A “Shameful Flight,” a “Hurried Scuttle”? Planning and Haste in the British Partitions of India and Palestine

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:40 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Penny Sinanoglou , Princeton University, Cambridge, MA
In political speeches, memoirs, poetry and historiography alike, the British withdrawals from India in 1947 and Palestine in 1948 were discussed and have been remembered as poorly-planned and rushed affairs. Winston Churchill famously warned that Britain’s hasty withdrawal from India would bring shame on the empire, and both British politicians and League of Nations officials urged Britain to avoid a hurried departure from Palestine. Despite such pleas, in both instances partition and decolonization appeared to happen quickly, chaotically, and in the midst of growing violence.

This paper will examine the perception of haste in the 1948 partition and decolonization of Palestine in light of British experiences in India the previous year. It will show that both historically and historiographically, a focus on the supposed speed of Britain’s withdrawal from both countries diverted attention from a much longer and more gradual process of planning for the various contingencies of decolonization.

Before the partitions of 1947 and 1948, haste was a powerful political tool with the potential to shape realities on the ground. After 1948, the notion that Britain had withdrawn quickly came to serve variable rhetorical purposes; for some, it was a sign of shame, incompetence and loss of nerve at the end of empire, while for others it absolved Britain of responsibility for the death and displacement wrought by partition. What is particularly striking about the language of haste in this period is how it has persisted in contemporary historiography, despite archives that tell a much more complicated story of Britain’s calculations on the road to decolonization.

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