In the recent World Service series The War That Changed The World the episode dealing with India contains a rather extraordinary claim.

A panel member, an Indian, says there was a notion during WW1 that India might get her "own" colony in German East Africa as a prize for her substantial contribution of troops and money to the British war effort.

Perhaps not so extraordinary, Several British Empire dominions did receive their own colonies or mandates. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand helped carve up Germany's colonial possessions.

The notion that India could gain her own overseas empire ... were there any serious proposals?

  • What colonies did Australia and NZ get? This sounds very odd... – Felix Goldberg Nov 29 '14 at 21:24
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    Australia got the German territories in Papua New Guinea. I think the NZers got some of Germany's Pacific Islands. I'd have to check. – Tea Drinker Nov 29 '14 at 21:26
  • Please do....... – Felix Goldberg Nov 29 '14 at 21:28
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    I would be surprised. India was a colony ruled by the British. So There was no separate "Indian" entity that could receive such a benefit. However, The First World War is very poorly researched and documented. So I'd be curious to know if such a record exists. +1 – Rajib Nov 30 '14 at 3:24
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    Vaguely related: Wikipedia says that Aden Province was part of British India from 1839 to 1937, and also (not as good sourced) that British Somaliland was part of British India from 1884 to 1898. (I have found no indication that Indians were part of the actual administration of these places.) – Jørgen Dec 2 '14 at 8:31

Yes, surprising as it is, I found credible sources indicating that there was some discussion of offering India East Africa as a mandate.

Perhaps it is useful for others who wish to read more about this a full detail of my sources. In "How India Became Territorial: Foreign Policy, Diaspora, Geopolitics (2014)" by Itty Abraham, I found this quote:

On war reparations, in spite of their considerable contribution to the war effort, the opinion of lesser powers and British dominions would count for little. Powerful elite Indian opinion had proposed that India be permitted to take over the German colonies in East Africa as a mandate, but that did not happen.

Abraham references "India and East Africa: Imperial Partnership at the End of the First World War (1971)" by Herbert Lüthy, adds some important context:

It is in this context that the even more curious question of a League mandate for India came up, rather casually, for deliberation in the British War Cabinet in 1918, and again in the Mandates Commission on African Colonies at the Paris Peace Conference. With the exception of Canada, each British Dominion was ultimately entrusted with mandatory powers over some part of the colonial spoils from Germany's lost empire; to entrust India, or rather the Government of India, with a mandate over former German East Africa might have added some more substantial bribe to the purely symbolic promotion to League membership, although - quite apart from all the incalculable consequences we can envisage from hindsight - it would equally have added a further paradox to the ambiguity of imperial and international status. League membership for India had been difficult enough to admit, but had been allowed for as making simply 'an additional voice for the British Empire' (the founding of the United Nations witnessed a similar allowance for another great power), but a colonial mandate for India would have been more than even the most subtle casuists of international law could stomach.

He goes on to quote "The International Status of India (1931)" by Lanka Sundaram, which provides the closest secondary evidence I could find of this discussion:

The League Mandate for the administration of German East Africa (now Tanganyika) was at one moment on the point of being granted to India, but this courageous step, which would have enhanced the value of the juridical basis of India's international status, was at the last moment withdrawn in favour of Great Britain.

Finally, I did manage to dig up a primary source document indicating the same thing. In the "Minutes of the 37th Imperial War Cabinet, Minute 8" (a 50 MB PDF), the British clearly intended to at least allow India to make its wishes known with respect to German East Africa.

Sir Robert Borden said that there were still a further question on which it was possible the British Government would differ from the American Government, and this question was with regard to the retention of the German colonies. Sir Robert reminded the Imperial War Cabinet that he had already suggested by telegram that those dominions who were principally interested in this question should put forward their views...

... the view of the British Government was that none of the German colonies should be restored, and that those German colonies which had been captured by colonial troops, with the possible exception of British East Africa, should be held by the dominions which had captured them.

... the Imperial War Cabinet decided that - At the important Allied Conference which should precede the Peace Conference, India and each self-governing dominion should be given the fullest opportunity to express their views on those questions which may closely concern them.

I think that the evidence strongly indicates that such an offer was at least (perhaps disingenuously) discussed.

  • Second that- awesome answer. – Rajib Dec 2 '14 at 9:22

I wouldn't characterize "interwar" proposals by Britain as efforts to get India an East African colony, because there was no India. A different and better way to put it was that Britain wanted to do something for Indians in East Africa.

That's partly because Indians had helped Britain a lot in that part of the world. For instance, Indians helped build the cross-Kenya railroad that connected the mineral and agricultural resources of the highlands to the sea. And in the fight for German-held Tanganyika, Indian troops, and Indian logistics (porters, ox-carts, etc.) had played a key role in the final British success.

Another reason was that there were two Indian enclaves in eastern Africa that the British couldn't control directly. One was in the island of Mauritius, technically under French rule, but with a population that was more than half Indian. The other was in Natal, South Africa, where the Indians were a plurality, but where competing Boer and Zulu claims prevented the British from giving the Indians an area all to themselves. A logical place for Britain to set up an Indian enclave under its direct control would be the islands of "Zanzibar," or possibly a piece of the Tanganyikan mainland. Unless they could work a deal with the French to exchange a piece of e.g. Tanganyika for Mauritius.

Nograpes' excellent sources confirm what I had long suspected: That Britain wanted to do "something" for some Indians between World War I and World War II. This might not take the form of an Indian "colony" per se, but rather a "subcolony," where Indians would be under Britain, but above everyone else in "their" colony. Then, such a subcolony in Africa might later become part of an independent India, depending on how the independence movement in India, and Britain's decolonization played out.

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