Modern history



EVEN BEFORE the League commission got down to work, the issue of mandates had come up at the Supreme Council. None of the victorious powers thought Germany should get back its colonial possessions, which included several strings of Pacific islands and pieces of Africa, and Wilson had made it clear that he expected the League to assume responsibility for their governance. Wilson’s attitude came as an unwelcome shock in certain quarters. The French wanted Togoland and Cameroon and an end to German rights in Morocco (leaving France the latter’s sole protector). The Italians had their eyes on, among other things, parts of Somalia. In the British empire, South Africa wanted German Southwest Africa, Australia wanted New Guinea and some nearby islands, and New Zealand wanted German Samoa. The British hoped to annex German East Africa to fill in the missing link between their colonies to the north and south. They had also made a secret deal with the French to divide up the Ottoman empire. The Japanese too had their secret deals, with the Chinese to take over German rights and concessions, and with the British to keep the German islands north of the equator.

Wilson’s new world order called for some arrangement other than annexation or colonization for those parts of the world not yet ready to govern themselves. Mandates, a form of trusteeship either directly under the League of Nations or under powers to be mandated by the League, were proposed as a possible solution. The length of the mandate would depend on the progress made by their wards. Wilson was maddeningly imprecise. Clearly, Africa would need outside control, but what about the pieces of territory which were flaking off from the defeated empires: the Arab Middle East, or Armenia, Georgia and the other Caucasian republics? In the confusion that was central Europe, there were also peoples who did not seem ready to look after themselves. Here Wilson would only say that he did not approve of mandates for European peoples.1

The idea itself, of the strong protecting the weak, was not a new one. Imperialists, frequently quite sincerely, had made much of their mission before the Great War. Germany, said the leading American expert on Africa, was exceptional in never having properly understood its duty: “The native was almost universally looked upon as a means to an end, never as an end in himself, and his welfare and that of the colony were completely subordinated to the interests of the German on the spot and of Germany at a distance.”2

The British, realizing that there was no point in antagonizing the Americans by talking of adding Germany’s territory, or anyone else’s, to their empire, supported the idea of mandates. Smuts applied his usual eloquence. Great empires were being liquidated, he wrote in the memorandum on the League of Nations which so impressed Wilson, and the League must step in. “The peoples left behind by the decomposition of Russia, Austria and Turkey are mostly untrained politically; many of them are either incapable or deficient in the power of self-government; they are mostly destitute, and will require much nursing towards economic and political independence.” Where Europeans—Finns, for example, or Poles—could stand on their own feet almost at once, it would take longer in the Middle East. The former German colonies in the Pacific and Africa would probably never be able to look after themselves. Their inhabitants were barbarians “to whom it would be impracticable to apply any ideas of political self-determination in the European sense.” It would be much the best thing if the British empire took them over directly. If the Americans objected, he told his British colleagues, then Britain could graciously concede and ask in return for control under general, and minimal, League supervision. That in turn would oblige other nations, in particular France, Smuts’s bugbear, to accept similar conditions for their colonies. Cecil saw a practical advantage: British traders and investors might finally be able to get into French and Portuguese colonies in Africa.3

The very word “mandate” had a benevolent and pleasing sound. Initially it also caused considerable confusion when it was produced at the Peace Conference. Was it merely a bit of window dressing, as cynics thought, to describe old-fashioned land grabbing, or was it a new departure in international relations? Would the League leave the mandatory powers alone to administer their assigned territories or would there be constant interference? When a bewildered Chinese delegate was told that the former German territories in his country would receive a new ruler, he was heard to ask, “Who is Mandatory?”4

The French reacted to the whole idea with hostility and apprehension. Clemenceau exclaimed to Poincaré: “The League of Nations guaranteeing the peace, so be it, but the League of Nations proprietor of colonies, no!” Colonies were a mark of power; they also held what France badly needed: manpower. There were always going to be more Germans than French, but with colonies in Asia and Africa the French had some hope of restoring the balance with what they liked to call “our distant brothers.”5 If France received mandates under the League, would there be niggling restrictions on the recruitment of native soldiers for duty overseas? Unfortunately both the Americans and the British appeared to be thinking along these lines. Their proposed terms for mandates had the responsible powers doing humanitarian work, putting down slave trafficking, for example, but they also prohibited the military training of inhabitants for anything except police and “defence of territory.”

When the mandates issue came up in the Supreme Council, Clemenceau and Pichon launched an attack. Why should France spend time and money on looking after its mandates if it could not ask for volunteers to defend it when the time came? It was all very well for the United States and Britain to take a detached view, protected as they were from Germany by geography, but France would not have survived the German attack without its colonial soldiers. Lloyd George tried to find a compromise. The clause that so upset the French was really directed against the sort of thing the Germans used to do, raising big native armies to attack other colonies. The French would be perfectly free to defend themselves and whatever territories were under their wing. Clemenceau was mollified: “If this clause meant that he had a right of raising troops in case of general war, he was satisfied.” Lloyd George cheerfully agreed: “So long as M. Clemenceau did not train big nigger armies for the purposes of aggression, that was all the clause was intended to guard against.” Wilson said he agreed with Lloyd George’s interpretation. The trouble was that no one was quite clear what the clause meant. Could the French use soldiers from their mandates in a European war, or not? Several months later, in May, the French tried quietly to introduce their own clarification when they slipped in a phrase about defense “of the mother country” to the mandates clause in the final version of the covenant of the League as it was being prepared for printing. The British secretary to the Peace Conference, Hankey, who spotted the change late one night, did not believe French assurances that the other powers had approved it. He rushed round, catching Wilson already in bed and Lloyd George as he was getting undressed. “As I suspected, it was a ‘try-on.’” An agitated Wilson made Clemenceau remove the phrase.6

The British watched the French maneuverings with smug disapproval, but they had their own difficulties with the Americans. Or rather, they were forced into a confrontation by South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, who because of their own territorial ambitions wanted nothing to do with mandates. Lloyd George found himself putting a case that he knew would be opposed by the United States. On January 24, he argued, somewhat halfheartedly, in the Supreme Council that annexation made administrative sense. He left it to the dominion leaders to supply the other arguments.

Smuts and Botha presented South Africa’s case for the annexation of German Southwest Africa. Both men had fought in the brief victorious campaign of 1915, planned by Botha. They were asking to keep a huge stretch of territory, the size of England and France combined, widely regarded as without much value. (Its rich deposits of minerals had yet to be discovered.) The Atlantic coast was desert, the bulk of the interior scrub land, suitable mainly for grazing. A few thousand Germans, many of them rumored to be fleeing scandal in Germany, had built themselves imitation castles, cozy German villages and a neat little capital at Windhoek. The first German imperial commissioner, Ernst Goering (father of Hermann), had set the tone for German rule over the much larger African population with his authoritarian and brutal administration. 7

Smuts and Botha made much of German cruelty toward the natives. White South Africans by contrast, said Smuts, understood the natives; indeed, they had done their best to give them a form of self-government. “They had established a white civilization in a savage continent and had become a great cultural agency all over South Africa.” Now there was a chance for the peoples of Southwest Africa to share in these benefits. The territory was already tied to South Africa by geography; on all grounds, it made sense simply to make one country out of two. Wilson listened sympathetically. He liked both men, Smuts in particular, and, while he was not prepared to back down, he made it clear that he felt a South African mandate would be so successful that the inhabitants of Southwest Africa would one day freely choose to unite with South Africa.8

Clemenceau, the chair, then invited the “cannibals”—a little running joke he had with Hughes—to present the case for Australia and New Zealand. Waving a grossly distorted map which showed the lands he wanted—New Guinea and nearby islands such as the Bismarck Archipelago—practically touching Australia, Hughes demanded outright annexation. He cited defense (the islands were “as necessary to Australia as water to a city”) and Australia’s contribution in the war, the 90,000 casualties, the 60,000 killed and the war debt of £300 million. “Australia did not wish to be left to stagger under this load and not to feel safe.” Although he could not say so openly, the future enemy Hughes had in mind was Japan. The Australians had also considered using the argument that the locals welcomed them with open arms, but when the Australian government carried out some inquiries in New Guinea it found that the inhabitants much preferred German officials, who had let them go their happy head-hunting way. There would be unlimited access for missionaries, Hughes said in reply to an earnest question from the president: “There are many days when the poor devils do not get half enough missionaries to eat.”9

Massey, brandishing his own map, made a long and rambling speech on behalf of New Zealand’s claim to Samoa. New Zealand troops, at “great risk,” had occupied the islands at the start of the war. (In fact, the greatest risk came from boredom as the occupiers sat for the next few years downing huge quantities of beer.) The Samoans were not savages but very sensible people, and they wanted New Zealand rule. (Meanwhile, the Samoans were presenting the local New Zealand administrator with a petition demanding American rule, rule from London, rule by any power except New Zealand.10)

Wilson, who could not bear Hughes in particular, listened with an obvious lack of sympathy. The French watched with amusement. They did not like mandates and they did not mind seeing disarray in the British empire. “Poor little Hughes is swelling up with pseudo importance,” wrote a member of the Australian delegation. “Of course he is being used as a Catspaw by the French who want the Cameroons, Togo Land & Syria.”11

A few days later, the French minister of colonies, Henri Simon, was moderation itself when he spoke to the Supreme Council. France only wanted two little pieces of territory in Africa: Togoland, which ran inland along France’s West African colony of Dahomey (Benin), and the Cameroons, also in West Africa, which Germany had managed to pry out of France in 1911. (In addition, France wanted an exclusive protectorate over Morocco, but there was no need to mention that.) He preferred annexation, said Simon, as being more efficient and better for the natives. All France wished was to be able to continue its work of spreading civilization in tropical Africa. Clemenceau, who did not care at all about colonial possessions, undercut the effect of all this by saying that he was quite ready to compromise.12

Wilson dug in his heels. “If the process of annexation went on,” he told the Supreme Council, “the League of Nations would be discredited from the beginning.” The world expected more of them. They must not go back to the old games, parceling out helpless peoples. If they were not careful, public opinion would turn against them. They would see further upheavals in a Europe already troubled by revolution. He would not stand, he said privately, for “dividing the swag.” If necessary, and this was a favorite threat, he would take the whole issue to the public. On the other hand, he was eager to move on from mandates. The fate of Europe—of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia—was the important question.13

Behind the scenes, a number of people were working to ease the confrontations. The Canadians, who always feared the consequences of tension between Britain and the United States, urged Hughes and Massey to be reasonable. House, now recovered from his illness, told the British that they must back down. Smuts and Cecil worked out a proposal which House thought the basis of a deal. There would be three types of mandates: “A” for nations, such as those in the Middle East, which were nearly ready to run their own affairs; “B” where the mandatory power would run them; and “C” for territories that were contiguous or close to the mandatory power, which would administer the territory as part of its own, subject only to certain restrictions, such as on the sale of alcohol and firearms. “C” mandates, in other words, conveniently covered Southwest Africa and the islands Australia and New Zealand wanted. A 999-year lease, said Hughes, instead of outright freehold. He was not prepared, however, to give way gracefully.14

On January 29, a meeting of the British empire delegation produced, in Borden’s words, a “pretty warm scene.” Lloyd George outlined the three types of mandate, which he thought the Americans would accept. Hughes, fighting “like a weasel,” quibbled over every point until Lloyd George lost his temper and told him that he had been arguing his case with the United States for three days but that he did not intend to quarrel with the Americans over the Solomon Islands.15

Unfortunately, the next morning the Daily Mail, which published a Paris edition during the Peace Conference, came out with a story clearly inspired by Hughes. The article accused Britain of truckling to the United States, and claimed that the interests of the British empire were being sacrificed to satisfy Wilson’s impractical ideals. That morning, the Supreme Council saw “a first-class row.” Lloyd George was angry with Hughes, and Wilson, always sensitive to criticism, was furious. He delivered a rambling and muddled criticism of the proposed compromise and suggested that the whole question of mandates be postponed until the League had been settled. He was noticeably rude to the Australian prime minister. “Mr Hughes,” said Lloyd George, who was despairing of ever getting an agreement, “was the last man I should have chosen to handle in that way.” Wilson brusquely asked Hughes: “Am I to understand that if the whole civilised world asks Australia to agree to a mandate in respect of these islands, Australia is prepared still to defy the appeal of the whole civilised world?” Hughes, who was fiddling with his cumbersome hearing aid, claimed he had not heard the question. Wilson repeated himself. “That’s about the size of it, President Wilson.” There was a grunt of agreement from Massey. In fact, Hughes was not as adamant as he sounded. He was shaken by the reaction to the article and was to spend the next few days trying to avoid Lloyd George.16

At this point Botha, who was widely respected, lumbered to his feet. He thought the newspaper article was disgusting. As gentlemen, they must keep their disagreements to themselves. Speaking for himself, he wholeheartedly supported the great ideals expressed by President Wilson. Surely they all did. “He hoped that they would try in a spirit of cooperation, and by giving way on smaller things, to meet the difficulties and make the bigger ideal more possible.” Wilson, who was ashamed of his outburst, was deeply moved. Massey made conciliatory noises, while Hughes said nothing. The proposal, with its three classes of mandate, went through. The awkward question of who got what was put to one side.17

It was the most difficult moment of a grueling week. The Supreme Council was also grappling with other matters: whether to negotiate with the Bolsheviks; Poland and its needs; Czechoslovakia’s borders; the German peace terms. It had heard from the Chinese, who wanted German concessions in China back, and from the Japanese, who hoped to keep them; from the Belgians, who also wanted territory in Africa; and from the Rumanians and the Yugoslavs, who were arguing over territory. That Friday evening, Clemenceau complained to his aide Mordacq that he was at the end of his tether. His mind was racing with all the questions that they had been discussing; what he needed was to relax. The two men went off together to the Opéra-Comique. 18

In all the discussions, there had been much talk of how glad the colonies were to get away from German rule. Yet although the fifth of Wilson’s Fourteen Points had talked about taking the interests of the indigenous populations into account, no one had actually bothered to consult the Africans or the Pacific islanders. True, no Samoans or Melanesians had made their way to Paris, but there were Africans at hand. Indeed, a black French deputy from Senegal, Blaise Diagne, and the great American black leader W.E.B. Du Bois were busy organizing a Pan-African Congress. This duly took place in February with the grudging consent of the peacemakers. None of the leading figures from the Peace Conference attended. A member of the Belgian delegation spoke enthusiastically about the reforms that were taking place in the Congo, and a former minister of foreign affairs from Portugal praised his own country’s management of its colonies. The handful of delegates from French Africa demonstrated the success of the mission civilisatrice by eulogizing the achievements of the Third Republic. The Congress passed resolutions calling for the Peace Conference to give the League direct control of the former German colonies. House received Du Bois with his customary courtesy but said nothing about the resolutions.19

As the months passed, the powers made quiet deals behind the scenes. Some merely confirmed arrangements made during the war. Japan, for example, got its islands north of the equator. To the south, New Zealand and Australia also got their islands. Partners when it came to defying Wilson, they then squabbled briskly for the next few months over Nauru, which had not been allocated. The island was only 20 square kilometers, but since it was composed mainly of bird droppings, it was an extremely valuable source of phosphates, used to make fertilizer. Without Nauru, both Hughes and Massey argued, their agriculture would collapse. The British settled the matter by taking over the mandate for Nauru themselves and doling out a meager royalty to the few thousand locals. (When Nauru became independent in 1968 and took over the phosphate business, its inhabitants had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and a homeland that was vanishing under their feet. A trust fund which may be worth around $1 billion has gone into buying property abroad, and into the pockets of highly respectable Australian advisers. The phosphates are about to run out, but Nauru has today found a fresh source of income in money laundering for the Russian mafia.20)

Britain and France had agreed in secret on a preliminary division of the German colonies in Africa during the war. At the Peace Conference, Lord Milner, the British colonial secretary, met with his French counterpart, Henri Simon, to work out the details of their control of some thirteen million people. France duly got most of Togoland and the Cameroons, Britain a small strip of each next to its colonies of the Gold Coast and Nigeria, and almost the whole of German East Africa. The Portuguese complained; they hoped to add a piece of German East Africa to their colony of Mozambique. Portugal, one of its delegates told Clemenceau, was owed something for “its unforgettable services to Humanity and Civilization above all in Africa, which it has watered with its blood since the 14th century.” The Portuguese also suspected, correctly, that their allies were planning to transfer a bit of Angola to Belgium in order to give the Belgian Congo a proper Atlantic coast. In the end Portugal kept its colonies intact and gained a minuscule piece of land for Mozambique .21

The Belgians were less easily ignored. On May 2, they complained to the Council of Four that they were being left out and put in a demand for part of German East Africa. “A most impudent claim,” said Lloyd George. “At a time when the British Empire had millions of soldiers fighting for Belgium, a few black troops had been sent into German East Africa.” Lloyd George was being unfair. Congolese troops under Belgian command had played an important part in pushing the Germans back in East Africa. At the end of the war, Belgian forces occupied about a third of the country. The Belgian government had no interest in keeping this; it intended to use East Africa to bargain for Portuguese territory along the Atlantic. The British, who were unable to persuade the Portuguese to play along, found themselves in an awkward position. Belgium would not give up its gains without something in return. Unfortunately, that occupied territory included what looked like the best possible route for the north–south railway linking the Cape to Cairo that British imperialists had so long dreamed of building. 22

On May 7, just after the Germans had received their terms, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and Orlando met in a room at Versailles and agreed on the final distribution of mandates over the former German colonies. (They still were haggling over the wreckage of the Ottoman empire in the Middle East.) When word leaked out into the press that Belgium was to get nothing, the Belgians, who were already feeling shortchanged, were enraged.23 In the end, Britain decided it could spare a bit of territory (and that there were other routes for the railway) and so two provinces next to the Congo’s borders were detached from East Africa. Belgium took the mandates for Rwanda and Burundi.

When the League finally came into existence in 1920, it confirmed what had long since been decided. In the interwar years, the mandates in Africa and the Pacific did look, as Hughes had predicted, very much like direct annexation. The mandatory powers sent in annual reports to the League but otherwise went their own way. At the end of the Second World War, the United Nations took over the mandates and, as the great colonial empires melted away, gave independence to the territories it had inherited— with one exception. South Africa refused to give up Southwest Africa. Only in 1990 did it welcome its new neighbor, the independent state of Namibia. In 1994, the last mandate ended when Palau, which had been placed under Japan in 1919 and then under the United States after 1945, became independent. The 999-year leases had run out ahead of their time.

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