Few people now recall the 'high noon' of Empire, say the 1930's. "It is in the nature of OSPA", mused a President at an
AGM, "that our membership only grows older". Thus more and more of us are going
to have our own colonial experience associated with the decolonizing years, say the
1950's. But while many of us may have been involved then with different, minor,
individual aspects of the transfer of power, it is only now that we can put all those
pieces coherently together and look at the whole jigsaw of the end of Empire.
Martin Meredith's The First Dance of Freedom (Byron aficionados will recognise
the 'Detached Thought' of 1821) is a magnificent enterprise, painting the whole broad
canvas of Black Africa in the post-war era. Well researched, perceptively analysed
and compellingly written, here is an important and the most readable narrative yet of
the rise of nationalism, the transfer of power, and the sad decline of so many of the
independent African states.
For those who might want to pursue the history of the end of Empire and follow the
labyrinthine process and procedures of the transfer of power, there is a growing body
of authoritative and revealing literature. I am assuming that most of us have long
forgotten the 'official' and valuable pamphlet put out by the C.O.I. (No. 91,1970, at
5s. 6d) called Britain and the Process of Decolonisation. At the professionally scholarly
level, there is nothing yet to equal The Transfer of Power in Africa 1940-1960 (Yale
University Press 1982,), with its detailed and critical account largely based on
documents in the Public Record Office and in the local archives. Besides the penetrating
general chapters on policy, there are also authoritative case studies of the
decolonisation of East Africa, the Central African Federation and the Congo.
At another level, still impressive and arguably easier to read, is Brian Lapping's
generously-illustrated End of Empire (Granada 1985), companion volume to
the fascinating if controversial 13-Part ITV series shown in the UK.
Shorter (over-modestly, it is offered as an Introduction) and well recommended is
European Decolonization 1918-1981 by R. F. Holland (Macmillan 1985), which
in this case surveys not only the end of the British Empire but also of the French,
Belgian and Portuguese Empires.
As I contemplate my expanding bookshelf of studies of why and how Britain
relinquished her imperial status (and in this brief note I have paid no attention to the
even longer shelf of books about the last years of the Raj - including one set of 15,000
pages of verbatim official documentation on the transfer of power in India and
Burma!), I sometimes reflect on how long it will be before scholars turn their
attention away from the effect of the imperial sunset on the erstwhile colonial
possessions and consider the impact of the end of empire on the erstwhile metropolitan