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Legacy of an Empire

overseas territoriesAn insightful analysis of the relation between overseas territories and their former motherlands, by Envoy for the West India Committee Alexander Marshall

In 1960 Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, delivered a speech in which he declared that a ‘wind of change’ was blowing throughout Africa, as post-colonial nationalisms collided with external rule. This gust was blowing throughout the twentieth century as the empires of Europe were dismantled and new nations were born in their place. The legacies of the imperial global system remain an irrefutable fact of international politics today, but the most tangible evidence of bygone empires are the remaining overseas territories that have chosen to maintain their links to a greater structure, instead of pursuing complete independence.

Today, a number of nations retain overseas territories. The UK, for example, officially administers 14 such entities under its administration, the far-flung remnants of an empire that once spanned the entire globe. While the vast majority of overseas territories are islands, their governance and structures vary considerably: some are maintained as military bases, such as the American-administered Wake Island, while others enjoy vibrant economies and large populations, as is the case with France’s Martinique. The decisions that have led these countries to remain attached to their imperial ancestor, particularly those countries with large populations, reveal fascinating insights into the legacy of empire in the twenty-first century and raise challenging questions for the future.

These territories were typically gained through military or economic expansion. The United States claimed clusters of islands throughout the Pacific and Caribbean during the Spanish American War of 1898, while European territories were normally won during the heyday of territorial expansion. Many of these possessions were valued as economic assets, particularly those in the sugar-producing Caribbean. Others were perceived as vital components of naval networks, staging posts for operations in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Their early histories are thus similar to those of numerous other countries administered under imperial systems. The crucial difference, however, is that the territories decided to retain this connection when they could have lobbied for independence.

As decolonisation swept across swathes of Africa and Asia in the twentieth century, some territories elected to remain politically united to the greater nation state. Over the years, this desire has largely remained popular: recent referendums in Puerto Rico suggest the public may want even closer political ties with the US, while Mayotte and Anguilla have fiercely clung to their direct link with France and Great Britain respectively, at the expense of union with the Comoros Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Anguilla valued her relationship with the UK to such an extent that its people rebelled in 1967 in order to remain part of UK, fiercely clinging to their ties with London in spite of regionalist pressures.

A cynic might suggest this is purely explained by economics: almost all of these territories have a population of less than one million, lack the ability to develop economies of scale, and are severely limited in terms of international influence. Guadeloupe relies almost entirely on its link with France: the French government provides large subsidies to the local government and over 80 per cent of visitors come from France. Yet beyond the economic pragmatism that undermines calls for independence, there is also evidence that continuation of these connections is grounded in a deeper psychological and cultural bond. Overseas territories’ leaders invoke this relationship in their rhetoric, their governments engage in long running cultural and developmental partnerships, and the people of the territories often find pride in their historical determination to remain a part of their greater whole.

Despite the similarities in how these systems have arisen, the methods by which the territories are administered vary. At the core of this issue is the question of how closely linked the territory should be with the broader nation at large.

This is most evident in the differing and often arcane constitutional arrangements between the territory and greater nation. The legal basis provides the framework for how incorporated the territory will be with the national political union, however each nation has tailored the system in its own way. The French and Dutch have particularly close political ties with their territories. Though the French have several categories for their external territories, their five overseas departments (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, Mayotte) are treated in the same way as domestic departments. As such, these five territories send representatives to the two legislative houses in Paris, the Senate and the National Assembly, and fully participate in legislative affairs. In addition, given their ties to France, they are by extension part of the European Union and may also elect members to the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. In the case of the Dutch territories, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010 meant that the composite countries have taken varying courses to determine their future relationship with the Kingdom of Netherlands. Today, Aruba, Curacao and Saint Maarten occupy a similar constitutional position as the Netherlands itself under the Kingdom, together making its four constituent parts.

Other territories exist in a more removed constitutional sphere. For the UK overseas territories, representatives appointed by the territories are based in London, and a governor appointed by the UK government resides on the territory. However, the territories do not have constitutional means to directly participate in the legislative process of the UK. Similarly, while US territories may elect a congressman to represent their island in Washington DC, their powers are limited to debating matters in Congress, but not actually voting on legislation. Meanwhile, within the territories it is usually the case that internal matters and public services are administered by a locally elected government, with foreign affairs and defence being the primary responsibilities of the central government represented by a governor.

The importance of the constitutional question is that it frames the whole position of each territory and the limits of its autonomy. Article 73 of the UN Charter, concerning the administration of non-self governing territories, speaks of the ‘sacred trust’ between the inhabitants of the territories and the governments that hold responsibility for them. Despite this protection under the UN, in practice the arrangements are far more malleable and complex than might be expected.

The future of these territories is not certain. History seems to suggest that such countries tend towards independence, however this does not seem to hold true for the current overseas territories. At present, the relationships help some of the territories develop their economies and government provisions. Under the EU EuropeAid fund, the overseas countries and territories (OCTs) of the EU may receive financial assistance towards developmental goals or support for local budget constraints to maintain essential public services. Indeed, some territories are often reliant on this historic link and, though calls for independence may be heard during times of economic instability, public opinion in each territory has tended to favour maintaining their political association with their broader nation.

In the twenty-first century, as the embers of old empires fade away, constructive, reciprocal relationships are the goal to ensure happy, prosperous communities. Central governments may engage with third parties to provide assistance in achieving these goals. The West India Committee is one such organisation. Established in 1735, the Committee today maintains an objective of improving the welfare of the peoples of the Caribbean. Recently this cause has brought the Committee to work closely with the UK territories Anguilla and Montserrat, targeting specific issues such as education, governance and economic diversification.

Overseas territories have chosen a path that refutes outright independence for the sake of continuing the strong connection with their partner nations. The moral and cultural ties between overseas territories and central governments must continue to be strengthened through smart policy to ensure these relationships flourish for years to come.


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