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  • Imperialism on Trial: International Oversight of Colonial Rule in Historical Perspective ed. by R. M. Douglas, Michael D. Callahan, and Elizabeth Bishop
  • Andrew Muldoon
Imperialism on Trial: International Oversight of Colonial Rule in Historical Perspective. Edited by R. M. Douglas, Michael D. Callahan and Elizabeth Bishop. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.

This collection of essays concludes a project begun in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of Texas in 2001. In taking up the still under-examined history of the international mandate and trusteeship systems that emerged after both world wars, this volume represents an important contribution to the study of twentieth-century colonialism and the variety of guises it took. Of particular note, this collection considers not only the mandate system created by the League of Nations to govern the territories of the defeated German and Ottoman Empires in the 1920s, but also the less well-known United Nations Trusteeship Council formed after the Second World War to supervise the former possessions of the Axis powers. According to its editors, this volume aims not only to place these developments in the “larger context of international relations,” but also, and more notably, to explain how these systems of “undermin[ed] the legitimacy of imperialism as a doctrine among administering, non-administering and colonial societies alike,” thus leading to the “sudden downfall of imperialism and the remarkable ‘decolonizing wave’ that swept across the globe” after 1945. (xi–xii) This is an intriguing approach, as many recent histories of European imperialism have argued the contrary: that the interwar mandates, especially those held by the British and the French in the Middle East and Africa, added to, and even represented the apex of, the influence enjoyed by these western colonial powers in the modern world. As far as European empires were concerned then, did the mandatory system mark the end of the beginning, or rather the beginning of the end?

The notion that the international supervision of colonial rule helped hasten the end of the European colonial world is not an easy one to defend. As Michael D. Callahan notes in his chapter on British and French mandates in Africa, the system certainly “gave a form of legitimacy to colonial regimes in the eyes of the international community,” and the League of Nations was “never bent on destroying Europe’s empires.” (3) Nevertheless, Callahan and several other contributors do make a case for their argument, or, at least, for further consideration of it. Callahan provides some substantive examples of how the international status of mandated territories prevented British and French officials from running Togo, Tanganyika and Cameroon like their other colonies. No armed vessels appeared on Lake Tanganyika, nor was either power able to unite these territories with existing neighboring colonies: Togo and French Dahomey remained separate entities. In their examination of the mandate system’s impact on India, Kevin Grant and Lisa Trivedi note some of the indirect influences the League of Nations had on Indian nationalist politics. India’s rather anomalous membership in the League, where its delegation did not have an actual Indian leader until 1929, seemed to indicate that Britain did see a self-governing India in the future, and India’s inclusion as a “nation,” if only in name, definitely disadvantaged British arguments against future Indian political development. Grant and Trivedi also make the more suggestive argument that the vocabulary of “trusteeship” that suffused the mandate system provided Gandhi with an “ethical language” that he might turn in favor of Indian nationalism by using the idea of trusteeship and mutual responsibility to bring India’s elites and its impoverished millions on to common ground without threatening the former with dispossession or revolt. The authors make an intriguing proposal here, but one that does need much further reflection, especially on the ways in which Gandhi’s embrace of “trusteeship” drew not only on the emergence of the mandate system, but on the ideas that he had drawn from others like John Ruskin or on the program he had laid out in 1909 in Hind Swaraj.

The remaining essays in this collection shed light on the internationalization of colonial rule in a variety of...

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