In the fall of 1965, Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, embarked on a charm offensive in a former—and now long-lost—British colony. Landing in San Francisco with some 50 pieces of luggage and her husband, Lord Snowdon, the Princess wowed the nation, touring American cities and visiting President Lyndon B. Johnson and the First Lady “Lady Bird” in the White House. She then came to the United Nations for a series of meetings and a luncheon. Standing out in large cylindrical wool hat, pink dress, and long gloves, the princess mingled with diplomats at a reception hosted by the UK’s ambassador.
The reception, however, was boycotted by all the African states at the UN. Many newly-independent, these states sought to underscore Britain’s role in the controversial declaration of independence, just a week before, of white-dominated Rhodesia. Both Rhodesia and South Africa, former British colonies bent on maintaining white supremacy in Africa, were increasingly ostracized by the international community. To be sure, by Princess Margaret’s visit in 1965 the British Empire was a tiny vestige of what it once was. Yet, as the boycott showed, the legacy of British colonialism continued to be a source of great global conflict.
When the Queen and Margaret were children in the early 1930s, the British Empire stood at a peak and encompassed some half a billion people, perhaps a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The story of the empire’s rapid demise has many facets, but central to it is the crucial role of the UN. Though hardly intended to play this role by founders such as Winston Churchill, after the end of the Second World War the UN quickly became the site of intense and impactful anticolonial politics.
“Ralph Bunche … was above all a staunch anti-colonialist.”
Many individuals at the UN took part in the fight against empire. But perhaps most central, and certainly most striking, was one man, an American man, who nonetheless had long been fascinated by colonial rule, and indeed was one of the only Americans to actually study and live in colonial territories in the prewar heyday of empire. Ralph Bunche, perhaps most famous for his Nobel Peace Prize-winning mediation of the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1949, was above all a staunch anti-colonialist. As one of the few Black graduate students at Harvard in the 1920s Bunche had studied colonial rule in Africa. At the State Department, during the Second World War, he helped develop the system of trusteeship that emerged at the UN to guide former colonies to independence. And at the UN itself Bunche was the architect of peacekeeping, a critical innovation that proved sadly essential for many postcolonial states as they were riven by conflict and contestation over power in the wake of their independence.
When Princess Margaret visited the UN in 1965, Ralph Bunche had ascended to the heights of the UN as Under-Secretary General. After the British royal couple left the somewhat fraught UK reception to attend a small lunch in the Dag Hammarskjold Library, Bunche, seeing the Princess standing by the window, went up to chat with her. He and his wife Ruth had travelled to Jamaica in 1962 for Jamaica’s independence from the UK and they had met Princess Margaret there in Kingston. (He later somewhat cattily noted in his diary that “she is rather affected but genuinely blasé I think” and her husband is “runt-sized.”) At the UN Bunche and Margaret had a conversation that illustrated the waning age of decolonization. Standing with the Princess, he told her that the colony of British Guiana was soon to become independent, probably in the spring of 1966. Princess Margaret replied that it was so small and poor, to which Bunche noted, “not as small as the last member we to welcomed into the UN, thanks to your government.” What nation was that, Margaret asked. The Maldive Islands, he replied. “Where are they?” replied Margaret. “That’s just it,” answered Bunche, “we didn’t even know.”
That even Princess Margaret could not keep track of the British territories left in the empire in the mid-1960s reflected both the once-vast size of Britain’s possessions but also that by this point in history the empire comprised mostly small and sunny vestiges of its former mastery of the seas. In the years to come Barbados, Bahrain, and the Bahamas, and at least a dozen more small island states, would all gain their freedom from British rule and join the UN as independent states.
“For Bunche, empire was a manifestation of white world supremacy, and the fight to end it a fight for global racial justice.”
Ralph Bunche was polite and friendly to Princess Margaret that day at the UN; he was a consummate diplomat and an engaging, easy-going person by nature. But like many around the world who have commented in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s recent death, he likely saw the British Empire as one of the most troubling legacies of the House of Windsor. Bunche dedicated his career to ending colonialism; empire was, as he once said in a speech in Chicago in the mid-1950s, his “major preoccupation.” For Bunche, empire was a manifestation of white world supremacy, and the fight to end it a fight for global racial justice. Well before he left Howard University and entered the State Department in 1941, Bunche was a committed advocate for civil rights. He saw no tension in his dual commitment to civil rights and anticolonialism; indeed, he believed they were twinned movements aimed at the liberation of people of color.
Bunche, who died in 1971, did not live to see all the small remaining British colonies become sovereign states. (Indeed, not all have become independent even today.) But during his lifetime, and often through his efforts, many dozens of new states emerged from the ashes of European empire. When he began his career at the UN the organization’s membership stood at 50. By his death, there were some 132 member states. Today, there are nearly 200. That enormous growth represents the greatest revolution in world politics of the 20th century, and it was one that Ralph Bunche, standing at the apex of the UN in the 1950s and 1960s, helped shepherd to fruition.
Featured image: “Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886” by Walter Crane, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain