After World War II, though the Attlee-led British government decided to give freedom to India, they held on to much of Africa. But why did this attempt at colonization fail? Wikipedia explains that the economy of Africa did not improve. But what were the reasons behind this? As in any history of colonization, I expect resistance of the local people to be an important reason. But Africa had, at the time of British rule, a very small middle class and thus few political leaders. So why did the British (and other European powers) fail to continue their rule?

  • AFAIK the main reason was economic. It was simply not profitable any longer to keep up the colonies, especially in a society where there was little stamina for using force of arms to keep the locals in line rather than the far more expensive (short term) way of providing them with a modern infrastructure, education, etc. (not that most African countries built those themselves after independence).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 5:41
  • This is a really interesting topic. Like Jwenting said above, one of the main reasons was it was becoming economically unviable; but also there was a treaty between the US and UK regarding decolonisation signed in the 1940's and the Suez Crisis changed the political landscape in the UK for this kinda thing. If I get the chance, I'll write an answer here; but this comment will have to do for now. :-(
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 14:07
  • But from what I understand, colonialism both in Africa and Asia, especially under the British, saw remarkably little bloodshed. And, most of the locals remained illiterate and thus had fewer nationalist leaders.
    – Arani
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 16:20
  • @jwenting The economy certainly played a major part in the withdrawal from India (cf. the "sterling balances") but I'm not sure the same is true for the African colonies ~15 years later. Do you have a specific source for this? Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 10:57
  • @FelixGoldberg if anything it played less a part in India, which had been effectively promised independence in exchange for the local authorities providing large numbers of troops during WW2. After WW2, the British economy was in tatters, they simply could no longer retain the colonial infrastructure except in those few areas it would pay for itself (like Hong Kong) or was extremely limited (like the Falklands and Belize).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 13:04

2 Answers 2


There are several reasons for the decolonisation of Africa in the post WW2 world - some of them indicate a decision to withdraw rather than a failure to continue. These reasons are in no particular order and are what I consider to be major contributing factors - for example it's also likely that desire for social reform within the UK itself was another factor as things like the National Health Service are not cheap to create or maintain.

This map depicts British territories in Africa and the year in which they were granted independence.


As mentioned by Jwenting, the damaged British economy was one of the major reasons for decolonisation.

At the end of WW2 Great Britain was essentially bankrupt having expended a great deal of money fighting WW2 and then being needing to spend yet more money rebuilding and repairing. Equally, Great Britain’s manufacturing capability had be massively re-geared to cope with fighting the war and so when the lend lease scheme ended a large economic gulf was left (BBC News). Great Britain narrowly avoided insolvency in 1946 when a loan of $4.33 Billion from the USA & Canada - Approx. $53 Billion in 2012 money. (The Twentieth Century, The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume IV, Brown. J. 1998)

This forced GB to adopt a policy of peaceful disengagement from the empire, handing control to non-communist governments when one was available. This meant that the UK was kept from the kind of costly actions fought by France and Portugal to keep control of their empires. (The Dynamics of Global Dominance, European Overseas Empires 1415–1980. Abernethy, D.)

The Suez Crisis

The impact of the Suez Crisis is largely down to economics and American Foreign Policy (Again mentioned below).

In July 1956 Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, a vital link for world shipping. Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the government of France engineered a situation whereby Israel attack Egypt in response. This then allowed the UK and France to intervene and take control of the Suez Canal. (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Lawrence, J).

In January 1956, Guy Mollet was elected prime minister in France and promised to bring peace to Algeria, a French colony, in the throes of a nationalist uprising. But the presence of a million French settlers there made a withdrawal from Algeria politically impossible and his attempts to resolve the situation escalated the violence.

Meanwhile, Israel, greatly concerned about Egypt’s rearmament and involved in a series of border clashes with Egypt, was purchasing aircraft and weapons from France. The French government had been meeting secretly with Israel and invited Britain to join the negotiations.

In October 1956, Mollet, Eden and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met at Sevres near Paris and concluded a secret agreement that Israel should attack Egypt, thereby providing a pretext for an Anglo-French invasion of Suez.

BBC History

However, this move was not backed with the support of the United States, and prompted President Eisenhower to threaten to sell US reserve of the Pound Sterling. (Empire. Ferguson, N.) This would have caused economic ruin for the UK and forced the UK to withdraw from what was otherwise a militarily successful operation.

This forced withdrawal showed that the UK could no-longer act without approval of the United States, and following the resignation of Prime Minister Eden caused his successor, Harold Macmillian to accelerate decolonisation in order to help win back favour from the United States. (The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century, Brown J. M, Lewis W. R.) The fact that the UK still enjoys a “special relationship” with the US where as France’s relationship with the US was severely diminished following the crises backs this up so some degree. The Suez Crisis also marks a turning point in British foreign policy with Great Britain moving away from being a great colonial power.

The Atlantic Charter

In August 1941 Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a statement setting out the Allies aims concerning the war, and the post-war world. While this was only a statement, and there was not a signed copy, agreement to the terms of the charter was telegraphed by the British War Office to the United States and vice versa.

Further more, the governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Free French Forces agreed to abide by the terms of the charter at a meeting of the Inter-Allied Council on the 24th Sept 1941.(Source)

While the entire text of the charter can be read by clicking the above link, part 3 is most relevant to decolonisation

Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.

This part of the charter specified commitment to self-determination, although Churchill maintained that this only applied to Axis occupied territories, which gave a great deal of hope to independence movements within the British Empire. In fact, it prompted Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to write the following to Roosevelt

"I venture to think that the Allied declaration that the Allies are fighting to make the world safe for the freedom of the individual and for democracy sounds hollow so long as India and for that matter Africa are exploited by Great Britain..."

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

It is not unreasonable that revolutionary parties in Britain's African colonies came to the same conclusion as Gandhi with regards to how the Atlantic Charter should be applied.

Ultimately, Britain's withdrawal from it's empire was forced, but largely free of conflict within Africa (although, there were exceptions). Personally, I think the reasons for the French decolonisation of Africa needs another question.

  • 1
    Very nice answer. The Suez connection was new to me - should have been obvious but it wasn't, somehow... Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 13:56
  • 2
    During the Suez crisis, Egypt blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat (cutting off oil supplies). This, and not British/French "engineering", caused the Israeli attack.
    – sds
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 21:06
  • I would agree that that was a large factor in Israel's involvement, as without it (and without the fear of a large, Soviet equipped, anti-Israel nation on their boarder) Israel would not have gotten involved at all. However, several sources point towards the UK and France diplomatically engineering the situation and actively encouraging the attack with the understanding that they could then become actively involved in the conflict.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 23:04
  • 1
    There is a difference: the cause of the Israeli attack was the blockade. UK & France encouraged it in their own interests.
    – sds
    Commented Jul 10, 2013 at 18:33
  • @Kobunite Who have you read on the subject? Years ago I read the memoirs of the then Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd. I think it is unlikely that America was unaware that Britain and France intended to occupy the Canal Zone. What Eisenhower was unprepared for, however, was the intense reaction of the Soviet Union. After Britain had eventually withdrawn Selwyn Lloyd visited Washington and as he walked into the office of John Foster Dulles and they shook hands, Dulles said 'Why didn't you ignore our request to you to get out. Why didn't you just carry on and knock the bastard (Nasser) down?*
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 0:02

With respect to Britain, there was an understanding between Churchill and Roosevelt that the UK would free it's colonies after the war. Atlantic Charter Specific terms described in this article are 'A key American aim was to force a change of British policy in regard to its Empire. America realized the precarious position of Britain, reliant as she was on US military aid, and intended to exploit this by forcing a commitment to self-determination, and an open door policy on resources.'.

France still had colonies in Africa after WW II. Many of the French colonies were granted self-determination in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of these were the result of bloody insurgencies, particularly in Algeria.

WW II exposed the true cost of defending far flung possessions. Britain, with a population of 40 million, was responsible for defending the quarter of the Earth's surface that it 'possessed' going into WW II. Most of Europe had lost interest in military adventures following the carnage of WW I. Once it was clear further military investment would be essential, European countries ended most claims of sovereignty outside their historical borders. Exceptions tend to be islands that continue to rely on defense and civil administration from a much larger host.

  • paradoxically, in Algeria it was the desire by a large section of the population to remain French that caused the violence, not the desire for independence (which France was willing to grant).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 10:49
  • 1
    @jwenting Not very familiar with this topic yet, but I'm a bit surprised.. Are you sure France was willing to grant Algeria its independence? Wasn't it an overseas department, a part of France, and all that claptrap? Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 10:59
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    @Felix Goldberg - Britain was pretty much out of Africa by 1950. What colonies they had remaining were largely in Asia, such as Brunei, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The original idea of colonization was to extract minerals and agricultural products, and sell manufactured goods into controlled markets. After WW II progressively freer trading environments made the control of commodity prices more and more difficult, therefore diminishing any value in outright administrative control. What was left was (as pointed out) the preferences of transplanted populations. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 11:38
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    @FelixGoldberg it's more complex, it was a 3 sided civil war between France proper, Algerians who wanted independence, and Algerians wanting to become part of France proper, with France changing its stance several times during the conflict (in no small part because of the Gaullist coup there in '58).
    – jwenting
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 13:00
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    @FelixGoldberg - I stand corrected. However, the original reasons are still applicable - the economic value of colonies had largely disappeared. What remained were concerns for expatriates or their descendants. If a country like Britain creates a colony in a tribal area such as Africa, over time the locals get exposed to things like technology, the legal system of the colonizing country, the language, and in many cases travel between the colony and the colonizer. Continued.... Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 19:46

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