Wanchoo on Thomas and Thompson, 'The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire'

Martin Thomas, Andrew Thompson, eds.
Rohit Wanchoo

Martin Thomas, Andrew Thompson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 760 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-871319-7

Reviewed by Rohit Wanchoo (Jagellonian University) Published on H-Asia (July, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54366

The Ends of Empire

In The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire Martin Thomas and Andrew Thompson assert that decolonization is less theorized than imperialism and colonialism, that its “conceptual and chronological boundaries” have been and remain “decidedly fuzzy” and that the process is far from complete (p. 3). The volume deals with national and regional perspectives in the first two parts and with themes and legacies in the latter two. The essayists deal with land as well as oceanic empires; emphasize the interplay between globalization and decolonization and their interrelatedness; and highlight the crucial role of “inequality, asymmetry and violence” in the story of decolonization (p. 18). They claim that the consequences of decolonization are evident even today—unlike those of other cataclysmic developments like the two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War.

Sarah Stockwell argues that postwar decolonization was preceded by “a costs-benefits survey of Britain’s colonies” (p. 77). She claims that plans for orderly transfers of power got derailed and that illiberal dirty wars sustained the liberal empire. According to Emmanuelle, Saada decolonization can be better understood as a “force-field” rather than a concept because it has “no stable material existence” (p. 92). The article highlights that French colonies operated under a “special” legal regime which was marked by regular use of violence in governance and discrimination against the colonized subjects. It is unclear whether the regular use of violence in the British and French colonies can now be regarded as comparable. Although some historians have argued that the violence in German Southwest Africa between 1904 and 1908 was a prelude to the policies adopted by the Nazis, Andreas Eckert would rather link the violence of National Socialism to a “shared colonial archive” (p. 106).

The Italian Empire, which emerged late, collapsed between 1941 and 1943. Nicola Labanca argues that Italian decolonization had particularities but was not exceptional. The Italians lacked commitment to their empire just as much as people of other European empires did. Business groups did not see attractive opportunities in the impoverished and underfunded colonies, and poor Italians preferred migration to the Americas and even French Tunisia. Owing to the weakness of both the anticolonial movements in the colonies and pro-imperialist lobbies in Italy, decolonization “took the form of a passive revolution” (p. 135). Portugal, a weak economy, reacted to demands for freedom with military repression because it was “not in a position to ‘neo-colonize’” (p. 165). Unlike the other European powers, Portugal lacked the resources to protect its economic interests after abandoning formal control. Norrie Macqueen deals deftly with the consequences of the 1974 coup for decolonization in Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola and claims that this chaotic process had “infinitely worse” consequences for these former colonies than for Portugal (p. 174).

Louise Young argues that Japanese “Pan-Asianism absorbed a host of competing nationalist agendas,” which included anticolonial nationalisms, imperialist ultranationalisms, and self-determining ethnonationalisms (p. 221). Despite contradictions, this transcendent idea played an important role throughout the twentieth century. After defeat in war Japan became both a “client state and a client empire” (p. 222). The Japanese retrieved their hegemony in Northeast and Southeast Asia under the American defense umbrella. Imperial structures survived despite momentous events like the defeat of 1945. Tehyun Ma argues that in order to cope with foreign threats the Qing began to turn autonomous regions into provinces and to settle Han peasants in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, exacerbating ethnic tensions. The overthrow of the Qing led to the demise of “imperial rule on China’s frontier as well as its core” (p. 240). Regions like Xinjiang and Tibet became autonomous and Mongolia independent until 1949. This process of the end of empire has not resolved even today the questions about citizenship, democracy, and the boundaries of China.

In the second part of the volume the survey of specific regions provides a panoramic view of decolonization. Joya Chatterjee argues that in South Asia the “imperial order was disaggregated” unevenly and marked by a violent partition (p. 252). She acknowledges the depth of anticolonial struggles that led to independence but highlights the “fragility” of the two successor states of India and Pakistan. For her, independence and partition “ushered in yet another series of complex rearrangements of power” (p. 267). In East and Southeast Asia, Japanese military expansionism in a short period of time led to the death of over thirty million people, and destroyed the fabric of societies and the hold of European colonial powers. In Indonesia and Vietnam, the Dutch and the French went to war in 1945-47 to regain control. These wars got internationalized before the onset of the Cold War. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s party initiated land reforms in 1953 and mobilized 1.7 million people, constituting an amazing 20 percent of the population, as civilian porters—half of whom were women—before inflicting in 1954 the “greatest colonial defeat,” suffered by the French army in Dien Bien Phu. Christopher Gosca argues that there is no comparable war in the history of twentieth-century decolonization (p. 295). One of the fallouts of the Cold War was that the noncommunist movements in Indonesia and Algeria could achieve independence in 1949 and 1962 respectively without ever dominating the battlefield.

One of the objectives of this volume is to explore “alternative routes out of empire” (p. 316). Frederick Cooper argues that over time, ideas of layered sovereignty and federation of African states lost ground. In the postcolonial period a Pan-Africanism “of states, not of a people” emerged (p. 326). He argues that although mobilizations in Africa were based on diverse imaginations, the ruling elites after independence suppressed these movements and created “an Africa of brittle gatekeeper states” (p. 329). In his assessment of the Caribbean, Spencer Mawby suggests a synthesis of political, labor, and cultural history. Caribbean intellectuals like C. L. R. James and Aime Cesaire and Calypso musicians like Lord Kitchener—in metropolises like London and Paris—created transcontinental connections which “anticipated” trends in globalization today (p. 347).

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires, adoption of the doctrine of national self-determination led to a “series of inter-connected civil wars” and to revolutions and counterrevolutions (p. 32). According to Robert Gerwarth, this process led to the creation of mini-empires, not compact nationalities. In the 1920s the newly created countries of Eastern Europe faced the “economic predicament” that countries in Asia and Africa did after 1945 (p. 354). James Mark and Quinn Slobodian point out that while there was “initially little solidarity” for those outside Europe during the communist period, the East European countries tried to promote development in the Third World (p. 353). As the economic resources of the socialist bloc were limited, they relied on arms sales to support Third World countries. East Germany sold weapons to both sides in the war between Iraq and Iran and by 1989 “Iraq was Poland’s biggest debtor” (p. 358).

In the third section of this collection there is a valuable exploration of themes like self-determination, human rights, and development. Brad Simpson has argues that Britain and other colonial powers after World War II sought to limit the meaning of self-determination—that it was a principle and not a right, that rights inhered in individuals, not peoples, and that this right did not entail legal obligations on states. Eventually, based on UN endorsement of sovereignty over natural resources, the “right to economic self-determination” was invoked by Iraq in 1967 when it began to nationalize its petroleum industry and in the 1970s by the oil-exporting countries. Self-determination, Simpson points out, was increasingly linked to “deploying sovereignty claims in an increasingly integrated world” (p. 430). According to Christopher Lee, anticolonialism has to be viewed as “a contingent, evolving, and manifold process, rather than as a predestined, monolithic, or temporally fixed experience” (p. 437). Even the subaltern school of historians restrict the “political imagination” of the peasants. He endorses the new imperial history, which focuses on the “circulation of ideas and practices across oceans and continents” (p. 440).

In the postwar world, the interplay of forces of globalization, decolonization, and the Cold War created a “new form of moral politics” (p. 454). According to Andrew Thompson, decolonization was marked by the four processes of postcolonialism, second-wave decolonization, recolonization, and decolonialization, which “predated and outlived formal transfers of power” (p. 472). Martin Thomas emphasizes the “micro and macro level sources of political violence” and their relationship with each other. Far from being abnormal, collective violence is “an ingrained community practice” (p. 499). It is the turn to collective violence that needs to be explained. The Bush War in Zimbabwe during the 1970s was not only an anticolonial struggle but a multifaceted internal conflict based on local grievances, lineage tensions, and hunger for land. It was “closer to revolution than civil war” (p. 508).

David Motadel points out that Sufi orders like the Qadiris and Islamic revivalists like the Wahhabis played a major role in the anticolonial movements in the Muslim world. During the interwar period “anti-colonial Islamic internationalism” flourished (p. 561). Secular, middle-class nationalists and old and new monarchies triumphed during the process of decolonization, but Islamic movements also played a role. Even the radical Frantz Fanon denounced French attacks on the Muslim veil and described Islam as “an integral part of the Algerian nation” (p. 564). Questioning the narrative of secular decolonization, Motadel argues that the resurgence of Islamic movements across the Muslim world after the 1970s was not a new development.

In the fourth and final section essays on memories and legacies are clubbed together. According to Joseph Hodge, the scale of state-backed development after 1945 has been hailed as the “second colonial occupation” (p. 626). Portugal, which spent a huge sum to build a dam in Mozambique, also took recourse to the idea of Lusotropicalism and claimed that its empire was a “post-racial, post-imperial community of Lusophone people” (p. 627). Nicholas White argues that the old colonial system declined and was replaced by an “internationalization of dependency” (p. 649). The gatekeeper states had considerable freedom in choosing the extent to which European businesses would be allowed access to their markets. The influence of Western capital declined particularly in the oil industry during the 1970s. Argues White, “To subvert Louis and Robinson, such was the de-globalization of decolonization” (p. 650).

The cultures of globalization and the “decolonial option” have been explored in studies of the contemporary world. Charles Forsdick’s essay surveys the authentic representation of anticolonial resistance as well as “postcolonial exoticism”—which was the marketing of the colonial world for the West (p. 706). The flow of migrant workers to the metropolises and the greater ease of travel spawned literary works offering a fresh look at the experience of colonialism and decolonization. Aldrich explores the issue of apologies and reparations for colonial exploitation and atrocities. While compensation is commonly sought from the European colonial powers, he also broaches the question of claims against Japanese abuse of comfort women, Soviet exploitation of the Baltic countries, Arab nations for their role in slave-trading, and, surprisingly, Afro-Asian countries for displacing Europeans and settlers.

To understand decolonization better we need to know more about global flows of capital, transfers of technology, the movement of labor, and the development of institutions in comparative perspective. Recent research on India—for instance, Law and the Economy in Colonial India by Tirthankar Roy and Anand Swamy (2016)—explores the economic consequences of colonial laws for postcolonial growth.[1] Studies of the impact of major events like the world wars and the Great Depression on global inequalities, divergence, and different social classes—notably in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014)—can help us rethink decolonization further.[2] This volume is an important step in that direction.


[1]. Abhijit Banerjee and Lakshmi Iyer, “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India,” American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1190-213.

[2]. Robert C. Allen, Jean-Pascal Bassino, Debin Ma, Christine Moll-Murata, and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, “Wages, prices, and living standards in China, 1738–1925: in comparison with Europe, Japan, and India,” Economic History Review 64, s1 (2011): 8–38.

Citation: Rohit Wanchoo. Review of Thomas, Martin; Thompson, Andrew, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54366

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