Review of Decolonization and Its Impact: A Comparative Approach to the End of the Colonial Empires by Martin Shipway Wiley-Blackwell Publishing

Decolonization and Its Impact: A Comparative Approach to the End of the Colonial Empires. Martin Shipway. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008. ISBN: 9780631199687

To explain the process of decolonization in one nation is a difficult task. To describe clearly the patterns to be found in decolonization across the globe is therefore an impressive accomplishment. Martin Shipway successfully unravels such a story in Decolonization and Its Impact: A Comparative Approach to the End of Colonial Empires.  His comparative analysis of decolonization after the Second World War contests numerous traditionally accepted assumptions about how the “End of Empire” unfolded. Shipway challenges disconnected, determinist narratives of decolonization and instead encourages a history of decolonization that is complex and continuous. He also confronts the theory that the Second World War was the absolute “breaking point” that necessitated the fall of colonialism globally. Shipway’s thesis throughout the book was that a “late colonial shift” in the mindset of colonial governments worked with separate factors in different geographical areas to bring about the ends of different colonial rules.

Shipway’s organization forwards his thesis in a logical manner, beginning with an introduction that carefully outlines his major arguments. In the first chapter, he examines colonial states before the start of the Second World War. In the second chapter, he studies local movements against colonialism.  The third chapter examines the Second World War’s impact on decolonization processes and the “First Wave” of decolonization that followed the war. In the fourth chapter, Shipway examines Southeast Asia’s experience in this “First Wave” of decolonization. Here he strongly applies his idea of the “late colonial shift” in his analysis. In the fifth chapter, he turns his attention to the end of colonialism in Africa, and again focuses on the idea of the “late colonial shift.” The next chapter examines the Late Colonial State at War, while the two final chapters look at the patterns of late colonial rule and “Endgame” in colonial policies. Throughout the book his comparative analysis focuses mainly on the interactions of Britain and France with indigenous populations, although there are case studies involving both the Netherlands and Belgium as well.

Throughout, Shipway rethinks the “end of history” approach to the study of decolonization, stressing stresses continuity before and after the end of colonial rule. There was no magical “end” to colonialism and its established norms once western powers pulled out of their previous colonies. This central critique of historiography on decolonization is thoroughly supported by Shipway’s analysis. In his discussion of Africa he attacks the idea of viewing decolonization as a “culminating endpoint,” arguing that unequal relationships between north and south still existed after African nations gained independence, and indeed challenging the notion of definitive historical endpoints in general. Rather, in his view, history is a process, and in the decolonization of Africa, a mixture of many factors, including changes in colonial rule, attitude and power.

Shipway also asserts that nothing happened in decolonization out of necessity.  His critiques a reliance on the Second World War as the prime, or only, “reason” for decolonization. Furthermore, Shipway stresses that there was a multi-sided implementation of decolonization in Africa and across the globe. He rejects “imperialist apologies” as well as “romantic nationalist” retellings of decolonization. Colonial powers did not independently direct moves towards decolonization, but neither did colonial peoples absolutely control the seizure of their independence. He saves his main critique, for “top down” imperial approaches to decolonization which read as “imperial grand narratives” in which the decision to decolonize came from Europe, though he notes that romantic ideas of the oppressed taking what was always rightfully theirs can be equally problematic. His search for balance in the retelling of decolonization is much needed.

Shipway’s focal point, “the late colonial shift,” is a highlight of the book. He manages to crystallize a central theme in the confusing and large story of world decolonization.  He posits that World War Two and numerous other changes in the twentieth century encouraged a shift in how colonizers perceived both themselves and those they had colonized. Shipway argues that in the mind of the West, colonial rule was no longer a “stable fixture,” creating a possibility for change, if not necessarily independence.  He argues that understanding the end of colonialism in terms of this perception shift grants “agency to both colonial powers and the colonized.” The shift was initiated neither by the colonizer or the colonized, but developed organically between both – one example being in the push and pull of nationalist movements and reform.

Shipway’s analysis of this shift is striking and convincing in his numerous case studies. In his analysis of decolonization of Southeast Asia he zeroes in on the slow Western political shift towards the support of self-government, citing the 1941 Atlantic Charter in 1941 and Woodrow Wilson’s earlier doctrine of “national self-determination” as examples (p. 87). American support for decolonization grew, and pressure from these ideological changes encouraged this shift towards the possibility of the disintegration of empires. In other instances Shipway makes great use of case studies to clarify potentially  hefty theory on colonial states. For example, he offers an in-depth examination of Indian Nationalist Politics to 1935 to clarify the theoretical ideas of “collaboration” and “resistance” and how they affected movement towards decolonization in India (p.46).

One of the strengths of his writing is the great amount of attention he pays to political developments within the metropole. Many decolonization narratives focus only on the periphery and its political experience, which leaves half of the story of decolonization untold. For example, in discussing France’s colonial conflicts in Africa, Shipway made sure to offer extensive discussion of the complicated political situation in France itself and its impact on how French decolonization unfolded in Africa.

Decolonization and Its Impact is a useful, compact, yet thorough comparative analysis of decolonization. Its fresh look at the relatively recent development of historiography on the “End of Empire” is sharp. Shipway does not take any historiographical statement for granted, and refreshingly challenges both romantic analyses of decolonization as a result of “rebel movements” while also remaining critical of imperialist narratives. His examination of history as a continuous multifaceted narrative, which must take into consideration the voices of both the colonizers and the colonized, is a great success.


Reviewed by Anne Vermeyden, University of Guelph
Edited by Rebecca A. Nedostup

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]