Armin Rosen: What the Future of Africa Looked Like in 1959

Roundup: Talking About History

Armin Rosen writes for and produces The Atlantic's International Channel.

On October 2nd, the South African website Politics Web published an extraordinary historical document, a 26-page memorandum from then-British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Loyd detailing the issues that he thought would affect British policy in Africa over the next decade. The memo gives a sense of just how much was at stake for a British empire in its twilight, an Africa on the verge of independence, and a wider world riven by Cold War-era rivalries. It's a long and engrossing time warp (would the Southern British Cameroons fall into Ghana's sphere of influence?), a return to a world where colonialism in its actual, classical sense -- as well as Nasserism and Marxism in their actual, classical senses -- were still a factor in international politics. More importantly, it was an attempt to think through "what kind of world would follow empire," according to Frederick Cooper, a New York University professor and reigning expert on the imperial history of Africa.

According to Loyd, in the Africa of the 60s, the British and French would have to counter the ideological and political encroachment of Nasser's United Arab Republic and the Soviet Union -- although "ultimately the two Governments may well clash," as a "twentieth century version of The Scramble for Africa" unfolded. Loyd writes at length about the new political order that France and Britain would dictate to an Africa that both countries realized would eventually be independent of imperial rule.

For Loyd, "The guiding principle should be that retaining empire in the long run is no longer an option," Cooper explained. "The questions are: how is one going to devolve it , at what pace, to whom, and how are British interest going to be protected in doing so?" Even then, Loyd's assumptions would be thoroughly debunked in the years after the memo was written. "What you see in the actual text is that he was pretty clueless about timing, and had illusions of Britain being much more in control than they in fact were."..

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