BRITAIN'S Colonies, no less than the Dominions and India, are contributing their share to the war effort of the Commonwealth. The spectacular activities of the Canadian airmen over Britain, of the Australians and New Zealanders in Libya, of the Indian division in Eritrea and of the South African troops in Ethiopia should not lead us to overlook the important rôle being played by the Empire's "junior partners" -- the crown colonies, the protectorates and the mandated territories.

I

Before describing the part played by the British Colonies in the war, however, I should like to explain briefly just what they are. I found during a recent tour of the United States that there was considerable vagueness about the Colonial Empire even in otherwise well-informed quarters -- which is perhaps not surprising, seeing that it is none too well known at home.

The British Colonial Empire comprises some forty separate territories, large and small, at greatly varying stages of political, social and economic development, scattered across the globe, covering a land area of three million square miles (exclusive of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan) and containing a population -- white, black, brown and yellow -- of some sixty-five million people. The whites are in a small minority, for most of the colonies are tropical or sub-tropical and are therefore, unlike the Dominions, largely unsuited for white settlement.

Let us for a moment make a bird's-eye survey of this variegated Empire. Turning first to the Western Hemisphere we find numerous colonies off the coast of North America or clustered in the Caribbean -- Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the other British West Indies, British Honduras and British Guiana -- much in the news of late as a result of Britain's having granted the United States sites for naval and air bases on some of them. Further down in the South Atlantic lie Ascension, St. Helena, the Falklands -- all useful points d'appui in Britain's control of the sea -- as well as Tristan da Cunha, "loneliest isle," and a section of Antarctica.

But it is the vast continent of Africa that contains the great bulk of British colonial territory and population. In West Africa there are the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria (which alone has a population of over twenty millions), plus the two mandated areas in the former German colonies of Togoland and the Cameroons. To the east lie the million square miles composing the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, a "condominium" in which the flags of Britain and Egypt fly side by side, though the practical job of administration is largely in British hands. Still farther east, near the "Horn of Africa," is British Somaliland, temporarily under Italian occupation. Below the Sudan comes a large British bloc comprising Kenya, Uganda, the mandated Territory of Tanganyika, Nyasaland, the Rhodesias, the island of Zanzibar under its native Sultan, and, embedded in the Union of South Africa, the protectorates of Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swasiland, still under Imperial control. Southern Rhodesia, incidentally, is a self-governing colony, though it does not rank as a Dominion.

Along Britain's "short-cut" to the East through the Mediterranean and Red Seas are strung the colonies of Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Aden (in which latter is included Britain's protectorate over the south coast of Arabia), as well as the mandated territories of Palestine and Trans Jordan. In the Indian Ocean lie the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles and, at the toe of India, Ceylon -- the premier colony, today self-governing. Burma, though politically quite separate and distinct from India, has the same status as its larger neighbor, and is therefore not a colony.

Farther east is British Malaya, a peninsula consisting of the Straits Settlements, with the great Singapore base, and the Federated and non-Federated Malay States under their native rulers. Malaya is the most prosperous of all the colonial areas, its wealth being derived largely from its tin and rubber, for which the United States is the principal customer. The island of Borneo, though mostly Dutch, contains British North Borneo, administered by the British North Borneo Company, and the protectorates of Brunei and Sarawak, the latter under its "white rajahs" out of the Brooke family. At the gateway of China stands Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Out in the South Pacific lie many scattered islands such as Fiji, the Gilbert and Ellis groups, the British Solomons, the miniature Kingdom of the Tonga (or Friendly) Islands, ruled by Queen Saloti Tabou, and Pitcairn, still inhabited by descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty. In this part of the world are also the New Hebrides group, until lately an Anglo-French condominium, and the phosphate island of Nauru, an Empire mandate. Not to be omitted is the interesting experiment of Canton and Enderbury Islands, where a joint Anglo-American administration is now in force.

Though this list completes the roster of British Colonies, it does not include territories belonging or mandated to Dominions, such as South-West Africa, Papua, New Guinea and Western Samoa. Such a bare catalogue of names cannot, of course, give any hint of the rich diversity of the lands and peoples living under the British flag, or of their varied history. Any impartial study of this history will, however, reveal that for the most part the Home Government, far from pursuing a policy of "grab," was often reluctant to assume responsibilities that were thrust upon it by the force of circumstances, by the enterprise of individuals, by spontaneous and sometimes repeated requests for protection, or by the consequences and necessities of sea power. Had it been otherwise, the Colonial Empire would have become far more extensive than it is. Many opportunities for territorial expansion were refused or neglected, while in other cases the possessions of other Powers taken as the prize of war, such as the Dutch East Indies, were restored.

In any event, the "imperialism" of the nineteenth century is in Britain a thing of the past, and has been superseded by the policy of trusteeship. British Colonies are no longer regarded as "possessions" to be exploited primarily for the benefit of the mother country but as responsibilities or trusts held for the ultimate benefit of the colonial peoples themselves. The objective towards which the "junior partners" are striving is that already attained by the "senior partners" in the Commonwealth -- self-government. The Secretary of State for the Colonies not long ago insisted in Parliament that there can be no separation of Imperial and Commonwealth policy, that it must be the same for the Colonies as for the Dominions and India. The more backward peoples are to be guided towards that stage of political, economic and social development where they can stand on their own feet and take charge of their own affairs. Some colonies have already nearly reached this goal; others are in varying stages of progress towards it.

That is why there can be no question of transferring or bartering any British colony, protectorate or mandated territory to another Power except at the express wish of the inhabitants. For Britain to do otherwise would be to shirk her responsibilities. These territories are not disposable property; they belong, not to us, but to their peoples -- British subjects or protected persons who for the most part are proud of that status and who certainly do not desire to exchange it for anything but independence, and even then would probably wish to remain associated with the British Commonwealth of free peoples.

II

Of this attitude, signal proof has been given ever since September 1939. Upon the declaration of war the Colonies at once ranged themselves at the side of the mother country and placed their resources in man-power, money and materials at Britain's disposal. As Mr. George Hall, Under Secretary of State for Colonies, declared in the House of Commons on November 20 of last year: "The outbreak of war was the signal for a unanimous and spontaneous outburst of loyalty and support from all parts of the Colonial Empire. The assurances which were given then have been more than fulfilled, and all calls for service have been enthusiastically answered. Indeed, during the past 14 months the loyalty of the Colonies has been demonstrated in an almost bewildering variety of ways. There have been gifts showing a degree of thoughtfulness and sympathy which I find very touching. . . . There have been gifts from such bodies as the trade unions in Fiji, chambers of commerce, municipal councils, and so on; gifts for the general conduct of the war, for fighters and bombers, gifts in cash and kind, gifts to war charities, to the Red Cross, to King George's Fund for Sailors, for every conceivable purpose. Up to date the amount subscribed has reached the wonderful total of no less than £17,000,000. . . . Every territory has made its contribution from Nigeria's 20,000,000 population to the 200 persons who occupy Ascension Island."

The field of voluntary money contributions is, of course, only one of those in which the Colonies are helping. Mr. Hall's figure of £17,000,000--now grown to over £20,000,000 -- represents only special gifts and does not take account of the considerable colonial expenditure on local defense, which has naturally increased greatly under war conditions, or the normal contributions to imperial defense made by the Colonies. For instance, Hong Kong alone contributes $3,000,000 a year to imperial defense in addition to an expenditure of $6,000,000 a year for local defense purposes. The Colonies took the lead in starting "Spitfire Funds" and in collecting money for canteens for air-raid victims in Britain -- the first of these was a gift from the children of Mauritius to the children of London.

This was not the enforced action of subservient colonial governments, but the voluntary gesture of the peoples themselves and of their national leaders and representatives, who fully recognize that their future depends upon British survival, and that we fight for their freedom as for our own. Such a result could scarcely have followed upon "imperialistic exploitation" or "brutal repression." Nor must it be forgotten that this eager coöperation of the Colonies represents only the early stages of an effort which, with that of the Dominions and India, may well prove a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.

III

Let us look at the military side of the picture. For obvious reasons details cannot be given here, but it should be kept in mind that the Colonial Empire contains an immense reservoir of manpower, available not only for direct military service but also for labor. At the outset of the war the British Government made a significant decision: that for the duration of the conflict British subjects from the Colonies and British-protected persons, whether of European descent or not, should be placed, for the purpose of voluntary entry into the Armed Forces of the Crown in the United Kingdom, on precisely the same footing as other British subjects. In no sphere of activity have the Colonies shown more clearly and more insistently their desire to offer their services without stint. In Kenya, almost half the European population between the ages of 18 and 35 have enlisted in the armed forces, and it has been necessary to introduce compulsory service among Europeans throughout the Colonies, not for any lack of volunteers, but in order to make more rational use of the man-power available and to avoid interference with necessary production. As for the native peoples, there has been no need to apply compulsion since many more have offered themselves than can possibly be accepted. The limiting factor has not been the availability, still less the quality, of colonial troops, but our ability at present to supply all the necessary equipment.

Even before the war, the defense forces in many of the Colonies had been strengthened and new forces established where none had previously existed. Within the half year following the outbreak of war the local forces in East Africa, Malaya and Hong Kong had been increased threefold, while the number serving in West Africa had been doubled. Only lack of equipment prevented greater expansion. Units of the Royal West Africa Frontier Force, of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment, and of the Southern Rhodesia Air Force are now coöperating in Ethiopia with contingents from the South African Army and Air Force and with the local forces in East Africa. In the Mediterranean, Gibraltar remains on guard, while Malta has already put up a splendid defense against constant air bombardment from Italian, and lately, from German planes. Thousands of Maltese have joined the Navy and other branches of the imperial forces. A pioneer unit from Cyprus had the honor of being the first colonial contingent to arrive in France for active service, and several thousand Cypriots are now serving in the newly-formed Cyprus Regiment in England. The contribution of the Cypriots towards the smashing British victory in Libya recently received especial praise from General Wavell. Pioneer units have also been raised in Palestine, Malta, Aden, Mauritius and Seychelles.

In Palestine, political differences have been adjourned, internal order and peace have been restored, and Arabs and Jews are now serving side by side in volunteer forces. In addition, large numbers of Palestinian Arab and Jewish companies have been attached to British battalions for combatant service in the Middle East. In short, the defense forces have been strengthened in all Colonies from the Falklands to Ceylon and Fiji. So far, combatant units have not been raised in the West Indies; but since West Indians have a long and honorable tradition of military service in other parts of the world, their turn may come. There is already a steady and increasing flow of colonial recruits for service in the Air Force as well as in the Army. Much study is being given to the problem of how the man-power resources of the Colonial Empire can be mobilized and used to the best advantage. And it should be emphasized that what has been done in the first eighteen months of the war is but an instalment of what the Colonial Empire is capable of contributing in men and materials.

Before leaving the problem of defense, something should be said of the West Indian bases. Leases on a basis of 99 years or less are being granted to the United States Government "freely and without consideration" for air and naval bases on the Avalon Peninsula and the southern coast of Newfoundland, and on the east coast and great bay of Bermuda. In exchange for naval and military equipment similar bases are to be set up on the eastern side of the Bahamas, the southern coast of Jamaica, the west coast of St. Lucia in the Windwards, in Antigua in the Leewards, on the west coast of Trinidad, and in British Guiana within 50 miles of Georgetown. In announcing the decision to grant these leases, Mr. Churchill emphasized that "there is of course no question of any transference of sovereignty -- that has never been suggested -- or of any action being taken without the consent or against the wishes of the Colonies concerned." This statement makes the position of the British Government quite clear and allays fears expressed by some West Indians that their status as British subjects might be affected or their land alienated. The colonial governments are necessarily parties to any agreements in which their rights are affected. On the other hand, this notable example of Anglo-American coöperation will not only contribute materially to Western Hemisphere defense but will probably add to the prosperity of the Colonies concerned.

IV

It is in the economic field that the colonial war contribution is, and can increasingly be, of the highest value. Being largely situated in the tropical and subtropical zones, the Colonies have immense resources in foodstuffs, raw materials and minerals, many of them complementary to those produced in other parts of the Commonwealth. Before the war, all these had been as freely available to other nations as to Great Britain. After the declaration of war the first step was to bring colonial trade under complete control in accordance with plans already devised. The purposes of this control were to prevent goods from reaching the enemy, to provide essential colonial supplies for Britain and her friends, to secure foreign exchange in return for exports, to limit imports paid for in foreign exchange, and to prevent the transfer of capital into foreign currency. All of these objects were successfully achieved with the utmost goodwill and active coöperation of the Colonies, even where some inconvenience was involved. In many cases the enemy has already been dealt heavy blows by our withholding colonial products necessary to his economy.

Turning to the positive side, when war began the Colonies at once asked of Britain: How can we help you with our products; what do you want more of; what do you want us to send to you rather than elsewhere? These questions covered a great variety of products, as can readily be seen from the Economic Survey of the Colonial Empire issued annually by the Colonial Office. Broadly speaking, Britain's policy has been to buy up the total crop or the total exportable surplus of the principal foodstuffs and raw materials produced by the various Colonies, buying if necessary more than she needs. The purpose of this policy is to assure the maintenance of the Colonies' economic standards, to encourage self-sufficiency in home consumption, to facilitate the expansion of exports as a means of obtaining foreign exchange (such as rubber, cocoa and tin) and to help develop existing as well as new industries and resources.

In pursuit of this policy Britain has purchased, or contracted to purchase, at a fair and stable price, the Colonies' total crops or exportable surpluses of such products as cocoa, sugar, tea, coffee, flax, cotton, wool, sisal, oilseeds, copra and phosphates. The Colonies are also great suppliers of copper, tin, lead, zinc, bauxite, iron ore, gold, manganese, chromium, pyrites, potash, groundnuts, oil and other essential raw materials. The quota releases of rubber and tin have been greatly increased, so that these two commodities are now virtually unrestricted. Very large quantities of rubber have been purchased by the United States. The Colonies have thus been assured of a demand for all their products, and some indeed are opening up fresh markets. Economic councils or development committees have been set up in the principal Colonies, and several of these are exploiting fresh resources or expanding existing industries. For example, the bauxite industry in British Guiana is being extended; large bauxite deposits are also being opened up in Nyasaland. Flax factories are being erected in Kenya. Power alcohol and diesel fuel is being made in Uganda. Iron ore has been discovered in Ceylon; Trinidad is increasing her oil output; and an oil industry is being developed in British Guiana. Secondary industries are likewise being developed in many Colonies under the stimulus of war needs. Hong Kong, for instance, is busy building ships to carry empire goods.

Lack of space forbids our going into all the details concerning this wide range of production or our enumerating all the items colony by colony. Merely to give a few examples: copper is available in large quantities from Northern Rhodesia; chromite, the source of chromium, is coming from Sierra Leone, in addition to increased quantities of iron ore and gold; manganese, as well as gold, comes from the Gold Coast; the whole of the West African cocoa crop is assured, as well as tea and coffee from Kenya, Nyasaland and Ceylon; sugar is available from Mauritius, the West Indies and British Guiana; Nigeria and Malaya export tin; Uganda alone in 1940 produced nearly 400,000 bales of cotton, and besides this, there is the Sudan product and Sea Island cotton from the West Indies. These examples are but a few of those that might be cited; but they are enough to show that the Colonies' resources constitute a very great reinforcement for the Empire's economic war effort.

Moreover, there now exist close economic links between the British Colonies and those of Belgium, Holland and Free France. Also, at Delhi a conference is now sitting more or less permanently at which the Dominions and all the Colonies east of Suez are represented and of which the purpose is to evolve a joint economic policy for all these territories in order to make them self-supporting, as far as possible, and to supply the British Forces in the Middle East. This is an important development which may have far-reaching consequences.

V

Despite its grave preoccupations, the British Government has been fully mindful of its colonial responsibilities. In the midst of war, it has added to the statute book the most important piece of colonial legislation in recent years: the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940. This law provides for a vast program of economic, social and educational development to extend over a period of at least ten years and covering the Colonial Empire as a whole. It will entail an expenditure from the British Treasury of £5,500,000 a year. In addition, it has wiped out virtually the whole of colonial indebtedness, totalling well over £11,000,000. At the same time, the Government has issued the drastic recommendations of the Royal Commission on the West Indies, and has announced that these will be implemented as far and as soon as possible, and that a special sum will be allocated under this head, in addition to a due proportion of the Development Fund. Work has, in fact, already begun in the West Indies. It is estimated that this legislation will cost the British taxpayer in all, excluding the debt remission, a sum equivalent to some $280,000,000. To supervise the work, two important committees have been set up: a Development Committee under Lord Moyne, who was chairman of the West India Royal Commission, and a Research Committee under Lord Hailey. Preparatory work is being undertaken both at home and in the Colonies, though the full prosecution of the task must necessarily depend upon the progress of the war.

This legislation is in no sense to be regarded as a reward for good conduct, for it was drafted long before the outbreak of the war and is merely a necessary corollary of the British policy of trusteeship for colonial peoples.

In the sphere of medical, educational and social development, and in economic enterprise, the British Colonies have benefited considerably from American help and coöperation. Such bodies as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Phelps Stokes Fund, numerous missionary societies, as well as many commercial enterprises and private individuals, have all given liberally in money, expert advice and devoted personal service in such fields as medicine, public health, education and scientific research throughout Africa, in the West Indies, Malta, Palestine, Malaya, and other territories. American capital and initiative have greatly aided the economic development of various colonies, especially Northern Rhodesia, Cyprus and Palestine. One instance of this help is the financing, largely by the Carnegie Corporation, of the monumental survey of Africa carried out by Lord Hailey, which will probably form the foundation of future development in that vast continent. The great extent and variety of this valuable coöperation is not sufficiently appreciated by the American people.

Many Americans still suspect the British of imperialism in the old and bad sense, and in general, the American public does not understand the implications of our present colonial policy. If, as Mr. Churchill has said, the destinies of our two nations are in the future to be increasingly bound together, as certainly seems probable, it is highly desirable that the American people should fully understand, not only that the structure of the British Commonwealth is democratic, but that in this democratic system there is a place provided for the colonial peoples.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now