Decolonization and the Collapse of the British Empire

By David Pierce
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Before World War II it was stated fairly, “The sun never set on the British Empire.” For decades, this was true: the British colonial Empire touched all corners of the globe. After the War concluded, however, a worldwide process of decolonization commenced in which Britain granted independence to all of its major colonies, beginning notably in India. The British decision to grant independence to India arose primarily out of necessity; however, Gandhi’s successful social movements also inspired a fundamental change in the perceptions of colonial power that eventually led to the collapse of the British Colonial Empire.

In India there were numerous uprisings and conflicts that erupted over the course of the centuries long British occupation, but it wasn’t until Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi’s social efforts, beginning in India from 1915-1920 and onward, that a popular vision for India began to spread among ordinary Indians.1 At the time, Gandhi had only recently returned from South Africa where he had stayed for more than twenty years, as the “voice and conscience of thousands” of racially subjugated Indians.2  Upon his return to India, Gandhi advocated for Indians to boycott British institutions and products in a non-violent way; this movement was ultimately known as “Swadeshi.” Because of these efforts Gandhi became wildly popular; when Jawaharlal Nehru—the first Prime Minister of independent India—gave his famous Independence speech in 1947,  he called Gandhi “The Father of our Nation who… held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us.”3 Gandhi’s momentum reached a peak during World War II and consequently caused great strain on Britain, forcing them to recognize the significance of the Swadeshi movement. Additionally, pressures from within India were complemented by two major external factors: Britain’s economic and human resources were exasperated by the War effort; 4 and the Japanese, who had invaded the British colony of Burma in 1943, were aggressively expanding in Southeast Asia.5 Each of these factors was important in pushing Britain to the realization that it was no longer realistic for them to prolong their control of India. In March 1946, shortly after the close of the War, Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, expressed these sentiments in a speech to the House of Commons:

“India is today in a state of great tension and this is indeed a critical moment… It is a time emphatically for very definite and clear action… Let us all realise that whatever the difficulties, whatever the divisions may be, there is this underlying demand among all the Indian peoples… Is it any wonder that today she claims – as a nation of 400,000,000 people that has twice sent her sons to die for freedom – that she should herself have freedom to decide her own destiny? My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain that freedom as speedily and fully as possible.”6

Attlee’s description of India as being in a “state of great tension” was a verbal affirmation of the ultimate conclusion: the British had little choice but to help India “attain [her] freedom.”

After India was finally granted freedom in 1947, as the separate states of India and Pakistan, it was apparent that a change in the perceptions of colonial power was occurring. As early as 1931, Time Magazine featured Gandhi as the “Man of the Year,” forgoing other noted possibilities that included, ironically, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.7 In the article, Gandhi is described as being exalted by the people while the British colonizers are condemned:

"Cold English brains devised the system whereby bands of native police, especially in the rural districts, set upon individual Indian men & women and beat them… Individual beatings are applied, in the main, to extort from the victim his land tax.”8

Violence within the colonies was viewed as a reflection of the colonizers. From 1935 to 1951, Time Magazine prepared monthly newsreels of world events that in 1942 depicted video footage of British soldiers brutally attacking Indian protestors, while a commentator read, “The Indian people have never ceased to defy British authority, whether enforced by Soldier’s bayonets or Policemen’s batons.”9 Later, in June 1947, Gandhi graced the cover of Time magazine again, shortly after India had been declared independent.10 The media therefore played a significant role in showing the brutal reality of colonialism to the masses; in the end, increased media coverage was a catalyst in shifting public perceptions of colonial power.

It was nevertheless not only the perceptions of Europeans and Americans that were affected by India’s independence movement. In Africa, nationalist leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in the British colony of the Gold Coast were inspired by Gandhi’s success. Nkrumah was a native of the Gold Coast territory but nonetheless was highly educated in the United States. During his studies, he drew from the “Back to Africa” vision devised by Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s and consequently later went on to become the most influential proponent of Pan-Africanism in Africa.11 After returning home, Nkrumah became the leader of the Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP) in 1950, which advocated the need for self-government, and began a campaign of “positive action involving nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with the British colonial authorities.”12

Nkrumah’s campaign was strikingly similar to the one Gandhi had led in India, and likewise, he was imprisoned for his efforts. The atmosphere regarding colonialism, however, had undergone significant changes since India’s independence; after the British granted a new constitution to its colony in 1951, Nkrumah’s party, the CPP, won a majority of votes and Nkrumah was released as the new Premier.13 Several years later, a major turning point occurred that was reflective of the times: on May 9th, 1956, the population of British citizens living in the British administered U.N. Trust Territory of British Togoland voted in a 58% majority to integrate with an independent Gold Coast.14 Less than a year later, on March 6th, 1957, the independent state of Ghana was created out of the merging of the former British territories of the Gold Coast and British Togoland; Nkrumah became the first Prime Minister.15

Ghana thus began the wave of British decolonization in Africa that resulted in nearly every British territory being granted independence in the following decade. In 1960 the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Macmillan, delivered a famous speech known as the “Wind of Change:”

“One of the constant facts of political life in Europe has been the emergence of independent nations… Especially since the end of war, the processes which gave birth to the nation-states of Europe have been repeated all over the world…  Fifteen years ago this movement spread through Asia. Many countries there, of different races and civilization, pressed their claim to an independent national life. To-day the same thing is happening in Africa… In different places it may take different forms, but it is happening everywhere. The wind of change is blowing through the continent… Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact.”16

In the speech, Macmillan clearly indicates the British realization that decolonization was inevitable, calling it a “political fact.” Macmillan also gives reference to the significance of the prior movement in Asia, which was of course led by India.

 In a sense, it was at this time that the sun finally did set on the British Empire. What Gandhi had begun in India as early as 1915 had political implications for the entire colonial framework. His devotion to non-violence stood in marked contrast to the rifle bearing British occupiers, and he was immensely effective in making the world notice. Gandhi’s ideologies and India’s independence inspired the repressed around the world and led ultimately to the unraveling of an Empire.


  1. James Heitzman, and Robert L. Worden, eds. "India: Country Studies - Federal Research Division, Library of Congress," Sept. 1995, The Library of Congress, 20 Oct. 2008 .
  2. James Heitzman, and Robert L. Worden, eds. “India: Country Studies”
  3. Jawaharlal Nehru, "Speech On the Granting of Indian Independence," 14 Aug. 1947.
  4. Tony Judt, Postwar : A History of Europe Since 1945, New York: Penguin Books, Limited, 2005
  5. Lecture, 7 Oct. 2008
  6. Clement Attlee, "Address given by Clement Attlee to the House of Commons," London, 15 Mar. 1946.
  7. "Man of the Year," Time Magazine 5 Jan. 1931 .
  8. “Man of the Year,” Time Magazine
  9. Civil Disobedience 1942 - March of Time!, prod. Time Inc. Film, 1942.
  10. "End of Forever," Time Magazine 30 June 1947.
  11. "Kwame Nkrumah." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 22 Oct. 2008
  12. "Kwame Nkrumah." Encyclopedia Britannica.
  13. "Ghana." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 22 Oct. 2008
  14. The Issue of Trans-Volta Togoland (TVT), Ghana, National Reconciliation Commission, 22 Oct. 2008
  15. "Ghana." Encyclopedia Britannica.
  16. Harold Macmillan, "Wind of Change," South Africa, Cape Town, 3 Feb. 1960.

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