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De-colonization and the collapse of European Empires


In the early twentieth century much of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean was controlled by European countries. These European empires all collapsed in the years after 1945.


The causes of the collapse of empire:


The colonies suffered badly during the Depression of the 1930s. The imperialist European countries had encouraged their colonies to produce raw materials for European factories. The price of raw materials fell catastrophically during the Depression. The result was poverty and great unrest in the colonies.


During the war much of the Asian territory held by the Europeans was conquered by the Japanese forces. Eventually the Japanese were defeated but the war had fatally weakened the control of the Europeans. It was now clear to the local people that the Europeans could be beaten.


After the war Britain, France and other European states faced many economic problems. They could no longer afford the cost of keeping their empires.


After the war there was a rising tide of nationalism in the colonies. At the same time there was a decline in imperialist feeling in the European countries.


Handing over power

In the late 1940s there was a wave of de-colonization in Asia and the Middle East. French forces left Syria and the Lebanon in 1946. The Philippines was given independence from the USA in 1946. At first the Dutch tried to fight nationalists in the Dutch East Indies but by 1948 the Dutch admitted defeat and granted independence to a new state known as Indonesia. Britain gave up control of the Indian sub-continent in 1947: two new states were created called India and Pakistan. A year later the British colonies of Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka ) became free.


Independence came a little later for African and Caribbean countries. Most French and British colonies were given independence in the early 1960s. The sudden decision of the Belgian government to pull out of the Congo (modern Zaire) in 1960 led to a civil war.


The end of European colonialism was complicated in those countries where a large number of European people had settled permanently. A bitter war was fought in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 between French forces and Algerian nationalists. The white minority in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) refused to share power with the black majority until 1980.


In South Africa there was a large minority of white people. Largely descended from Dutch and British settlers. Britain had given independence to South Africa in 1910 but this white minority held on to power. It was not until 1994 that the black majority of South Africans were allowed to vote and the black nationalist, Nelson Mandela, came to power.


The French tried to keep their old colonies in Indo-China, which included the modern countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Local communists fought a war against the French. The Vietnamese communists defeated French forces in 1954 and won control of northern Vietnam. At this point the USA intervened and propped up a pro-western government in South Vietnam until 1975.


The government of Portugal was extremely reluctant to grant independence to its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique. There was fierce fighting between nationalists and the Portuguese before independence was granted in 1975.


After Empire

The history of the newly independent states was often troubled. The European states had imposed artificial boundaries, which sometimes led to ethnic unrest. The economies of most former colonies were undeveloped and relied too heavily on the sale of raw materials to the former colonial powers.


The passing of their empires caused a sense of crisis in many European countries. There was a marked decline in power and status for those countries like Britain and France that had lost large world empires. Arguments over empire led to political turmoil and the fall of governments in France in 1958 and Portugal in 1975. Eventually most of the former colonial powers found a new identity as part of the European Community.


The end of empire led to a large number of newly independent countries. Some of the leaders in these countries were unhappy that world politics was dominated by the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union. A new 'non-aligned' movement began in 1955, when representatives from 29 countries met in Indonesia for the Bandung Conference, setting up a loose organization of states that were not allied to the superpowers.