The British Empire Library

Ends Of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonisation

by Wm Roger Louis

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr Nigel Cross (Researcher in the history of overseas development and aid)
Roger Louis was the Guest of Honour at the 2002 OSPA Annual Reunion Luncheon; his address was titled Reflecting on the History of the British Empire. There is probably no living historian better qualified to reflect on colonial history. Louis is the editor of the multi-volume Oxford History of the British Empire, professor of English History at Austin Texas (the Americans invariably say England to mean Britain), and honorary fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford. His latest huge book is a selection from his essays and reviews over a forty year period, focusing on the geo-politics of the end of empire (rather than an economic analysis), with Suez as its centrepiece.

This is history as seen from the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the foreign ministries of Europe and the State Department. There are scant references to African, Asian or Arab sources or from Colonial Service members. Louis has spent over four decades burrowing away in the Public Record Office: no one has a better grasp of official archival sources. If you were a District Officer, or working with the agricultural or other technical services, you probably had little idea of the Whitehall shenanigans that would decide the future of the country you were working in and for. Few of these eminent mandarins and politicians had any first-hand experience of living and working in the colonies. But they held enormous sway.

Louis shows us the big picture through judicious use of the small memorandum. He traces Anglo-French colonial rivalry through the often jaw-dropping casualness of the politician or bureaucrat. Thus Lewis Harcourt, Colonial Secretary in 1915, is concerned that the war should lead to advantage for the British Empire; for example he wanted to acquire Djibouti from the French to consolidate British control of the Red Sea, in exchange for which (including the New Hebrides) he was prepared to offer "three fourths of the Cameroons... our half-share of Togoland" - and, depending on the give and take, "throw in the Gambia". Elsewhere Louis shows the tension between the Foreign and Colonial Offices - an FO official writes in 1954 "we are having a lot of difficulty in convincing the Colonial Office that the Communist threat to Africa is as serious as we believe it to be".

This threat, together with the growth of labour unions, armed struggle, and the negative economic costs of empire were all part of the 'winds of change'. But Louis points to the economic and political clout of America as a key reason for the acceleration of independence. Put simply, we owed America so much, and Roosevelt and Truman were implacably anti-colonial (as well as anti-communist), and in Truman's case pro- UN. There is a wonderful essay titled Public Enemy Number One: Britain and the United Nations, which shows how, by the late 50s, Britain's mandarins regarded the UN as Frankenstein's monster - as does the United States today.

But even as the empire retreated, young men continued to join the Colonial Service: as one said to me "I knew we were moving to independence, but as a young man in the 1950s, I thought I could play a part in making this happen in a helpful, orderly way". Louis' magnificent book puts this decent motive in the context of political realities and pressures.

Not the least of Louis' qualities is his independence; a non-British chronicler of British achievement and muddle. With 34 essays ranging from the Scramble for Africa to Pax Americana, this is a consistently stimulating book, with many lessons for today. There is, for instance, an illuminating essay on Iran, Oil and British Imperialism in the 1950s. The 15 acres of the British compound in the centre of Tehran "symbolised foreign dominance" and the extent of Britain's "informal empire". Something for Washington's strategists to chew over perhaps.

British Empire Book
Wm Roger Louis
I B Tauris
1 84511 347 0


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