The British Empire Library

The First Dance of Freedom: Black Africa in the Post War Era

by Martin Meredith

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
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 powers.

British Empire Book
Martin Meredith
Hamish Hamilton


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