1919 - Throwing off the shackles of Empire

Submitted by Janine on 14 April, 2019 - 12:45 Author: Janine Booth
British soldiers in Egypt

After Britain and its Allies had won the war, proclaiming themselves champions of freedom and democracy, the people of its imperial possessions stepped up their democratic demand for some of that freedom for themselves.

India

In its largest colony, India, Britain imposed the Rowlatt Act, extending wartime powers of indefinite imprisonment without trial. It prompted anger and rebellion, against both the Act and continuing British rule.

The British left supported self-determination for India and other colonies, and in April, held a large public meeting in London, demanding ‘India for the Indians’.

Sunday 13 April saw one of the most despicable episodes in the British Empire’s blood-stained history. Thousands of people gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, in the Punjab area, celebrating the Sikh festival of Baisakhi and demonstrating for their rights. British Army Colonel Reginald Dyer took troops to the garden where the people were assembled, blocked the entrance and gave orders to fire. Shooting at the unarmed crowd for ten minutes, they killed 379 people and injured more than 1,200. Dyer became a hero of British imperialists, such as the House of Lords, but Indians were outraged.

Protests continued. The All-India Congress Committee cabled Lloyd George alerting him to the ‘intense gravity of the situation’ in India, as though the Prime Minister were a benign patriarch unaware of the issues who might save them if they asked nicely.

Alongside the national struggle, workers also fought back. Twenty-two strikes took place during 1919.

By the end of the year, Britain knew that it had to make some concessions. It passed the Government of India Act, bringing limited involvement of elected Indian representatives in the government of their country. Britain still held authoritarian power.

Afghanistan

The British in India wanted Afghanistan to be a buffer state against potential attack from Russia. The country was technically independent, but in a 1879 treaty had accepted that it would ‘have no windows looking on the outside world, except towards India’.

On 3 May 1919, Afghan troops crossed the Khyber Pass and took control of the Indian town of Bagh. Three days later, the British Indian government declared war on Afghanistan, and on 13 May, British and Indian troops seized control of the western Khyber.

Over three months of fighting, Britain repelled the Afghan invasion and secured its Indian territory. But Afghanistan had consolidated its position. On 8 August, the Treaty of Rawalpindi saw Britain recognise Afghanistan’s full independence.

Ireland

In 1919, there were two states in Ireland. There was the British state with armed police, occupying army, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Orange support in the north east. There was also a state coming into being at the call of Dáil Éireann.

The Dáil was formed on 21 January by the Sinn Féin MPs elected in the 1918 general election, who now became Teachta Dála (TDs). It adopted a Declaration of Independence and went on to set up its own police and courts. Britain refused to withdraw and conflict escalated, starting with the shooting of two policemen by nationalist volunteers at Soloheadbeg early in 1919. 

On 3 February, Eamon De Valera escaped from Lincoln jail. In April, the Dáil elected him President, and he appointed a Cabinet including Constance Markiewicz (pictured) as Minister of Labour.

On 10 April, Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Roscommon and Tipperary were declared as being in a state of disturbance. In late August, armed nationalist volunteers began using the oath and the name ‘Irish Republican Army’.

The British government ended the year with a Bill proposing two parliaments in Ireland: one for the six counties of north-east Ulster and one for the other twenty-six. The scene was set for a bloody civil war and the partition of Ireland.

Malta

Britain owned Malta, valuing its strategic military location as a Mediterranean island. But the Maltese population was unhappy, particularly at the post-war rise in the cost of living and the sacking of hundreds of dockyard workers.

On 25 February, Malta’s National Assembly called for Malta to have the same rights as other nations under the Versailles Treaty. In May, University students protested against British rule. Demonstrations continued, and on 7 June police attacked a protest, killing four and injuring many demonstrators, and giving the revolt its name of ‘Sette Guigno’.

Egypt

Malta had been Britain’s choice to contain Eqyptian nationalist leader Zaad Zaghlul Pasha when it arrested and exiled him in March 1919. Zaghlul’s Wafd organisation had no links with the working class, but workers responded to his arrest by intensifying strikes.

Cairo tram workers struck from 13 March to 15 April 1919, winning some of their demands. From 15 March, they were joined by 4,000 railway depot workers and print workers in Bulaq, and then by rail, port, lighthouse, post office, customs, tramway and government workshop workers in Alexandria. Ten workers were killed in clashes with the British army.

Under pressure of both workers’ action and anti-colonial protests, Britain allowed Zaghlul to return from exile on 7 April.
By 25 July, the death toll in the uprising had reached eight hundred, with twice that number wounded. Over the summer, there were strikes by barber shop, sugar, gas, café and port workers, for higher wages, better conditions and union recognition. The pressure forced the government to form a Labour Conciliation Board in August, but this failed to stop workers fighting back: over the next three months, there were 24 major strikes.

During the year, a group of intellectuals agreed to set up a socialist party. By September, they were convinced that conditions in Egypt were not ripe for socialism, and instead called their group the Democratic Party.

United States of America

From the start of the century, the USA had chosen to act as a ‘police officer’ for central America. On 11 September, it sent troops into Honduras, one of seven such deployments in a twenty-year period. On 6 October, Haitian rebels known as cacos attacked the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince as part of their war against American occupation.

Japan

Having sided with Britain and its allies, Japan hoped to gain some of the defeated powers’ territories. But it faced rebellions, two of which became known by the date on which they started – the ‘1st March movement’ in Korea and the ‘4th May movement’ in China.

End of the Ottoman Empire

Defeated in the 1914-18 War, the Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul, was at an end.

Turkish field marshal Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led a movement to stop the victorious allies breaking up Turkey. On 19 May, he landed at Samsun, starting the Turkish War of Independence; a month later, he declared the Turkish Nationalist Congress.

Sandwiched between the Ottoman and Russian empires, Armenia had endured a great deal during the War, and in 1916 suffered an appalling genocide at the hands of the Ottomans, who killed over a million Armenians. On 28 May 1919, Armenia declared independence, but a week later, nearly 700 of its civilians were killed by Azerbaijani soldiers and others in the three-day Khaibalikend massacre.

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To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.
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