Britain, France and the Decolonization of Africa – Future Imperfect?
Edited by Andrew W.M. Smith and Chris Jeppesen
BRITAIN, FRANCE AND THE DECOLONIZATION OF AFRICA – FUTURE IMPERFECT?
Introduction: development, contingency and entanglement: decolonization in the conditional
Andrew W. M. Smith and Chris Jeppesen
The imperfect tense describes an indeﬁnite ending: in the past, it is irresolute; in the future, it is conditional.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the vast African empires of Britain and France started to break apart in ways that seemed to defy the political will of the colonizers. By 1966 most of the African continent had gained independence and new nation-states raised the standards of liberation.
Looking back on the political reconﬁgurations of this period, it can appear that an unstoppable storm swept across the African continent during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, leading ﬁgures on both sides of the colonial divide regularly chose to remind diverse audiences at this time that events were being propelled by uncontainable, natural forces.
Be it through Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’, Nkrumah’s ‘raging hurricane’ or the tides of history washing France out of Algeria, European colonialism appeared destined to be overwhelmed by forces beyond its control.
Yet, as Frederick Cooper astutely reminds us, when explaining the end of European empires in the middle of the twentieth century, historians all too often fall into traps set by knowing how the story ends.
The surety of the destination, however, should not make an arduous journey any simpler in reﬂection.
Whether through violent confrontation or negotiated transition, possibilities for political change grew and shrank in the decades after 1945.
There was no straight, single path that led to the end of empire, just as there was never one united voice raised in deﬁ-ance of colonial rule.
Across many territories, the departing pageantry of colonial authority, typiﬁed in its last moment in the folding up and unfurling of ﬂags, invoked a sense of order and control that was seldom