The ends of Empire: Dependent Territories

Several remarkable constitutional and political developments took place in 1997 in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the ‘other realms and territories’ over which Elizabeth II reigns. Some of the Queen’s remaining territories are small, and far from seeking independence in this Decade of Decolonisation, prefer more protection rather than less.

The World Today Published 1 February 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 7 minute READ

On 1 July, Hong Kong, Britain’s most populous dependent territory, was ceded to China. Only months later, electors in Scotland voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a Scottish parliament for the first time since the union of England and Scotland in 1603; in Wales, voters approved, by a narrow margin, plans for a Welsh Assembly.

The Labour government heralded the decisions as paths to greater representation and the advent of the new Britain, whilst some Conservatives feared disintegration of the United Kingdom. Across the Irish Sea, various talks sought consensus on the future of Ulster in relation to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Meanwhile, far-away and largely unnoticed, residents of Britain’s South Atlantic possession of St Helena read the second report of a committee headed by an Anglican bishop which pleaded for rights of citizenship – including the right to live in Britain – for the ‘Saints’ and suggested that St Helena might become a fully-fledged ‘county’ of Britain. Failure to extend these rights, commissioners argued, amounted to refusal to recognise historic rights accorded to St Helena in the seventeenth century.1

In the news… and out of it

St Helena seldom makes news in Britain; Hong Kong was seldom out of the news before British withdrawal. But that event sparked a spate of interest in Britain’s other dependent territories. The G u a rd i a n and the Independent ran articles on Britain’s remaining colonies, and a journalistic account entitled The Last Pink Bits provided a tour of some of the domains over which the British flag still flies.

Elsewhere in Britain’s territories, permanent evacuation of the population of Montserrat was considered after volcanic eruptions, and the Montserrat government criticised Westminster for disregarding its needs. Some islanders, unenthusiastic about leaving their homeland, proposed a new capital to be named Port Diana after the late Princess of Wales. Spain continued to contest British sovereignty over Gibraltar with implications for air access.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh, representatives of Mauritius demanded restoration of Mauritian sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and the repatriation of its former residents, resettled in Mauritius in the 1970s when the territory was rented to the United States as a military base. The British government refused, just as it scotched a proposal by the Argentine government to take over the Falkland Islands by providing a payout to each islander.

Tempests in tiny teapots

The irony of British withdrawal from Hong Kong, with its five million residents and bustling economy, and retention of Pitcairn, with barely fifty inhabitants and an export economy based on handicrafts and postagestamps, or St Helena, with six thousand people and almost no self-sustaining economy, was self-evident.

Further ironies were provided in other colonies. In Bermuda the per capita income was higher than that of the ‘mother country’. The Falklands – virtually ignored until the 1982 war – now earns handsome profits from fishing contracts and oil exploration.

Developments in Britain’s dependent territories were not merely tempests in distant and tiny teapots. They showed that Britain, like several other nations, retains sovereignty over various ‘colonies’ or dependent overseas territories scattered about the world.

In the United Nations ‘Decade of Decolonisation’, most resolutely oppose independence. Small and isolated though many are, they sometimes represent significant stakes and create problems – ranging from drug-running and illegal migration to irredentism and border disputes – far beyond their boundaries. The continued existence of such outposts, and their intermittently problematic nature, poses questions about independence and dependence, just as steps towards closer integration of the European Union alongside establishment of legislatures in Scotland and Wales challenges notions of sovereignty and national identity.3

Contemporary colonies?

Britain retains sovereignty over thirteen ‘dependent territories’, whilst the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey – technically not part of the United Kingdom but personal domains of the monarch – preserve constitutional singularities.

France has ten départements et territoires d’outre-mer (DOM-TOMs). The Kingdom of the Netherlands is divided into three parts: the Netherlands itself, the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. Greenland and the Faeroe Islands have ‘home rule’ but are not independent from Denmark. Spain includes two enclaves in Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla. Until 1999, Portugal rules Macao.

American sovereignty extends to five ‘flag territories’ in the Caribbean and Pacific. New Zealand controls minuscule To kelau and Niue and has ‘free association’ with the Cook Islands, whilst Australia has Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Norfolk Island.

Other territories could be added to the list, including places with active nationalist movements, such as Northern Ireland and Corsica. Some of these might be called ‘colonies’, but defining what exactly is a ‘colony’ is akin to deciding the length of a ‘piece’ of string.

The vagaries of colonialism and decolonisation have meant that several states have retained territories which they acquired centuries ago – Denmark has had effective control of Greenland and the Faeroes since the Middle Ages, for instance, and the British, French and Dutch settled in the West Indies in the 1600s.

These territories, mostly islands, were used as fortresses (such as Gibraltar), plantation colonies for the production of sugar (Réunion and many West Indian islands), sites of European settlement (the Falklands, New Caledonia and Pitcairn) or entrepots on trading routes (Bermuda, St Helena, Macao). Some (such as Christmas Island and Tokelau) were transferred from one colonial power (Britain) to another (Australia or New Zealand).

Other territories were remnants of larger colonies which gained independence (Mayotte, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands). Through settlement, trade, constitutional links, economic dependency, evangelisation and cultural ties, their fates became intertwined with metropolitan powers. As the largest colonies and, later, most smaller ones became independent, these did not.

Nowadays the territories hold little for colonial powers. Their populations, other than in some French and American territories, are small. The French DOM-TO M s have a population of over 2 million; the American territories, approximately 4 million. Britain’s dependent territories have 165,000 – though there are 215,000 in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The Dutch West Indian islands have a population of 270,000; Greenland and the Faeroes together count 100,000.

By contrast, Australia’s external territories barely reach 5000, and New Zealand’s total 20,000 inhabitants. Other than Puerto Rico (with 3.6 million) and Réunion (with 640,000), no territory has a population larger than a medium-sized city.

Not just stamps?

In the age of imperialism, colonies were supposed to provide resources and trading possibilities for their proprietors. That is seldom the case for the remaining outposts. Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar are almost alone in not requiring substantial external subsidies. Exports cover only one- fifth of French Polynesia’s imports; many territories register even greater trade imbalances. Economies are hardly diversifie d . Only Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas have substantial manufacturing sectors. Otherwise, stamps are the rare manufactured exports.

Bermuda and Gibraltar are increasingly prosperous from off-shore finance industries; others have attempted to become tax havens, most with little success. Ceuta and Melilla profit from duty-free shopping (and smuggling); Macao and Christmas Island thrive on gambling. Tourism has been seen as a panacea, and is highly developed in the Caribbean, but not at greater distances from Europe and North America .

Colonies historically provided raw materials for imperial powers. Now only New Caledonia, with one of the world’s largest nickel reserves, possesses substantial mineral resources, though large Exclusive Economic Zones may offer future wealth. Oil reserves off the Falklands seem substantial, but provoke conflict over sovereignty.

The territories, most of which are tropical, produce a variety of foodstuffs, yet few agricultural products are profitable. Banana production in the French West Indies is propped up by government subsidies. The South Pacific islands produce copra, but world demand has declined because of changing tastes and concerns over cholesterol.

The main export from Saint-Pierre-et Miquelon, Greenland and the Faeroes is fish , but ecologists fear depletion of stocks as fishing is highly competitive. Flax production in St Helena came to an abrupt halt in the 1960s when the British Navy switched to synthetic fibres for rope-making.

Strategic value

Territories have traditionally had some strategic value. From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, France tested nuclear devices in French Polynesia. The French (and European) space station is at Kourou in French Guiana. The United States maintains major military bases in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the BIOT. During the Gulf War, American bombers took off from Guam and the BIOT. The United States has also kept strategic installations in Greenland and Ascension. Britain stations forces in the Falklands Islands.

France claims a presence in every ocean through its territories, often vaunted as enabling it to remain a middle-rank global power. Yet military benefits are fewer in the post-Cold War era. Several American overseas bases have been closed, others scaled down. British bases have similarly wound down, especially ‘east of Suez’, and French nuclear testing has ended.

Farewell independence?

If commercial earnings are slender, most territories drain funds from metropolitan budgets – aid becomes their key source of income – and as strategic bene- fits have declined, why have the ‘imperial’ countries not given independence to their last colonies? Quite simply, no contemporary territory seeks independence.

Independence movements were once active, vocal and sometimes electorally sign i ficant, particularly in the French territories. In New Caledonia, a violent struggle between supporters of independence, primarily indigenous Melanesians, and opponents of it, most descendants of migrants from Europe, Asia and Polynesian islands, occurred in the 1980s. The independence campaign has also been strong in French Polynesia, gaining support with opposition to nuclear testing.

Independence movements were particularly evident in the 1970s, fuelled by ‘New Left’ rhetoric and, sometimes, a degree of support from the Soviet Union and other regimes. Claimants to independence outlined the ‘artificial’ nature of local economies, racial discrimination, militarisation and lack of self-government: the only solution to such problems was severance of ties between ‘colonies’ and metropolitan countries.

Opponents warned that small economies were too fragile to survive without external support, that micro-states faced military threats and that many former colonies which had gained independence had fared badly. They contrasted relatively high standards of living in the French West Indies with nearby Haiti, or pointed out that dependent French Polynesia had a higher per capita income than New Zealand.

Pro-independence groups sometimes recognised the difficulties which would occur after independence, but insisted that cultural identity and ‘national’ dignity could only be fulfilled through sovereignty.

Powerful patrons

By the 1990s, independence campaigns had waned. The old rhetoric seemed antiquated. Economic development required successful entry into the capitalist global economy rather than self-reliance and isolation.

Many small independent nation-states struggled in the ‘new world order’, and attachment to a powerful patron seemed some insurance. The possibility of migration and abode in a metropolitan state, available to all except residents of Britain’s territories – other than Gibraltar, the Falklands and, recently, St Helena – provided a safety-valve against overpopulation and underemployment.

Decentralisation satisfied most demands for greater control of local administration and budgets. Economic prosperity dissuaded voters from venturing into the uncharted waters of independence. Wider recognition of multiculturalism quietened complaints over cultural imperialism.

Several metropolitan states organised referenda on the future status of the territories. In 1986, a majority in New Caledonia opposed independence, though most Melanesians, now a demographic minority, boycotted the ballot. Two years later, a majority – including pro-independence Melanesians – approved a ten-year moratorium on the independence issue.

A spate of referenda in the 1990s – in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, the Cocos Islands and the Northern Marianas – all produced large majorities in favour of continued metropolitan ties. Independence groups generally did badly. In Puerto Rico, the Cocos Islands and the US Virgin Islands, for instance, only five per cent of electors favoured independence; the rest supported the status quo or preferred strengthened metropolitan links.

Independence movements have not disappeared. Indeed the last local elections in French Polynesia and Martinique produced the largest votes ever for independence parties. Various pro-independence parties, though often fragmented into differing ideological camps, continue to demand sovereignty.

Yet, no territory is likely soon to achieve complete independence. A referendum in New Caledonia this year, intended to decide definitively the status of the territory, is now being discussed in terms of a continued moratorium or a compromise ‘independence-in-association’ within the French Republic.

Support for closer links between territories and metropolitan states has grown, some initiatives coming from metropolitan governments. The Hague allowed Aruba to separate from the other five Dutch islands of the Caribbean in the 1980s only on condition that it would soon become independent; a decade later, Aruba no longer wanted independence. Its government told the Dutch that any attempt to impose independence would be unconstitutional. The Dutch, worried about corruption in Sint-Maarten, instituted ‘higher supervision’ to increase control over the Netherlands Antilles.

The British strengthened governors’ control of financial activities in Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos after allegations of corruption, whilst the United States intervened in American Samoa as its government generated massive budget deficits.

Moves for greater integration also came from the territories. Voters in Christmas Island sought full integration with Australia. Advocates of statehood narrowly missed victory in Puerto Rico’s referendum. Mayotte’s major political party has campaigned for Mayotte to become a full département of France with complete constitutional integration. St. Helena’s inhabitants would also like full integration, as Britain’s ‘lost county’.

Ethnicity and questions of national identity have influenced demands for independence. Residents of largely European descent in overseas territories – in SaintPierre-et-Miquelon, Gibraltar, the Falklands, the Faeroes, and the great numbers with European ancestry in New Caledonia and Bermuda – have scarcely sought independence. But residents of other territories often feel the same way.

Most Cayman Islanders are of African descent, yet they have refused even to have a Chief Minister, fearing any dilution of British control could set them on the road to independence. Inhabitants of Wallis and Futuna, who are Polynesians, and those of Mayotte, mainly Muslims of African and Arabic ancestry, ardently oppose independence.

Make us colonies again!

An unexpected political development last year was insurrection on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli. Both are in the Comoros archipelago, which also includes Mayotte and Grande Comore, and was formerly a French colony.

In 1975, when the Republic of the Comoros became independent Mayotte refused to be incorporated, and France reluctantly kept control. The recent history of the Comoros includes poverty and lack of development, several violent coups, political assassinations, widespread corruption and inter-island rivalries. Anjouan and Moheli complained of inadequate aid, investment and political representation compared with Grande Comore and declared their secession from the Republic of the Comoros. They asked to be taken over by France, in eff e c t , requesting recolonisation, but Paris restated support for the integrity of the Republic of the Comoros.

The case of Anjouan and Moheli provides a rare demand for recolonisation – a demand which challenges United Nations support for territorial integrity and underlines the real and perceived benefits of continued ‘colonial’ status. Mayotte, though undeveloped by French metropolitan standards, has modern schools and clinics and good transport and telecommunications systems. Residents have the right to live in France and access to social security payments. Anjouan and Moheli, in the independent Comoros, have one of the lowest per capita incomes in all of Africa.

An infinite pause

For overseas outposts, the choice is not simply between peace and prosperity as a territory, and penury as an independent state. The populations of the territories live with the consequences of an often arduous colonial past, including in some cases the heritage of slavery, land spoilation, racism, economic exploitation and the negation of indigenous cultures.

The average income of most territories is considerably lower than that of the metropolitan states of which they form a part. Illiteracy, infant mortality and incidence of certain diseases, by contrast, are higher. Opportunities – partly limited by size and distance – are restricted.

Recent developments in the territories bring into question simplistic notions, common at the apogee of decolonisation, that independence was a Good Thing and colonial status a Bad Thing. As early as 1965, the referendum which produced free association between the Cook Islands and New Zealand demonstrated that decolonisation could have outcomes other than complete independence.

Possibilities exist between independence and colonial status. Indeed, that space is being filled as European states abandon distinctive parts of their national sovereignty – even including separate currencies – to a supranational association, the European Union.

At the same time as sovereignty is being delegated upwards, it is being devolved downwards to regional entities, as in Scotland and Wales. Regional organisations – from NAFTA to APEC – in concert with ‘globalisation’ are reducing barriers between separate economies. Information technology has shortened the distance between different parts of the world.

The transferral of the headquarters of the giant Jardine Matheson conglomerate from Hong Kong to Bermuda, before Beijing returned, shows the advantages held by territories on the margins of nation-states and, paradoxically, that modern businesses in the ‘transactional economy’ can be domiciled almost anywhere.

Contemporary territories display a baffling assortment of constitutional statuses which, to some, may seem euphemisms for old-fashioned ‘colonies’. However, they also represent postcolonial attempts to find intermediate alternatives to outright sovereignty or traditional colonial dependency. Such attempts have convinced many of their inhabitants that, as in the words of Réunion Senator Albert Ramassamy, ‘integration is a means of decolonisation just as much as independence’. Some prominent politicians see statehood as the only dignified way for the US to eliminate Puerto Rico’s secondclass citizenship and to end Puerto Rico’s colonial status.

As the economies of the territories have gone from subsistence to subsidy, and migration opportunities and economic and political security are sought, an infinite pause has settled over even hesitant movements towards independence or greater autonomy. The ‘last colonies’ are likely to survive long after the Decade of Decolonisation.