Decolonization on the Ground (Decolonization, #2)

In 1900, about half the global population lived under foreign suzerainty. A century later, almost all (formal) colonies had vanished. The climax of this breathtaking process of decolonization was in 1960, exactly 60 years ago, when 17 newly independent states joined the United Nations. We’ve looked at decolonization from a bird’s eye view in the first post of this miniseries. Today, we’re going to zoom way in and look at decolonization processes in individual colonies. First, we’ll get an overview of the agents of decolonization. Then, we’ll look at the ideas that influenced the decolonization struggle as well as the fight for longer colonial rule. Finally, we explore the limits of an explanation which only looks to the colony in question. And, as always, we look at board games.

Players: Nationalists, Administrators, Collaborationists, Settlers

There are four important movers, shakers, and obstructors of decolonization processes within a colony. You might have cleverly guessed who they are from the sub-headline. Let’s begin with the most obvious one.

Gandhi Box Cover

Gandhi during the Salt March. Box cover of Gandhi, ©GMT Games.

The obvious agents of decolonization are the local nationalists. Their typical leader is embodied by Mohandas Gandhi – so famous that he has an entire board game named after him: Gandhi (Bruce Mansfield, GMT Games): Western-educated (Gandhi got a law degree in London), sparked into activism by the racism he experienced (especially during his time in the strictly racially segregated colony of South Africa), incarcerated (not to the detriment of his profile as an activist), and, most importantly for the decolonization process, able to turn a small group of intellectuals into a popular movement with mass support. Other anti-colonial leaders who check the same boxes in their CV are Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Kenyatta (Tanzania), or Nelson Mandela (South Africa).
While the nationalists of a colony had the same overarching goal – independence – there were often several groups with very different ideas on how to conduct the anticolonial struggle and what should come after it. Gandhi features three of those – Gandhi’s Congress (non-violent, for a united independent country), the Muslim League (non-violent, for a separate independent Muslim country), and the Revolutionaries (an amalgamation of the various violent anti-British groups in India). In the beginning, they might all go against the British Raj, but bickering between them is sure to begin! Another game with competing anticolonial factions is Angola (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing) – set right after Angola’s independence. The largest independence movement MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, Popular Movement of the Liberation of Angola) and its armed wing FAPLA (Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola, Popular Armed Forces of the Liberation of Angola) try to fend off the FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, National Front of the Liberation of Angola) in the north and the UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in the south. Here, the three movements were mostly based on ethnicity – the MPLA on the Mbundu, the FNLA on the Bakongo, and the UNITA on Ovimbundu.


MPLA (yellow) and FAPLA (red) await the onslaught from UNITA (blue) and FNLA (green). Map of Angola, ©Multi-Man Publishing.

The colonial administrators are not quite as impressive. Tiny in numbers and far from their European homelands, they first aimed to retained the colony as such, and then to conduct an „orderly transition“ to independence – or, as the nationalists tended to see it, to slow down the decolonization process. While they never succeeded in keeping a colony formally dependent against its wishes, it is often remarkable how long they managed to keep some control over a colony and retain some support over wide swathes of the population. The latter is reflected in the victory conditions for colonial powers in games about decolonization, for example the Raj player in Gandhi who wins if they can gather a certain amount of support and control a certain number of population.
How did that handful of colonial administrators control such large populations? In India, there were never more than a few thousand British in the Indian Civil service, and they ruled over hundreds of millions Indians. But of course they had help. Colonial rule could not have been upheld without the indigenous people who collaborated with it – be that the masses who worked, paid taxes, and did not rise up in rebellion, or the local elites who ran the colony together with (albeit subordinate to) the European masters. Decolonization was only possible when enough of these indigenous elites changed their allegiance – as is very condensedly shown in the event card Hyderabad Defends Its Independence.

Gandhi_Hyderabad Defends its Independence

The princely states in India were keen on their autonomy and willing to side with whoever promised to respect it – be that the British or the anticolonial movement. Card “Hyderabad Defends its Independence” from Gandhi, ©GMT Games.

The nationalists wanted independence. Their collaborationist countrymen might be convinced of it, and the imperial administrators wearied into accepting it. But one group would always resist decolonization because they had nothing to gain from it and a lot to lose: White settlers.
As said above, Europeans never made up more than a minority in the colonies discussed here (the story is different for the British colonies like Australia, or, earlier, the Thirteen Colonies in North America, where white settlers by means of mass immigration, disease, and genocide became more numerous than the indigenous peoples). Their metropolitan capitals had granted them special privileges like access to cheap arable land. Once the indigenous people would gain equal rights – and decolonization would mean just that – these privileges might disappear. Just as well, the identity of the settlers was based on their superiority over the indigenous population. Decolonization was therefore not only an economic, but also a psychological threat to life as the settlers knew it.
Settler presences in a colony therefore made the decolonization process slower, more complicated, and more violent. A prime example is the decolonization of South Rhodesia (today: Zimbabwe). And that’s the subject of The White Tribe (R. Ben Madison, White Dog Games).

The White Tribe cover

Not only does The White Tribe have a hypothesis, it also puts it straight on the cover. Image ©White Dog Games.

The White Tribe is the quintessential game-with-a-hypothesis. That hypothesis is that a white minority government headed by the ruling Rhodesian Front party could have engineered a transition to majority rule, and even done it better than what Zimbabwe got in reality, where Robert Mugabe’s long, increasingly authoritarian rule eventually plunged the country into economic despair. For that end, the player (it’s a solo game) will take on the role of the leader of the Rhodesian Front and attempt to push for liberal policies in parliament and coopt black leaders in order to perform the transition to majority rule, beset by African insurgents and liberal foreign governments who don’t see the complications this transition entails, and by the racist white electorate who are loath to give up their privileges.
I don’t buy that line of reasoning. While the designer’s notes make it clear that the player is not supposed to be Ian Smith, the historical head of the Rhodesian Front, but a not-further-named leader of that party, I cannot see anyone within the Rhodesian Front committed to a peaceful and equitable transition to majority rule. Instead of holding a middle ground between the armed insurgents and their international supporters and the white voters, the Rhodesian Front was committed to preserving the latter’s rights and powers as much and long as possible, making tactical concessions to advance that overall goal. It was therefore fully aligned with the white electorate in matters of principle (albeit maybe not always tactics), and thus overwhelmingly supported by them at the ballot box from the 1960s until after majority rule in the 1980s. That the aforementioned tactical concessions resulted in majority rule was not a product of the Rhodesian Front’s insight into racial equality, but the consequence of the pressure they received from the black insurgents and foreign governments. While I find the game’s hypothesis flawed, I commend the designer for openly pursuing one – a fruitful way to engage with history! I wish we’d see more of that.

Ideas: Anti-Colonial Thought and the Ideology of Development

Anti-colonial thinking and practice was usually a mix of western and indigenous influences. Once more, Gandhi is a prime example: His British law degree helped him understand his opponents and target his policies, but his Satyagraha resistance practices were rooted in the non-violent tradition of vishnuist Hindus.

Gandhi_The Salt March

Gandhi’s most famous act of civil resistance: He marched to the sea and symbolically got some salt from there, breaking the British monopoly on salt – inspiring thousands of Indians to do the same. Event card “The Salt March” from Gandhi, ©GMT Games.

The engagement with western thought was rather varied: Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal) admired French civilization and dreamed of a merger of French and West African culture. On the other hand, Frantz Fanon (Algeria) rejected the French claims to civilization, which he saw as nothing as the basis for economic exploitation and racial oppression. Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) fell in the middle: He focused on the divergence between the lofty claims of the British colonial power and its practice. His strategy was that pointing out the shortcomings would help to overcome colonial rule – and then to realize the aspirations in an independent Ghana.
In any case, the ideological foundations of colonialism were eroding. The colonial powers had shown themselves weak and vulnerable during World War II, and their claims to fight for freedom and national self-determination were eagerly taken up by the colonial peoples who did not enjoy such privileges. As Europe lay in shambles, a new concept to legitimize colonial rule had to be found. And thus „civilization“ was replaced by „development“.
Development was influenced by post-war economists like W. Arthur Lewis or Walt Rostow. They maintained that the integration of colonies into the global capitalist economy was the way for them to become prosperous (and to be safe from the seductive influence of Communism). And so the metropolitan countries set out to economically develop their colonies – with infrastructure projects, increased trade, or attempts to rebuild the social fabric of their economic structure (like trade unions) in the colonies.

Generally, that did not produce the desired results. Sometimes, the resources poured into the colonies went missing (see the two event cards from Colonial Twilight (Brian Train, GMT Games) above, often, the projects were too grandiose and not compatible with local conditions, and almost always did they not do much to improve the colonial subjects‘ opinion of colonial rule. Finally, „development“ also had a darker side to it, which becomes clear in the way the two cards above are used: They are one of many instruments in the struggle to maintain colonial power – one weapon in the „war of modernization“ in Algeria. Development projects were aimed at increasing support for the colonial government while advancing its preferred mode of progress and modernity, regardless of other ways forward.

Limits: Imperial and International Factors

Focusing on one colony by itself always brings the risk to neglect the wider changes, be they in the colonial empire as a whole or in the international system. The games I have discussed here include a bit of that, but not too much – which, I think, is appropriate for their subject matter, especially as they are about some very special colonies:

Gandhi_India is the Jewel in the Crown

British perceptions of India shaped its response to the challenges of decolonization. Event card “India is the Jewel in the Crown” from Gandhi, ©GMT Games,

  • India was by far the largest and most important colony of the British Empire, its proverbial „jewel in the crown“. Just as well, India’s decolonization was rather uninfluenced by other British colonies as it gained independence in 1947 already, almost a decade before the big wave of independences commenced.
  • If India was special because it was the most important British colony, Algeria was technically not even a colony: The populated parts in the north were organized in three French departments and therefore an integral part of France proper – or, in the words of the French officials: „Ici, c’est la France“ („Here [in Algeria] is France!“). There is even a game of that name (Kim Kanger, Legion Wargames).
  • Angola only sets in when the country gains independence. Which is a pity, because a pre-independence game about Angola (as was originally planned within the COIN series by Volko Ruhnke) could highlight the empire-wide issues – for example, how the nationalist leaders networked across colonies because they got to know one another during their time at Portuguese universities.
  • Lastly, Rhodesia’s decolonization struggle came rather late, when the United Kingdom had already let go of almost all of their colonies. Nonetheless, The White Tribe features quite some international complications: British governments led by the Labour Party can be less than inclined to support a white-minority government in Rhodesia, the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire will rob Rhodesia of a major external supporter. All of this is handled via random events which gives the player the feeling that the international sphere is out of their control – very appropriate for a leader of a tiny country!

As we’ve seen, local explanations tend to neglect the larger international scene, and for the main wave of decolonization after World War II, that means first and foremost the Cold War. But that is a matter for the next post in this miniseries.

Games Referenced

Gandhi (Bruce Mansfield, GMT Games)
Angola (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing)
The White Tribe (R. Ben Madison, White Dog Games)
Colonial Twilight (Brian Train, GMT Games)
Ici, c’est la France! (Kim Kanger, Legion Wargames)

Further Reading

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.
A good overview to the third wave of decolonization which also contains thoughtful analysis of its protagonists is Springhall, John: Decolonization since 1945. The Collapse of European Overseas Empires, Palgrave, Houndsmills 2001.
For anti-colonial thought, have a look at the protagonists themselves: Senghor, Léopold Sédar: Négritude et Humanisme, Seuil, Paris 1964 (in French) and Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York City, NY 1963.
On the other side, the classic works of development and modernization theory are W. Arthur Lewis, Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour, in: The Manchester School 22, 2 (1954) p. 139—191 and Rostow, Walt: The Stages of Growth. A Non-Communist Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1960, online here.
For development and modernization as weapons of war, see Malinowski, Stephan: Modernisierungskriege. Militärische Gewalt und koloniale Modernisierung im Algerienkrieg (1954—1962), in: Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 48 (2008), p. 213—248, online here (in German).


8 thoughts on “Decolonization on the Ground (Decolonization, #2)

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thank you!
      Frederick Cooper’s “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept”, in: ibid./Randall Packard (eds.): International Development and the Social Sciences touches on development, and his “Decolonization and African Society. The Labor Question in French and British Africa” has some chapters on development as well. Lastly, Nils Gilman’s “Mandarins of the Future. Modernization Theory in Cold War America” is supposed to be very good, but I haven’t read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pete S/ SP

        Thanks for that. I always like to fill it gaps in my understanding when I find them. Have read a bit on the Mau Mau rebellion/ Kenyan history recently so it will be good to see a different perspective on things.



        Liked by 1 person

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