Administrating imperial territories between the 1880s and 1939

Published by Antoine Labeyrie on

What you want to understand: 🤔

  • What were the differences between colonies, protectorates and mandates?
  • What was the difference between direct and indirect rule?
  • How was political, economic and cultural domination organised?
  • How was the colonial system challenged both in the metropole and in the colonies?

In 1914, Africa was entirely colonised except for Ethiopia and Liberia. However, after this phase of conquest named the Scramble for Africa, which was launched by the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), imperial powers had to organise and supervise these territories’ political, economic and cultural affairs. They endeavoured to root their influence locally and make the most of local resources. Nevertheless, modes of administration of imperial territories varied between colonial powers and between territories of different status. Indeed, territories could be settler or exploitation colonies, protectorates, mandates or trading posts (comptoirs). We will study how European powers and the United States (US) administrated their imperial territories all over the world until the beginning of World War II, which marked the emergence of anticolonial discourses promoted by global superpowers and international organisations.

We can ask ourselves: To what extent did the administration of imperial territories ensure their political subordination, economic exploitation and cultural control?

First of all, we will analyse the different status of imperial territories as well as imperial powers’ different administration styles. Then, we will see that there were political, economic and cultural similarities in these territories’ administration. Finally, we will understand that this administration was called into question both in the metropole and locally.

I. Different levels of autonomy and different modes of administration

A. Various types of status and levels of autonomy

Imperial territories include various types of status and levels of autonomy with regards to the metropole. Colonies where settlers had immigrated were directly connected to the metropole and didn’t have a real autonomy. Like exploitation colonies, which were occupied for their resources, settler colonies were under the executive power of colonial governors who applied their country’s policy. Puerto Rico (American territory) and French Algeria were both settler colonies. The Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF) and India for Great Britain (GB) were exploitation colonies. Even though Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were British settler colonies that progressively gained independence and became British dominions in the beginning of the 20th century, we shouldn’t forget that colonies overall were meant to stay subordinate to the metropole. On the opposite, protectorates and mandates were meant to be temporary. Protectorates, like French and Spanish Morocco, were territories that relinquished their sovereignty regarding defence, diplomatic and customs policies. Mandates, like Lebanon under France or Iraq under GB, were territories that had to be accompanied towards independence after World War I. Nevertheless, their administration and their perspective of independence varied depending on whether they were class A, B or C mandates.

B. Different administrative systems

Due to different contexts of colonisation and different local acceptations of their occupation, imperial powers implemented different administrative systems. The British model was based on indirect rule. This system allowed local “estimable and clever people” to participate in the British imperial administration. Indeed, in local Nigerian chiefs implemented British policies in exchange for privileges. Thereby it promoted the image of a colonial power preserving local freedoms. Indirect rule also allowed GB to involve less human resources and make its policies more easily accepted by indigenous people. However, the efficiency of indigenous administrators as intermediaries between colonizers and colonized was limited. Besides, direct rule was mainly used by Germany, Portugal and Belgium, but also by GB in Zimbabwe. Overall, direct rule was more expensive, required more manpower and faced more local resistance than indirect rule. The French model was based on “assimilation” that sought to transform local populations into Frenchmen by diffusing French languages, institutions and traditions. Moreover, power was highly centralised and wielded in colonies’ metropole by French administrators who had been trained in the École Coloniale created in 1889. Nevertheless, African chiefs were used to collect taxes or organise forced labour. These chiefs were progressively replaced by “noirs évolués” who had received French education and shared French republican values.

II. Political, economic and cultural administration of imperial territories

A. Political administration

The political administration of imperial territories emphasised colonizers’ superiority through the legal status granted to colonized. According to the French Code de l’Indigénat (1881), Algerian people with metropolitan, European or even Jewish origin were citizens. Natives were only French subjects: they were deprived of civil and political rights such as the right to vote. However, they had to pay taxes, participate in free labour and serve in the army. As a matter of fact, local populations were deemed too primitive and couldn’t thus be granted with abstract political rights. The Naturalization Law (1912) promised to turn deserving French subjects into citizens. Nonetheless, the conditions to become worthy of French citizenship were such that it was very rare for Africans to change their status. It thus distracted them from the fact that the immense majority would remain subjects. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship but without full protection and rights of the America Constitution. Besides, there was hierarchy among colonized peoples. Indeed, Puerto Ricans were “white enough” to get American citizenship unlike Filipinos who were “unalterably Asians”.

B. Economic administration

Regarding economic exploitation, in Grandeur et Servitudes Coloniales (1931), the French deputy Albert Sarraut stated that “this wealth is the common treasure of humankind” when speaking of colonies’ natural resources. France seized local lands and reoriented their production towards rubber in Affrique Equatoriale Française (AEF) and towards coal in Indochina for instance. In Puerto Rico, the US imposed the export-oriented cultivation of sugarcane. As a consequence, 22 years after the annexation of Puerto Rico, 75% of Puerto Ricans depended on sugarcane production for their livelihood. Furthermore, local populations represented a docile and cheap workforce that was used for forced labour. In 1912, in the French empire, labour obligations were legalised. Every African had a yearly obligation to work for free for the administration during 12 days. Between 1921 and 1934, the construction of a railroad line between Pointe Noire and Brazzaville caused the death of 17,000 workers due to harsh working conditions.

Furthermore, during the 1930s many empires relied on their imperial territories to sell their production. For example, in 1929, the French colonial empire was the outlet for 50% of the cotton produced in the metropole while in 1939 it was 85%. Imperial territories also represented commercial opportunities to expand trade worldwide. For instance the US acquired the Panama Canal Zone in 1904 and took over the project initiated by France in 1881. In 1914, the canal was operational thanks to the work of Asian workers who for many of them died due to tropical diseases. The Panama Canal was meant to facilitate the trade of goods produced in US colonies. Despite Panama being independent and having sovereignty over the canal, US companies had a privileged access to it.

Imperial powers endeavoured to control their image and the improvement of local living conditions was a way to prove their benevolence. Technological advancement was symbolised by the construction of roads, irrigation systems and telegraphs. Regarding sanitation, children were taught about personal hygiene in order to eliminate tropical disease like malaria in the Philippines. In AOF the number of hospitals increased from 5 in 1921 to 12 in 1937. This modernisation contributed to decreasing the mortality rate and improving local populations’ living conditions. However, it was first and foremost meant to increase workers’ productivity and facilitate the exploitation of natural resources.

C. Cultural administration

The administration of imperial territories included education of their inhabitants in order to create loyal subjects. Education was a medium of propaganda to make them accept the imperial powers’ superiority and right to rule them. In the US, in 1901, American teachers were recruited to travel to the newly-acquired American territories in order to spread American values. The Thomasites were 500 teachers who settled in the Philippines and set up a new educational system in part to form future local elites loyal to the US.  Imperial powers like France and the US also relied on acculturation in order to unify local populations behind their culture. Indeed, courses of civicism and morality were taught in French and English. Moreover, vocational education was developed so as to provide local children with skills that would allow them to integrate the colonial economic system.

Besides, imperial powers had to maintain inequalities with local populations as a reason for their presence since they had pledged to lift up inferior peoples until they reach the same level of civilisation as them. Inequalities were symbolised by spatial and racial segregations. In South Africa for instance trains were racially segregated between Europeans and non-Europeans. Therefore, in 1893, Gandhi couldn’t travel in 1st class even though he was an attorney. Likewise in Nairobi, Kenya, which was under British control, there was a black neighbourhood named Pangani and a white neighbourhood. This way of administrating public spaces embodied the idea that adopting the indigenous way of life by mingling with them represented a threat to colonizers’ superiority and authority. It was the idea that local populations had to be elevated to colonizers’ level of civilisation and not the other way round. Therefore, an administration based on segregation was a way to create a permanent justification for imperial powers’ civilising mission.

III. Calling into question the administration of imperial territories

A. In the metropole

People in the metropole progressively, though only partly, managed to know the reality of colonial administrations. It started in 1904 when Alice and John Harris, British missionaries in the Belgian Congo between 1898 and 1905, took pictures of mistreatments and mutilations committed by Belgian authorities. With the help of Edmund Morel, a British activist, a humanitarian scandal broke out and groups of American and British activists emerged to criticize colonial administrations based on oppression. However, colonialism in itself was not put into question. By the same token, in 1927 Lamine Senghor gave a speech in Brussels for the first congress of the League against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression in which he described torture practices in colonies. His speech was then translated and sent to the US where it had a strong echo among activist groups.

Besides, in the metropole there was a reflexion on the cost of administrating imperial territories. At the beginning of colonialisation, imperial powers thought that their territories wouldn’t cost anything and would be auto-financed. Nevertheless, in 1913 the French colonial empire was the destination of 13% of French capitals invested abroad and budget deficits were rampant. In France several politicians like Paul Daroulède or Georges Clemenceau criticised the expensiveness of colonial administration and advocated for a reallocation of resources towards the national defence in preparation for a war against Germany. Nonetheless, according to E. Huillery (2014), between 1907 and 1957 French Western Africa only represented 0.3% of France’s annual expenditures and that French taxpayers only paid for 2% of the colony’s annual budget, the rest was paid for by Africans. That’s why E. Huillery asserts that instead of the “White Man’s Burden” it was rather the “Black Man’s Burden”.

B. By colonised populations

As described by Richard Fogarty in “Race, Sex and Imperial Anxieties”, following World War I colonial subjects challenged France’s legitimacy to administrate them. Indeed, France’s racial supremacy was put into question since it needed colonial troops to defeat Germany and was thus not as strong as it claimed to be. This shift of perception of the colonisers by the colonised was captured in mails sent by African soldiers back to their colonies. Besides, the civilising promises of colonial administration were not kept and living conditions deteriorated for indigenous populations. In Misère de la Kabylie (1939), Albert Camus described the situation in Kabylia and more broadly in Algeria. He criticized the undernutrition of local populations, their unemployment which reached more than 50% and the fact that only 20% of Algerian children attended school. Besides, only imperial agents benefited from the wealth generated by their presence. Indeed, in Algeria the average size of a settler’s farm was almost 8 times larger than one held by a Muslim. Likewise, in the Philippines, wealth was concentrated in the hands of US corporations that had expropriated local farmers and that resorted to convict labour 5 to 6 times cheaper than local workers.

The way imperial powers administrated their overseas territories caused the emergence of nationalist and separatist movements. For example, in Morocco in 1921 the Riffians led by Abdelkrim defeated Spanish troops and proclaimed an independent republic. Despite attempts to create diplomatic relations with European powers, the Republic of the Rif was toppled in 1926 following a French intervention to secure the region and reassert European superiority. The administration of colonies was also opposed in India where in the 1930s Gandhi launched a movement of civil disobedience based on the boycott of British goods. This movement was violently suppressed but also reported by journalists who spread the reality of colonial administration worldwide.


We can now conclude that despite different territorial status and different administrative systems, imperial territories and their populations were administrated to be exploited by the metropole. Natives were maintained in a state of political and social inferiority in order to justify colonizers’ presence within the framework of their civilising mission. However, these inequalities and the violent methods of economic exploitation led to the emergence of movements both in the metropole and in the imperial territories that challenged colonial administration.



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