Chapter 24 Growth of Colonial Nationalism, 1880-1939

Section 3 Nationalism in Southwest Asia and Africa

As India sought self-government within the British Empire and China tried to restore its unity and independence from outside imperial interference, the first new countries actually to emerge from the western empires were the former Ottoman states of southwest Asia and northern Africa. Even then, the imperial powers tried to continue their influence by granting a limited independence. Meanwhile, the voice of nationalism was also beginning to be heard in the rest of Africa, as western-educated Africans sought greater participation in their own government.

Egyptian nationalism

The first of the old Ottoman territories to obtain official independence was Egypt. Since the British occupation in 1882,[28] many Egyptians had become impatient with continued British rule. Even before World War I, a new popular nationalist party, the Wafd (wahft) party, emerged under the leadership of Saad Zaghlul Pasha.[29] In 1914, however, on the outbreak of war, Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt in order to sever its ties with the Ottoman Empire.

            The British promised Egypt independence as soon as the war was over. When they did not immediately fulfill this pledge, in 1919 Zaghlul Pasha and the Wafd led a nationwide revolt. Although the British put down the revolt with considerable bloodshed, in 1921 they decided they could no longer withhold independence. Even then, however, they tried to curtail it in order to maintain Britain’s own strategic interests in Egypt.

            In 1922 Britain unilaterally proclaimed Egypt independent—but with three reservations.[30] Britain kept responsibility for the defense of Egypt and the Suez Canal; for administration of the Sudan, which controlled the upper Nile; and for the protection of “foreign interests” in Egypt. Rather than accept these limitations, the Egyptian Cabinet resigned in protest. Although a new government appointed by the Egyptian king accepted Britain’s terms, Egyptian nationalists continued to agitate for full independence. [31]

            In 1935, however, Egyptian leaders were alarmed by the Italian invasion of nearby Ethiopia. After intense negotiations that focused on defense matters, Britain and Egypt finally reached an agreement in the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Britain was allowed to maintain military control over the Suez Canal for the next 20 years and in case of war Britain would defend Egypt, as well as the canal. Egyptian troops were also allowed back into the Sudan, from which they had been expelled a decade earlier. Finally, Britain agreed to sponsor Egypt for membership in the League of Nations. Still, the continuing presence of British troops in the Nile Valley left many Egyptians feeling that they were not fully independent.[32]

The Arab Mandates and Arabia

Similar feelings affected nationalists in the neighboring Arab mandates. Nationalism in these mandates was complicated by the fact that it had more than one face. Few people had any sense of belonging to a geographical state. Many people still identified themselves primarily as members of a particular religious community, rather than as citizens of a state. Family and other local loyalties also vied with the still unfamiliar concept of citizenship in a territorial state—as did the larger Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic movements. 'Arab nationalism' was often easily confused with Islamic identity, despite the fact that there were substantial numbers of Christian Arabs, particularly in Syria and Palestine. Nor did all self-proclaimed Arab nationalists agree on whether there should be a single large Arab state, encompassing all territories with an Arab ethnic majority, or several Arab states that also reflected local and regional senses of identity. 

            On one problem, however, virtually all Arab nationalists could agree. They saw the post-World War I division of the Middle East, as the region came to be known to the West, between Britain and France as a betrayal. They believed that the British had promised their wartime ally, Sharif Hussain of Mecca, to recognize Arab independence. In the aftermath of the Arab Revolt and the successful British campaign against the Turks during the war, Hussain’s son Faisal had even established himself as King of Syria. After the war, however, both Britain and France refused to relinquish their control of the strategic region.

            Despite Faisal’s claims, after less than two years on the throne French troops forcefully deposed him and France established its own colonial administration in the mandate territories assigned to it. For the next 15 years or so, Arab nationalists fought bitterly against French rule. In 1925, the Druse, a tightly knit religious sect that combined elements of both Islam and Christianity, with its own strong sense of identity, also revolted. During the Druse revolt, the French even lost control of Damascus for a time. They only regained it by using tanks and airplanes against the rebels. Eventually, in 1936, continuing nationalist opposition, including general strikes and on-going fighting, forced the French to accept a nationalist government—though they insisted on separating Lebanon, which had a Christian Arab majority, from the rest of Syria. Even then, the new nationalist Cabinet remained under overall French authority.

            Nationalists in the British sphere were generally less violent, but no less insistent on self-government and independence. In 1930 the first of these states to achieve independence, Iraq, became a constitutional monarchy under King Faisal, whom the French had evicted from Syria. The British established another of Sharif Husayn’s sons, Abdullah, first as amir and then as King of Jordan, which they had separated from the Palestine mandate in 1922. As in Egypt, the British only agreed to transfer power to independent governments in these territories after they had signed treaties of alliance that allowed the British to maintain military bases in the countries.[33]

            While the mandates became western-style secular states, a new Islamic state emerged in Arabia. During the 1920s the Wahhabis of east central Arabia under the command of the Sa’ud family once again began to spread their fundamentalist version of Islam through conquest. Under Shaykh Ibn Sa’ud, they not only took control of central Arabia but also overran the Hijaz, forcing Sharif Husayn himself to flee. By 1930, Ibn Sa’ud had established himself as king of the new Islamic state of Sa’udi Arabia.

The Palestine Problem

The growing forces of Arab and Islamic nationalism in Southwest Asia were also fuelled by Britain’s policy in the new Palestine mandate. Since the late 1800s, Jews from Europe had been settling in small colonies in Palestine. These colonists supported a movement begun in the 1890s by Theodor Herzl to establish a new sense of national identity among the Jews by creating a Jewish state—a movement known as Zionism.

            Herzl had been born in Hungary in 1860[34] of Jewish parents. As a young man he became a journalist in Vienna. In 1891 he was assigned to Paris as the correspondent of the Vienna paper Neue Freie Presse. While in Paris, Herzl covered the Dreyfus affair and witnessed the growing level of anti-Semitism the case unleashed. Growing levels of anti-Semitism in Europe alarmed Herzl. He came to believe that the root of the problem was the fact that the Jews, although a nation, did not have a state of their own. In 1896, he published his ideas in a famous book, Der Judenstaat, “The Jewish State.” Herzl called for the foundation of a state for the Jews in Palestine, their ancient home.

            To accomplish his goal, in 1897 Herzl organized the first Zionist World Congress, which brought representatives from Jewish communities around the world together in Basel, Switzerland. He also helped found and became the first president of the World Zionist Organization. By the time of his death in 1904, Herzl’s organizations had taken root in every country with a significant Jewish population.[35] Through agreements with the Ottoman government, a small number of Jewish settlements had already sprung up in Palestine and Herzl’s dream continued to inspire a growing Zionist movement. 

            In an effort to obtain all the support they could, during World War I the British had made an agreement with important Zionists who wanted to re-establish Palestine as a “national home” for all Jews. In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, a leading English Zionist: 

“His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”[36] 

In 1922, the British included this Balfour Declaration, as it became known, in the terms of the mandate for Palestine.[37] 

            In keeping with the spirit of the Balfour Declaration, during the 1920s and 30s the mandate government began to allow significant Jewish migration and settlement in Palestine. The officially recognized Jewish Agency helped the process by purchasing Arab lands for Jewish settlement. Soon, many Palestinian Arabs became alarmed. They feared that the Zionists, aided by the British, wanted to make them a minority in their own land. Zionism looked to them like another version of European colonialism, with the Jews as “white settlers.” The Palestinians themselves, however, were divided between two major families, the Nashashibis and the Husaynis. Unable to form a truly united front, they had little success in convincing the British that they too should be granted self-government.

            As Jewish immigration continued, driven partly by the growing persecution of the Nazis in Europe, eventually an armed Arab revolt broke out in the mandate in 1936. The British suppressed it, but only with great difficulty. In the aftermath of the revolt, they also sent a royal commission under a British statesman, Lord Peel, to investigate the disturbances. The Peel Commission recommended that the mandate be partitioned into two states—one Arab and one Jewish. With war looming in Europe, however, the British Government did not want to offend the strategically important Arab states. Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all supported Palestinian Arab demands for immediate independence. In 1939, therefore, the British declared their intention to establish Palestine as a single non-sectarian state with safeguards for the Jewish minority.

            Now it was the Zionists' turn to cry betrayal. Some even formed terrorist groups, like the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, to drive the British out of Palestine so that the Jews could proclaim their own state. Thus, the conflicting promises Britain had made to each side led to the emergence of two new antagonistic nationalist movements in the tiny land of Palestine.

The Turkish Exception

While the Arab countries struggled to find a sense of national identity, Turkey decided on a wholesale adoption of western culture as the solution to the problem of national identity. After the defeat of the Ottomans, a new charismatic leader had emerged, Mustapha Kemal, a general of the army and a war-hero. Kemal came to believe that the war had demonstrated the superiority of western technology, and also the western conception of nationalism. First defeating the Europeans on the battlefield, Kemal then set out to create a modern Turkish state. Declaring, “We must teach our people to be free,” he instituted radical reforms.

            Kemal saw Islam as the primary stumbling block on the road to modernization. Consequently, he abolished the Caliphate, the supreme spiritual office of Islam, and established a completely secular Turkish Republic. As part of his westernization plans he decreed that all Turks must have surnames like Europeans. He himself took the name Ataturk, meaning “father of the Turks.” He also closed the mosques, forbade praying in public, and substituted the Latin alphabet for the old Arabic-based Turkish alphabet. He even insisted that only hats with brims could be worn, so that the requirement for a Muslim to touch the forehead to the ground while praying could not be fulfilled. Although the shock of all these changes was enormous for the Turkish people, under Ataturk Turkey remained independent and one of the most prosperous and stable countries of Southwest Asia. 

Nationalism in Africa

Although the process developed more slowly in Africa than in other parts of the world, after World War I some Africans also began to develop their own new senses of national identity. Those who developed such an identity were primarily western-educated Africans who were able to identify not just with their local people, but with the colonial state as a whole. With education still limited in most colonies, however, these groups generally remained very small and without real influence or support among the majority of Africans in the colonies. 

French North Africa. The major exceptions to this pattern were the French colonial states in North and West Africa. In North Africa, new nationalist movements were inspired by events in the rest of the Islamic world. In Tunisia, for example, Habib Ben Ali Bourgiba founded a popular nationalist party that aimed for ultimate independence from France, but by a gradual, evolutionary rather than revolutionary process. Meanwhile, in Morocco, which France had only occupied in the decade before World War I, traditional leaders continued an armed resistance up into the 1930s.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, came in Algeria, which had long been considered by the French to be an integral part of France itself. In particular, the presence of a large number of French settlers seriously complicated the development of an Arab nationalism. Like the Boers of South Africa, the pieds noirs, as the settlers were called, had a strong sense of national identity of their own—they were French! As a departement of France, they elected representatives to the French legislature and had officials in the French government just like any other of the nation’s provinces. Consequently, they were able to resist all efforts to extend even French citizenship to Algerians who remained Muslims and refused to assimilate French culture.

            Such resistance, however, only embittered relations with Muslim Algerians and led to the growing development of an Arab nationalist movement devoted to full independence. Such conflicting nationalist aspirations among the Arabs and the pieds noirs would eventually result in great bloodshed. In 1924, an Algerian nationalist named Messali Hajd established the Star of North Africa movement, which would eventually become the leading nationalist party in the Muslims’ struggle for Algeria’s independence from France. 

Sub-Saharan Africa. In the rest of Africa, World War I also contributed to the growth of a new African nationalism. As thousands of Africans fought on European battlefields, they gained a wider experience of the world. When they returned home they carried new ideas of democracy and nationalism. They also expected to find greater opportunities under their colonial governments. With newly acquired skills, such as mechanics, which they had gained while soldiers, some did find better opportunities. Most, however, found that the European authorities generally expected them to fall back into the pre-war pattern of colonial life.

            When the worldwide depression struck, even those Africans already employed by the colonial governments were often laid off or had their wages reduced. Increasingly, African protest against colonial rule began to emerge in the form of labor unions and workers’ associations. In Tanganyika, for example, which became one of Britain’s mandates, Africans in the lower ranks of the colonial administration formed a civil servants’ association to bargain for better work conditions. Since the new association was open to all civil servants, it tended to break down the old ethnic ties that separated Africans. Similar developments occurred in many other colonies, from Kenya to Senegal.

            As urban Africans organized labor protests in the 1920s, they also used these associations as forums for political complaints. In response, most colonial governments tried to reinforce traditional African authorities—government-recognized chiefs and religious leaders—in an effort to prevent “detribalized Africans,” as they called the new union men, from stirring up trouble. At the same time, however, colonial authorities also realized that they would have to make some reforms to satisfy African grievances.

            In places like Kenya and British Central Africa, the growing demands of white settlers, who wanted self-government on the same lines as South Africa, complicated the situation. In the mid-1920s, the Central African colony of Southern Rhodesia achieved dominion status, but the British refused to grant the same status to the much smaller settler communities in Northern Rhodesia or Kenya. Instead, the imperial government proclaimed that in these and other African territories the interests of indigenous Africans must take precedence over those of the settlers, in what became known as the doctrine of Native Paramountcy.

            By the 1930s, however, even reforms were not enough for some Africans. As more and more moved from the countryside to the growing cities of Africa in search of work, they began to find more and more things wrong with colonialism. Racial prejudice and physical mistreatment were part of the problem. For example, Kwafya Kombe, a western-educated African working in the copper mining region of Northern Rhodesia described the treatment of Africans by Europeans in a letter written in 1940: 

“Even though the African is educated [he] is . . . like a monkey to the Europeans. All the Africans who are at work at [the] mines are treated like this: when an African is carrying a heavy load, [and] a European is coming behind him without the notice of an African, the European kicks him. When the African says ‘What’s the matter Bwana?’ now the Bwana says, ‘Shut up, get away,’ and gives the African a very hard blow.”[38] 

            Drawing support from the growing African urban populations, a new generation of western-educated Africans began to think in terms of achieving independence as well as reform. In Kenya, for example, the Kikuyu leader Jomo Kenyatta returned from university in Britain to become the leader of a growing nationalist movement. In Senegal, Leopold Senghor, who had been educated in French schools and had even been elected to a seat in the French legislature in Paris, also began to look for more and more concessions from the colonial government.

            As these new, younger leaders emerged, they were inspired not only by Gandhi in India, but also by Africans across the Atlantic in the Caribbean and the United States, who preached a new message—Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism emphasized the uniqueness and spiritual unity of all peoples of African descent wherever they might be. The movement had become particularly popular first outside Africa, under the leadership of the Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey and the African American educator W.E.B. DuBois. Garvey’s demand of “Africa for the Africans” was a powerful message for many western-educated Africans.

            As more and more Africans crossed the Atlantic to attend schools in the United States, such ideas spread even more rapidly. By the end of the 1930s, these new leaders had begun to plan for the ending of colonial rule altogether and the creation of independent African states. Such aspirations were temporarily put on hold, however, due to the outbreak of World War II.