From the British Empire to the Modern Commonwealth

From the British Empire to the Modern Commonwealth

The most dramatic speeding up of political development, as we mentioned, was in Africa. The Gold Coast led the way. “In 1946 the Gold Coast became the first legislative council in British Africa to have a majority of African members. Already the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Southern Nigeria had been operating a partly elective system since the 1920s; and in 1947 the whole of Nigeria obtained a partly elective council. Kwame Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party generated a strong political appeal through the ballot box.”6 Therefore the British political elite were quick to realise that they had to come to terms with him and the excitement of nationalism could not be extinguished by keeping this charismatic leader in prison. Instead he was made Prime Minister in 1952; two years later an all-African cabinet was governing and in 1957 independence was granted.

This was followed by the birth of fourteen new nations between 1960 and 1968 in the rest of Africa. In places such as the three high-commission territories (Bechuanaland, Basutoland, Swaziland), Zanzibar and Somaliland, where British authority had operated only lightly, there was no political preparation for native inhabitants.

In the 1940s the political development of the West Indies, which had been so diversified in the nineteenth century, was resumed. “The elective principle was gradually returned to those colonies which had lost it in earlier years and it was widened in places such as Jamaica and Barbados where some degree of election had been allowed earlier.”7 In 1944 a lower house where all members were elected by universal suffrage and which exercised a measure of internal self- government was given to Jamaica. This was extended in the late 1950s. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962. Soon after British Guiana and Bahamas received their independence. This was in 1966. Then came the Bahamas in 1973 and Grenada in 1974. There were some very small islands which were not anxious to live on their own. Therefore, while during the 1950s and 1960s they progressed through various stages of operating democratic elections and internal self-government, they still chose to rely upon British for defence and external affairs. “In 1967 these arrangements were clarified whereby Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Lucia and St. Vincent assumed the status of association with Britain.”8

In the Pacific, with the exception of Western Samoa, political developments tended to pass by most of the territories in the twentieth century. “New Zealand had acquired this as a League of Nations mandate in 1920 and soon after than arose a growing nationalist movement among the Samoans. In 1947 the New Zealand government began to respond, creating an elected legislative assembly, quite an early constitutional move in the history of decolonisation.”9 Full nationhood was granted in 1962. The Cook Islands were at the same time being prepared by New Zealand for as much local control as the people wanted. This amounted in 1965 to a grant of full internal self-government, with a continuing association with New Zealand; the islanders felt full independence was not appropriate for their situation. In 1968 independence was granted to another mandate, Nauru. In Fiji bitter communal differences between the immigrant Indian majority and the native Fijian minority slowed down the process of political development. Nevertheless, a series of negotiations in the 1960s led Britain to prepare Fiji for independence which was granted in 1970. Tonga too gave up its protected state relationship with Britain in the same year.

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