World War II had weakened colonial powers, decolonization was inevitable. The ensuing conflicts set off a reaction against all forms of oppression. Simply, people wanted to be free. It was an evolution of History.
The two empires of the time played a role in the movement. Curiously, the Soviet Union, which in principle should have supported the decolonization movements, and of course it did aid and support them considerably, was less visible in its efforts, less concrete in its aid than the United States. This was probably due to the inherent contradiction between colonialism and the democratic principals of the United States. The fact that the United States was able to replace Europeans here and there likely didn’t hurt either.
The two great colonial empire were of course England and France. Under the English, decolonization was largely peaceful. India, the jewel of the English Crown, broke away from the colonial power without conflict. Our cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was sent by London to assure a smooth transition, which he oversaw with great success, aided by his brilliant wife Edwina. A movement arose, calling for the creation of a Muslim state, Pakistan. Gandhi, the Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of Indian independence, is one of my heroes. The modest figure, petit, full of humor, a sage mind full of imagination who came for tea at Buckingham Palace in his dhoti is one of the true giants of History. He was opposed to any partition of India, advocating instead the integrations of the dominant religions, Hinduism and Islam. But he was preaching in the wilderness, and the subsequent partition would cost two million lives. England withdrew, but not without leaving a few thorns behind.
When I visited the old Raj in the sixties and seventies, England, although absent, was still everywhere: the mores, the manner of life, the style. At the military club in Lahore, one felt they were in London, the walnut wall paneling, glasses of port wine in every hand, and the red-faced officers with salt and pepper mustaches and blue eyes, typically Pakistani. England knew how to create in her colonies a snobbism much stronger than the indoctrination that followed. France never achieved such a feat.
In Cyprus, the movement for independence for the island was led by the Archbishop Makarios. The English could never quite grasp how a prelate could be so involved in politics, failing to understand that the Greek Orthodox Church had been a weapon of Cypriot nationalism ever since the Turkish occupation. Prime Minister Macmillan, after meeting with Monseigneur Makarios, confessed his confusion, “I spoke to him about God, but he seemed disinterested in the subject.” So the English did with Makarios what they did with all the leaders of independence movements, they sent him into exile only to bring him back and let him become president of independent Cyprus. However, in the meantime, a conflict emerged between the Greek and Turkish communities of the island, an entirety new struggle that the island had never know during centuries of cohabitation. In Cyprus too, England left behind thorns.
Kenya’s decolonization period was bloody. A sort of secret society of Africans, the Mau Mau, arose in opposition to the English. They attacked everywhere, killing, massacring, and burning the countryside, leaving a trail of terror throughout the country. My aunt was in Nairobi during the worst times of this latent war. She heard of the horrors during a dinner at the governor’s home, and returned to her hotel trembling and numb. She couldn’t sleep. Early at sunrise, with barely a ray of light making it into her room, she saw the doorknob slowly turning and then an enormous black hand moving in silence. She let out a cry that woke the whole hotel. When out of breath she finally stopped, she then heard a heavy voice say, “Only to get your shoes, ma’am.”
The French experience of decolonization was significantly different, and brought with it two wars, Indochina and Algeria.
Photographs by Justin Creedy Smith