In 1942 Sir Winston Churchill stirringly declared, ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ His fervent encomium of the Empire was almost religious in sentiment. The Empire stood as a ‘veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world.’ It was the bulwark of the mother country in the struggle against Hitler without which ‘the good cause might yet have perished from the face of the earth.’

Yet within 20 years of this statement, the British Empire had for the most part vanished. Despite the intensity of Churchill’s fervour and the fact that it was shared by many of his contemporaries, by the 1960s vast tracts of South East Asia, Palestine, the Indian Subcontinent, and Africa no longer flew the Union Jack.

This Imperial retreat was not something confined to Britain. Over the same period the French relinquished Syria, Vietnam, and much of West and North Africa. The Dutch were forced out of Indonesia, and the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau were subjected to a long-drawn-out war of decolonisation.

The collapse of European empires is such a pervasive theme of 20th century history that it is easy not to recognise just how extraordinary a phenomenon it was. At the close of the Second World War, the European states appeared determined to keep their colonial possessions. Yet in the space of a generation they had been lost. In 1945 around a billion people were subject to European imperial control. By the end of the 1960s this number had fallen to around 50 million.

The withdrawal of European governance was more often than not accompanied by war and mass migration. It also brought political upheavals both in the decolonised territories as well as in Europe. The tensions wrought by the Algerian War of Independence brought the French Fourth Republic to an end in 1958, and Portuguese exhaustion over their colonial conflicts sparked a military coup in Lisbon in 1974.

How the tide was turned

In Fight or Flight, Martin Thomas, Professor of Imperial History at Exeter University, asks afresh how it was that the tide turned so quickly against colonialism. He also investigates why in some places violence and disruption erupted before the end of colonial rule, while others were relatively untroubled.

His method is highly ambitious. He develops a comparative account of the collapse of the British and French Empires, primarily focused on 1945-1970. He looks closely at a wide range of episodes from this period of decolonisation from the more prominent examples of India, Algeria, and Palestine, to those not so frequently recalled, such as Madagascar and Ghana. In each case, he analyses not only the political, social and economic circumstances of the colony and the mother country, but also each episode of decolonisation in its wider international context.

It is difficult to read this book without discomfort. One is frequently reminded of the tension between the humanitarian and progressive claims of the British and French empires to be bringing modern standards of development and human rights, while in dealing with revolt they both frequently resorted to unrestrained brutality.

In Algeria and the Indochina War torture, rape, and the disappearance of insurgent suspects were a usual part of the colonial pacification strategy. In Kenya, as operations against the Mau Mau surged in late 1953, official statistics recorded the death of up to 120 Kenyans per week, with the real figure likely being much higher.

Sympathetic locals were co-opted into the fight, opening fractures in local society and causing revolt against the colonial power to spiral towards civil war. Again in Algeria, up to 60,000 harkis, or Muslim paramilitaries, were recruited to fight against the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Similarly in Kenya, the British became reliant on local assistance to fight the Mau Mau, recruiting loyalist Home Guard units whose families became targets for massacre at the hands of Mau Mau supporters. In the worst example of communal blood-letting, 120 women and children from loyalist families were hacked to death or immolated by the Mau Mau in the village of Lari in March 1953, sparking reprisals in which up to 400 Mau Mau family members were also slaughtered.

For all the proclaimed notions of human rights and fairness, places such as Kenya saw capital trials of rebels where basic standards of evidence were absent. By 1960, 1,090 Kenyans had been hanged or were awaiting execution. The conflict, like that in Malaya, was declared a domestic emergency rather than a war, thus allowing the exclusion of external oversight and the rights guaranteed to combatants under the Geneva Conventions.

Perhaps up to a quarter of a million Kenyans passed through insanitary detention camps for the sake of political ‘re-education’, where hundreds died through disease or abuse. Throughout the rural districts, Home Guard units burned settlements and seized land and livestock, denying the enemy access to food as a weapon of war.

Conflict and decolonisation

The concept that subject peoples required political re-education as a part of the response to colonial emergencies leads to one of the book’s significant arguments. In general, conflict as a part of decolonisation was difficult to avoid. But the scale and duration of conflict was very greatly lessened if the colonial power recognised sooner that the subject peoples had genuine political interests and grievances, and were prepared to negotiate with them.

In cases such as Kenya, where the long-term economic upheavals suffered by the Kikuyu people were ignored, or Algeria, where the aspirations of French settlers and the Paris government for dominance clashed with the will of the indigenous population, the rule holds good. Similarly in Ceylon, Ghana, and parts of French West Africa, where negotiation took first place, the scope for conflict was very much lessened.

The fact that in some cases Britain and France were unwilling to negotiate but chose ‘fight over flight’ comes to another important theme, that the trend towards decolonisation over the 1940s and 1950s was not as much of a given as we might perceive today. After 1945 France saw its resurgence as being integrally linked to the possession of Empire. Likewise, although Britain soon perceived that some colonies such as India could not be policed and had lost their military and economic raison d’être, others such as Cyprus remained part of a grand strategic vision where retention was still a benefit.

Other pressures, such as the vaunted US advocacy for self-determination, were not as strong as always thought, with Washington being willing to support the British colonies when it suited their own interests. Perhaps most important in undermining the colonial hold during the period was the increase of multiculturalism in Britain, the greater international awareness of what took place in such conflicts, and the spread of consumerism as local populations demanded greater access to the luxuries of the West.

Most striking about the book, although not a theme it overtly plays upon, is the persistent legacy of these problems. India and Pakistan are rarely far from the headlines, and riots among the Algerian settlers in France – many of whom fought for France – are legion. But most haunting is its description of General Maurice Gamelin’s action to hold Damascus for France in 1925. On 18 October, after an attack by 40 Druze fighters, Gamelin ordered the shelling of the city. 1,416 were counted dead including 336 women and children. After 90 years, although with Russia in the Syrian background rather than France, the same drama continues to play.

Review by Bijan Omrani