The British Empire Library

Winding up the British Empire in the Pacific Islands

by W. David McIntyre

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by David Murray (Emeritus Professor, The Open University)
In March 1975 Harold Wilson's incoming government considered a proposal from officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that a conscious policy be adopted of accelerated decolonisation wherever practicable including in remaining dependencies in the Pacific. There was no Parliamentary statement and no white paper, but there was a despatch to Governors and Ambassadors. Professor McIntyre argues that this was the key policy decision that lay behind the winding up of the empire in the Pacific. In doing so he contradicts previous accounts that linked the end of empire to the British withdrawal from east of Suez. By 1975 Tonga and Fiji had gained independence under the prior policy of not holding back constitutional advance and independence but being guided by the wishes of the people and the needs of the territory. Under the policy adopted in 1975 first Solomon Islands, then Tuvalu, Gilbert Islands and, finally, New Hebrides were decolonised.

The central question addressed in this impressive study is why the British Government changed its mind about giving independence to Pacific dependencies after steadily maintaining that they were among territories too small, remote and poor to be independent. In pursuit of answers McIntyre has mined official archival sources in Britain and records of New Zealand and the United Nations. Prior to setting out his answers, McIntyre outlines the context in masterly overviews first of the emergence of empire in the Pacific and its reestablishment after the Second World War and, second, of the background set for the Pacific dependencies both by decolonisation elsewhere and by the Colonial Office's longstanding search for a future in the international order for small dependencies. He then explores the main drivers explaining the emergence of a policy of accelerated decolonisation, using the three categories deployed by Professor Roger Louis in his analysis of decolonisation and the end of empire: metropolitan infirmity, nationalist insurgency and international interference or, put more broadly, British domestic, colony centred, or international causes.

With reference to colony centred nationalist insurgency, McIntyre refers to colonial service veterans transferred from Africa to the Pacific expressing amazement at the apparent lack of political clamour in the Pacific. He suggests that the perceived contrast partly reflected different cultures; there were instances of political rebelliousness, notably in Solomon Islands and New Hebrides, but these episodes did not prompt changes to British policy. He concludes that domestic nationalism in the Pacific colonies played little part in driving the development of broad policy.

One significant influence on policy resulted from a British domestic development. An organizational change was critical. McIntyre argues that the main domestic impulse for the change of policy came in the late 1960s from the abolition of the Colonial Office and the assumption of responsibility for dependent territories by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO]. The Colonial Office, to the end, upheld a moral responsibility for preparing indigenous populations to make their own decisions, but to the FCO the Pacific dependencies were a legacy of the past, originally acquired for reasons that were no longer valid. A programme analysis and review assessment in the early 1970s concluded that it was in Britain's interest to be relieved of direct responsibility for these remaining dependencies. The FCO's assumption of responsibility for the Pacific dependent territories brought with it the application of FCO's ordering of priorities.

In the category of international interference McIntyre follows two main themes. The first was the growing impact of the United Nations. From the beginning the UN Trusteeship Council had influence in trust territories, but the effect of the UN became more focused from 1960 when the UN General Assembly approved the Declaration on Colonialism setting out principles for the grant of independence to colonial countries and peoples. This was followed in 1962 by the establishment of the Special Committee on Colonialism. By the late 1960s and early 1970s much FCO effort was going into trying to find ways to "get the Committee off its back". Britain was in the dock because of its remaining dependent territories and divesting it of colonial responsibilities was the "mainspring" of the FCO's eagerness to accelerate decolonisation.

McIntyre's second theme under international interference was the changing part played by the Commonwealth. He traces British aspirations for the Commonwealth which included opening up a future for smaller dependencies in the Pacific and, in a Commonwealth framework, Britain sought to coordinate policies with Australia and New Zealand, both of which had their own dependencies, and also to involve Australia and New Zealand more directly in the future of British dependencies. In practice the direction of development involved both a curtailing of options for Britain's dependencies and reinforcement of UN pressures on Britain to decolonise. Here New Zealand played a part: it discounted novel solutions for dependencies within the Commonwealth and instead worked cooperatively with the United Nations to decolonise its dependencies of Western Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue. In so doing New Zealand provided - as McIntyre expresses it - a lead to Britain on how to acquire good standing with the Trusteeship Council and Committee on Colonialism and 'pioneer' different ways out of the islands that satisfied the UN bodies.

The primary impact of Australia came through its position in the trust territory of Nauru where it was the administering authority and joint trustee along with Britain and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand were also the principal beneficiaries of the phosphate mined on the island. In the context of winding up the empire, Nauru's importance for Britain was that in December 1966, with only 2,734 indigenous Nauruans resident on the island, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that Nauru be granted sovereign independence and set 31 January 1968 as the target date. Australia and Britain voted against the resolution. New Zealand abstained. The year 1966 marked the closure of the Colonial Office. To the end it had been trying to fashion a place in the international order for those dependencies it judged to be incapable of independence. McIntyre quotes a memorandum of the following year from the successor Commonwealth Relations Office to the Foreign Office making the point that if Nauru became independent it would be impossible to withhold independence from any other Pacific island. When in 1968 the FCO assumed responsibility for the Pacific dependent territories, Nauru's trust status had been terminated and, as planned, it had already become an independent sovereign state.

As a comment in parenthesis on McIntyre's treatment of Nauru, previous publications suggest the part played by Hammer de Roburt, the leading Nauruan, may here be understated, de Roburt was an effective nationalist leader - however small his nation - who exploited the opportunity to use the UN Trusteeship Council and Committee on Colonialism to achieve independence for Nauru - and a better return from Nauruan phosphate - in the face of a reluctant administering authority. As McIntyre rightly notes elsewhere, President de Roburt's influence extended to the Gilbert Islands and Tuvalu and, indeed, more widely in the Pacific.

Into his narrative account built around British policy-making McIntyre skillfully weaves the story of Britain's withdrawal in turn from six Pacific dependencies. Each was different. From Tonga, a protected state, Britain had the simplest of exits; this was far from true of the others. By the time the FCO took over, Fiji was in sight of independence after a difficult transition. It was to the remaining four - Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Gilbert Islands, New Hebrides - that the policy of accelerated decolonisation applied. If, as Trevor Clark reported of the FCO perspective, "Britain can't be bothered with these potty little places any more" the FCO had nevertheless to engage with the particularities of each in turn and to face the fact they they all presented complexities out of all proportion to their populations. A longer book would have been needed to trace through all the details. McIntyre is necessarily selective but he nevertheless provides a well-judged and interesting account of the way in each dependency Britain met its aim of accelerated decolonisation, leaving only Pitcairn with its 83 inhabitants.

Alongside the account of Britain's exit, McIntyre gives briefer accounts of the parallel decolonising of their dependencies by New Zealand and Australia, recognising this to be an integral part of winding up the empire in the Pacific.

This book is a fine work of scholarship. It fills a gap in the history of how the British empire was wound up in the Pacific outposts. It appears to have been written with two audiences especially in mind: those whose interest is primarily in British imperial and colonial history and those for whom Pacific affairs is their focus. For both this is a clear, interesting and authoritative study but, from whatever starting point the reader is coming, they will find the book a pleasure to read.

British Empire Book
W. David McIntyre
Oxford University Press


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