenya’s struggle for independence holds a significant position in the history of decolonisation. The problem was the presence of large numbers of non-whites who were ‘was violently opposed to the black majority rule’. There was also a significant presence of Indians and Muslim Arabs. The settlers claimed to be the white Africans who had worked hard on their lands and saw Kenya as their homeland.

Jomo Kenyatta, a leading figure of Kenya, led the movement for Kenya’s liberation. He came from the Kikuyu tribe and led the Kenya African Union Party after returning from Britain in 1947. The moderate part of the party wanted to acquire the African seats on the legislative council, while the radical wing wanted the total eradication of the British rule.

Image: Kenya African Union Flag

The Africans had a long list of grievances, the most significant being the unfair distribution of land. The whites had for themselves the most fertile lands for farming. Further, the Africans had also passed their tolerance levels towards the racial discrimination and the second-class citizenship they had in their homelands. Moreover, while serving in the army during World War II, many Africans realised that the racial discrimination was not their ultimate reality.

They also knew that the white settlers had no intention of sharing their power with the Africans after independence. On the other hand, the settlers refused to negotiate with Kenyatta and hoped that the party would self-destroy itself due to violence.

With little progress in resolving the grievances, an uprising broke out in 1952, popularly known as the Mau Mau Rebellion. It was initially a student movement organised by the Mau Mau Secret Society, mainly consisting of the Kikuyu tribe. In response, a state of emergency was declared, and several leaders, including Kenyatta, were arrested, even though KAU was not involved in the rebellion.

Several extreme measures were taken to suppress the violent uprising. Detention camps were also made where people were starved, beaten and hanged. The rebellion was, however, suppressed by 1960s and the so-called ‘wind of change’ was noticed and accepted. The prevalent discrimination in the land distribution was removed along with the restriction on the items which the Africans could cultivate.

In 1960s, Africans got the majority seats in the council and four out of ten seats in the council of ministers. Hence, Kenyatta was released in 1961.

Image: Tom Mboya

However, the independence in Kenya was delayed due to the tribal rivalries. Furthermore, when Kenyatta was in jail, new leaders emerged – Tom Mboya and Oginda Odinga. They were the members of the Luo tribes, forming the second largest community. In addition, a new organisation had also emerged, the Kenya African national union (KANU), which had successfully united the Kikuyus and Luos. When Kenyatta was released, he was immediately declared the leader of KANU. Although these two tribes had a coinciding vision of forming a strong and centralised government, there were other smaller tribes apprehensive of their dominance.

Consequently, a rival party was formed by Ronald Ngala called the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). They demanded a federal government against the centralisation envisioned by KANU. Both parties worked together for the upcoming elections in 1963, hoping to form a coalition government. However, the mandate gave a clear majority to KANU, and Kenyatta became the Prime Minister of a self-governing Kenya in May 1963. The demand for a federal government was dropped, and Kenya got complete independence in December 1963.

World History Book for UPSC

World History Book for UPSC Mains

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

2.2.3 Central Africa

Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia

Central Africa was deeply entrenched with the white settlers, which made the region’s decolonisation quite troublesome. Moreover, unlike in west Africa, the area lacked a significant presence of the well-educated Africans, as the white settlers did not allow much to be spent on the education of Africans.

When African nationalism was rising, the whites persuaded the British government in 1953 to form a union of three colonies: Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, known as the Central African Republic. This step was taken to preserve the supremacy of the white minority.

The distrust in Africans kept on rising and hence, the campaign for black majority rule started. Dr Hastings Banda led the movement in Nyasaland, Kenneth Kaunda in Northern Rhodesia and Joshua Nkomo in Southern Rhodesia.  

Image: Nyasaland

The campaign soon delved into violence and a state of emergency was declared in Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia. All this happened in 1959, when Britain’s Labour government was in power, which was quite empathetic towards the Africans. The Monckton Commission was also set up in 1960 which recommended voting rights for Africans, an end to racial discrimination and the right of territories to leave the Federation.

Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia opted to leave the Federation, which was terminated in December 1963. The settlers were, hence, defeated and in1964, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia became fully independent as Malawi and Zambia.

However, Southern Rhodesia got its independence with the black majority only in 1980. It was because of the reason that here the 2,00,000 minority of white settlers fought most fiercely to maintain their privileges over the 4 million black Africans. All the black African parties were banned. The racist Rhodesia Front party was unwilling to let go of its power and requested the British government to grant independence to Southern Rhodesia. The British Conservative government refused to the demand claiming to provide at least one-third of seats should be given to the Africans.

The prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, Ian Smith, rejected this idea which argues that the white rule was essential to prevent southern Rhodesia from the same fate as other newly African-ruled states. However, the new labour government of Britain continued declining the independence request, and argued for a black majority rule.

Ian Smith found no other way and declared Southern Rhodesia’s independence unilaterally, through the ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ (UDI) in November 1965. Initially, the British government resorted to economic sanctions by not buying sugar and tobacco from Rhodesia. The UDI was also condemned by the UN through a complete trade embargo on Rhodesia by all the member states. The neighbouring country of South Africa, ruled by a white minority and Mozambique, still colonised by Portuguese, were sympathetic towards the Smith Regime. While publicly condemning the UDI, many countries were privately trading with the regime, making the embargo inefficient. The Commonwealth countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, saw through the deliberate soft pedalling sanctions and wanted Britain to use force.

Rhodesia declared itself a republic in 1970. Gradually, the situation of the African citizens deteriorated to the levels of Africans in South Africa. But in 1976, the first signs of compromise by whites started appearing due to various factors. Most significantly in Mozambique, one of the two supporting neighbours, which got independence in 1975, where sanctions were imposed and rebels were allowed to work in their territory. Other neighbouring states also started supporting the insurgents. As a result, the area controlled by the rebels began expanding.

Image: ZAPU flag

Now Smith used the differences between the nationalist parties, ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union) and ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union), as an excuse to delay the transfer of power. However, these differences were reduced in 1976, and both the parties came together as the Patriotic front.  

Smith further tried by proposing a joint government of the whites and the UANC, the most moderate African parties forming the country of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. The Patriotic Front continued their guerrilla war as they had the mass support, while on the other hand, Smith gave up. The British called for the Lancaster House Conference in 1979 which agreed to the black majority rule.

In the election, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU won, and he became the prime minister of independent Zimbabwe in April 1980.

3. The Decline of the French Empire

The main French possessions at the end of the Second World War were:

  • Syria in the Middle East, from which they withdrew in 1946.
  • Guadeloupe and Martinique (islands in the West Indies)
  • French Guiana (on the mainland of South America)
  • Indo-China in south-east Asia: together with vast areas of North and West Africa
  • Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria  
  • French West Africa
  • French Equatorial Africa
  • The large island of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa.
Image: French possessions

The decolonisation of the French colonies began with suppression. The Brazzaville Declaration of 1944 rejected any idea of autonomy or even self-government. But the lessons from Indo-China and observing their co-imperialists, the British, gave them a reason to rethink their declaration.

4. Indo-China

The Vietnam struggle for independence is central to the decolonisation history.

Image: Ho Chi Minh

Before the Second World War, the French directly controlled Saigon and had a protectorate over Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia and Laos. During the war, the Japanese occupied the whole region. They were resisted by the League for Vietnamese independence (Vietminh) led by Ho Chi Minh. The Japanese withdrew in 1945, and Ho Chi Minh declared independence. The French, on the other hand, were fighting for their sovereignty in the Second World War but were not okay with the idea of accepting the sovereignty of their colonies. Ultimately, the French were defeated in 1954 after an eight-year armed struggle, and the Geneva conference granted independence to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

‘Remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and stability.’

Ho Chi Minh

5. Tunisia and Morocco

Tunisia was ruled by a ruler called Bey, and Morocco had a king named Mohammed V. Both the countries became French protectorates after the Second World War which enraged the people demanding independence even before World War II. The situation was complicated by the significant presence of settlers who had no desire to cut links from France.

Habib Bourguiba led the nationalist group New Destour in Tunisia. The group had widespread support among the people who believed that the independence would improve their situation. The New Destour launched a guerrilla war and in retaliation, the French banned the group and arrested Bourghiba in 1952. The French used all their power but couldn’t repress the guerrilla movement which was now becoming more left-leaning and less interested in negotiation. The French had too much on their plate, fighting against the Moroccans and Indo-Chinese simultaneously. They also realised that giving away power to a moderate like Bourguiba would help them to maintain their influence post-independence. Thus, in March 1956 Tunisia was granted complete independence under the leadership of Bourguiba.

Image: Bourguiba

Similarly, in Morocco, there was a nationalist party called Tstiqlal or Independence. It was supported by the King himself. The French removed the King in 1953 but were met by violent demonstrations and a guerrilla campaign. French didn’t wait for long and expensive warfare, hence, the King was reinstalled and Morocco became independent in 1956.

6. Algeria

Algeria has been known as the centre of the third world, as the country witnessed the most extreme resistance by its coloniser country. It was not ruled as a colony or protectorate but as a province of France. For some, ‘France without Algeria was no France’. The problem was the large settler population which didn’t want to lose its privileged position by cutting off ties with France.

The popular opinion in France was so mobilised that no government, despite what happened in Indo-china, Tunisia and Morocco, could dare to consider independence for Algeria. Moreover, it was thought that retaining Algeria would help the army to restore its reputation. This absence of dialogue meant that from now onwards the extremists had to try their own way. The French defeat in Indo-china also gave hope to the militants who formed the National Liberation Front (FLN) led by Ben Bella. They started Guerrilla warfare at the end of 1954and the French government kept sending a large number of troops to fight these militants.

This war was changing opinions in France. Many French leaders realised that ultimately the popular support lay with FLN. But the army was stubborn in maintaining the status quo and was even prepared to overthrow any government trying to give Algeria its independence.

In May 1958, seeing no way out, the government in France resigned. President Coty called general de Gaulle to become prime minister. De Gaulle ended the fourth regime of France and drew up a new constitution. The new constitution gave the president much more power. Moreover, De Gaulle was elected as the president of the fifth republic in 1958, where he remained till his resignation in 1969.

His supporters were, however, infuriated when de Gaulle, opposed to his earlier stand, took the path of negotiation with FLN. On the other hand, General Salan set up Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (OAS) in 1961. It was a terrorist organisation that murdered critics in both France and Algeria. They even tried to assassinate de Gaulle in 1962 after independence was granted to Algeria.

The violence was going too far; de Gaulle appeared on television in his general’s uniform and condemned the OAS. This caused a split in the army, and the rebellion collapsed. Tired of constant violence, the French people approved the peace talks in Evain and the release of Ben Bella, who had been in prison since 1956.

Image: Ben Bella

Algeria finally got rid of the French yolk in July 1962, with Ben Bella as its first president.

The other French colonies in Africa were: French West Africa, consisting of eight colonies: Dahomey, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauretania, Niger, and Senegal. Sudan and Upper Volta; French Equatorial Africa composed of four colonies: Chad, Gabon, Middle Congo and Oubangui-Shari; a third group consisting of Cameroon andTogo and the island of Madagascar.

When the wave of decolonisation had started, France devised a plan to retain its colonies. It turned their status into overseas provinces instead of colonies, giving them token concessions. But with the global wave of independence was on rise, France first tried to grant them self-government only. When they pushed for complete freedom, de Gaulle assuming that these new states won’t survive without French help, said that he would grant them independence on the condition that all the French aid would stop flowing to them. Eleven of the twelve West and equatorial African countries agreed to remain in the French community, while, Guinea, under the leadership of SekouToure, voted to remain separate from this union. It was given complete freedom immediately in 1958, but all the aid was stopped. Guinea took it with bravery. This inspired the other eleven states also to ask for complete freedom. Thereby, these eleven states  along with Togo, Cameroon and Madagascar, were given independence in 1960.

Lastly, the three French colonies – Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana were not given independence. They were now called overseas departments, with their people voting in French elections.

7. Conclusion

The centuries of colonization and disruption of people, resources and borders haunt many countries even today. The erstwhile colonial powers want to erase the memory of colonialism or at least white-wash it. They were too slow in recognising and apologizing for the not-so-civilised acts done by their co-national in the third world countries. Many post-colonial countries too didn’t hesitate to use the violence they inherited from their predecessors on their own people and ethnic minorities. Myanmar, Nigeria, Rwanda and Congo are among the few countries who suffer even today due to the structure of Nation-State that was adopted for them after the independence. Even then, most countries and their people have been striving every day to uphold the ideals of liberty and equality that their founders came up for their countries.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

8. Multiple Choice Question

1] The Burmese Independence Army was headed by whom?
a) Sukarno
b) Aung San
c) Ba Maw
d) Chin Peng

Show Answer

Ans: b) Aung San

2] Which party was formed by Tunku Abdul Rahman?
c) Entente Cordial
d) Alliance Party

Show Answer

Ans: d) Alliance Party

3] Gold coast, Nigeria and Gambia forms the part of which of the following?
a) North Africa
b) Central Africa
c) West Africa
d) South Africa

Show Answer

Ans: c) West Africa

4] Which forms the largest British colony in Africa?
a) Nigeria
b) Gold coast
c) Gambia
d) Tanzania

Show Answer

Ans: a) Nigeria

5] Which factors contributed to the rise of Kenyatta?
a) Racial Discrimination
b) Unfair distribution of land
c) Lack of power sharing
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

5] When the Unilateral Declaration of Independence came into being?
a) November 1915
b) December 1918
c) July 1920
d) October 1916

Show Answer

Ans: a) November 1915

6] The New Destour group belonged to which country?
a) Algeria
b) Nigeria
c) Madagascar
d) Tunisia

Show Answer

Ans: d) Tunisia

7] Who was the First President of Algeria?
a) Ben Bella
b) Gaulle
c) Aung San
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: a) Ben Bella

9] The leader Kwame Nkrumah was related to which country?
a) Nigeria
b) Gold Coast
c) Tanzania
d) Rwanda

Show Answer

Ans: b) Gold Coast

10] Tstiqlal was a word used to refer which of the following thing?
a) Political party
b) Trade union
c) Nationalist movement for independence
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Nationalist movement for independence

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments