What Was Decolonization? (Decolonization, #1)

Some years ago, I was just about to finish my undergrad studies in history. I had taken an advanced class on decolonization and was writing my B.A. thesis on the decolonization crisis in Angola. As I was already quite keen on board games back then, I was wondering – was there any board game about decolonization? So, as the 21st century goes, I typed „decolonization board game“ into a search engine. What I found was not exactly an entire board game – just a single card of that title from Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games), a game of whose existence I had been heretofore only vaguely aware. Twilight Struggle fascinated me. I’d never seen a game which went so deep and meaningful into history. Also, it was about the Cold War, my main research interest. And so an idea ripened within me. Two years later, I began working on my M.A. thesis on the Cold War in board games.

Besides my personal connection, decolonization is also the single most important process in the history of the 20th century. About half of the world’s population lived under the suzerainty of a foreign power in 1900, but by 2000, almost all (formal) colonies or dependencies had become independent. That changed the life of people both in the former colonies and their former (usually European) metropolises. The climax of decolonization was in 1960, when 17 newly independent states joined the United Nations. These young countries celebrate their 60th birthday this year. And on this blog, we’ll have a miniseries on decolonization, beginning with the basics: What was decolonization and how did it come to happen? What did the various decolonization processes have in common? And what came after independence? As you have rightly come to expect, board games will play an important role in this post. Many of them are new – not even published when I googled „decolonization board game“ back then. I find it heartening that the topic finally gets the gaming recognition it receives.

The Term and the History of Decolonization

„Decolonization“ can mean two things: As a concrete event, it’s the independence of a former colony – visually speaking, when the flag of the colonizing country is pulled down and the flag of the newly independent state hoisted instead. That’s exactly how the aforementioned Decolonization card from Twilight Struggle is illustrated: A Union Jack is pulled down by two soldiers. More abstractly, „decolonization“ can also mean a larger process – both that of the dissolution of the European overseas empires and that of the delegitimization of colonial rule.

Decolonization TS

The “orderly transfer of power” the Europeans envisioned – pulling down a flag, hoisting another. The reality was quite another – and a timely play of the Decolonization can be one of the most disruptive moves in a game of Twilight Struggle. Image ©GMT Games.

The term „decolonization“ is not without its own problems. Its roots are in the language of colonial administration, and so it expresses the hope of colonial overlords to retain control over the process of the independence of their colonies. Thus, it overemphasizes the agency of the European decision-makers and downplays other factors – like the indigenous population or the international situation.
Decolonization happened in three waves:

  • The first wave was the independence of the European colonial empires in the Americas in the late 18th and early 19th century. The single most famous event here was the independence of the United States of America. Many games deal with this subject or a part of it, but one that deserves particular attention in our context is Liberty or Death (Harold Buchanan, GMT Games), which looks at the American Revolution as an insurgency to be dealt with by the British with counter-insurgency (COIN) methods.
    Liberty or Death

    Tensions are ramping up in New York as the British, French, and Patriots have committed forces there. Image from Liberty or Death, ©GMT Games.

    That is a recurring pattern in decolonization struggles, and we’ll see more games from GMT’s COIN series as this post (and the miniseries) continue. With all the gaming treatment the independence of the Thirteen Colonies gets (understandable given how much historical conflict gaming is dominated by US designers and gamers), don’t overlook the decolonization of Spanish and Portuguese America just a few years later. To my knowledge, there is no game which explicitly treats these independence processes as a part of decolonization. Maybe Guerra a Muerte (Javier Romero, Against the Odds) comes closest with its look on the entirety of Spanish America. However, I’d love to see more games on the subject – maybe also on smaller or failed decolonization attempts, say, the Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Gerais Conspiracy) in Brazil in 1789.

  • The second wave consists of the British white settler colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) gaining self-government in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United Kingdom had learned its lesson from the American Revolution and decided that when it came to colonists‘ demands, bending was better than breaking. So the colonies deemed capable of responsible self-government (that is, those with a sizeable number of European settlers) were given quite some leeway to conduct their own affairs, but remained within the British Empire. Until after World War II, many people in those settler colonies had a double identity, say, as being Australian and British. To my knowledge, no game about this soft, gradual decolonization has been made yet.
  • The third wave is the dissolution of the European colonial empires mostly in Africa and Asia after World War II. This is „decolonization“ in the narrower sense of the word, and our miniseries will focus on this decolonization. Therefore, I’ll not go into any more detail here – that’s what the remainder of this post (and the two upcoming ones in the miniseries) are for!

Agency, Rapidity, Violence: Common Characteristics of Decolonization

Decolonization processes differed from colony to colony, but there are some shared characteristics. The protagonists were often the same: On the simplest level, local nationalist movements and the governments of the colonial power stood in some form of opposition. To complicate matters, they were joined by the local government in the colony, the collaborating indigenous elites, in many cases white settler populations in the colony, and a plethora of entities based in the colonial power with a stake in the colony – the armed forces, businesses and investors, voters and the public. Finally, international players interacted with the local and imperial ones, most importantly the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cold War superpowers – both of which were (at least in principle) anti-colonial.
The similarities are less pronounced when it comes to the processes of decolonization – but most of them were rapid (much faster than the colonial powers had envisioned) and violent. These two traits form an uneasy dialectic: Eruptions of violence often convinced the colonial powers that they ought to accelerate the process of decolonization (to extract themselves from the messy results). A prime example for that is the run-up to independence in the biggest of all colonies, the part of South Asia which was to become India and Pakistan. Once tensions started to flare up there after World War II, the British authorities rushed the decolonization process, leading to Indian and Pakistani independence by 1947. Gandhi (Bruce Mansfield, GMT Games) represents this process via its Restraint track: When restraint erodes, all factions can resort more easily to confrontational action – which is typical as the game progresses and comes closer to independence.

Unity Restraint Gandhi

If restraint erodes, the anti-colonial factions can stage more protests. However, it also becomes easier for the British Raj to take action against the anti-colonial movement. Board detail of Gandhi, ©GMT Games.

On the other hand, an accelerated decolonization process often resulted in more violence. After Indian and Pakistani independence, millions of people lost their homes – and often their lives – in the attempt to make ethnic makeups align with the new borders. In other cases, quick retreats of the colonial power from official rule led to it – or other powers – filling that power vacuum in a more irregular fashion: After the Democratic Republic of the Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960 (which the Belgians had envisioned to take at least 30 years in the late 1950s), the Belgians started undermining its elected government under prime minister Patrice Lumumba. He was murdered (with help from the CIA) six months later and three governments claimed to be the rightful representative of the Congolese people (or parts of them) – one led by Lumumba’s successor Antoine Gizenga in the east (supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba), a separatist one in the southeastern province of Katanga under Moïse Tshombé (supported by Belgian forces and white mercenaries), and the eventual victor, the US-supported government of coup leader Joseph-Désiré Mobutu in the west. Some years later, Mobutu’s forces, again aided by mercenaries, defeated the last remnants of the Lumumba/Gizenga movement – the Simbas. Congo Merc (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games), the only game to deal with the Congo Crisis, chooses to put the player in the shoes of exactly these mercenaries, fighting Cuban guerillas or freeing European hostages held by the Simbas. (For a full account of the Congo Crisis, read my article on it!)

Congo Merc

For a game set in Africa, the dudes on the cover look pretty Irish. Box cover of Congo Merc, ©Decision Games.

Decolonization conflicts usually were shaped by a mix of the same three patterns:

  • The obvious conflict of every decolonization process is that between anti-colonial nationalists and loyalists supporting the established order. Both groups are typically represented in the colony as well as in the colonial power.
  • From at least the mid-1950s on, decolonization became another field of competition between the superpowers USA and USSR, which vied for power and influence in the newly independent countries.
  • On a more abstract level, decolonization processes represented flashpoints in the transition from the old international order of a multipolar imperial great power system to the new one of an bipolar ideological system.

There are three basic models to explain a decolonization process:

  • The local model emphasizes the events in the colony itself, as they are shaped by the local nationalist movement, the colonial government, the collaborating indigenous elites, and, if applicable, the white settler population. Gandhi is a prime example of a game which adopts this view.
  • The imperial model takes the perspective of the colonial power and its political, economic, and military sub-players, often looking at the entire colonial empire instead of a single colony. Guerra a Muerte is set in the entirety of Spanish America and one player represents the Spanish loyalists, but except for that, I am not aware of any game which does this – probably it’s a rare case that the nationalists in different colonies formed a united front (as in Spanish America). The player conflict structures could therefore be rather unconventional (e.g. imperialists who want to hold on to the empire as long as possible vs. reformers who see colonies as a financial and military liability rather than an asset). I think there would be interesting design opportunities, though – for example, I could imagine a solo game in which the player as a Whitehall administrator tries to steer the British Empire through an „orderly transition“ into a Commonwealth of independent countries with close links to Britain.
  • Finally, the international model embeds decolonization into the other global political processes like the Cold War. Some of the more combat-oriented games set in decolonization processes (like Congo Merc) frame their conflict as a part of a Cold War struggle.

Decolonization: A Tale of Disappointments

The history of decolonization is a history of unfulfilled expectations. The hope of the imperial decision-makers to keep their colonies soon proved to be illusory. Just as well, their expectation to conduct an „orderly transfer of power“ was usually replaced by the reality of a hasty and barely controlled retreat from the colony.
The United States and the Soviet Union initially hoped to score cheap successes in the superpower rivalry by setting the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa on the path to the political and economic model they championed. Instead, they often got bogged down in long, fruitless, and bloody (especially for the local populations, but sometimes also for the superpowers) conflicts – the most famous one being the thirty year long decolonization struggle in Vietnam. Here, the Vietnamese nationalists first took on the US-financed French forces attempting to hold on to their colony, finally defeating the European great power in a conventional battle at Dien Bien Phu (recently covered by Dien Bien Phu (Kim Kanger, Legion War Games)). Then, with their tried and tested method of patiently combining guerilla and conventional campaigns, they inflicted the biggest Cold War defeat on the American superpower itself, correctly assessing that the price the United States was willing to pay for Vietnam was much lower than that the Vietnamese themselves could afford.
The anti-colonial groups in the United States and Europe also suffered their share of disappointments: Most of the new countries were unable to follow in the footsteps of 19th century Europe and did not easily achieve national unity and economic prosperity. The cheered protagonists of the anticolonial struggle often turned out to be despots once in power (say, Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe).
Which brings us to the last and biggest disappointment: The nationalist leaders and the indigenous populations had expected independence in letter and spirit, and prosperity and freedom to go with it. In most former colonies, these expectations were not realized. Instead, their dependence (especially economically) on other countries persisted (be that the former colonial power or a superpower). The majority of the population only slowly found their way out of poverty. And the oppressive colonial overlords were replaced by new oppressors – this time, from the new countries themselves.
In the next post of this miniseries, we’ll look at decolonization as a local process – with more board games! Watch this space.

Games Referenced

Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Liberty or Death (Harold Buchanan, GMT Games)
Guerra a Muerte (Javier Romero, Against the Odds)
Gandhi (Bruce Mansfield, GMT Games)
Congo Merc (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games)
Dien Bien Phu (Kim Kanger, Legion War Games)

Further Reading

A good overview to the third wave of decolonization is Springhall, John: Decolonization since 1945. The Collapse of European Overseas Empires, Palgrave, Houndsmills 2001.
For a brief, but excellent analytic treatment of decolonization, see Jansen, Jan C./Osterhammel, Jürgen: Decolonization: A Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 2017.
For a short introduction on the end of the British empire as the largest colonial empire, see Darwin, John: Decolonization and the End of Empire, in: The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. V: Historiography, London/New York 1999, p. 541—577.


8 thoughts on “What Was Decolonization? (Decolonization, #1)

  1. Pingback: Decolonization on the Ground (Decolonization, #2) | Clio's Board Games

  2. Pingback: Decolonization in the Cold War (Decolonization, #3) | Clio's Board Games

  3. Pingback: BoardGameGeek War Game Top 60: #60-51 | Clio's Board Games

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