Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.
Pedro Aires Oliveira
The dissolution of Portugal’s African empire took place in the mid-1970s, a decade after the dismantling of similar imperial formations across Europe. Contrary to other European metropoles, Portuguese rulers were unwilling to meet the demands for self-determination in their dependencies, and thus mobilized considerable resources for a long, drawn-out conflict in Angola, Guinea, and Mozambique from 1961 to 1974. Several factors can explain Lisbon’s refusal to come to terms with the “winds of change” that had swept Africa since the late 1950s, from the belief of its decision-makers that Portugal lacked the means to conduct a successful “exit strategy” (akin to the “neocolonial” approach followed by the British, the French, or the Belgians), to the dictatorial nature of Salazar’s “New State,” which prevented a free and open debate on the costs of upholding an empire against the anti-colonial consensus that had prevailed in the United Nations since the early 1960s.
Taking advantage of its Cold War alliances (as well as secret pacts with Rhodesia and South Africa), Portugal was long able to accommodate the armed insurgencies that erupted in three of its colonies, thereby containing external pressures to decolonize. Through an approach that combined classic “divide and rule” tactics, schemes for population control, and developmental efforts, Portugal’s African empire was able to soldier on for longer than many observers expected. But this uncompromising stance came with a price: the armed forces’ dissatisfaction with a stalemate that had no end in sight. In April 1974, a military coup d’etat put an end to five decades of authoritarianism in the metropole and cleared the way for transfer of power arrangements in the five lusophone African territories. The outcome, though, would be an extremely disorderly transition, in which the political inexperience of the new elites in Lisbon, the die-hard attitude of groups of white settlers, the divisions among the African nationalists, and the meddling of foreign powers all played critical roles.
In the first half of the 20th century, Sudan, which included the territories of present-day Sudan and South Sudan, was ruled by a dual colonial government known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899–1956). Britain was the senior partner in this administration, Egypt being itself politically and militarily subordinated to Britain between 1882 and 1956. During most of the colonial period, Sudan was ruled as two Sudans, as the British sought to separate the predominantly Islamic and Arabic-speaking North from the multireligious and multilingual South. Educational policy was no exception to this: until 1947, the British developed a government school system in the North while leaving educational matters in the hands of Christian missionaries in the South. In the North, the numerically dominant government school network coexisted with Egyptian schools, missionary schools, community schools, and Sudanese private schools. In the South, schools were established by the Anglican Church Missionary Society, the Roman Catholic Verona Fathers, and the American Presbyterian Mission. Whereas Arabic and English were the mediums of instruction in Northern schools, the linguistic situation was more complicated in the South, where local vernaculars, English and Romanized Arabic were used in missionary schools.
The last colonial decade (1947–1957) witnessed a triple process of educational expansion, unification, and nationalization. Mounting Anglo-Egyptian rivalries over the control of Sudan and the polarization of Sudanese nationalists into “pro-British” independentists and “pro-Egyptian” unionists led the British authorities in Khartoum to boost government education while giving up the policy of separate rule between North and South. In practice, educational unification of the two Sudanese regions meant the alignment of Southern curricula on Northern programs and the introduction of Arabic into Southern schools, first as a subject matter, then as a medium of instruction. Missionary and other private schools were nationalized one year after Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt (1956).
Angola’s contemporary political boundaries resulted from 20th-century colonialism. The roots of Angola, however, reach far into the past. When Portuguese caravels arrived in the Congo River estuary in the late 15th century, independent African polities dotted this vast region. Some people lived in populous, hierarchical states such as the Kingdom of Kongo, but most lived in smaller political entities centered on lineage-village settlements. The Portuguese colony of Angola grew out of a settlement established at Luanda Bay in 1576. From its inception, Portuguese Angola existed to profit from the transatlantic slave trade, which became the colony’s economic foundation for the next three centuries. A Luso-African population and a creole culture developed in the colonial nuclei of Luanda and Benguela (founded 1617). The expansion of the colonial state into the interior occurred intermittently until the end of the 19th century, when Portuguese authorities initiated a series of wars of conquest that lasted up until the end of the First World War. During the 20th century, the colonial state consolidated military control over the whole territory, instituted an infrastructure of administration, and developed an economy of resource extraction. A nationalist sentiment developed among Luso-African thinkers in the early 20th century, and by the 1950s these ideas coalesced into a nationalist movement aimed at independence. Simultaneously, anticolonial movements developed among mission-educated elites in the Kikongo-speaking north and in the Umbundu-speaking central highlands. Portugal’s authoritarian New State leaders brutally suppressed these disparate nationalist movements during more than a decade of guerrilla war. A revolution in Portugal in 1974 ushered in negotiations leading to Angolan independence on November 11, 1975. Competing nationalist movements, bolstered by foreign intervention, refused to share governance and as a result plunged Angola into a brutal civil war that lasted until 2002.
Ever since its conquest by the armies of Muḥammad ‘Alī Pasha in 1820, Sudan (the Republic of Sudan today) has been subjugated to colonial rule by foreign powers—first by the Ottoman-Egyptian regime from 1821 to 1885, then by the British (nominally the Anglo-Egyptian “Condominium”) from 1899 to 1955. Consequently, modern Sudanese history came to be characterized by the emergence of a series of anticolonial popular struggles, such as the Mahdist movement (1881–1898), the 1924 Revolution, and other political movements in the 1940s and 1950s. In spite of apparent differences in style, method, and ideological background, these were essentially based on the energy of the masses aspiring for liberation from colonial rule.
The development of the national liberation movement in Sudan was a complicated process, since the modern Sudanese state itself was an artificial colonial state, and it was never self-evident what the “Sudanese nation” was. Building solidarity among peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds within Sudan (such as the mainly Arab Muslim population in the north and peoples of different backgrounds in the south and the Nuba Mountains) turned out to be crucial to the anticolonial struggle. Because of the colonial situation which prevailed in the Nile Valley after the 1880s (Egypt itself was occupied by the British in 1882), the idea of a regional (if apparently contradictory) coordination of “Sudanese nationalism” and the cause of the “unity of the Nile Valley” coexisted. Finally, since colonialism inevitably had its socioeconomic dimensions, a conflict of interests between the privileged local elites (tribal and religious leaders) and the general masses emerged, leading to a struggle over who would represent the “Sudanese nation.” The independence of the country in 1956 did not put an end to the question of Sudanese nationalism, since the colonial nature of the modern Sudanese state remained unchanged, and the popular struggle against oppressive state apparatus and social injustice continued even after independence. Various elements of civil society, including trade unions, students, and women, called for a democratic transformation of the Sudanese state. Peoples of the politically and economically “marginalized” areas in Sudan (such as the South and the Nuba Mountains) rose up in protest against underdevelopment, leading eventually to the emergence of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SLPM) in the 1980s, which advocated the vision of “New Sudan”—a type of “Sudanese nationalism,” so to speak, based on the aspirations of marginalized areas. Although, with the independence of the South in 2011 (a development which was not originally anticipated by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM] itself) the modern Sudanese state (as it used to be known) ceased to exist, this does not mean that the heritage of various anticolonial struggles in Sudan has been meaningless. Rather, it constitutes a common property, so to speak, for the peoples in the region (though now divided between different states), and serves as a source of historical lessons and political inspiration for future generations.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements.
Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France.
Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.
The 1924 Revolution marked the first time in Sudanese history a nationalist ideology became the language of politics and was successfully employed to mobilize the masses. It was a part of a broader movement of anticolonial nationalist agitation that merits studying this Sudanese event as an illuminating example in world history of the period. Thousands of people from all over Sudan protested in the name of principles such as self-determination and the will of the Nation, and the right of citizens to choose their own destiny. Moreover, the movement that led it, the White Flag League, explicitly sought to include people from different backgrounds, statuses, professions, and religions, to counteract the colonial policy of reliance on ethnic affiliations and social hierarchies. Even though it was bloodily put down after only six months, the events of 1924 represent a revolutionary departure in the in the history of modern Sudan.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary bishop charged with evangelizing the territories that became modern Nigeria. Over the last decades of the 19th century Crowther was the best-known Christian of African descent in the British empire. Pious offerings from British Christians allowed him to build a network of mission stations and schools in the Niger bishopric, as his territories were called. Crowther’s career ended in tragedy with a group of English CMS missionaries that traveled to his bishopric to dismiss as either corrupt or immoral most of the African missionary agents Crowther had recruited over the decades. Crowther resigned his office in protest against what he felt was the usurpation of his authority. Crowther died a short time later. Most of the historical scholarship since Crowther’s death (1891) has been concerned with assessments of two things: Crowther’s missionary strategies and the circumstances behind the events at the end of his career. The events at the end of his life have drawn the greatest amount of attention, but as argued in this article, Crowther is better appreciated for the revolutionary ways in which he rethought the missiological ideas of Henry Venn, his patron and mentor, and applied these ideas to the evangelization of his territories. The schools established under Crowther’s direction offered students a combination of skills aimed at making those students competitive in the society created by the expansion of British overrule in the lands that became Nigeria. The appeal of his schools drew many Africans toward the Anglican Church. By the end of his life, however, Crowther’s schools were coming under increasing criticism from Europeans for making Africans too competitive with Europeans.
Slavery was a mainstay of the labor force of the Cape Colony between its foundation by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1652 and abolition in 1834, by which date the Cape was under British rule. Slaves were transported to the Cape from a wide range of areas in the Indian Ocean world, including South and Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Some were owned by the VOC and labored on the Company farms, outposts, and docks. The majority were sold to settlers and worked as domestic servants in Cape Town or as laborers on the grain, wine, and pastoral farms of the Cape interior.
Throughout the 18th century slaves outnumbered settlers. Although there were few major revolts, individual resistance was widespread and desertion common. Some runaways joined indigenous groups in the Cape interior, while others formed more isolated maroon communities. Toward the end of the 18th century some slaves claimed individual rights, reflecting the influence of wider revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world. A revolutionary uprising took place in 1808, shortly after the abolition of the slave trade and the takeover of the colony by the British.
In the early 19th century slave resentment continued to grow, especially as a boom in wine production increased labor demands. In the 1820s and early 1830s abolitionist voices were heard in the colony, and slavery was ended at the same time as that in the British Caribbean and Mauritius. Unlike these other British colonies, Cape slaves largely continued to work as farm laborers, and their living and working conditions produced the continued impoverishment of farmworkers in the western Cape region.
Slaves played an important part in the creation of a distinctive creolized Cape culture, notably in the development of the Afrikaans language and Cape musical and culinary traditions. They were also responsible for the growth of Islam in Cape Town and its hinterland, which took a distinctive form influenced by its Southeast Asian origins.