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Why Britain reduced its Empire between 1939 and 1964 Essay

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Assess the reasons why Britain reduced its Empire between 1939 and 1964

In 1945 the Second World War ended, the next thirty years were to see rapid disintegration of the European empires and the creation of many new independent states. In this essay I will attempt to explain for what reasons Great Britain decolonised, and the effects this decolonisation had for those countries decolonised.

As a result of victory after WWI several former German territories in Africa and Asia were added to the British Empire. The British Empire was among the largest Empires the world had ever seen. It consisted of various territories conquered or colonised by Britain from about 1600. The British Empire was at its largest at the end of WWI, consisting of over 25% of the world’s population and area; including countries such as India, Malaya, Kenya, Ghana, Cyprus, Greece, New Zealand.

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World War I brought the British Empire to the peak of its expansion, but in the years that followed came its decline. Britain had growing economic problems and couldn’t afford to continue governing its enormous Empire. There were threats of Civil War in countries such as India; the threat of the spread of Communism from China into Malaya and the increasing problem of racism and prejudice in Britain’s African colonies.

The Empire faded gradually into the Commonwealth from the 1930’s onwards as one by one former British colonies and protectorates gained independence but retained this last link with the Crown. It was incredibly important for Britain to retain its trade links with countries that were/had been part of its Empire. Britain needed to change the face of its Empire, one reason for such a change was due to the view of the U.S – they were opposed to Empires and Britain did not want the Anglo-American relationships to even slightly grow apart.

At the beginning of end of the Second World War Britain had the largest empire, which spanned the whole of the globe. But in the next thirty years this was dramatically reduced in size. The first country to seek independence from Britain at the end of the Second World War was India. India was seen as the “Jewel in the crown” of the British Empire and was of key significance to Britain. Even before WWI it was evident that the Indian desire for freedom would prove increasingly difficult for Britain to contain and control.

Although British officials dominated the key posts in the civil service, barely one per-cent of the civil population was British. There were many disturbances and large unrest throughout India, the British government made some concession to the demand for a greater share by Indians in the local affairs. It was too late by now and this offer was no longer sufficient; the total withdrawal of British rule was now the aim of Nationalists.

The Indian society was made up of varying and often conflicting races, castes and religions – India had no single nationalist voice. Until some sort of unity could be achieved Indian aspirations would be frustrated, this frustration found outlet in increasing violence. This came to an end and then it was non-violence that now became the chief factor in the advance of Indian Nationalism. The move was called Civil Disobedience and was thought up by an Indian man named Gandhi. Gandhi was the single most important influence in the growth of Indian Nationalism. Gandhi was a devout Hindu although he sought mutual respect and tolerance between all religions and races.

Gandhi became a type of figurehead and identified with all castes. For a time he was even able to gain Muslim support. Although fearing that independence gained on Gandhi’s terms would lead to the subjection of interests in favour of the Hindu majority, the Muslim Nationalists preferred separate to collective action. It became a question of not whether Britain should withdraw but when they would withdraw. The Japanese War effort by Britain interrupted the Indian problem. Many Indians, during the war effort, tried to overthrow British rule but the police and the army remained loyal and British control was unbroken. At the end of the Japanese War it was obvious to see that to keep control of India against the wish of her peoples would stretch Britain’s resources too far, Britain could no longer afford to do so and the will to do so had largely gone.

The Muslim League, led by Jinnah, was increasingly suspicious of the Hindus, represented by the Congress Party and its leader Nehru, an upper class Anglophile. A sizeable Sikh minority was equally apprehensive of being swamped in an independent India. To such groups, federation within a single sovereign state was not acceptable. Partition seemed to be the only solution that would make the dominant religious groups happy. After much haggling and arguing the Hindu Congress and Muslim League agreed to the partition proposals: India, the sub continent, was to be divided into two distinct states; India, overwhelmingly Hindu; Pakistan and East Pakistan predominatly Muslim. The British method of partition was to set a date for British withdrawal 1947, and then work up until this date to achieve a peaceful partition. When the partition was created making India a Hindu state and Pakistan a Muslim state many people found themselves in the wrong area and there was a lot of mass movement of people between the two areas.

To Britain the most valuable dependency of all was Malaya, which is an example of what the British were willing to do where the Empire remained worth while. In the latter half of the 19th century Malaya’s economy assumed many of the major aspects of its present character. The output of tin, which had been mined for centuries, increased greatly with the utilisation of modern methods. Rubber trees were introduced (Indian labourers were imported to work the rubber plantations), and Malaya became a leading rubber producer. In 1948 its net dollar earnings amounted to �170 million and it provided over half the USA’s imports of rubber and nearly all imports of tin.

In the difficult days after WWII Malaya’s exports were vitally important in keeping the Sterling Area solvent. The Sterling Area was formed in 1939 to maintain the pound sterling as an international currency. It included the whole of the British Empire and Commonwealth, with few exceptions. This meant that Malaya had to buy goods from within the Sterling Area, meaning their money was tied up in the Empire. Malaya’s economic character, as well as its geographic position, gave it great strategic importance. The British built their fortifications accordingly at Singapore.

The Malayans, anxious to regain their independence, had first to face an unexpected challenge from Communist Guerrillas, mainly Chinese, who were anxious to acquire control of the many raw materials in Malaya. The Chinese were a minority in Malaya and not popular. The Malayans didn’t want to fall under the control of their great neighbour, Communist China. They were willing to accept the assistance of British forces and the Guerrillas, after about five years were expelled.

After the defeat of the communists Malaya moved quietly to independence. The Malayans united behind Rahman. Rahman was the kind of courteous conservative with whom the British had always felt able to do business. The federation of Malaya became an independent state within the Commonwealth on 31st August 1957.

Britain controlled many countries in Africa including the following; Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda and Kenya. Kenya was one of the most important of the African countries. Strategically the Naval Base at Mombasa Port near to the Suez Canal was priceless. If the port fell into the hands of the Communists it would prove devastating. Climatically it was suitable for European settlement and the British saw it as a “New Australia”. British settlers went out in small numbers before and after WWI and in rather large numbers after WWII.

Those that moved out there successfully introduced plantation farming of crops such as coffee and tea, the land was very rich. The British settlers believed that the country belonged to them and expected to evolve a government like that of Canada or Australia. Due to the large European population Britain didn’t want to upset them, it was said that there would be an all white Kenyan Government. Despite this, the settlers received a major set back when they were told; “Primarily Kenya is an African territory…the interests of the African natives must be paramount” by the Duke of Devonshire, Colonial Secretary.

Other than the European community there was another outside community within Kenya, an Asian community. The Asians were prosperous and sometimes became money lenders. They were hated by the Africans. Britain saw themselves and America as being superior to the Asian world and then again that the Asian world was superior to the Africans. The British did not think that the Africans were intelligent enough to be able to run their own country, this was seen as being a very racist and prejudiced viewpoint and there was a loss of confidence.

The Kikuyu were farmers in the region where the capital of Nairobi had been established. They were more disturbed in the possession of their land than other tribes and they also came into contact with European ideas and European education. Jomo Kenyatta, later the leader of the Kikuyu, was first educated at a Presbyterian mission school.

The first African organisation, the Kikuyu Association was formed in 1920 but was a very moderate body made up of the elders and the chiefs. In 1921 the Young Kikuyu Association was founded by the younger men, educated like Kenyatta himself in the mission schools, and was much more radical in temper. Kenyatta was abroad from 1929 to 1946. When he returned he found that the Kikuyu Central Association had been condemned as trying to undermine the Government during the war and that very little constitutional progress had been made. Only in 1952 were Africans elected to the Council and then by a complicated indirect system.

The early 1950s saw the terrorist outbreaks known as the Mau Mau. With their fearsome oaths and occasional atrocities, they spread terror among the European community, although in fact most of the atrocities were against other Africans. It was unknown whether Kenyatta had any connection with the Mau Mau, he was arrested and banished to a northern part of the colony. The white colonists could not conquer the Mau Mau on their own and had to ask for troop reinforcements from Britain. This need for outside assistance ended any remaining thoughts that settlers might have had that they would be capable of running an independent state.

During the Mau Mau troubles a new constitution was introduced into Kenya called the Lyttleton constitution. This was an extremely complicated system designed to allow the Africans to gain some ministerial experience. Many of the more die hard Europeans didn’t like this at all. A new European Party was set up, the United Country Party, to work for a society which would be multi-racial yet would safeguard both the political and land rights of the Europeans.

This was doomed, the tide was now firmly in favour of making Kenya an independent African country, although there were seats reserved in the Legislative Council for minority groups, including Europeans. There were now two main African parties, the K.A.N.U which drew its strength from the Kikuyu and Luo tribes and favoured a centralised system of government, and the K.A.D.U, supported by the Masai and a number of smaller tribes who wanted a more federal system of government. K.A.N.U, led by Kenyatta, won the 1963 election, the last before Kenya got independence on the 12th of December 1963.

Economically Britain could not possibly to afford to maintain an Empire. It could not afford to defend its countries from outside attacking forces, let alone from enemies within. The threats of civil war, in terms of India, was a very dangerous one, it would have been impossible for Britain to control the entire population of India with its army. Britain without a doubt relied heavily on the trade links within its Empire, it couldn’t afford to lose these links but it could not afford to keep them at the way things were going. By creating the Common-Wealth it made it possible for Britain to hand over Independence to countries, making them happy, as well as keeping them within a trading circle. Most of the countries in the Empire wanted Independence, Britain wanted the trade to remain, it was the best solution.

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